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The Subversive Act of Missional Worship

February 6, 2012
Inagrace Dietterich

During 2012, The Center Blog intends to explore the theological, biblical, and practical implications of missional worship, which is also the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 26-28, 2012.

Too often we think of worship as an escape from the harsh realities of the world, as a respite from our labors, as a sacred time and space separated from the real world. This is a complete misunderstanding….The liturgy of the gathered community is the epitome, the model, of our lifestyle, of our way of being in the world….Far from being a separate ‘religious activity,’ our worship is the paradigm for a way of being in the world of politics and economics, the world of responsibility and of labor, the world of relationships.1


Shaping a Particular People. Contemporary persons tend to make a distinction between “world” and “church.” The world is secular (can be explained without reference to God) and the church is religious (can only be understood by reference to God). In the United States there is indeed a separation of government and church and, contrary to popular opinion, the drafters of the American Constitution did not view this as a “Christian nation.” They were far more comfortable with Deism, viewing God as a “supreme architect” of the universe who set things in motion and then stepped back. While admiring Jesus as a great moral teacher, their vision was of a multi-faith society where all are free. Thus the point of religious freedom is both freedom for religion and freedom from religion.  Read More…

“You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” (Ex. 20:3). Martin Luther gave eloquent expression to the centrality of the First Commandment by referring to it as “the sum and light of all the others.” God’s claim upon God’s people is exclusive. What happens with this people matters; who and how they worship is important. There is in the biblical claim that God is jealous, a “largeness and roughness…a power and intensity….This is a God who will be taken seriously, who will be honored and obeyed, who will not be mocked.”3 Christian worship is not about meeting self-defined human needs, but about honoring God by committing the whole of life to God’s service.  Read More…

Worship as “Wild Space.” Worship is not a retreat or escape from reality, nor is it a path deeper into the self, but a direct engagement with ultimate reality: God. Coming into the presence of this God with praise and prayer can be dangerous. Opening hearts and minds—and imaginations—to the scandal and foolishness of the gospel means risking the shattering of human illusions. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” Annie Dillard asks. “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ hats and velvet hats to church; we should be all wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”4   Read More…

Worship as World-Making. As the worshiping community focuses upon the God who is the source and center of all created life, who continues to make all things new, not only minds and hearts, but also imaginations are engaged. Worship enables the community to transcend its immediate situation, to envision and dream, to see “a new heaven and a new earth.” Worship not only celebrates God and God’s world, worship is world-making. Here is the true meaning of worship, its power of judgment and transformation in a God-centered view of reality.  Read More…


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What images and/or experiences come to mind when you hear the word “worship”?
  2. Identify the false gods or idols which tempt people within your congregation.

More questions…



Shaping a Particular People. Contemporary persons tend to make a distinction between “world” and “church.” The world is secular (can be explained without reference to God) and the church is religious (can only be understood by reference to God). In the United States there is indeed a separation of government and church and, contrary to popular opinion, the drafters of the American Constitution did not view this as a “Christian nation.” They were far more comfortable with Deism, viewing God as a “supreme architect” of the universe who set things in motion and then stepped back. While admiring Jesus as a great moral teacher, their vision was of a multi-faith society where all are free. Thus the point of religious freedom is both freedom for religion and freedom from religion.

Yet far too many Christians interpret the first amendment as meaning that within a secular society the church and its worship are relegated to the margins, to a spiritual or other-worldly realm, where they are expected to have no effect upon “real” life, except as they relate to the personal and private religious needs of the individual. “Having nothing to reveal about world and matter, about time and nature, this idea and experience of worship ‘disturb’ nothing, question nothing, challenge nothing, are indeed ‘applicable’ to nothing.”2

The church is to cultivate a particular (even “peculiar”) people with a distinctive identity and vision. A central role of worship is to give glory to God by training, forming, and equipping the people of God. What is desperately needed is not new worship, but a rediscovery of the rich meaning and formative power of Christian worship. Not an exercise in introspective piety or private devotion, worship enables Christians to see and to experience the world as it really is: the arena of God’s creative, redemptive, and transformative activity. In this way worship is “subversive,” it undermines and upsets the ordinary way of viewing life and world. Christian worship—the offering of the whole of life in prayer and thanksgiving to God—reunites the secular and the religious, the material and the spiritual, the individual and community. Celebrating God’s manifold blessings, all of life becomes “eucharist”: a movement of love and devotion in communion with God, with each other, with all of creation.

“You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” (Ex. 20:3). Martin Luther gave eloquent expression to the centrality of the First Commandment by referring to it as “the sum and light of all the others.” God’s claim upon God’s people is exclusive. What happens with this people matters; who and how they worship is important. There is in the biblical claim that God is jealous, a “largeness and roughness…a power and intensity….This is a God who will be taken seriously, who will be honored and obeyed, who will not be mocked.”3 Christian worship is not about meeting self-defined human needs, but about honoring God by committing the whole of life to God’s service.

Thus the first thing to be said about Christian worship is that it focuses upon God and all that God has done for a broken and sinful world. God’s freely given love and mercy empowers the people of God to offer praise and thanksgiving. In other words, the Christian community is able to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23), because “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Perceiving and acknowledging God’s lordship over the whole of life, worship places all other realities in their proper perspective.

The world in which we live continually tempts us to have faith in other gods—to become idolatrous. Whether it is the god of success or happiness, of wealth or power, we are daily tempted to seek life from those things which cannot give life. Modern secularism is not just a contemporary movement to which the church must accommodate its worship; it is a lie and distortion which views the world—and the things of the world—as ends in themselves.

Psalm 115 identifies the futility of worshiping false gods: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (4-8). The gods which human beings create in order to secure their lives require obedience, sacrifice, and service. But a false god cannot keep its promises: “If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble” (Isa. 46:7b). Declaring “I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 46: 9) the one true God promises: “Hearken to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from deliverance; I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry” (12-13b).

Worship as “Wild Space.” Worship is not a retreat or escape from reality, nor is it a path deeper into the self, but a direct engagement with ultimate reality: God. Coming into the presence of this God with praise and prayer can be dangerous. Opening hearts and minds—and imaginations—to the scandal and foolishness of the gospel means risking the shattering of human illusions. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” Annie Dillard asks. “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ hats and velvet hats to church; we should be all wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”4 The transformation of identity and vision is inevitable when worshipers encounter the strange and subversive reality of God’s terrifying judgment and gracious mercy as embodied in Christian worship.

Sallie McFague’s notion of “wild spaces” captures this radical quality of worship: “It is the space that will allow—and encourage—you to think differently, to imagine alternative ways of living. It will not only give you problems, but possibilities.”5 Worship can provide the resources to enable Christians to imagine and to embody concrete alternatives to the attitudes and behaviors of conventional culture. Engaging in worship enables participants to say and do in public what they would hardly dare to say and do in private.

Worshiping the God of Israel and Jesus Christ involves the subversive re-imaging of reality which enlarges sight and imagination, as well as encouraging the exploration of new territory and new ideas. It can break down barriers and uproot the hedges that wall people in and confine them to their comfortable and familiar little worlds. Because worship does not simply express human thoughts or feelings, it has the potential to transform those who participate in it.

Debra Dean Murphy’s description of the Eucharist illustrates the subversive and transforming—and truly missional—potential of worship. Shaped by the vision of reality expressed in the language, practices, and interactions of Christian worship, the church is empowered to embody a visible alternative to the false and destructive politics of the world. “It is possible to understand the Eucharist as an imaginative, strategic negation of the power structures every-where taken for granted: powers that prize profitability above human flourishing, that seek to render invisible the poor and dispossessed, that place all hope in the unchecked advances of science and technology, that glamorize obscene displays of wealth and stigmatize simplicity and frugality, that desecrate the natural world in the name of progress and free enterprise. As the embodied proclamation of the gospel, Eucharist turns secular power on its head: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ the invitation to the banquet reads, ‘and those who mourn, the meek and those who hunger for righteousness; the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace- makers, and those who are persecuted’ (Matt. 5).”6

Worship as World-Making. As the worshiping community focuses upon the God who is the source and center of all created life, who continues to make all things new, not only minds and hearts, but also imaginations are engaged. Worship enables the community to transcend its immediate situation, to envision and dream, to see “a new heaven and a new earth.” Worship not only celebrates God and God’s world, worship is world-making. Here is the true meaning of worship, its power of judgment and transformation in a God-centered view of reality.

The realm in which we live, move and have our being—“the world”—is not a fixed and settled entity. This world includes not only physical realities but also social realities: the structures and arrangements of daily life that are known, shared, and relied upon. As human creatures, we engage in constructing our “life-world” as we accept and participate in these social realities. This world or social construction shapes—and is shaped by—our attitudes, speech, and actions. We live in this world and it lives in us.

So it is that as God’s people gather and study Scripture, as they offer prayers and sing hymns, as they baptize in Jesus’ name and commune at the Lord’s table, as they confess their sins and receive forgiveness, they are creating a world in which they can live with faith, hope, and love. “It is the act of praise, the corporate, regularized, intentional, verbalized, and enacted act of praise, through which the community of faith creates, orders, shapes, imagines, and patterns the world of God, the world of faith, the world of life, in which we are to act in joy and obedience….The act of praise is indeed world-making for the community which takes the act of worship as serious and realistic.”7


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What images and/or experiences come to mind when you hear the word “worship”?
  2. Identify the false gods or idols which tempt people within your congregation.
  3. How can worship transform the relationship between church and world?
  4. In what ways is worship “world-making”?
  5. What does it mean to speak of worship as “wild space”?
  6. How is missional worship “subversive”?
  7. In what ways can you envision worship more effectively shaping your congregation as a particular people?


1 Theodore W. Jennings, The Liturgy of Liberation: The Confession and Forgiveness of Sins (Abingdon, 1988), p. 17.
2 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthrodoxy (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), p. 133
3 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 1997), p. 295.
4 Quoted in People of the Truth: The Power of the Worshipping Community in the Modern World, Robert Webber & Rodney Clapp (Harper & Row, 1988), p. 60.
5 Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress Press, 2001), p. 48.
6 Debra Dean Murphy, Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Brazos Press, 2004), p. 193.
7 Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 25-26.



The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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