Missional Church and Liturgy?

As I have traveled and led discussions on missional church, I usually get the most resistance when I talk about the liturgical gathering as a place of formation for mission. Often people will say, “What does liturgy have to do with incarnational forms of church.” My contention is that missional people do not fall out of trees. They must be formed into relationship to God, the Story we are being invited to participate in, the Missio Dei which always precedes us, yet we must have our vision (imaginations) shaped in order to see it – i.e. God at work in the world. If we are ever to be missional, our desires, our vision, our very selves must be reordered out of the ways we have been trained in consumerist America into the Missio dei. To me, good liturgy does this! Liturgy that is Scriptural, historical, theological, accessible and organic (part of everyday life) does some of the work of forming people into Missio Dei.
Matt Tebbe, one of the pastors at the Vine wrote the article below (for a web-zine he didn’t give me the link to) about the worship gathering at the Vine. Many ask me what our church looks at the Sunday morning gathering, and why? I think Matt captures some of what takes place as we gather. He didn’t cover everything. The way we preach at the Vine is important. The way we gather at the beginning is unique. The way our community sends people out for mission every Sunday is huge. He didn’t cover these things. He did not cover how we have spent hours discussing the problem of even this gathering becoming attractional. Sometimes, it seems liturgy has become the new hip cool way to meet my spiritual needs (and we leave it at that). I hope to blog about what we’re doing in this regard in future posts. Having said all of that, I think Matt (in this article) catches the vision of what an organic simple liturgical worship gathering can do in the forming of people for mission. I offer it (with his permission) for those who are seeking an alternative to ‘the pep rally” or the “lecture hall” worship services so many of us evangelicals are used to. I offer it for more suggestions and hearing what other missional folk do in their worship gathering. Both Matt and I are open for questions and suggestions on this post. Here goes

“Liturgy: The Frustrating and Fashioning of Worship” by Matt Tebbe

“It took me a few weeks to figure out why I was drawn to your church,” said Cheryl. Her husband had come to our church only once; in a brief conversation, he revealed to me why “we weren’t going to grow much bigger.” “You could easily double in size,” he said, “if you got rid of all that chanting.” (He was referring to our call and response section in our liturgy). So when Cheryl kept coming to Life on the Vine without her husband, I was curious why. “I realized that your liturgy teaches me how to worship. I never really thought about it much before, but every week I am learning how to listen and respond to God.”

Cheryl’s comment has stuck with me – “your liturgy teaches me how to worship.” Our church, Life on the Vine Christian Community, is a small, liturgical, missional church in the NW suburbs of Chicago. Over the last 3 years as my wife and I have been committed to the Body at Life on the Vine, I’ve come to see how each element of our liturgy has a dual function: a “frustrating” role of deconstructing and exposing the ways we’ve been formed by our world to worship and a “fashioning” role of reordering and teaching us how to worship as the Spirit-birthed community created for mission.

In the Round
We sit in a circle with a table at the center of the room. Worship is communal – the people of God responding to the Triune God – and our seating arrangement physically represents this truth. On the table in the center of our worship sits two candles representing the presence of the Holy Spirit, a Trinity candle, and the cross of Christ. After the fourth reading (the gospel), our Bible is set open on the table during the rest of our service. We believe that sitting in rows of chairs all facing the same direction, and elevating preachers and worship leaders above the congregation teaches and signifies what we honor and value in our worship. In contrast at LOV, the sermon is preached to the side of the altar (i.e. “from” the community, not “in front of” the community), musical worship is led by a band in the back of the room, as people speak or sing in worship they are centered on the table and aware of the body of Christ gathered. No one person ever assumes the center position in our worship space other than the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sitting in the round is a discipline of worship that frustrates our individualistic, private relationship with the Triune God and orders us as a community around the Word of God, the cross of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We are fashioned into a Spirit-birthed community created for mission.

We begin our worship together with a short (1-2 sentences) reading from scripture or a meditation chosen for the particular theme of the day. It is read and then time is given in silence for our congregation to be open to the Spirit. Worship isn’t our open mic time with God, but rather we learn to wait – to listen in silence to the voice of God. It’s a clearing, an opening, a ceasing that brings our attention and focus to the God who would call us to worship. Silence is a discipline of worship that frustrates our busy, anxious, self-centered impulse to come before the Lord with a mouthful of words. We are fashioned into still, listening, responsive people to the beckoning voice of God.

We don’t project scripture on screens. We don’t even give a specific scripture address when we read the text. This aggravates some – people are flying through their Bibles trying to find where we’re at. But it is intentional. In our culture where information is commodified, owned, possessed, and used for our purposes we intentionally take the Word out of our hands and submit our ears to listen to it read over our community. We submit our designs for possessing and controlling information and allow the Word to be read aloud in our community. Hearing is a discipline of worship that frustrates our tendency to commodify information. We are fashioned into a people owned, controlled, and possessed by the Word.

This is how we describe our “liturgical icon” – a reflective, meditative engagement with art and music. This unique part of our liturgy is meant to be a window into God’s goodness, or sometimes a mirror of reproach. After viewing the 2-3 minute moving picture (sometimes live-action video, sometimes ancient artwork, sometimes modern photography), we respond corporately in praise, affirmation of truth, confession, or thanksgiving. Seeing and responding is a discipline that frustrates our passive engagement with technology and overly-cognitive ways of processing reality. The liturgicon frustrates our tendencies to consume media passively and rely solely on hyper-active minds that seek to dissect and figure our way into submitted relationship with God. We are fashioned into a people who actively engage art as a window or mirror of truth, beauty, and God’s reality for us in Christ.

Lord’s Supper
The Word is read and proclaimed and we respond by breaking bread together in the Lord’s Supper. The climax of our worship, the Lord’s Supper is more than a mere object lesson, more than a memory tool; it is the very participation in the salvific work of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection life. As we eat and drink the bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Eating the Lord’s Supper weekly is a discipline that frustrates our consumeristic, self-centered tendencies to approach the crucified and resurrected Christ individually. We are fashioned into a re-membered Body by a meal that preaches, re-orders, and calls us into a fresh reception of the redeeming work of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Liturgy teaches us how to worship. It calls us to recognize our sin, God’s expectations, our need to confess, declares the promise and reality of forgiveness, and climaxes in the perfect celebration of the Gospel in the Lord’s Supper. This celebration of Word and Table is no mere memory tool, but rehearses right worship and allows engagement with the Holy Spirit to be sent out in mission. Cheryl is correct: liturgy properly orders our worship of God and thereby teaches us how we ought to approach him in call and response. Using both ancient and modern liturgical disciplines, we seek to create space and opportunity to frustrate the ways our world has taught us to worship and be fashioned into proper worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Liturgy both frustrates and fashions our worship.

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18 responses to “Missional Church and Liturgy?

  1. Thanks for posting this. I especially appreciate all Matt’s references to how this or that liturgical discipline “frustrates” our consumerist and individualist tendencies.

    Something we’ve done in Fort Wayne (that I know you guys do, too) is follow the liturgical calendar from Advent to Pentecost. This for us has become a powerful (and thus frustrating) formational discipline. The holidays (“holy days”) we observe do a lot to form us as human beings, and the American consumerist calendar typically is something that tells us when it’s time to shop. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we were basically told that our patriotic duty to our country was to get out there and shop some more. So celebrating Advent (a time of waiting, preparation, even fasting) during the time when America shops was a fascinating and formational contrast for us.

    For us, then, even the discipline of being given Scriptures to read and preach (instead of “choosing” them like good consumers) was a helpful thing.

    You still want to try for a missional church “learning party” in June?

  2. What an interesting discussion. I’m not sure I’ve ever commented here though I’ve been reading for awhile, but the idea that someone could even see liturgy as anti-missional fascinates me. After glorifying God, by definition isn’t the main function of liturgy to form God’s people into a different way of life than that of the surrounding world? — to incorporate us viscerally into God’s story and motivate us to order our lives and engagement with the world around that story rather than the others on offer?

    Certainly this is very easy to see in the patristic era even if it became muddled in most later contexts and had to be rediscovered by the 1940s-50s (and after) liturgical movement. Skilled and intentional liturgical praxis is filled with counter-cultural, counter-individualist, counter-consumerist, counter-“relevant”-marketing, counter-self, counter-fragmentation, counter-chronological-snobbery experiences that it’s hard for me to imagine finding elsewhere in as effective a way. This would at least be the argument of liturgical theologians like Kavanaugh and Schmemann, and it certainly describes my own experience.

  3. Ben, I don’t think June is going to work, couldn’t get enough people on the same page. I’m thinking September?… Beth … somehow what you say is hard to communicate to those who see liturgy as dead rote … thanks for saying it.

  4. I’m interested in these ideas and elements of a worship gathering, but, honestly, I’m hung up on how do you make it work in the physical space? I mean, there is mention of images and moving pictures, how does one project or otherwise get those images in front of people? What is the back of the room when the room is laid out in a circle? I can foresee issues even with the sound systems in the layout that I have in my minds eye about this kind of service.

    The reason I ask is that there is much in this description that resonates with me, but the implementation of some of those ideas are hard for me to envision.

    I hope my questions make sense. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Good words Beth. I have been quite committed over the past 4 years to creating and implementing alternative liturgical services that integrate the goals and processes that you mention, as well as others. I found your phrasing helpful. Curious about where you teach on liturgy. I am looking for a distance learning course, as my lack of formal education makes me a fount of ignorance.

    David – here is the foundational theology I use as an amateur liturgist in crafting services. As you are open to questions and suggestions, it is offered both as an aid and for feedback. A fundamental premise of this theology is that worship is spiritually formational. Your readers are welcome to use it, but I do ask that the copyright be acknowledged. Interface Worship is a program being used to create unique streams of liturgical worship services (5 in various stages) that are thematically and procedurally distinct from each other, but which draw on an overarching set of common principles and processes. The name Interface is drawn from the 23 or more ways and means through which God and humans interface with each other in whole person worship.

    Interface Worship Theology

    Worship cannot be other than God initiated and God enabled. Both His call and our response originate in Him. And so we see worship as gift. Gift that we treasure, protect, enhance, and are thankful for, for this gift brings us life. Life through encounter with Jesus Christ as desired by the Father and enabled by the Spirit; life that is aided by the Church and guided by Scripture. Life that is to be shared, lest we are unfaithful to our call and deplete its abundance.

    And yet we thirst. We thirst, for this gift of abundant life draws us to desire the Giver of Life, who in re-creating us in His own image, grows in us His own insatiable desire for relationship; relationship that entails responsibility as well as love, for worship continuously releases us to individuation and our vocations, and yet at the same time is always drawing us into deeper unity with God and His Church. And so we see worship as Trinitarian in nature and effect.

    Worship is the gift of life brought about in and through Jesus Christ in all his manifestations that draws us into desiring God, sharing the Gospel and a Trinitarian expression of all our relationships.
    Copyright 2008 James A. Robertson

  6. Doug,
    I firmly believe that what we do in our gathering could be done by 20 people in a living room. The basics are simple. The art can be simple or moving. We started out small. We did all of this but simply. Even now, the moving picture icons (liturgicons) are done ona n Apple computer (although admittedly the people ding them have a lot of skill)… I guess what I’m saying is that this should be organic and integral to the group who gathers.

    Jim thanks for that good stuff …


  7. Jim — I’m an adjunct in the Anglican/Episcopal track at Gordon Conwell, but all the courses in that track are so new there’s not any distance learning. I love what you posted — from where I stand (and I recognize different ones of us stand different places) it reads as deep and solid.

    Resources in lieu of distance learning…. I’d recommend Simon Chan’s ‘Liturgical Theology’ as a book especially accessible to evangelicals. (Robert Webber, obviously, would be another such author.) An older classic from the Orthodox tradition is Schmemmann “For the Life of the World.” And Dwight Vogel, “Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology.” 1/3 of my course this past semester was people in your kind of situation — wanting to get a better theoretical grounding for use in non-liturgical settings. We had a ball.

  8. Thanks beth for those excellent recommendations. For those interested, Ben (first comment) reviewed Chan’s book on his blog.

  9. Thank you Beth and Dave. I have some Weber materials, and met him in 2003. He fanned the liturgical spark into flame for me. I am indebted to him. Chan is on my list, but not yet acquired, and so Ben’s review/synopsis is a welcome interim aid (thanks Ben – I read your blog, but had not spotted this post). In case it is of interest, Chan is interviewed here by Mark Galli (also on the list). Schmemmann and Vogel are new to me, and so are appreciated.
    Re setting – I attend at an Anglican church in Canada, and work with a wonderful lay team of poets, artists, dancers, musicians, readers …. We are blessed with a church that gives our team almost total freedom in crafting alternative services. To implement the described theology, we use our liturgy as a vehicle for engaging us in and releasing us to a spiritual theology approach to worship. To keep the relationship between the theology and spirituality dynamic, we constantly seek to renew, reveal and embody themes within the narrative through the use of unique ritual, symbol and imagery, and so use the classic liturgical form as a framework, but not a blueprint. It has been a challenge, and it is still in early phases of development, but is showing signs of promise.
    Thanks for this post Dave. Matt’s article, and your ongoing descriptions of LOV have been helpful, and will be used as resource material. Matt’s writing has been very appreciated. Beth – in a month or two?, when I wrestle a couple of projects under control, I will forward you some of our materials via your blog. You may find them interesting.

  10. Thanks for this post. I’m getting married in just over a month and my fiance and I come from radically different backgrounds: (In the Hauerwas Mafia I think I’m the local kid who looks up to, adores Don Hauerwas and tells friends how cool the Don is :-D) I grew up in the Conservative Baptist church (very non-liturgical) and I’m now going to a Episcopalian church and I love the liturgy there – for some of the same reasons you mention – when I’ve attended Catholic mass I’ve felt the same way. Rachel on the other hand grew up in a variety of church setting and is less thrilled with the idea of liturgy. She sees that a real tendency of liturgy to become just a tradition that one could almost recite in their sleep, lacking in emotion etc.

    This next year I’m going to be working with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Evergreen State College and my question is this:
    What would a synthesis of liturgical and non-liturgical look like in it’s best forms? How do we keep an attempt at synthesis from just becoming a bland compromise? Thoughts?

  11. […] Missional Church and Liturgy? David Fitch on liturgical missional formation, with an article by Matt Tebbe, also from Life on the Vine, giving an overview of their worship gatherings. […]

  12. Will take link with ?. Please excuse, my English not good,

  13. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  14. […] 10 2009 More good stuff from David Fitch, this time from his (along with Matt Tibbe) 4/23/09 post “Missional Church and Liturgy?” As I have traveled and led discussions on missional church, I usually get the most resistance when […]

  15. As an Anglican I’ve been blessed by attending the Sunday and weekday liturgies my church provides. the liturgy; unlike many other forms of public worship has not just taught me to be a christian, but actually engaged me IN being one. For instance, if I were to attend lecture style worship with a focus only on the pulpit (as I have before) then I am only learning to be a christian in the community, on the other hand in liturgical worship, we act out our lives as christians in a public way. I’m not just learning to confess my sins, I am actually doing it, I am not just learning to hear God’s word, I am in fact responding to it. And my favorite, I am not just learning to take Christ into myself, I am in fact DOing it by recieving him into my body and soul during the Eucharist I hope that many more evangelical christians utilize the ancient and modern practice of liturgical worship; it is a difficult practice at first, but in the long run Christ centered liturgy is a much needed antidote to a culture of media crazed and unspiritual, individualistic churches.

  16. […] mission without formation Underneath the issue of mission was formation. As Dave Fitch has said, “missional people do not fall out of trees,” they have to be formed. More properly, they have […]

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