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The Missional Church and Worship

2010 January 6
by Julie Clawson

So while at Urbana, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on “The Missional Church and Worship.” I didn’t know much about it going into the discussion, and I quickly discovered that most of the participants were using the term “missional” simply to mean “people who boldly proclaim with words the name of Jesus.”  I wasn’t surprised, but I tried to give my perspective on how being missional involves following Jesus in word and in deed.

In my introductory statements on how I see mission and worship as being one and the same, I brought up what the Bible says about justice and worship.  In Isaiah 1 God says he hates our worship gatherings – finds them meaningless and detestable – if we are participating in injustices and not seeking justice for the oppressed.  And in Isaiah 58 we are told that the sort of worship practices God desires are those that “loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free, and break every yoke. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”  Worship has to be about serving God by serving others.  Worship is mission which is seeking justice for the oppressed.  The Bible is very clear about that and I think we have strayed far too far in the modern church from this biblical conception of worship.  While most Christians might admit (hopefully) that worship isn’t just the singing of songs, I think very few realize that feeding the hungery is an act of worship and devotion to God.  It is something the church must reclaim.

So I made my assertion that a missional church will be seeking justice as an act of worship and I got an interesting response from the audience in return.  One man said that these days he sees certain students caring so much about serving others that they neglect the acts of piety like doing devotions and praying so we need to be careful about encouraging things like seeking justice.  I actually didn’t get a chance to respond to the statement as one of the other panel members jumped in and claimed that practices of piety should always be at the center of our worshiping practices.  My first thought though was, “did this guy miss the part in the Bible where God says he DESPISES our acts of piety if we are not seeking justice at the same time???”  But my next response was to feel heartbroken at how in the American church we have so equated worship with cultural habits that we fail to see how biblical worship is even worship at all.

I know I probably don’t score very well on the typical evangelical worship meter.  I don’t do the singing endless praise choruses thing.  I don’t put “Praise the Lord!” in my Facebook status update at least once a day.  I don’t do fill-in-the-blank “bible studies.”  I don’t read spiritual devotiony sort of books expecting a paragraph or two of religious sounding words to fill me up each morning.  I don’t meet for marathon prayer sessions where I have to pray for someone’s neighbor’s cat or something.  I know all those things work for some people to help them celebrate God, and they used to work for me too, but I’ve realized that I cannot limit worship (and God) by insisting that those cultural habits are the only or best ways to worship God.  Sure, I dig deep into scripture, I pray, and I celebrate God, it’s just that my acts of piety don’t fit the 20th Century American Evangelical Contemporary Christian Subculture box.  And because of that I’ve been accused at times of not being a Christian.  Or at least reminded of what my faith and worship habits should be looking like.

So when I hear a pastor warn against following scripture in order to encourage these cultural habits, I get uneasy.  Worship cannot be confined to a box – be that the box of evangelical devotions or praise music or reformed liturgy or Catholic Mass.  And following the biblical mandate to worship God through seeking justice isn’t in opposition to, but is instead part of personal piety and devotion to God. We are loving God, celebrating God’s greatness, and reflecting God’s glory by participating in the acts of service we are instructed to do.   It isn’t that I seek justice some days and worship on others – it is all worship.   How I meditate on God’s word and how I seek justice for the oppressed will of course look different than how others do it – but we are all still worshiping.

Worship is much bigger than ourselves, and I think to truly be a missional church we need to get over ourselves and our allegiances to cultural habits and start integrating what God said he wants from our worship into what we do.


13 Responses leave one →
  1. January 6, 2010

    Thanks so much for this reflection on the essential integration of worship and justice. Justice is worship and worship, as many understand it within the boundaries of a worship service, should be about awakening us to God’s purposes in the world and having our story shaped and reshaped by God’s story of love, mercy and justice. As Richard Rohr so often reminds us, contemplation should always lead to action. Worship so often is about, “God, make me feel good” instead of “God, use me as an instrument of your peace and as an agent of change”.
    Loved your book BTW!

  2. Lisa Carlton permalink
    January 6, 2010

    Great post, Julie. It made me think of Sarah Miles book , Take This Bread- where her church serves the food to the community off the eucharist table as a reminder that serving and giving is worship.

  3. January 6, 2010


  4. Kara permalink
    January 6, 2010

    Well said, Julie! Thanks so much.

  5. January 7, 2010

    Julie, thanks for this reflection.

    It is a deep poverty in our worship when it becomes nothing more than an “uplifting” experience for the individual to carry us through the week feeling “close” to God.

    If worship doesn’t change the way we live, it’s not worth the effort. What we do in the sanctuary is not about what we do in the sanctuary, but about how the world is better because we are changed into those live out what we sing and pray in the sanctuary.

    The more voices that keep saying this, the sooner the “worship culture” of the world (not just the USA) will shift.

    Thanks again.

  6. January 7, 2010

    what wonderful words to start off the year. and what makes them wonderful is that we know they are not just words. peace to you. i am thankful that you actively seek justice.

  7. January 8, 2010

    Your words have brought inspiration to [and from] people Julie. Your writings and John van de laar’s response about why we worship and the effect it should be having on us in our Mon-Sat lives resonate deeply. Thank you for being a catalyst Julie.

  8. January 9, 2010

    Well said, Julie. Justice pours from the compassionate heart of Christ. Prayer is about being, service is about loving. Loving our neighbor urges us to justice through social action. At the same time, as we grow into Christ, we become the Incarnation, his body, his church.

  9. Phil Anthony permalink
    January 13, 2010

    Thee might want to check out “The Eucharist and Social Justice”, by Sr. Margaret Scott, ACJ (Paulist Press, 2009). It’s rooted in the Roman Catholic liturgy of the eucharist, but offers insights into its value as a model of social justice that even a Quaker like myself can ponder and use. In her introduction she writes: “The Eucharist offers a counter-narrative: an alternative way of looking at history, one at odds with the widely and uncritically accepted pack of corporate myths and political half-truths crafted by the rich and powerful. It presents, rather, the story of humanity as read through the eyes of the poor…” (p. ix).

    This from a 67-year-old Catholic sister who (these days) directs a retreat house in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The reason I write all this is simply to suggest that the practices of piety contain within themselves Isaiah’s passion for justice – and Micah’s, and Amos’, and yes, Jesus’ too. What Margaret is doing, and what we might do as well, is insisting that the practices be cleansed of the cultural overlay that domesticates them, and reclaimed in their full wild devotional and social richness. There’s no either-or about it.

  10. December 21, 2010

    Really good, solid post. God is up to something new and we will either follow Him in true worship or continue on the same path which has left us very desperate.

  11. January 4, 2013


    Sorry, I didn’t see this earlier. You are right on with this!

    Isaiah 58 (and certainly in multiple places throughout the Word) is so very clear…our relationships with our neighbors ARE our expression of love and worship to God.

    Thanks for writing in this blog, what I’ve been shouting from the rooftops!

    Keep up the great work!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Worship and Justice | onehandclapping
  2. Are Mission and Worship the same? | James Henley

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