Many contemporary Christians see liturgy as an outdated impediment to the church’s mission. The archaic language and ancient rhythms are associated with static, stale spirituality. The stereotype is a church stuck in the past, focused on itself, and largely irrelevant to today’s problems.
While this may apply to some churches in the liturgical tradition, I want to challenge this stereotype. What if liturgy could serve as a launching pad rather than a detriment to our mission? In my study of the neo-liturgical and neo-monastic movements and the renewed interest in liturgy among young adults, I’ve become convinced that there is a forgotten way here, one that the church of today needs to recover. For this recovery to be successful and fruitful, it requires connecting the liturgical and missional elements together.
When understood properly, I believe the DNA of the liturgical tradition can prepare and compel believers to join in the mission of God. As the church begins to realize the holistic connections between discipleship and evangelism—seeing them as two sides of the same coin—we can begin to see how liturgy has a missional element that forms Christians to embrace mission, to look outward. From Saint Francis and his monks in Italy, to Ignatius of Loyola and the Spanish Jesuits, to Augustine and the mission to England, there are many examples of this “liturgical mission” in the history of the church.
But these are examples from different times and places. What about today? Can something from the past be relevant in our scientific, technological world? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Thousands of Christian churches are rediscovering the essential connection between liturgy and mission. My hope is that this article will surprise you, dismantle some of your stereotypes, and inspire you to join Jesus in his mission to the world. Strap on your seat belts and let’s see how the Lord is raising up a new generation of believers for liturgical mission.
Liturgy as a Launching Pad
To begin, I want to explore how a service constructed according to the historic four-fold order liturgical of worship fosters a posture of mission. One of the best-kept secrets of liturgy is found in the final words of the service: “Go! You are sent!” Although they come at the end of the service, these words don’t mark the end of our sacramental journey, but instead mark the beginning of our missional activity in the world. The liturgy of the Word and table have 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 in Communion. This formation, in turn, leads to the people of God being sent back into the world. 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. 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. These are more than nice words; they remind us what it means to be the church.
Still, the concluding words are often one of the most overlooked aspects of the church’s life and liturgy, leading some to wonder, “Do liturgy and mission go together?” Western culture tends to divide the spiritual from the physical. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World, writes, “The Western Christian is used to thinking of sacrament as opposed to the Word, and he links the mission with the Word and not the sacrament.”
The church is the embodiment of Christ’s mission in the world. It is formed by the message of the kingdom and tasked with embodying kingdom ideals—both inside and outside the walls of the church. What we experience in worship is to be taken into the world. We may struggle to makes these connections. What does it mean to bring the “sacrament” into the world? Rather than seeing mission as something the church does apart from its liturgy, we must see that mission begins in liturgical worship.
The liturgy of a sacramental service is designed to prepare us for how we live in the world, and it ends with the command to go into the world. The liturgy is intended to form us for the Great Commission each week. 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?”
Ever since Creation, God has given a mission—a task for which they bear responsibility—to his people, and today the church stands as the people of God sent into the world to join God’s work of redemption and restoration. To unpack what that looks like in the real world, let’s consider some examples of liturgical mission we find today.
Liturgy forms us for mission
Liturgy provides a foundation for living a life focused on mission. In other words, there is something in the very structure and spirit of liturgy that prepares us to be people on mission in the world. Week after week, day after day, the prayers and words of the liturgy and the tangible elements of the sacraments nourish and prepare us for mission. We can have confidence knowing that God created us for the spiritual rhythms found in these practices.
One young adult I interviewed said, “I am tired of being entertained. I want to be fed. I have found that liturgy feeds me in ways that a good sermon by itself never could. Liturgy provides a balance of Word and table that forms me each week.” Another young adult poignantly shared a frustration with the individualism of the typical church service: “The liturgy isn’t about me, but about God and his world. Each week I am being formed for mission through the liturgy.” Again and again, I heard young people alluding to the connection between the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and how it prepares us to go back out into the world on mission.
Liturgy is not an End, but a Beginning
The liturgy of mission reminds us that church is not an end in itself. The church is sent into the world to fulfill the mission of God. This is a great challenge, and each of us must ask ourselves: “Where is my Calcutta? Where can I serve, right now, in the place I already live?” Seek to bring God’s kingdom justice to that place as you bridge the gap between the physical and spiritual needs of the people around you. In doing this, you aren’t alone! You are joining the thousands, perhaps millions, of people today who have taken the sacramental ethos present in the liturgy and carried it out into the world on mission.
In saying this, however, we must never forget that the liturgy is not ultimately about us,. It is rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is this reality that compels us to be the church in the world on mission. This historic truth can offer a holistic framework for everyday Christian living, discipleship, and mission in the twenty-first century. In this chapter I’ve offered a brief introduction to the ways we can bridge the gap between liturgy and mission in the hope that it will stir your thinking and provoke further action. May the church of today draw inspiration and wisdom from the past to reach out in the ever-changing context of postmodern culture.
Winfield Bevins is Director of Church Planting at Asbury Seminary. This article is adapted from his new book Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation.