With liturgy meaning “work of the people,” with a particular emphasis on the public or corporate life of worship of the Church, it should come as no surprise that how we understand the liturgy of worship should impact other areas of the Christian life. Take evangelism, for example. There are many folks out there who have pointed out that the Eucharist is inherently missional, and I think I’m about to join those ranks as this blog post unfolds.
the shape of the liturgy
The popular concept of the “shape of the liturgy” should be understood to refer to both the conceptual ‘order of service’ as well as the specific content that creates that order. Keeping those two levels in mind, let’s identify some of the key dynamics in the Eucharist worship service.
- God calls us to worship him. This is expressed in the opening acclamation in which we bless God and his coming kingdom, the collect for purity in which we cry out for God to enable us to worship, and the Ten Commandments or Summary of the Law in which God gives us the terms on which we approach him.
- We listen to the voice of God. This happens throughout the service of course, as probably do the rest of these dynamics. But this listening is most prevalent and exemplary in the Scripture readings, which, today, is usually an Old Testament lesson, a Psalm to pray together, an epistle reading, and a Gospel reading.
- The Gospel is proclaimed. The clearest examples of this are the preaching of the word and the reading of the Creed, though again there are many elements of the Gospel to be found throughout the prayers.
- We offer ourselves to God. The Offertory is more about us than it is about money. Putting money in a plate has become a token for the proper self-offering that we’re enacting. This, too, finds further fulfillment in the prayers that follow – both the Prayers of the People and the Eucharistic prayers.
- We have communion with Christ. We literally become one with Christ and one in Christ. By eating one loaf and drinking from one cup, which is the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ, we each are filled with him and thus made parts of him alongside one another. Receiving the Eucharist is a moment of union with God; it’s the closest to heaven that we’ll ever be until Jesus visibly returns in person at the end of the age. This is the climax of all Christian worship.
- We are sent out to do the same for the world. After the climax of a beautiful moment of union with Christ all that’s left to do is thank him for his love and faithfulness, and the life that he gives us, and then go out into the world which needs him. The nickname for the worship service, mass, comes from the Latin missa which refers to “mission” or “sending out.” The Eucharist both draws us in to adoration and sends us out on mission!
the shape of the mission
Once sent out on that mission we would do well to remember the liturgy that forms our worship, and allow it to form our participation in God’s mission as well. For just as true worship of God begins with God himself (the eternal dance of the Trinity, the perfect offering of Jesus on the cross), so too is the mission God’s mission. That’s why we receive the Great Commission – we’re invited to join in with God’s work, not do it for him. With that in mind, let’s walk through this “shape of the mission.”
- God draws all men unto himself. Jesus promised this in the context of the crucifixion. Whether someone knows it or not, the Holy Spirit of God is calling to them, asking them to come near and hear what he has to say. We can join in on this movement of mission by inviting people to hear the voice of God through our stories, or even by living silent lives of Christian peace and righteousness such that they begin to see God in us and become able to hear His call on them, too.
- Communicate the word of God. Once people starting seeking, listening, or studying God, it is time to bring God’s truth to them. Just as only short bits of Scripture are read in an individual worship service, and from scattered parts of the Bible, so too should a single conversation not be subjected to a hopeless attempt to cram in every “spiritual law” that we can remember. When you’re getting to know someone, there’s a point for hearing their life story, but it’s usually not right away, and even that is rarely a full disclosure. So it is with God, help people hear from God for a while before getting preachy. In short, no Bible-thumping!
- Preach the Gospel. With enough introductions, shared truths, or Scriptural tidbits, eventually comes the time to share the Gospel. If we rush this step then we make God look more like a salesperson or a tyrannical overlord than a real person who cares about us as deeply as he does. In fact, if we help people hear the voice, word, and truth of God in a balanced way over time, the Gospel can become apparent on its own without much need for a new introduction.
- Encourage them to offer themselves to God. The logical follow-up to the proclamation of the Gospel is the response to it; there is a stage at which such a decision needs to be made. We often imagine this as a definitive moment of conversion, but it’s also a process for many people. The heart and the mind and the will aren’t always perfectly in sync with each other, so realize that the individual’s self-offering to God can be a process all of its own.
- Enter into union with Christ. The prominent stage of evangelization after conversion comes the movement toward union. I don’t mean to demean the current popular slogan “Christianity is about relationships,” but when it comes to taking this religion and faith seriously, “relationship” is an understatement. Jesus is not just our friend, or our boyfriend; he’s our husband. And even then, our culture’s vision of marriage is pretty anemic compared to the biblical view. Rather, God calls us to be one with him. This union begins with Baptism into his death & resurrection, and is fed with the spiritual food of his Body and Blood.
- Send them out to do the same. It is often observed that converts frequently make effective evangelists. There are many reasons for this, and suffice it to say here that this is a good an appropriate thing. Pursuing union with Christ is not a selfish pursuit. It is not I who am one in Christ, but we who are one in Christ. So as I grow closer to God I must also grow closer to others in Christ, and as I grow closer to the heart of Christ my heart must also grow closer to that which he loves. And so God’s concern for the world lost without him becomes our burden too. If it doesn’t, then we’re holding ourselves back from him in some way. Not to say that we’ll all be equally equipped to follow through in the same way, but we all ought to be involved one way or another.
The main challenge that many Christians have today is the obsessive question of when and how to “share Christ” with people, by which they mean unload the whole Gospel in a neat package and expect a final response straight away. This mindset too often sees evangelization as evangelism – a process reduced to an event. This view puts forth a two-step path for mission: seed-planting or watering, and harvesting. It starts with “planting seeds” of the Gospel by telling people about God in your life, and eventually reaches a point where you can tell them the Gospel and pray they convert, thus “harvesting” another soul for the Lord. Ignoring how creepy this sounds to a non-Christian, I would critique this as being an oversimplification.
Already there should be a noticeable similarity between this and what I described above. The “seed-planting” stage is very much like steps #1 & 2, and the “harvest” stage is very much like steps #3 & 4. The two problems with this simplified model, then, are that both the seed-planting and the harvesting are multi-faceted within themselves, and that the goal of the Christian life goes beyond conversion. Evangelists who favor this simplified model will usually say that after conversion comes discipleship, which is essentially equivalent to steps #5 & 6, but by giving it a different name they obscure the fact that this is all part of one process: the mission of God.
Where does this oversimplified view of mission come from? I would suggest it comes from the worship liturgy found in the churches that purport this view. There are two main phases of worship as far as many evangelicals are concerned: prayer & praise, and sermon/teaching. The correlation to “planting seeds” and “harvesting” is very strong: both models indicate a warm-up phase and a serious action phase. The first warms your heart and the second pierces it. The first gets you ready and the second gets you there.
I can’t help but notice there’s a lot of double entendres in this post that can be read as sexual metaphors. This was not on purpose, but it’s oddly appropriate actually. We are called to union with Christ, and there is a significant biblical theme of a wedding: the Church (all of us) is the bride of Christ being prepared for the wedding feast. So even human love and sex serves as a type (or foreshadowing) of our relationship and union with God. The beautifully selfless love between a bride and groom is a great picture of the depth of God’s love for all people, and the love that he invites us to share for him and for his world. And it is out of that love that God calls us into (and we respond to) this great mission to the world that’s lost without him.