When most Christians think of worship and liturgy, mission is not the first thing that comes to mind. We mostly agree that worship is central to who we are and that it is an essential aspect of what it means to be a believer. But while we may agree on the centrality of worship for the Christian life, we don’t all agree on its role in connection with mission.
Many contemporary Christians have viewed liturgy with suspicion and seen it as irrelevant to the church’s mission today. The old traditions may be beautiful, the thinking goes, but they’re too insular, focused primarily on worship and on the interior life of the church, and not looking outward to evangelism and good works. On the other end of the spectrum, many liturgical Christians are suspicious of those in the evangelical movement and see them as somehow compromising the historic Christian faith for the sake of mission.
In an attempt to show that they are both incomplete perspectives, I recently finished a book entitled Liturgical Mission: The Work of the People for the Life of the World (InterVarsity Press, 2022). I argue that the church’s liturgy and sacramental life are in fact deeply missional. The book seeks to offer a holistic framework for everyday Christian discipleship and mission in the twenty-first century. To demonstrate the vital link between liturgy and mission, I explore various interrelated themes that can lead to renewal in the church’s worship and witness. In the process, I draw on various disciplines such as theology, liturgy, ecclesiology, missiology, ecumenicism, and spiritual formation. It is intentionally written from an ecumenical and global perspective, drawing from various Christian traditions to show the rich diversity that is in the body of Christ.
Rediscovering the Missiological Orientation of the Liturgy
Our mission is directly connected to our worship. Mission is not just doing something for God but begins and ends with rich and joyful worship of God. So, if worship and mission belong together, why don’t more Christians understand this vital connection? Sadly, for too many Christians, the words “worship” and “mission” together represent a paradox.
Both liturgists and missiologists are at fault for not making this essential connection between worship and mission. Commenting on this false dichotomy, theologian Robert Webber says, “It is interesting that people who are experts in the area of worship seldom connect worship with mission, and people who are experts in mission seldom connect mission with worship” ( Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community [Baker, 2003], 161).
To better understand the essential connection, let’s explore the meaning of the word “liturgy.” The English word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which is composed of two words—ergon (work) and laos (people). “Liturgy,” then, actually means “the work of the people,” and thus designates every action of the laity. The word “liturgy” had originally been used as a secular term that referred to “public service” or a service rendered (Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms [Westminster John Knox, 1996], 163). In other words, it originally carried the idea of doing good for the common good of society—as, I believe, relating to the concept of mission.
Today, the word liturgy generally refers to a corporate act of worship by the people of God, in contrast to those who do not follow a formal structure. In particular, liturgy refers to the historic shape of worship, which includes the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Table. While liturgy often represents more formalized services, every church has its own liturgy, no matter how unstructured its worship service may seem. The real question is not whether a church has a liturgy, but does it lead the church to mission in the world?
Liturgy prepares us for how we live in the world and ends with the command to go into the world. Week after week, the prayers and words of the liturgy and the tangible elements of the sacraments ready us for our work and witness. Liturgy is for living. It is the “work of the people.” What we believe influences our worship, and how we worship influences how we live, work, and witness for Christ in both public and private. Author James K. A. Smith reminds us, “The capital L-Liturgy of Sunday morning should generate lowercase-l liturgies that govern our existence throughout the rest of the week” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit [Brazos, 2016], 113). In other words, our worship should influence the practices of our everyday lives. I would argue that this includes our mission, as well.
At the conclusion of the traditional Eucharist service of the ancient church, the priest would pray the benediction, “Ite, missa est, “Go, you are sent.” The word missa is the Latin word for “mission”; from it, we get the modern term “mass,” often used in reference to a Roman Catholic worship gathering. The liturgy gathers us together to worship the Triune God and prepares us to go back out into the world on his redemptive mission. This is what Ion Bria calls the church’s mission in the world Monday through Saturday as the “liturgy after the liturgy” (The Liturgy after the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective [WCC, 1996], 20).
The rhythms of the liturgy form us in deep and profound ways for mission. Liturgical worship calls us out of the world in order to lead us back into the world in mission. The words spoken at the end—“Go, you are sent”—remind us that the purpose of our gathering is to answer the call of God to reenter the world with the Word of God on our lips. Although they come at the end of the service, these words do not mark the end of our journey, but instead mark the beginning of our missional activity in the world. The liturgy of the Word and Table has prepared us for this. The order of the service calls us out of the world and forms us through the proclamation of the Word and the receiving of God’s grace through Communion. This formation, in turn, leads to sending the people of God back into the world. We are reminded through the words of the liturgy that we are called to bear witness to the living Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and to see our lives as an extension of Christ’s ongoing mission in the world.
The liturgy reminds us that God has given the church a mission—a task for which it bears responsibility—to his people. Today, the church stands as the people of God sent into the world to join God’s work of redemption and restoration. Liturgy is one of the ways God has given the church to remind us about, and form us for, his mission in the world. Bishop Todd Hunter presses in further on the design of the liturgy when he asks, “Using liturgy as a launching pad, how can we engage in the spiritual practice of liturgy in a way that leads to the work of the people outside the four walls of a church building, in public space?” (Giving Church Another Chance [InterVarsity Press, 2010], 115). This thought-provoking question opens our minds to all kinds of possibilities.
The important thing to note here is that worship and mission are inseparably linked. As the Body of Christ, we come together to worship God in order to be sent back out into the world through mission. Then we invite others into the life of worship, and the cycle starts over again.
Liturgy and Justice
Maybe you are thinking: This is all great in theory, but how does liturgy actually help form the church mission in today’s chaotic and challenging world? One of the greatest things that liturgy can do is to remind the church of its responsibility to embrace a biblical view of justice, which, rooted in the sacred Scriptures, comes from rediscovering the intrinsic connection between liturgy and justice. James White reminds us, “Liturgical renewal is not just window dressing, but a major force for justice, ecumenism, and rethinking of the whole Christian message and mission. It relates to and affects every part of the church’s life” (A Protestant Worship Manifesto). The Scriptures make justice a mandate of faith and a fundamental expression of Christian discipleship, worship, and mission.
The attention that justice has received in recent years is not a trend, but can be traced to the pages of the Bible. Justice is grounded in the love of a Triune God who, time and time again, shows his love and compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the New Testament, we see that Jesus defends the oppressed, loves the outcast and the sinner, and calls on the rich to give to the poor and take care of the needs of the helpless.
Why should we link liturgy and justice? The simple reason is that they belong together. There is an intrinsic relationship between liturgy, justice, mission, and discipleship. Gospel-centered liturgy can and should form us for justice and mission to the world. Anne Y. Koester reminds us that “liturgical celebrations and the work of justice are tightly woven threads of the same cloth. In other words, gathering to worship and striving for justice are not separate compartments or unrelated endeavors in the Christian life; rather, liturgy and justice together are constitutive of and expressive of the Church itself. Quite simply, authentic discipleship demands that the already existing relationship between our liturgy and our mission as ministers of justice be lived” (in Anne Y. Koester, ed., Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth [Liturgical Press, 2002], ix)
To divide liturgy from justice is to create a false dichotomy. Liturgy encourages a holistic approach, marrying the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual into one. Rejecting the bifurcation of heart from mind and body, as well as from private and social, many Christians are seeking ways to unite these, and liturgy offers us help. The liturgy naturally ties the spiritual to the social, reminding us that God’s work is not limited to one or the other, but consists of both working together. This unity, a reintegration of spiritual and social, cannot help but lead to a renewed awareness of the need for social justice. Again, a sacramental understanding of the faith fosters this integration. The Word of the Lord commissions us not only to save souls, but to care for those around us who cannot care for themselves or do not have a voice of their own. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). We are not only called to preach the gospel, but to share in word and deed.
Liturgy reminds us of our social responsibility to be agents of God’s justice in the world today. The words that we pray in the liturgy on Sunday form us for mission the other six days of the week. Justice reminds us of the true meaning of the word “liturgy” as the “work of the people,” which includes fighting injustice of every kind and seeking to do good to all.
This is why justice and liturgy belong together: Every time we worship God, we should be reminded that we have to fight for human rights and that every human life is sacred and matters regardless of the color of his or her skin. Every single one of us matters. Liturgy alone will not produce the justice that is needed in the world, but it is a powerful place to start.
Liturgy reminds us who are. We are God’s people sent on mission. As we come together for church services week after week, we are slowly formed by the words, prayers, and sacred rhythms of liturgy. The liturgy binds us together on the journey of faith. The words, prayers, and reading of Scripture leave an imprint on our souls. These practices shape us into men and women of God, forming us for God’s mission. The liturgy reminds us that church is not an end in itself. We are God’s people who gather to hear God’s Word, to feed at God’s table, and to be sent back into the world to fulfill God’s mission.
In Liturgical Mission, I try to paint a vision for a future of the church that is neither fundamentalist nor progressive—one that is historically rooted and modern, orthodox and gracious, unified and diverse, liturgical and open to the spontaneity of the Spirit, catholic and evangelical, and, finally, sacramental and missional. My hope and prayer is that such a vision will inspire a fresh missionary movement today in God’s church that is rooted in tradition, unified yet diverse, and a framework for renewal and deep ecumenicism in the twenty-first century. This is liturgical mission: the work of the people for the sake of the word.