My mandate was clear when they called me to be their pastor: “Help our church to grow.” Looking back, I was very naive. It honestly never occurred to me that the members of a congregation would, on the one hand, say they want to grow, and, on the other, resist the changes that would facilitate growth, such as welcoming people different from themselves and involving newer members in leadership. Many of the members seemed to do whatever they could to preserve the congregation’s self-identity as a “small church” and the ways they related to each other and made decisions as “a close-knit family.” I failed to recognize these behaviors as the natural—even expected—ways people protect their world of meaning and respond to change and the losses change brings.
I had failed at what I was called to do: “help our church to grow.” My denomination had taught me well that faithful, successful pastors grow churches. I learned from seminary professors and denominational higher-ups that pastors are to be missionaries, who bring people to faith, and evangelists, who grow the church; pastors are not to be chaplains who care for church members. Now this congregation was declining. Worse, priorities we set and changes we made angered some members of the congregation, and they were angry with me! I was not doing well as either a missionary or a chaplain. Not knowing what to do, I contacted my bishop. He was an evangelist, committed to the church’s mission. He would know what I should do next.
The advice my bishop gave me was, in a word, disappointing. In a long letter, he wrote, “Preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, teach the faith, visit the sick, bury the dead, and leave the growth to God.” I felt a bit like the man who, running up to Jesus and kneeling before him, asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). “Preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, teach the faith, visit the sick, bury the dead?” I found myself thinking. “I have done all these since my ordination.” And as he did for the man in that Bible story, Jesus, looking at me, loved me, and said, “You lack one thing.” No, Jesus was not asking me to sell everything I owned, and give the money to the poor. Jesus was saying, “Come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Through my bishop’s letter, Jesus was asking me to give away all I thought I knew about successful pastors and growing churches and to trust God to work through the things the church does in worship—preach and teach, baptize and break bread, visit and bless—rather than trust myself, my strategies, and my ability to explain them to my congregation.
Throughout my ministry I had always trusted God to work through the things Christians do when we worship to bring grace to individuals and to empower them to live as God’s people. I also knew that for Christians and congregations to live as God’s people and be Christ’s body in the world, they need a vision for their mission and a plan for implementing it, as well as participation, commitment, and even a willingness to sacrifice. I understood that, in worship, God inspires and empowers a congregation to do the things it needs to do.
But I believed that a congregation certainly has to do something more than worship. A congregation needs to worship God and respond to God in mission. Looking back, I saw worship and mission as related but distinct activities. I had bought into the alleged dichotomy, even competition, between worship and mission, which leads pastors to think they must choose between being a chaplain and a missionary and which in so many congregations fuels a “worship war.”
In this tug-of-war, congregations and pastors seem to emphasize and even choose either worship or mission. The greater church often discounts congregations that choose or emphasize worship as inward looking clubs and their pastors as chaplains who only care for members. Congregations that approach worship as the prelude to or a means to carry out the real work of making disciples are praised as mission outposts and their pastors hailed as evangelists who grow churches. I am now convinced that distinguishing between mission outposts and clubs, evangelists and chaplains, and mission and worship is harmful to leaders, congregations, and the church.
I no longer subscribe to the distinction between worship and mission, nor do I think of myself as either a chaplain or an evangelist. Over the years, I have come to understand Christian worship as a river. Like a mighty river, the life and history of Israel, the saving work of Jesus, and the mission of the early church as these events are proclaimed in Scripture, are connected to one another and to the church’s worship as the single, continuing story of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ.
Christian worship is God’s initiative and activity in human history and the world, as well as in our individual lives, before it is an activity of Christians or the church. Worship is a place where God’s liberating grace is already present and active in words and actions. God speaks and acts in and through the ritual of Christian worship to save, reconcile, and recreate humanity and all creation. The judgment and mercy of God, proclaimed and enacted in worship, signify God’s ultimate judgment and mercy for the world.
Rather than being the means or the motivation by which the church carries out its mission, worship is the location where God carries out God’s mission. Worship is the way God gathers people to witness to and participate in God’s work of reconciling the world to God’s own self. In and through worship, individuals and the community encounter, experience, and celebrate the God who is the source and goal of the rest of their lives. The church proclaims God’s reconciliation and shares in God’s mission by living in the world in ways congruent with what it experiences God doing and enacting in worship. In this way, God’s people worshiping in the midst of the world enact and signify God’s own mission for the life of the world.
Worship and mission are God’s single activity of reconciliation—not simply distinct yet related activities in which the church engages. God is the first and primary actor. While Christians and congregations can participate in, be indifferent to, resist, and even undermine God’s saving activity in worship, they can neither achieve nor stop it. Like a mighty river, God’s work of salvation, accomplished in Christ and continued and enacted in worship, will not be stopped until it reaches its destination, the fullness of the reign of God.
I did not come to understand worship and mission as God’s single activity of reconciliation from either attending idyllic worship services or reading profound theological books. I experienced worship as the river of God’s mission in the Sunday services of the congregations where I served as pastor. I now do not approach worship as either an end in itself or a means to an end, but as the saving activity of God to which everything else a congregation does points and from which everything else a congregation does flows.
It wasn’t on my own that I came to this new understanding. My parishioners taught me. When my congregations perceived that I was not treating worship as the place where we encounter God, they let me know. They seemed to know instinctively that worship is “primary theology,” an experience of God rather than the church’s reflection on its experience of God. These churches did not want either a chaplain or an evangelist. They wanted a pastor who takes God’s presence and activity in worship seriously and trusts that, when God is present and active in worship, something missional will happen, because that is who God is.
Adapted from When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregat
ions Live By by Craig A. Satterlee, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship, yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God by John Addison Dally
As a post-Christendom church reorients itself toward the mission of God, what might preaching look like? Choosing the Kingdom offers concrete suggestions for a reconception of preaching for those whose imaginations have been captured by the possibilities of a missional identity.
Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship by Thomas G. Long
After studying congregations that seemed to have avoided the tensions around worship that are so common today, Thomas G. Long identified nine common characteristics of vital and faithful worship. Through an illuminating analysis of these churches’ practices and experiences, Long calls other churches to genuine hospitality and enlivened worship founded in the yearning for an experience of the mystery and complexity of God.