One of the most important conversations happening in the Church today regards the reclamation and implementation of God’s Mission – Missio Dei – as the central interpretive lenses for Western Christians in our twenty first century, post-Christian world. Like other buzz words, the word missional has come to mean almost everything and therefore nothing in many circles. However, its authentic meaning is related to God’s fundamental design for the world – which is presented to us as a narrative in the sweeping plots and movements of Holy Scripture. The Bible’s five major movements: creation, covenant, Christ, church, and consummation are presented not as didactic truths or principles, but as living stories in which individuals and peoples find their true identity by understanding their world within the larger meta-narrative of God’s three fold plan for the universe: creation, redemption, and renewal.
The return to a missional theology of the Church and of the Christian life seeks to restore an organic reality to the faith which re-connects doctrine with relationship, the mind with the heart, and isolated worshipping congregations with the larger communities around them. As the Church struggles with its place in a changing society, a return (especially for evangelical Christians) and a revival (especially for mainline Christians) in understanding and practice of Christian liturgy will be essential.
Liturgy is the primary way Christians have and continue to worship theTriune God when assembled as the gathered church. The liturgy is rooted in Scriptureand has been adapted, edited, and shaped to fit unique theologies (Orthodox, Catholic,Anglican, and Protestant) and local Christian communities for over two thousand years. In light of the need to return to a missional understanding of Christian faith and in light of the relative ignorance of Scripture in many congregations, a greater emphasis on the liturgy is in order. Why? Because the liturgy is an immersion in the Christian narrative of the universe and of God’s plan for every individual human being. Week after week (and even day after day in some contexts) Christians worshipping liturgically are drenched in Scripture not only in specific readings from the Bible, but also with Biblical metaphors, allusions, and quotations woven into the prayers, hymns, and actions of the liturgy.
Liturgies centered in the Eucharistic are particularly fruitful in this regard as they always include a re-telling of the Christian story’s major themes: creation, fall, redemption. Liturgy is inherently communal in nature and provides a safe guard against attempts at reducing Scripture to mere principles isolated from the drama of everyday life. This is often a weakness in Evangelical congregations, even those that preach to significant human needs with helpful application. For mainline Christians – who are usually liturgical to some extent already- a superficial understanding and practice of the liturgy has often emerged. This rote, superficial concern with decency and order has often stripped the liturgy of its efficacy as a channel by which the Holy Spirit reveals God’s greater story for individuals and congregations. The solution in both situations is a renewed emphasis on understanding and intentional practice with the liturgy.
The great narrative behind the liturgy needs to be taught and raised up before worshippers on a regular basis. This can include sermons, classes, written materials, as well as occasional instructive comments within the liturgy itself. Believers are to be challenged to engage both mind and heart with the words of the liturgy. Teachers and preachers will have to help congregations make the connection between the liturgy on Sunday and the liturgy of our everyday lives. In this way the liturgy will become a vehicle for worshipping God in “Spirit and in Truth” rather than in mere formality. In this spirit the weekly celebration of the liturgy functions as a powerful reminder of who we are in Christ, the nature of the world, and the divine purpose of our existence. As this understanding grows in individuals and congregations the liturgy will slowly be transformed from being an assortment of words, songs, and rituals to the compelling dream and steady heartbeat that sustains the lives of a local faith community.
At the heart of the missional discussion is a return to Jesus words “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Sadly if a magic wand was to be waved and thousands of American churches were forced to close their doors tomorrow many (most?) would be mourned only by their congregants. That is, no one from the larger communities in which the churches are located would even notice they were missing and this is largely due to a lack of missional engagement. A Spirit driven practice of the liturgy constantly emphasizes the called nature of the Church: both formally through structured ministry, but also and maybe more importantly, through the witness of individuals and Christian families. The Book of Common Prayer for example, includes this prayer at the end of every Eucharistic liturgy:
“Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faith witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.”
One of the central purposes of the liturgy is to immerse believers in a constant cycle of rest and renewal so that they may be sent into the world to do God’s work. Just as the missional movement is reminding us that mission work is no longer regulated to foreign missionaries, but that all churches should consider themselves mission stations in foreign territory, so the liturgy reminds each one of us that we are called to exercise our faith within the everyday liturgy of our lives. May our renewed practice of the liturgy open the doors for the Holy Spirit to drive us out into our communities as ambassadors of the one “who came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).