Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission (Ruth A. Meyers) -- Review

MISSIONAL WORSHIP, WORSHIPFUL MISSION: Gathering as God's People, Going Out in God's Name (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW))By Ruth A. Meyers. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.  Xiv + 242 pages.

                In recent years there has been a strong trend among Christian congregations to deem themselves to be missional.  This is especially true among mainline Protestant congregations who have been seeking ways of getting out of their survivalist funk. To be missional is to focus on what God is doing outside the walls of the church, and then joining with God in that work.  It is a good focus—one that I have pursued. But, where does worship fit? Is it relevant to the world in which we live, especially worship that reaches back to earlier centuries? The use of rock music and drama—now that has evangelistic potential—but should we be engaging in something that seems so inward focused as worship within the walls of a church?

Ruth A. Meyers, dean of academic affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a seminary related to the Episcopal Church, believes that worship is the heart of missional life.  In her book Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, Meyers uses the image of a spinning top to describe what it means to be missional.  Standing at the center of the spinning top, its core, is worship.  To understand what it means to be missional, we need to recognize, as Meyers points out, that “mission is a matter of identity rather than program” (p. 4). This is a crucial insight for mainline churches that are always on the lookout for the latest program that will turn the church around. All we need to do is buy a program, implement it, and then we’ll be ready to grow.  Such is not the case here. To be missional is to engage in ministries that reflect God’s concerns – ministries that include witness and service, justice and reconciliation. It involves incarnating God’s love in the world. If we are to be engaged in such work we will need to be connected to the God who is at work in the world.  Meyers defines missional worship as “an understanding and practice of worship that engages worshipers in the mission of God, drawing them into God’s self-offering of redemptive love through Christ and in the power of the Spirit” (p. 12). 

Meyers uses two analogies to describe the relationship of worship and mission – a möbius strip and a spinning top.  In the first, worship and mission flow in and out of each other.  The second image is that of a spinning top, which resonated with me.  In this metaphor missional life is like a spinning top with worship as the center core.
Here, public worship is at the core of missional life. The dynamic energy of the spinning top flows into and out of this core. Public worship sends us out from the center, into the world, to be God’s people in the world. There we are caught up in other aspects of mission . . . Then the spinning top draws us back into the center, shaped by our encounters with the God of Jesus Christ in the world, cognizant of all the hurts and hungers of our broken world. (p. 40).
Worship is that which keeps us in contact with God, who is the one engaged in ministry and who draws us into that ministry.  Worship is ultimately the way in which we are drawn into that which is the source of our energy – God.  God is the animating force of the spinning top.

Having begun by naming both the nature of the mission to which we are called and the role that worship plays in that work, Meyers begins a journey through Christian worship or liturgy. Worship has a beginning and an end (of sorts). It has components in between, but first we must gather, and the gathering has important components. As we gather it is important to know is present.  There are likely those who have been present week after week, year after year.  There will also be people who have been drawn in for the first time.  Each has different needs and expectations. For those who gather regularly, there is likely a routine that provides a rhythm and level of comfort. For the new person much that is undertaken will be new and requiring some kind of orientation. So, we begin with an invitation to gather, and then begin the journey that is the liturgy. It is important to recognize that one aspect of community life is evangelism – and thus we will need to be aware of our hospitality and welcome.  We need to remember that some who choose to enter our sanctuaries will have faced rejection elsewhere – so how does our worship exude true welcome? As we consider worship there are a number of cultural issues to be aware of. Some elements will be transcultural – forms of worship life that transcend cultural boundaries including time, space, culture and confession. There will also be contextual elements – elements that are unique to the cultural context.  Further there are counter-cultural elements – especially the rejection of those elements that might dehumanize or stand contrary to the Gospel. Further there are elements that are cross cultural – the attempt to cross cultural boundaries to share in and experience forms that might be unique to another culture. This is an important act, but it must be done with understanding and respect. Finally, worship is multi-cultural. In such a setting elements might be contextual to one and cross-cultural for another. She writes that “intentionally incorporating elements from different cultures into worship signals that all are welcome, all are part of the body of Christ” (p. 69).

From the time of gathering, an element of liturgy that involves calls to worship, prayers, and music, we move to “proclaiming and responding to the Word of God.” There is a need to hear the stories of God’s work in the world along with God’s promises of a new creation. This section of the liturgy focuses on preaching/teaching – hearing the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets. Of course this involves reading/sharing in the Scriptures. Meyers describes several ways that we can engage in this work, including the use of the lectionary. At the same time, while affirming the lectionary she notes that by and large the texts omit the work of women. The key here is learning the biblical story. In our post-Christian era, teaching the faith will be more crucial than ever before.  Along with proclamation there will be need for response, wherein the congregation is invited to take up the word in an appropriate way.

From proclamation of the Word we move to prayer – specifically prayer for the world.  Meyers suggests that liturgically it is best that intercessory prayers fall after the sermon, for having heard word about God’s love for the world; we are in a position to pray for that world.  Meyers makes a pointed statement about the fact that too often our intercessions are focused on the needs of the congregation and do not take us out into the world. She reminds us that action generally follows after prayers, so if our prayers are world focused our actions will take place in the world. She writes that “our experiences in the world inform our intercession, and our intercession schools us in compassion and turns our hearts once again to the world, like our Möbius strip, in which worship is mission is worship . . .” (p. 123).

In traditions like my own confessions of sin are not a common occurrence, but many traditions do provide opportunity to confess sins and receive absolution, an act that prepares one to go to the table.  Recognizing that not all traditions have acts of confession, or at least explicit rites of confession, worship itself is an act of reconciliation – bringing us back into relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. The question here has to do with the ways in which we provide for signs of repentance and conversion to occur.  From acts of reconciliation, including possibly passing the peace, we move to the Table.

Meyers provides a very helpful discussion of Eucharistic theology and the way in which it interacts with missional theology. While not all faith communities have weekly communion, the Eucharist remains central to the Christian faith and to worship.  Something I appreciate about this chapter is that she begins with Jesus’ table fellowship.  While we often start with the Last Supper, which invites us to remember Jesus’ death, Jesus’ own patterns of table fellowship are central to a missional understanding of the Eucharist. From there we can move to conversations about memory and presence. Because this is a conversation about missional worship, the question of hospitality and welcome needs to be considered. That leads to the issue of how open the Table should be.  In many traditions baptism is a prerequisite to Table fellowship, but that can be problematic.  She has a helpful discussion of this issue, inviting those of us who practice an open table to be clear(er) about the role of baptism and its relationship to the Table.  I took this as an important word to reexamine our own understanding of baptism.

Even as we gather, we will go forth from the service of worship.  We need to be just as attentive to the process of leaving as we are to the process of gathering. She speaks of this as a sending rather than a dismissal. Part of the going out process involves acts of hospitality. How are we engaging those who are visiting with us?  Are we inviting them to share life with us?  What kind of follow up are we engaging in? 

Missional worship is not about technique. There isn’t a recipe that we can turn to and create missional worship.  But, there are patterns and concerns that need to be addressed, such as hospitality and the cross cultural nature of worship. What are our foci and concerns?  We take into consideration issues such as worship space, ritual objects, actions, music speech, and the like. As we plan missional worship, we take into consideration our missional calling and take steps to create a worship experience that “is a rich and evocative celebration of the mystery of God’s love, one that draws worshipers into communion with God and with one another that is offered for the life of the world” (p. 201). In pursuit of such a goal, we will need to consider not only the elements of worship, but how we welcome and include – this includes children.  Meyers raises an issue that many churches wrestle with. In our day children are rarely in worship.  They go off to their own programs and as time goes on, by the time they’re teenagers they conclude that worship has little to do with their lives.  Simply offering a children’s message is not sufficient, for it is largely cognitive (I have other concerns about this, which I’ll not go into).  The question then concerns how we plan worship in a way that engages children while also being attentive to adult needs? 

Returning to that spinning top – if we are to be a truly missional congregation then worship will be at the center of our mission. It is the core from which we go and to which we return, moving in and out, so that we remain connected to the one who calls, empowers, and enlivens us. In conversations with people involved in churches, it seems that some are focused on mission and some on worship. We make it out to be an either/or situation.  Such is not the case.  True mission will be rooted in the worship of God. Otherwise our mission activities will simply become duties and not expressions of faith. Having read widely in the areas of worship and missional theology, I am grateful that Ruth Meyers has brought them together in this important primer that everyone involved in missional life should read.


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