April 23, 2008 / David Fitch

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.