Missional Worship (Sep-Oct 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by John Ogren
September-October 2002

Bible Teaching Study Companion (printable PDF document)

Thirty-six of our teenagers came forward at the end of the worship service to be blessed and commissioned by the congregation. An elder read from Scripture, charging them to bring good news and the love of Christ to the people of Monterey, Mexico. Then the elders, parents, and other members of the congregation gathered around the young missionaries to lay on hands and pray for the success of their mission. This worshipful sending reminded me of an episode in Acts 13 when the Holy Spirit spoke to a church in the midst of worship and fasting. The congregation laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, then sent them out for what would become known as Paul’s First Missionary Journey

Worship and mission. Mission and worship. Missional worship. We may feel tension these days between the church’s calling to worship God and the calling to serve him in mission. In a time when Christianity is increasingly marginalized in our culture, a major effort is underway among scholars, missionaries, and church leaders to recover a sense of mission to North America and the United States – once regarded by some as a “Christian nation.” Signs of this recovery have surfaced in churches with renewed interest in local missions, evangelism, and church planting. Coinciding with this beginning recovery we are also experiencing significant changes and renewal in worship. This renewal is evident in the form of new music and media, freer expression in the spectrum of human emotion – from lament to celebration – and increasing attention to the wealth of resources for worship in the Old Testament and historic Christianity (such as the seasons and services of the Christian Liturgical Year).

It is natural that in the midst of this recovery of mission and renewal of worship that we might ask how the two are related.Why would we desire “worship without walls”? And what would this mean? How are worship and mission related in the life of the Church? We should not be satisfied with superficial answers to these questions.The recovery of mission in North America begins with the painful realization of our failures to evangelize our neighbors, cities, and nation. Renewal in worship involves difficult decisions and serious tensions within our congregations and our broader fellowship. So we should expect that our discussions of worship and mission will be challenging.

The worship and mission discussion often surfaces amid vexing questions and contentious debates. Can a cappella churches effectively reach the postmodern generations? Can churches that severely restrict the freedom of women to contribute in public worship be taken seriously in contemporary culture? Can our worship open doors for a broader, ecumenical fellowship with other believers? How can we make our worship assemblies more contemporary, relevant, and appealing to unbelievers? And when our worship is contemporary, relevant, and appealing, will it still be worship? Will our worship have a biblical foundation and impetus? Will it reflect and celebrate our intergenerational and cross-cultural diversity? Will our worship maintain continuity with our heritage and traditions? Will our worship unite us or divide us? These questions illustrate that the way we frame the worship/mission discussion is crucial. My purpose in this article is not to attempt to answer these questions, but rather to suggest a framework for beginning the larger discussion of worship and mission. seem that our worship should reflect his missional character.Why then are attempts at missional worship so fraught with tension and difficulty? Maybe some of the tension in our discussions of worship and mission is rooted in unspoken assumptions.

Often discussions of worship and mission play out between extremes. Some say worship is for believers only and the worship assembly is not intended to be an occasion for evangelism. Others believe that the worship assembly is the primary occasion for reaching unbelievers and that we must do whatever it takes. It is easy to see how these discussions can quickly turn to quarrels. So much is on the line. From the one perspective the worth and authenticity of our worship is at stake. From the other perspective, souls are at stake. Is there any way to meet in the middle? Is it possible to have authentic, God-pleasing, Christian worship that is also an occasion for mission? And if so, where do we begin?

We must begin with God. God, we must always remember, is never a means to any other end, however noble. All such schemes are idolatrous and self-serving. God is Himself the glorious End for which all things are created–the Alpha and Omega, holy, majestic in glory, great and exalted beyond our comprehension. We exist to worship him, and it is the great testimony of the redeemed people of God that we now recognize this, forsake all other gods, and assemble together to humble ourselves before Him and worship Him with whole hearts, reverence and joy. Our worship is for Him alone. It is His due and our highest calling. Thankfully the God we worship is a God of Mission. He is the self-sending God who comes in the flesh and is poured out in the Spirit. He is the Holy One in our midst, who plunges into human history bent on the renewal and restoration of His creation. Who is more serious about mission than the God we are blessed to worship?

From what we know of God it would seem that our worship should reflect his missional character.Why then are attempts at missional worship so fraught with tension and difficulty? Maybe some of the tension in our discussions of worship and mission is rooted in unspoken assumptions.

First of all, it seems to me we may be assuming that everything – worship, mission, the church itself – is centered on the church building.We cannot escape the fact that most of our congregations in North America worship in buildings, and we cannot ignore the assumptions, traditions, and expectations built into that reality. But when we start to be serious about mission (mission means to send or to be sent) we can also begin to see that the issues surrounding worship and mission look very different when the setting is in a home, a park, a small group, another culture, or a brand new congregation.

The second assumption we may be making is that we must all worship in the same way in order to be biblical and to remain in fellowship. This assumption is at work in individual congregations and in our broader fellowship.The days are long gone when you could expect (a la McDonalds) to find the same style and service of worship in all churches that have the same name on the sign, but we may still long for that uniformity or assume that its absence signifies the absence of unity as well. If we understand biblical unity as a work of the Holy Spirit and brotherly love in the midst of our inevitable diversities, we will be able to rejoice in the variety of approaches to worship as a sign of health and freedom in Christ. If we assume in our individual congregations that we must all worship in the same way,we may overlook some creative possibilities for worship that is missional: multiple services, worship in small group settings, and, especially, new congregations. Church-planting, for example,is a powerful (and largely untried) solution to worship wars in many of our churches. See more on this below.

A third insidious assumption is that we cannot have missional worship without sweeping changes. I hope that every congregation will recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit in an ongoing renewal of worship, but I hope that we will also recognize the wonderful ingredients for missional worship already present in the elements of worship that churches with a Restoration Heritage share in common.Here are a few suggestions about ways that the God of Mission can be revealed and glorified in these accepted parts of our common tradition.

Baptism is a great place to begin. I have seen baptisms that seemed almost perfunctory in the lack of testimony, explanation, and rejoicing over this most wonderful, world-overturning occasion. In our congregation we stand for baptisms. Before the baptism takes place we sing “Holy Ground,”and afterwards we sing the refrain to “Arise, My Love.” There is a palpable sense of solidarity and joy in these moments, but we could do more to make baptism an occasion for unbelievers present to hear the gospel and witness it enacted.With some creativity and imagination, what could your congregation do to enrich the proclamation of baptism for the seekers in your midst?

Revisioning the Lord’s Supper. As John Mark Hicks points out in his new book Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper (I highly recommend this resource to church leaders and worship planners), our practice of Communion through the centuries has become a time for individual sorrowful reflection before an altar rather than a time of joyous table fellowship. If you think this is overstated, just try pulling up a chair to your congregation’s communion “table” sometime. Or next Sunday during communion try confessing your sins to the person next to you or engaging them in a spiritual conversation. Communion – think about the meaning of the word – lost much of its missional potential when we moved it from the table and the house church to the altar and the cathedral.Some might say that suggesting changes with communion is more radical (and potentially more divisive) than setting up a video projector and hanging a screen, but in traditions like the Restoration Movement where heavy emphasis is placed on Communion, it is time that we gave serious consideration to a revisioning of the Lord’s Supper as a table meal where Jesus welcomes sinners into the family of God.

Leaders who bless church planting and send planters out. If we were to begin with the premise that tens of millions of unbelievers in North America will not be evangelized without tens of thousands of new congregations, and if we were to begin a serious effort to address this need, and if every congregation’s leadership dreamed of and prayed for the day it would reproduce itself in a new congregation, and if the sending congregations were willing to give the new church freedom in establishing its own worship practice and traditions, wouldn’t that relieve the enormous pressure we sometimes feel either to change the worship or to protect the status quo in our congregations? Our loss of mission, our loss of a church-planting vision seems to doom us to squabble and divide over changes in worship,but it must not be so. Right now, there is no shortage of willing church planters.There is, however, a critical shortage of leaders with the vision to bless them and send them out.

Preaching that proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ. Why bother with preaching at all if it doesn’t announce the Good News of God in Jesus Christ to any unbeliever present and exhort the church to partake in that same announcement throughout their daily lives? The God of Mission is worshiped and glorified in preaching of the cross and of grace and of the way of salvation. Our preaching, however, is often laced with in-house language.The unbeliever who is invited to worship with us may well be scandalized by communion, hymn-singing, and speaking aloud to an invisible Deity, but the preaching should be comprehensible, inviting, and above all, good news. The tradition of offering an invitation is one that should be revived and expanded. Proclamation in worship should not be limited to the preacher only.Others have powerful,Christ-exalting, God-glorifying testimonies to share.

Public reading of scripture. Another overlooked opportunity to practice missional worship is in the public reading of scripture (see interview with Marva Dawn). God’s word is powerful to stir the minds and hearts of unbelievers. We should read more of it and we should take the time and effort to read it well. Some Restoration churches are re-discovering the lectionary and learning the power of reading through the Bible in conjunction with the seasons of the Christian Year. The Christian Year took shape in part as a means of forming a Christian worldview in pre-Christians and new believers. It has the same potential today. [for more on the Christian Year, see www.sacramentis.com]

And finally, missional worship begins with prayer. Who in your congregation is praying about the friends and neighbors they will be inviting to the next worship assembly? Who is praying for the people that God will bring? Who is praying throughout your assembly for the hearts of those who need to make Jesus Lord of their life? If our worship assemblies have not become occasions when the God of Mission is revealed and received by unbelievers, it may simply be that we have not because we ask not. Worship that is missional must begin with seriousness about prayer.

The mention of prayer brings us back to that Sunday our congregation sent our kids to Mexico. In the end we have to recognize that our worship assemblies are only a beginning place for mission. The mission is in our daily lives, in our workplaces, neighborhoods, recreation, and relationships. Our corporate worship will be missional when we leave it transformed, full of God’s love, and eager to share that love with people who need it.New Wineskins

John Ogren serves the South MacArthur Church of Christ in Irving, Texas as the Communities of Faith Minister, coordinating adult education, small groups, and church planting. He has been married to South MacArthur’s Children’s Minister, the former Wendy Wray, for seven years. He is proud father to sons Isaiah and Nathaniel, and proud son of Dale Ogren, whose work also appears in these pages.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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