Sometimes church feels like a surreal high school pep rally. The guy with the bullhorn (worship leader) pumps up the fans (congregation) to go out and win the big game (do the right thing, live missional lives, pursue justice, draw others to Christ, etc.). Like pep rallies, these worship services fulfill a particular, focused purpose: they are a means to a victorious end and preludes to the “real action” of life.
Do we worship to give us the emotional energy for the application part of our faith? Tim Hughes, a worship leader, writes in one of his choruses, “Keep us from just singing, move us into action.” While his message is important—that we are living lives of meaning and mission and not ones of stagnant faith that lacks deeds (James 2:14)—these lyrics could be misconstrued to assume “just singing,” just worshiping, isn’t as important as the action.
To be fair, the hierarchy of mission and worship is easily flipped for many Christians. These people are perfectly content going to church, worshiping and living without a greater awareness of our world, or even the neighbors around us. In The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton says, “The crisis the church currently faces is that our individual and corporate worship do not produce the fruit of justice and righteousness that God seeks.”
But, if we rank mission over worship or worship over mission, we end up sabotaging both; worship and mission are equally and intrinsically linked. If worship is merely the thing that makes us feel good, feel “full” so we can go and do the important, active stuff, we lose. On the other hand, if mission is the thing that’s flippantly tacked onto our faith, we lose. Either way, our definitions of worship and mission are sickly and insufficient. We are missing the engaging, challenging, and courageous call of the Church to enact both.
Worship as Mission
In worship, we encounter not just a good feeling or a boldness for justice; we encounter the living person of Jesus Christ—the embodiment of perfect justice. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins His public ministry by quoting Isaiah:
“[The Spirit of the Lord] has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The good news Jesus is talking about is redemption for the whole of life: spiritual, physical, emotional, social, etc. Our attempts to fulfill this Gospel mission fall short unless we are being transformed more and more into the image of Jesus: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In the presence of Jesus in worship, we behold His glory and realize that it is only He who can save us and our sinful world. We are transformed into a just community; we actually accomplish and enact justice. The injustices of this world are socioeconomic, political, systemic and individual, but first and foremost, they are spiritual realities (Ephesians 6:11-12). When we offer praise as a community, we enter into this spiritual conflict as we encounter God and participate in His holy mission to liberate the oppressed.
Mission as Worship
Meeting God in worship impels us to carry on the mission of Jesus in the world. Mission flows directly from the worship of the Church and the two cannot be severed. In her book Everyday Justice, Julie Clawson writes, “Worship doesn’t merely involve enacting the cultural rituals of worship or personal piety, but more importantly, it involves how we treat others. […] Following God in full obedience in as an act of worship, which means that acting justly is part of what it means to worship God.”
Living a life of true worship means feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. In fact, Jesus promises that when we do these things, we actually meet Him in the faces of those we love and serve (Matthew 25:31-46). Here mission and justice become worship.
Matt Redman addresses the connection and cyclical nature of worship and mission in his song “Mission’s Flame”:
“Let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame
We’re going with a passion for Your name
We’re going for we care about Your praise
Send us out
Let worship be the heart of mission’s aim
To see the nations recognize Your fame
‘Til every tribe and tongue voices Your praise
Send us out”
The first lines from each verse describe mission flowing from worship and mission flowing to worship. The aim of mission is God’s holistic restoration (physical, spiritual, emotional, socio-economic) so that all people can come into His transforming presence. In the bridge of Redman’s song, he describes the scene from Revelation 7: people from every tongue and tribe and nation will one day be clothed in white, gathered around the throne of God in worship.
Breathing with Both Lungs
We need worship and mission; they are essential and inseparable. In our church, we talk about worship and mission as two lungs: we need both to breathe. A hierarchy of either leads to asthmatic Christians and churches, shallow-breath worship, and missional wheezing. So breathe deeply of worship and mission, the way we were intended to live.
Bonnie and Trevor McMaken are songwriters and worship leaders from Chicago, Ill., where they live with their daughter (www.themcmakens.com).