How Christian Worship (not Consumerist Worship) Forms a Missional Community

Marva J. Dawn
Thursday, July 5th 2007
May/Jun 2000

"You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…."John 15:16.

What would happen if everyone in our pews for worship on Sunday morning departed afterward with a deep understanding of all that Jesus meant by the sentences above? For that to happen, our worship would have to be remarkably filled with the sense that we did not choose to come, but that God is the Subject who has invited us here. Immersed in the wonder that God has chosen us for his purposes, appointed us specifically for our various ministries in the work, and equipped us to bear lasting fruit, we would depart with a vision for "being Church" the rest of the week.

My greatest disagreement with those who advocate turning worship into the congregation's evangelistic tool is that this notion removes the responsibility of all the members for reaching out to their neighbors by being Church, by bearing the fruit of discipleship. Furthermore, this is not an individualistic responsibility, for good worship also forms a people whose way of life is a warrant for belief.

The Alternative but Parallel Society

In Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and many others of my books, I especially stress that the Christian community must be an alternative society-offering its gifts of different ways to think and speak and be and behave to a world that is desperate for them. Lately I have been emphasizing the pun that to live this way is to recover true "altar-nativity"-the presenting of our church bodies as a living sacrifice on the altar (actually the Greek word means burnt offering in the invitation of Romans 12:1) (1) and then our rebirth into the new life of Christ in us.

From Mary Jo Leddy I learned another term besides alternativity for thinking about the uniqueness of the Church. She reported that the playwright-president of the Czech Republic, Vclav Havel, was asked why the "Velvet Revolution" against the communists in the former Czechoslovakia was successfully nonviolent-and we might add, why it remains effective when so many other satellites of the former U.S.S.R. are presently in turmoil. Havel answered somewhat like this: "We had our parallel society. And in that parallel society we wrote our plays and sang our songs and read our poems until we knew the truth so well that we could go out to the streets of Prague and say, 'We don't believe your lies anymore'-and communism had to fall." (2)

In the midst of our post-Christian culture, the true Church must be a similar sort of parallel society. We gather together in worship to speak our language, to read our narratives of God at work, to sing the hymns of the faith in a variety of styles, to chant and pour out our prayers until we know the truth so well that we can go out to the world around us and invite that world to share this truth with us. In our worship, we are formed by biblical narratives that tell a different story from that of the surrounding culture. Since we thereby come to know the truth that sets us free, we are eager to share that truth with our neighbors; thus our worship must equip us for that mission with a deep vision of the extravagant splendor of God. Rather than being "a vendor of religious goods and services" that cater to people's tastes, the Church is called to be "a body of people sent on a mission." (3)

We need both words, alternative and parallel, for describing the Church. To be parallel will deter us from being so alternative that we don't relate to our neighbors; to be alternative prevents our parallel line from moving closer and closer to modes of life alien to the kingdom of God. Rather than becoming enculturated and entrapped by the world's values of materialistic and experiential consumerism, of narcissistic self-importance and personal taste, of solitary superficiality, and of ephemeral satisfaction, members of Christ's Body choose his simple life of sharing, his willingness to suffer for the sake of others, his communal vulnerability, and his eternal purposes. When our worship gives us continual hearing of and deep reflection on God's Word, songs and prayers that nurture discipleship, and new visions of God's appointment of us to bear fruit, then we will gain God's heart of our mission and ministry of communicating the Christian story, of enfolding our neighbors in God's love, of choosing deliberately to live out the alternative "Churchbeing" of the people of God's kingdom.

Sociologists recognize that any alternative way of life that is substantively different from the larger society around it and that wants to maintain itself needs a language, customs, habits, rituals, institutions, procedures, and practices that uphold and nurture a clear vision of how it is different and why that matters. Are we as Christians committed to the alternative way of life described in the Scriptures and incarnated in Christ, so that we are willing to invest ourselves diligently in order to transmit this valued way of life to our children and neighbors? If so, our worship cannot be too much like the surrounding culture, or it will be impossible to teach altar-nativity.

We Are a Christian Community

Student evaluators of my course on Music and the Arts in Christian Worship revealed many misconceptions about musical style and about multimedia that contribute to a destructive narrowing of possibilities for worship to display the fullness of God's splendor. On the other hand, one student evaluator listed "more research on other religions" as a suggested change in the course, even though the seminary intended the course to be specifically about Christian worship, as indicated in the course's title. It seems to me that some of the major problems with Christian worship these days arise because of our frequent addition of elements from other religions (like the idolatries of speed, excitement, or any others) and our failure to pass on faithfully the true identity of Christians. In this sense, we have to work hard to narrow our focus positively when we plan worship.

In a pluralistic world, what does it mean to participate in Christian worship? One of the wrong turns some congregations are making as society increasingly becomes more openly pluralistic and less supportive of Christianity specifically is that they blur their unique identity as the people of God, instead of accentuating it with loving commitment. If we understand ourselves to be a people sent on a mission as God's ambassadors in the work, then we can't become so much like the culture that we have nothing to offer.

Our Churches' Loss of Identity

Why is there such panic and confusion in churches these days over what it means to be the Church? Jesus never told us that we had to be big, successful, attractive to nonmembers, or like the culture in which we live. In fact, he said the opposite of all those things-that the way was narrow (Matt. 7:13-14), that the first shall be last (Mark 10:31), that we would be persecuted (Matt. 5:11), that we would be hated by all because of his name (Luke 21:17)-and he wondered whether, when the Son of man comes, he would find faith on earth (Luke 18:8). When I think about churches in our time and culture, I am haunted by Jesus' words, "Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" (Luke 14:34-35). God have mercy on us, for we seem to have lost our savor!

On the other hand, Jesus never said that we should hide ourselves away from the world, ignore our neighbors' needs, keep silent about what we know, or be purposely elitist. Instead he told his disciples to let our light shine before others (Matt. 5:14-16), to heal the sick and announce the kingdom (Luke 10:1-9), to sell what we have to give to the poor (Luke 12:22-34), to proclaim repentance and forgiveness, and to be witnesses (Luke 24:44-49). How, then, will we equip congregational members with a vision for this mission?

First We Need a Language

If our major question here is "What does it mean to be Christians in mission-and how are we equipped for that by worship?" we are greatly helped by George Lindbeck and other theorists of the "postliberal" ("Yale") school. Lindbeck insightfully proclaims that Christianity is not merely cognitive (that is, solely intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions), nor is it simply experiential (engagement in uplifting religious experiences). Rather, Christianity is a cultural-linguistic system, by which we learn the language of faith. (4)

With regard to the plea for altar-nativity above-and in response to sociologists' recognition that a culture different from the dominant culture requires a language and habits and traditions to give a clear vision of how it is different and why that matters-Lindbeck wonders whether in our times "any religion will have the requisite toughness for this demanding task unless it at some point makes the claim that it is significantly different and unsurpassably true" (emphasis mine). (5) For that reason our triune language essentially includes the conviction that in Jesus we know that God who is the Truth and that by the Holy Spirit's power we are enabled to find a Way of Life that is momentously, transformingly, gratifyingly different from that of the world around us.

Lindbeck's perceptions are extremely important for our considerations about worship in a culture that specializes in feelings and experiences, for he explains that a cultural-linguistic approach to faith reverses the experiential-expressivist relation of inner and outer. An example related to this article's purposes is that some churches try to build faith in worship from the experiential side, by using music that creates emotions so that people feel "moved." In light of recent studies on the effects of vibrations on the human psyche, we must question if the people are moved by God or by the music's physical effects. Lindbeck's model of faith, on the other hand, supports the work of churches who focus instead on content. He gives this example:

Thus, if one follows this account, Luther did not invent his doctrine of justification by faith because he had a tower experience, but rather the tower experience was made possible by his discovering (or thinking he discovered) the doctrine in the Bible. To be sure, the experience of justification by his exegesis then generated a variety of fresh expressive symbolisms, among which Lutherans like especially to mention the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Without such powerful experiences and their effective expression, the tradition would have neither started nor persisted, yet logically, even if not causally, a religious experience and its expression are secondary and tertiary in a linguistic-cultural model. First come the objectivities of the religion, its language, doctrines, liturgies, and modes of action, and it is through these that passions are shaped into various kinds of what is called religious experience. (6)

Objectivities can be passed on, shared with another, whereas subjectivities cannot be transmitted. One of the problems arising from many congregations' emphasis on emotions is that it leaves out those who are at the moment struggling with the opposite feelings or encountering experiences that call those emotions into question. For example, if you tell me that I should get excited about Jesus when I am battling with anger at God because of a new physical malady, your invitation will only make me more depressed. If, on the other hand, you show me some objective truth about God that can produce in me hope for his presence in the midst of the new tribulation, then I might be able to move away from anger and into a more positive response. That is why the content of our worship music and preaching must proclaim primarily the splendor of God, rather than our feelings about him. (I'm not excluding feelings; but they simply aren't as important as the One whose splendor stirs them.)

Let us return to Lindbeck, for he offers profound wisdom for our correlation of our present situations with who God is and what his kingdom means. To stress a faith of feelings would mean to start with an account of our present experiences and adjust our vision of the kingdom of God accordingly. (7) Lindbeck's postliberal approach reverses that order. He indicts churches for their destructive response to the

rationalization, pluralism, and mobility of modern life [which] dissolve the bonds of tradition and community. This produces multitudes of men and women who are impelled, if they have religious yearnings, to embark on their own individual quests for symbols of transcendence. The churches have become purveyors of this commodity rather than communities that socialize their members into coherent and comprehensive religious outlooks and forms of life. (8)

The goal of our worship must be instead to give a clear vision of the reign of God so that participants are formed with the communal, coherent, comprehensive way of life that enables us to deal constructively with the perils of modernity and postmodernity.

If our worship truly immerses participants in the splendor of God and the way of life practiced by this people, then our entire direction of interpretation is reversed. What we do in worship and in educational processes is not to add bits of information to the piles of data people obtain elsewhere; instead, rich worship will convey the framework of faith in which everything is to be understood. In order for that to happen, worship cannot be superficial or merely entertaining; it must be full of as much God as can be put into it, and it must be formative of discipleship and community. If our language is both to form us and to be deepened in a never-ending spiral, we can't practice only a first-grade vocabulary.

Moreover, as Lindbeck insists, it is not,

as is often said in our day, that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representative of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol for hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hope for the future messianic…. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text. (9)

This is a critical observation, for worship that is too much like the world can hardly redescribe it! How will our suffering be made cruciform if our worship does not form us to be an alternative society?

Lindbeck insists that the community of faith "is likely to contribute more to the future of humanity if it preserves its own distinctiveness and integrity than if it yields to the homogenizing tendencies associated with liberal experiential-expressivism" or (we could add) if it gives in to the contemporary push for worship that suits the culture. Our worship will be more practically relevant in the long run if churches do "not first ask what is either practical or relevant, but instead concentrate on their own intratextual outlooks and forms of life." (10) In other words, we are more helpful to the world if we concentrate on being Church for the world's sake.

What Lindbeck is saying and I am affirming, he admits, will not be popular with those who argue that the faith has to be translated into cultural idioms, with those

chiefly concerned to maintain or increase the membership and influence of the church. This method [for reaching those outside the Church] resembles ancient catechesis more than modern translation. Instead of redescribing the faith in new concepts, it seeks to teach the language and practices of the religion to potential adherents…. In the early days of the Christian church, for example, it was the gnostics, not the catholics, who were most interested to redescribe the biblical materials in a new interpretive framework. (11)

Lindbeck is, of course, talking about the developments of contemporary doctrine, but his comments also apply to what we do in worship and in our catechumenal training that enables people to participate in the life of the Church. Are our worship services inviting people into the practice of the Christian faith or translating the faith into the framework of our present consumerist culture?

Lindbeck's insights are enormously helpful in the face of present confusions concerning the relationship between worship and outreach to the world. We must understand that the work of the Church is to teach people the language, the habits, and the practices of Christianity, so that people are both formed by the canonical texts of Scripture at the heart of the language of faith and then also sent out to bear the fruit of the discipleship thus nurtured. The rules of doctrine are the grammar, to guide our first-order speech of worship and life, so that we know how to converse as a people in this culture.

If worship is planned simply to entertain or appeal, will we be immersed in the language of faith? Especially if the main idioms of the Christian language are scriptural and we want our lives to be formed by the biblical narratives, can we conform ourselves too much to the language of the world around us? (12)

Immersing the Newcomer in a Way of Life (13)

We can learn some lessons about being a community that teaches to others the language and practices of faith from Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founder of the singing group "Sweet Honey in the Rock," a gifted a cappella ensemble that performs mostly music from African-American traditions. These singers are especially good at evoking audience involvement; when one of the members of this ensemble performed in the inner city of Portland, it was a stunning experience to sit in the middle of everyone's powerful participation in exquisite soaring sound.

In an interview with The Other Side magazine, Reagon described the African-American tradition's understanding of being "given a sign," rather than being "born again." She said, "When this time came in your life, you didn't eat or drink. You fasted and prayed. When the sign came, it was a powerful experience for you and a real point of celebration for the whole community." Notice that this is a community concern. Reagon continued, "I became a member of the church and a Christian. After that, I didn't act the same. I was less frivolous in the way I conducted myself. I can also remember thinking that if I was really a Christian, I had to learn to sing more difficult songs." (14) Notice that this is Churchbeing, rather than a matter of taste or choice.

Reagon emphasizes that "the community is healthiest when it sings. Singing is the process of creating a communal voice…. Singing together expresses the community on a level that goes beyond anything you hear, see, or say." When she is giving a concert and is working to get everyone to sing, she wants everyone to feel that there isn't a choice. "I think I make people feel that if they don't sing they are going to die." That is the great possibility-and the challenge for our worship as people in our culture become more and more passive and thereby neglect the essence of liturgy, literally the "work of the people." Reagon declares, "I will build a space that makes people feel very bad if they decide they don't want to sing…. It's a way of giving credit to the African-American congregational tradition, which means you pass the audition when you walk in the door." (15) On her Good News album, she confesses these words from a traditional African-American song: "It was good news to lay down the world and shoulder the cross of Jesus. It's not a good time, but it is good news." (16)

Are our congregations conducting worship that is deep enough to equip people to lay down the world's follies and shoulder the cross, or do we simply seek a good time? Does our worship welcome us into the community and its way of life, its willingness to learn more difficult songs for the sake of Churchbeing? Does it equip us to be hospitable, welcoming the strangers into our songs so they feel that if they don't sing they will really miss the goodness of this way of life? Does our worship thereby strengthen us to be friends with our neighbors? Does it fill us with such joy from the good news that we can bear the not-so-good times?

To Be an Outreaching People

The kind of Churchbeing that I am advocating, which requires learning a language of faith, is a potent argument against the present drive toward megachurches, for smaller communities with intimate mentoring and communal life are more able to train members in the constant particular acts of care that genuinely "love the neighbor." Wendall Berry's observations (see also D. G. Hart's article in this issue) about nature lovers who only want to preserve the spectacular provide a parallel example. As Berry says, "it is going to be extremely difficult to make enough parks to preserve vulnerable species and the health of ecosystems or large watersheds." (17) These things can be done only if everyone participates in the small acts of care that ensure their preservation. So Christianity requires the gifts of all the members of the community to invite the world into our faith. Genuine outreach necessitates faithfulness on the part of everyone, rather than spectacle.

A similar case is made by Ferenc Mat's A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence. He discusses worker-owned companies and companies in which employers and employees live close by, and how much more caring they are about pollution, how much less fuel is wasted in commuting. (18) We might note some parallels with smaller, neighborhood churches. In such congregations, everyone can be more involved with each other and more personally caring; the members are able to be involved together in their neighborhood and serve their neighbors.

I am not advocating small churches for smallness's sake. I am simply wanting to counter the constant advocacy these days of largeness for its own sake. Both sizes of congregations offer particular advantages. Let us make sure that whatever quantity of people our churches involve, we equip all the members for participation in Churchbeing.

The Missional Church's Worship (19)

If the Church's worship is to result in equipping its members to be missional in their daily lives, it cannot be planned according to what will appeal to those who do not even know the One who calls us into mission, those not yet committed to a life of Christian service and outreach. Questions about marketing and the appeal of musical style or liturgical form usually miss the point. Rather, the three criteria that I am constantly emphasizing establish essential foundations for worship:

  1. that the biblical God be the Infinite Center of worship, that worship enable its participants to "waste" their time (that is, worship is an end in itself) immersed in all the fullness of God's splendor;
  2. that worship form believers to be disciples, following Jesus and committed to God's purposes of peace, justice, and salvation in the world;
  3. that worship form the congregation to be a genuine, inclusive Christian community linked to all God's people throughout time and space in worship, doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayers, signs and wonders, communal care, and social involvement (see Acts 2:42-47).

These criteria will raise questions of integrity, propriety, coherence, and diversity to guide our choices of worship elements. Our goal will be to practice the language of faith by reading and preaching about the faith narratives carried in the Scriptures of the community, to sing our songs of faith (in all sorts of styles), to chant and pour out our prayers until we know the truth so well that we can go out to the world around us and invite it to participate with us in the reign of God.

If worship forms us to be a people who dwell in that reign, then we will carry God's kingdom wherever we go-and we will be equipped to reach out to the culture around us with words of Gospel truth and deeds flowing from Gospel faithfulness. God grant our churches such worship-for his glory and for the love of the world.

This article is an edited section from Marva J. Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time, (c) 1999 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. This book is available at bookstores and online booksellers, or by contacting the publisher at 800-253-7521 or at

1 [ Back ] See chapter 2, "Two Kinds of Body Offerings," in Marva J. Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to be the Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992; reissued 1997), pp. 11-18.
2 [ Back ] For the exact quotation, see Mary Jo Leddy, "The People of God as a Hermeneutic of the Gospel," in Confident Witness, Changing World, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 311.
3 [ Back ] See George Hunsberger, "Sizing Up the Shape of the Church," The Church between Gospel and Culture; The Emerging Mission in North America, ed. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 333-46.
4 [ Back ] See George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984). Page references to this book in the following paragraphs are given parenthetically in the text. See also Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
5 [ Back ] Ibid., 127, emphases mine.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., 39.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., 125.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 126.
9 [ Back ] Ibid., 118.
10 [ Back ] Ibid., 128.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 132.
12 [ Back ] Bruce Shelly and Marshall Shelly make somewhat the same point in Consumer Church: "Can Evangelicals Win the World without Losing Their Souls?" (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
13 [ Back ] This section contains a small portion of my keynote address, "Culture: Around, Against, In the Church's Worship," given in April, 1997, at the Institute of Liturgical Studies, held at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. That address will also appear in a compendium of proceedings from the Institute's three-year program on "Worship, Culture, and Catholicity," 1997-99. My thanks to director Dr. David Truemper for permission to use this adapted version here.
14 [ Back ] Bernice Johnson Reagon, interview with Sharon Anderson, The Other Side's Faces of Faith: A Collection of Our Favorite Interviews, p. 9. Page references to this article in the following paragraphs are given parenthetically in the text.
15 [ Back ] Ibid., 11.
16 [ Back ] Ibid., 10.
17 [ Back ] Wendell Berry, "Conservation Is Good Work," in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), p. 28.
18 [ Back ] Ferenc Mat, A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence (New York: Albatross Publishing House, 1993), pp. 77-85.
19 [ Back ] For excellent materials on the "missional church," see the following resources from the Gospel and Our Culture Network: Hunsberger and Van Gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture (cited in note 3 above); Darell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998); Van Gelder, ed., Confident Witness, Changing World (cited in note 2 above). For information on the Network itself, contact Judy Bos, Administrator, or Dr. George R. Hunsberger, Coordinator, The Gospel and Our Culture Nework, 101 E. 13th St., Holland, MI 49423-3622.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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