Monday, August 4, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 6

My friend, Jerry Wolfe, asked after my last M&E post to talk about how congregations who see worship and mission as separate things might go about bridging that gap. Great question. And one we ususally get wrong. We tend to think of change as a process of information and application. If we have all the right info, we will make all the necessary adjustments. Alas, this is a noose many church leaders have tied for themselves.

I want to talk about congregational culture change in future posts. (So, Jerry, hang on, I'll get there). In this post I want to grab some conceptual ground concerning worship and mission. This sounds like teaching, and it is. Teaching is important. But typically it won't in and of itself produce big change.

The biblical image I want to use to bring mission and worship together is the priesthood of believers. Believers, taken together, constitute a priesthood. It might be true that we function individually in priestly sort of ways. But when the Bible uses the phrase priesthood of believers it has the entire community in view.

The people of God have a priestly vocation in the world. And what does a priest do? A priest stands in between, in this case in between God and the world. The people of God represent God to the world, and the world to God. We don't worship primarily for our own sake. Like Jesus, our service is for the sake of others. We worship to learn better how to love God and neighbor.

Seen this way, worship maintains a public horizon. That is, its primary orientation is the relationship between God and the world. Our worship horizons tend to be much smaller. We evaluate worship on whether or not it met my needs or whether or not I enjoyed it, was personally challenged, inspired, etc.

This is a private horizon. The focus of the worship is the interior of the individual. It doesn't take much of an audit of our worship language and practices to see that the interior of the individual is typically what we're putting our focus on in worship.

Now, let me be clear. It is not wrong for there to be focus in worship on the interior of the individual. The problem comes when this becomes our exclusive focus and when we see it as an end in itself. Our focus on the individual should always be with an eye toward creating a community who exists for the sake of God's world.

Worship with a public horizon represents the concerns of the world before God. I've had the practice for awhile now of reading the NY Times with a certain prayerfulness. Over against the trouble of our world clearly revealed in a newspaper, I am often struck with how glib and easy our congregational praise can be. It seems sometimes a little like turning up the volume on the car radio to drown out the pinging of the engine. We don't worship to avoid the world, but to learn to engage the world with a different kind of power.

Worship with a public horizon honors the stranger. This is not because we want to convert the stranger, though we would certainly celebrate this. (There is a difference between public and evangelistic). The "other" is necessary for something to be public. Accounting for and welcoming the other as an irreducible other (not just a target for congregational growth) allows us to participate in the Trinitarian life of God. We learn to be persons in the image of God as we learn to welcome the stranger.

Though we're often impressed with our friendliness as a congregation, we don't really do a good job of welcoming strangers. Friendliness and publicness are not the same thing.

I recently visited a church that worships in the round. They sit on sofas, rummage sale sofas. Now, it's hard enough to get me to share a sofa with my wife. I'm not about to sit on a sofa with someone I do not know, especially a sofa for which we have no history. I found the only folding chair in the building, which made me immediately conspicuous as one who might not belong.

The high point of the service, according to the woman who explained what we were doing, was the Lord's Supper. This was the moment where it all comes together for them, a time when they celebrate being together as a community. She pointed out the presence of small tables all over the building that had bread and wine. She invited us all to go to a table, a kind of serve yourself affair, and enjoy being together. When we moved to tables, I found myself immediately outside several circles of intimacy. The church has collectively and literally turned its back on me. That's all I could see.

Now I admit, I'm an introvert. I'm not the kind of person who will push his way into a group of persons already familiar with each other. This seemed like their table, something other than the table of the Lord.

In contrast, I think about a church I've visited where the table is also explained as the high point of their service. There, the woman who presided invited us all to the table, "those who come each week, and those who have not been for a long time; those who have much faith, and those who hope for more..." I knew I was being invited to the table. And when I moved forward in this company of strangers I felt the welcome of God. My participation with God did not depend on my prior relatioship with these people. Yet, here I was in relationship with them. Moving to the table with them. And there I was welcomed and fed.

We often confuse friendliness, intimacy, and spontaneity as welcome. But these things are often the very things that exclude the stranger and keep us from fulfilling our priestly vocation. And when our worship retreats into the horizon of the private, of the individual, into a culture of intimacy, worship loses its capacity for mission.


Anonymous said...


One of the best books I have read along the lines of your comments in this post is by Douglas John Hall called "When You Pray: Thinking Your Way into God's World". He talks of prayer not as something that takes us out of the world as if God was on a search and rescue mission to get us all out as fast as he can, but as worship that leads us to God and then sends us back out into the world with his mind, heart, love, passion and mission. Jesus private prayer and worship is never fully private. It always has public horizons. Although he leaves the crowds for the silence and solitude of the garden, his engagment with the Father always sends him back into the crowds and the noise that reverberates from their lives. Even when Jesus prays for his life to be searched for and rescued, he concludes with "not my will but yours be done" and then is sent back into the world with the passion (suffering) and mission of God.

Mark Love said...


Thanks for the reference. I love Hall's work, but haven't read this. One more thing to add to my reading list!

We cheered for the Ugandan team when they marched in last night.