Liturgical and Missional: Do I Have to Choose?

Posted by on Mar 11, 2011 in good idea! | 6 Comments

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of knowing what you should have said — only when the opportunity to say it has long past. It seems to happen to me frequently — and perhaps more often as I get older. On this occasion it was during lunch. My friend and I were talking about the need (as I saw it) for churches to be missional, and what that might mean. Then, my friend waved his fork in my general direction and said, “Of course, you need to remember that some of us are more liturgical than missional.” I instinctively felt there was something wrong with that way of putting things. But on the spur of the moment I couldn’t put my finger on it, and the conversation moved on to other things. My friend paid for lunch, and we went our separate ways.

That evening, his comment came back to me: “More liturgical than missional.” I’d heard that kind of comment before, but the distinction had never been put quite so baldly. Why did it bother me so much? The answer came that Sunday, during Eucharistic Prayer #4 in the Book of Alternative Services, sometimes called the “Star Wars” prayer because of its reference to “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” Personally I love it, perhaps because it puts the Christian story in such a vast and beautiful context: it is (literally) awesome.

Then comes the reminder of what went wrong in our universe: “We turn against you, and betray your trust, and we turn against one another.” It is our failure to love God and neighbour. And then the comforting words, “Again and again you call us to return.” Thank God, God does not give up on us. “Through the prophets and sages you reveal your righteous law.” God’s rescue began almost as soon as sin entered our world. But then, “In the fullness of time you sent your Son, born of a woman, to be our Saviour.” Jesus, the climax of God’s mission to our world.

What was that word? “Mission!” The fancy term theologians use for it is the missio dei — the mission of God to redeem our sinful and hurting world. And there it was at the heart of the Eucharist!

I quickly flipped through the other prayers of consecration. There it was again:

When we turned away from you in sin, you did not cease to care for us, but opened a path of salvation for all people. (#1)

Jesus . . . lived and died as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all (#2)

[I]n these last days you sent [Jesus your Son] to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Saviour and redeemer of the world (#3)

In Jesus, your Son, you bring healing to our world and gather us into one great family. (#5)

In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again you called us into covenant with you . . . (#6)

At the heart of every one of the prayers of consecration is the same simple message, though phrased in different ways: God in love reaches out to a sinful and hurting world, and as the culmination of that reaching out sends Jesus into the world to redeem humankind. The verbs are revealing: send, give up, open, bring, come, call, reconcile. They are words of movement, change and hope —words of mission.

The Christian God, these prayers remind us, is a missionary. They never tire of telling the story of what this missionary God has done in sending Jesus. Today’s emphasis on “being missional” is not just the latest flavor of the religious month. It is reminder of that mission which begins in the heart of God and which swoops down to redeem a rebellious world. And the Eucharistic liturgy, it seems, is first and foremost a celebration of mission. That’s why we can’t separate the two quite as easily as my friend wished.

But then a second thing hit me: the Church where we celebrate the mission of God in the Eucharist would not exist, were it not for that mission. The story of God’s mission, which we retell at every Eucharist, is not the story of some far-off reality or an alien people; neither is it an abstract theory for theologians to argue over. The story of God’s mission is the story of every church, however remote or ageing or small, where the celebration takes place. The only reason any church exists is because it is the fruit of God’s reaching out in Jesus Christ. This is why the prayers are full of “we,” “us” and “our.” If there had been no missio dei, there would be no Church. If there were no missionary God, there would be no Eucharist. The very word Eucharist — thanksgiving — is precisely because God has reached out to save us. This is the story — the only story — which constitutes the Church and its worship. It is most truly, for the Church, “the greatest story ever told.” This is why it comes at the climax of Christianity’s most distinctive act of worship.

This means that liturgy is in one way centripetal: it is the sacrament which speaks of God’s mission to “to gather us into one great family” at the cross and at the table. God reaches out his hands to us in mission: we are drawn to respond in repentance, faith and thanksgiving.

But this is not the end. Liturgy is also centrifugal. As the Eucharist came to an end, it became clear. We say together:

Gracious God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. May we, who share his body, live his risen life; we, who drink his cup, bring life to others; we, whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world.

If worshippers are mysteriously united with Jesus in the bread and wine, there are practical consequences to that unity. If we are one with Christ, we are one with him in his work in the world. And what is that work? To “live his risen life,” “to bring life to others,” and to “give light to the world”: not a bad summary of Christ’s missionary work —which he now shares with those who have eaten and drunk at his table.

The Eucharist is not an escape from the wicked world. It is a drawing apart from the world for a time, in order to be sacramentally reminded that “God so loved the world”— and then sent us out to serve God there.

The downward swoop of God’s grace catches us up into its onward flow. John Stott has said: “People need two conversions: one from the world to Christ, and the other with Christ into the world.” And at the hinge between those two movements stands the Eucharist, to which we are drawn by the mission of God, and from which we are sent for the mission of God.

Liturgy without mission is like the Dead Sea. Rivers run into it, but there is no outlet. No life can survive in it. Mission without liturgy is like a flash flood, powerful but quickly over, not fed by permanent springs — and equally unable to sustain life.

Liturgy and mission together, however, are symbiotic, as God intended, life-giving first to the people of God, and then through them in the power of the Spirit to the world.

I think I need to call my friend and schedule another lunch. This time it will be my turn to pay.

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John Bowen taught evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013. He now directs two departments of the college: Wycliffe Serves! which co-ordinates the external ministries of the college; and the Institute of Evangelism, which helps churches across the country with resources for congregational vitality and evangelism. He is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.

6 Comments

  1. avatar
    Mary Barclay
    March 13, 2011

    Great article John. I agree with you. We need both to be liturgical and missional. By the way, I like prayer number 4 too.

    Reply
  2. avatar
    Dorothy Peers
    March 14, 2011

    I love the way personal experience opens us to deeper reflection about our faith and our calling to ministry. Appreciated your insightful and clear vision of what we need to be about. Thank you, John.

    Reply
  3. avatar
    Steve Hopkins
    March 14, 2011

    I agree “liturgical” and “missional” is a false dichotomy – but I’m less sanguine about the missional effectiveness (or faithfulness) of our current liturgical practice. I say that more from an empirical point of view than a theological one. After all, if the liturgy as given was really doing its job, our churches would already be more missional than they currently are.

    There is actually a phrase for “figuring out what I should have said after it was too late to say it”: l’esprit de l’escalier or “staircase wit” (more on wikipedia).

    Reply
  4. avatar
    Nola
    March 14, 2011

    Brilliant: I do think we tend to divide into liturgical and missional camps . . . and we need to find a better way to combine the two aspects. Thanks for getting the dialogue going.
    I don’t see the liturgical aspects in much of our outreach. But, again, I see little outreach in our liturgical focus.
    At Holy Tirnity we went out after the Ash Wednesday noon service with our little pots of ashes, wearing our albs and stoles and wandered Dundas, Yonge and Queen Streets, offering ashes to everyone who crossed our paths. The number of people who wanted to learn more (and then requested ashes), who apologized for having forgotten the day, who were delighted to wear the sign of a Christian as they continued about their day, was both surprising and invigorating. We arrived back at the church on a real “high”. Next year I want to have a little card to give each one with a verse or prayer on one side and our address and an invite on the other.

    Reply
  5. avatar
    Bill Bickle
    March 14, 2011

    Hi John,
    Thanks for reminiding us of the centrality (the hinge) of the Eucharist and how it’s God reaching into us so we can be His body and reach out to the World in Him.
    Love it,
    Bill

    Reply
  6. avatar
    Judy paulsen
    March 15, 2011

    Great article John. Thanks for the reminder that mission is not one thing in addition to other things we do (eg. like liturgy) …. but is at the core of who we are called to be.
    Judy

    Reply

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