Worship and the Missio Dei

[1] The Journal of Lutheran Ethics invites us again this month to think about the relationship between Sunday worship and ethics, giving us an opportunity to question our assumptions about worship and God’s mission. Many scholars working on liturgical renewal have contended that to worship is, in fact, to engage in our fundamental identity as the body of Christ, beloved children of God, a people formed by the means of grace whose worship makes evident a relationship with God based in forgiveness and nourishment. My intent in this essay is to help foster a conversation about both worship and the missio Dei by asking: How does worship form our identity and our view of others?

Models for the Relationship between Worship and Mission
[2] A worthy exploration of the relationship between worship and mission is the 1999 publication Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission containing essays by each of the North American Lutheran seminary teachers of liturgy.1 The essays cover the relationship between mission and preaching, sacraments, space, time, music, ritual, and contextual matters. They are each important for thinking about worship and mission, but I will focus here on Thomas Schattauer’s essay, “Liturgical Assembly as Locus of Mission,” because he proposes three categories for relating worship and mission. These categories differ in the extent to which worship and ethics are linked. The first two are based in a notion of worship as an efficacious event that ushers in a changed way of living so as to “effect” an ethical environment. The third means to enact the changed life.

[3] Inside & Out is the name Schattauer uses for what I would call the most ubiquitous conception of the relationship between worship and mission: worship as a “battery-charger” for doing good things in the world. You go to church on Sunday and get fed so that you can go out into the world and be a servant. Those signs at the exits to some churches that say “Servants entrance” exemplify the Inside & Out idea of how worship and mission relate. As Schattauer puts it, “Mission is what takes place on the outside when the gospel is proclaimed to those who have not heard or received it or… when the neighbor is served in acts of love and justice.”2 Worship takes place for the sake of something other than itself. Worship enables people to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. The two actions — worship and mission (or service) — are not integrally connected except that worship is an instrument used to make mission possible. A primary purpose for worship is to cause good works.

[4] An even more instrumental strategy is evident in the second category: Outside-In. In this relationship, the connection between worship and mission are deliberately linked by making missional actions an overt focus of worship content. The missional work might be either outreach and evangelism to bring more people into church or it might be work toward political and economic justice goals. The term Outside-In pertains in each case. For a church that sees worship as a means to gain members, worship (normally an “inside” activity) is turned so that what is “outside” the assembly — the needs of those who are not usually a part of the church’s worship — become the foundation for the structure and, ultimately, the substance of the liturgy. For a church that uses worship to energize the faithful toward particular social justice activities and commitments, the realities of the world are brought inside. Whether for the purposes of attracting new members or to encourage the assembly to social justice work during the week, the liturgy is turned Outside-In. In both the Inside & Out (the more conventional view) and the Outside-In (the so-called “contemporary worship” view), worship is a means toward an end other than itself.

[5] Schattauer’s third category, Inside Out, is the one he calls radically traditional because its approach “locates the liturgical assembly itself within the arena of the missio Dei.”3 Worship enacts and announces God’s mission for and to the world. Worship and mission are not separate from each other, and worship is not a means toward the work of the assembly as it leaves the sanctuary to enter into the place where mission occurs. Rather, “the assembly for worship is mission.” Tracing a shift in worship focus even in his own lifetime, Schattauer references theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and Lutheran liturgical scholars whose work has inspired the church to re-awaken itself to Luther’s emphasis on word and sacrament. The means of grace — present in word, water, bread and wine — are God’s gifts that offer to God’s people a life of thanksgiving, a eucharistic life.4 That the means of grace are God’s mission in the world lifts worship out of mere instrumentality and instead makes worship an event whose purpose is God’s own.

Why Is It Hard to Think in Terms of INSIDE OUT?
[6] For many of us an Inside Out understanding of worship and mission feels ingrown and ineffective. We are too conditioned by years of thinking in conventional and instrumental terms (Inside & Out and Outside-In) to conceive of worship as an agent that helps us do something other than — or “more” than — living a life of gratitude, in eucharistia. We have grown accustomed to seeing an activity like worship as preparation for real life rather than life itself. Many of us believe that effecting change in the world that is visible, energetic, optimistic, outgoing, and community-oriented is preferable to change that cannot be seen. It is, therefore, difficult for us to switch our thinking about God’s own orientation.

[7] It is understandable that we think of God’s focus as always outwardly-directed. Many biblical texts suggest exactly that: the purpose of faith is to feed the poor, care for the orphan and widow, give voice to the voiceless, and welcome the stranger. These are enterprises that easily fall into the categories of outreach and evangelism. In fact, these outwardly-directed foci may well be the whole point of Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness, gathering a small band of disciples around him, challenging the authorities, being killed, and being raised from the dead. God uses the force of those events to turn us toward our neighbor for the sake of a more just world. God places in our hands the task of ethical living as a response (of penitence? of thanks?) for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

[8] It may be additionally difficult for us to think of worship itself as the missio Dei because the clamor for outreach and evangelism and social justice (all of which are vital) causes us to think of worship — the one time the church gathers weekly — as the place to manifest our outward-orientation. This invites an Outside-In frame for worship in which church programs take up more time than scripture readings, personal testimonials are allowed, and sermons are more law (what you have to do) than gospel (what God is already doing in your midst).

[9] The current and pervasive concern over mainline church “decline” makes it difficult to question linking worship with church growth.5 For many years, purveyors of “church growth” have urged changes in worship in order to entice new members, pushing accessibility and an up-beat tone in worship. In keeping with church growth goals, the ELCA website section on Outreach and Evangelism includes a checklist to help congregations consider whether their Sunday hospitality practices are welcoming or whether they hinder visitors from wanting to return. The checklist encourages worship planners to think through the eyes and ears of those who do not know their way around the church or the liturgy. What would be the newcomers’ first impressions of the congregation? What would a newcomer see and hear? What would a newcomer need to know in order to feel welcome? These and many other astute questions have caused congregations to think about signage, parking, greeters, print material, and cultural and ethnic gifts that might find their way into the worship. Because the church’s task is to “go into all the world baptizing” — a clear mandate that the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection is for everyone — when we fail to proclaim and convey this promise to new people, we violate a sacred command. The corrective message is to make the task of the Christian clear and comfortable. This dictum, however, begs a question: Is the missio Dei really met when its mode is clear (meaning: simple and direct) and comfortable (meaning: not upsetting).

[10] When the aim of worship is church growth (i.e., the missio Dei has become membership increase), we need to ask what exactly we are teaching of God’s holy promises. If nothing is new, unusual, or hard to grasp, what is conveyed? Is the meaning of baptism or Jesus’ body and blood so commensurate with normal, everyday life that no paradox, no complexity, no mystagogical experience is to be grappled with? Can worship exemplify the missio Dei if nothing in it causes the worshippers to question their identity and way they see the world? We need to ask whether the purpose of worship is to a) to prepare us for the work of justice (Inside & Out and Outside-In) or b) whether that work includes what happens in worship (Inside Out).

Why Not Use Worship for an Ulterior Purpose?
[11] Introducing into its structure and message a secondary goal — like attracting new members — works against gathering for worship in order to practice the missio Dei. As an experience of Inside Out, worship is precisely an enactment of God’s justice. At stake is the very nature of what is proclaimed. The dictum, for example, that newcomers should not feel uncomfortable goes against the discomfort that comes when the gospel is rightly preached. The old slogan about preaching that says it is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is impossible in an environment bent on a hospitality that wants no disorientation for those attending. The idea that law and gospel would be the meat of the sermon is antithetical to the outreach goal bent on attracting flies with honey. (This may be why we can hear sermons today in some churches that tell us God wants us to be wealthy.) Making sure people are comfortable leads to omitting the Confession of Sin because it is believed that newcomers are not interested in hearing about sin. Similarly, the Confession of Faith is sometimes omitted because it is deemed to be divisive; not everyone can proclaim it.

[12] We can also see in the use of music how easily the missio Dei is confounded when worship is used for something other than itself. Goals come to be at cross purposes. Liturgical renewal calls for music to reflect, at least in part, the people’s cultural and ethnic identity.6 But language in worship is also to honor language principles in the Principles for Worship: the work of over 94 people from all over the church and with differing perspectives in consultations on language, music, space, and preaching completed in 2002.7 Among other things, the principles call for inclusive language: “Careful crafting of texts to minimize the use of gender-specific pronouns for God helps to avoid conveying the impression that God is either male or female.”8 The many beloved hymns referring almost exclusively to God the Father — found especially in the songs of older traditions, often culturally- and ethnically-specific — show the difficulty of accomplishing the goals of fashioning worship that is both “familiar” to newcomers and faithful to the ELCA Principles for Worship based on The Use of the Means of Grace. A church that has been struggling to expand the imagery for God and God’s people, to mine the rich biblical metaphors so as to proclaim a faithfully broad interpretation of divine-human relations is in a perpetual quandary over reconciling feuding requirements such as these. At just such an impasse, the deepest purposes for worship address the problem while temporal and local purposes do not.

Worship Is missio Dei
[13] To avoid becoming entangled in misleading and theologically-suspect language, structures, and practices in worship, the church needs to ask repeatedly: What is the purpose of worship? Worship — as the locus of the gifts of God’s grace offered in word and sacrament — is, in its most profound sense, the missio Dei, the mission of God. What God wills for us, the missio Dei, is that we heed the cry of the prophets and the gift of Jesus’ body and blood as emblematic of God’s desire for us, that we live in peace, be nourished by the word of life, and, as Augustine said of preaching’s purpose, come to greater love of God and neighbor. The missio Dei, as an act of worship, brings people together in the presence of what is holy and, in doing so, enacts God’s own way of justice and peace.

[14] If the purpose of worship is that all may taste and see the deepest of God’s will for us and for creation, the center of worship cannot be ourselves or our numbers or the viability of congregations or the ELCA. The center has to be the broken and raised-up Son of God, manifest in word and meal, visible and audible in baptismal water, as tactile as our neighbor in the pew, for it is that Crucified and Risen One to whom we are grafted and by whom we are fed for ethical living.

1. Thomas H. Schattauer, ed., Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999). The writings of the liturgy professors in Inside Out are an excellent source for anyone interested in learning more about what Lutheran theologians have been teaching about worship and mission.

2. Ibid., 2.

3. Ibid., 3.

4. Ibid., 6–10. Pannenberg’s contribution exposes the theological change from focus on penitence to focus on giving thanks. We can see this movement in the addition in Evangelical Lutheran Worship of a “Thanksgiving for Baptism” rite (ELW, 97) that can be used interchangeably with “Confession and Forgiveness” (ELW, 95–96) on Sunday mornings at the beginning of the liturgy.

5. An important book to consult on the issue of church decline is Robert Bacher and Kenneth Inskeep, Chasing Down a Rumor: The Death of Mainline Denominations (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books, 2005).

6. Lutheran World Federation, The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture: Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities at http://www.worship.ca/docs/lwf_ns.html; also available in Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, Using ELW, Volume Two — The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 211–216.

7. ELCA, Principles for Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

8. Ibid., 13.

Melinda Quivik

The Rev. Melinda Quivik, Ph.D. is a liturgical scholar living in Houghton, Michigan.