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The Formative Power of Worship (Part 1)

September 5, 2012

Inagrace Dietterich

This is the first in a series of posts featuring the lectures of Debra Dean Murphy at the Missional Church Convocation in Chicago, July 2012.

“And they sang a new song” (Rev. 5:9). As Christians we are shaped—body, mind, and spirit—by what we do in the worshiping assembly. Rather than worship being “useful” (its only purpose is to give glory to God), prayer and preaching, song and sacrament – indeed, all that we do when we gather as Christ’s body—form us as a people empowered and commissioned to participate in God’s mission in the world.


Introduction: Connecting ‘missional’ with ‘worship’.  We begin by clarifying what is meant by the words “missional” and “worship”—and a hint at their connection. The biblical idea is not that God’s church has a mission but that God’s mission has a church. Thus, in Jurgen Moltmann’s words: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”   Read More…

Worship Forms a People (Not Just Individuals).  It is important to say, as many writers have, that worship is not simply a tool for the formation or instruction of Christians. Worship is, first and foremost, gift: the gratuitous offering of ourselves, the sacrifice of praise rendered to God by God’s people (and, paradoxically, made possible only by God).    Read More…

Baptism As Subversive Act.  Baptism is the rite of initiation into the life of the church, indeed, into the very life of God. It is an act of disaffiliation, conferring an identity at odds with the ways we are named and claimed by family, nation, and ideology. It is also a process of conversion: old allegiances shattered; initiation into a new polis (thus a “political” act).    Read More…

Eucharist As Subversive Act.  Eucharist is the rite that sustains those who’ve been initiated into the life of the church, the life of God). It is the central act of Christian community; foundational for, constitutive of the Church’s identity: not so much a “thing”—but rather something the church does; an act, the prime act that enables the church to be.   Read More…


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

What is the purpose of worship? For God? For God’s people?    More Questions…



Introduction: Connecting ‘missional’ with ‘worship’.

We begin by clarifying what is meant by the words “missional” and “worship”—and a hint at their connection. The biblical idea is not that God’s church has a mission but that God’s mission has a church. Thus, in Jurgen Moltmann’s words: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”

This missio dei is the work of healing and restoration, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of the flourishing of all of creation, of welcome, hospitality, and shalom. The church’s primary task, then, is not self-preservation or even “renewal” of its own inner life. The church’s fundamental work is to bear witness to God’s mission in the world and to discern and participate in that holy, joyful work. Missional worship, then, proclaims and celebrates what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through Jesus. At its best, missional worship draws on the rich resources of historic Christian liturgy, even as it seeks to offer its praise and thanksgiving in the varied contexts of the church’s life and witness. Missional worship also recognizes the calls to false worship all around us: the lure of political power, militarism, status and prestige.

Missional worship is, in some sense, circular since it is worship that sends us out into the world (the liturgy after the liturgy as the Orthodox like to say); but it is also true that worship is the primary goal of the missio dei: God’s desire is to be in communion with all that God has made. We were created for worship and “our hearts are restless till they find rest in God” (Augustine).

Worship Forms a People (Not Just Individuals).

It is important to say, as many writers have, that worship is not simply a tool for the formation or instruction of Christians. Worship is, first and foremost, gift: the gratuitous offering of ourselves, the sacrifice of praise rendered to God by God’s people (and, paradoxically, made possible only by God). Worship is, in Marva Dawn’s memorable phrase, “a royal waste of time.” It accomplishes nothing; it is not a means to any end except that of praising and adoring God. This is in many ways a startling claim for most of us live in a world and a church that measures human activity by its usefulness and practical worth. We sometimes, in fact, speak of worship in starkly utilitarian terms, thinking of it and describing it as an instrument for personal growth or evangelistic outreach or moral exhortation or the stirring of our souls. But its purpose is not any of these. Its only aim is soli deo Gloria: to give glory to God alone.

Worship, liturgy, the work of the people, remind us that we are liturgical beings, created for the purpose of praise and worship. If doxology is the purpose of worship, insofar as we can say that worship has any purpose, it is in and through the doxological that the shaping and ongoing training of the Christian community occurs. And this is not primarily the shaping and training of individuals but the shaping and training of a people. Now of course we do worship as persons; we bring our individual selves to worship. But the biblical truth from beginning to end is that God calls, shapes, and empowers a people (Israel, Church), and worship is at the center of that calling, shaping, and empowering.

So worship forms a people, it shapes a social body, a body politic, we might even say, an alternative ordering of human relations: the body of Christ. Worship gathers and makes present and visible the one body (Paul’s imagery of many members, one body; the integrity of each member is acknowledged but no member can live apart from the body).  This one body offers its witness in and to the world, a counterpolitics, a different arrangement of human relationships. The Book of Acts describes the life of the early church in Acts 2 as radical sharing, “see how they love each other;” even though this would lead to persecution and martyrdom.

This worshiping body throughout time and space is how God makes Godself known in the world: it is a sign, servant, and foretaste of the Kingdom, of God’s mission in the world—the mission to reconcile and make new, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to bear witness to the shalom of God (all that we mentioned earlier).

Worship is not about energizing or rejuvenating or informing individuals (though we may, as individuals, be energized or rejuvenated or informed by the worship we offer); it is not for the edification of one’s soul (though, again, we may, in a real sense, be edified); rather, worship, as an act with no purpose other than the praise of God, forms a people, it makes a body, a social body that engages the world. When we think about some of the particular ways that the church’s worship forms a people we see right away and pretty clearly that liturgy forms us in strange ways, in ways that are–or ought to be–counter to the formation we receive as citizens or as consumers.

The enduring challenge is how to invite people into the formative ways of worship where their lives are going to be turned upside down (or right side up): Bonhoeffer’s famous line (which you don’t see on many church marquees): “When Christ calls a person he bids that one come and die.” How worship forms a people who die: to ego and their old ways; to false loyalties and allegiances; and in such dying, find life, abundant life.

At the heart of missional worship are two formative practices: Baptism and Eucharist. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that so much more could and should be said here; we are merely gesturing toward some particulars. . . .

Baptism As Subversive Act.

Baptism is the rite of initiation into the life of the church, indeed, into the very life of God. It is an act of disaffiliation, conferring an identity at odds with the ways we are named and claimed by family, nation, and ideology. It is also a process of conversion: old allegiances shattered; initiation into a new polis (thus a “political” act). To be a baptized Christian is not so much to have been baptized at a particular time as it is to lead a baptismal life—“a life of daily renunciation, of daily drowning, of daily dying and rising” (Kenneth Leech, True Prayer). According to Martin Luther baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament that takes your whole life to finish. “I die daily,” wrote St. Paul. Challenging our sentimental notions about baptism (especially as it relates to the baptism of infants), baptism is subversive, political, dying daily.

We can learn a great deal from the early church’s six-fold pattern about the subversive nature of baptism. (Various Christian communions have recovered elements of this pattern in our own time . . . ). After having their lives (habits, occupations, social relationships) carefully scrutinized, candidates for baptism entered the catechumenate for 18 months to three years of systematic instruction in the faith. At the end of that period, following that year’s Lenten fast, the catechumens underwent the sacrament of baptism during the Easter vigil. The experience was meant to be dramatic, even theatrical, in order to communicate the stark transformation of identity and vocation that baptism effected.

This experience involved: (1) Renunciation: stripping off clothing as a symbol of peeling off the old nature and its old ways. Candidates renounce Satan (“and his empty pomp”) are anointed with the oil of exorcism. (2) Ritual Drowning: going under the baptismal waters three times (a Trinitarian formula) as a sign of Christ’s dying and rising. The waters of baptism are both tomb and womb. (3) Clothing: white robe symbolizing the putting on of Christ.  (4) Signing: the sign of the cross, imitating a wax seal which indicates possession or ownership. (5) Anointing: the oil signifying participation in Christ, being christened and given a new name. (6) Light: given a candle as a sign of Christ’s resurrection light; the baptized were then received into the fellowship of the Eucharist.

The life of discipleship that the newly baptized will henceforth live out is prefigured in microcosm in these ritual acts of initiation. The physical, bodily movements and gestures of these acts (i.e., taking off one’s old clothes) are richly emblematic of the daily, real-world, lived commitments of faithful Christian practice: renunciation of false loyalties and allegiances, daily dying to sin and self, putting on the Christ-nature, bearing the name of Christ, anointing in the Spirit, standing in the light of Christ. Baptism is subversive and political for it immerses us into a lifetime of habit-forming practices that bear witness to the reign of God in the world, the mission of God to redeem and reconcile, to make all things new.

Eucharist As Subversive Act.

Eucharist is the rite that sustains those who’ve been initiated into the life of the church, the life of God). It is the central act of Christian community; foundational for, constitutive of the Church’s identity: not so much a “thing”—but rather something the church does; an act, the prime act that enables the church to be. It is about the way we are to be with each other; it is about the life we share in God who is true communion. The Eucharist is reflective of God’s own being as communion; in this ritual meal we share in the life of God—the pattern of relations known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: that holy communion of divine love.

The gift of the Eucharist, of Christ’s body and blood making of us his own body in the world redeemed by his blood, this gift is what makes the church possible. William Cavanaugh: “The church does not simply perform the Eucharist; the Eucharist performs the church.” Thus the Eucharist as an imaginative act, not as a flight of fancy but about an alternative way of seeing and being). Imagination is, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, “the human capacity to picture, portray, receive, and practice the world in ways other than it appears to be at first glance when seen through a dominant, habitual, unexamined lens.”

Eucharist as imaginative act pictures, portrays, receives, and practices the world in ways other than it appears to be. At first glance the world might be seen as a place of scarcity and competition; the Eucharist, as imaginative act, sees instead a place of abundance and radical sharing. Also the Eucharist as paradigm: a holistic pattern by which we order our understanding of things. Eucharist is the paradigm through which Christians interpret the church and the world; it shows forth a pattern after which the church is called to order its common life—a pattern marked by habits like generosity, gratitude, hospitality.

Eucharist is an imaginative, paradigmatic practice—one way of seeing and being among others; an alternative pattern of relationships by which we are the body of Christ, broken for the world; an eschatological community of hope and reconciliation; a counterpolitics, subversive witness. Christ invites us to his table where there is food for all, where we commune as the forgiven and reconciled, where we learn that all of life is a gift; where abundance, not scarcity, is God’s way in the world. The Eucharist is “the sacrament of equality in an unequal world” (Leech). In the Eucharistic liturgy we imagine (we practice and live out) peaceableness in the midst of conflict, generosity in the midst of stinginess; gratitude in the midst of complaint and complacency (and you could name other ways that Eucharist imagines alternative ways of seeing and being . . . ).

As imaginative act, as subversive paradigm, the Eucharist is practiced in the midst of other liturgies—other deeply formative ritual actions like pledging allegiance to the flag or shopping till we drop (Cavanaugh). If the liturgies of the nation-state (ceremonies, rituals, parades, etc.) are about self-preservation through war and violence; the liturgy of the table is one of self-giving and the way of peace. If the liturgies of the market are about competition and hoarding and self-interest, the liturgy of the table is one of radical sharing and a relentless pursuit of the well-being of others. Eucharist [is] an imaginative, strategic negation of the power structures everywhere 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 wealth and stigmatize simplicity and frugality, that desecrate the nature world in the name of progress and free enterprise.

As the embodied proclamation of the gospel, the 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 peacemakers, and those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5).

So the Church’s worship counters other public liturgies, other ways of seeing and being in the world; it imagines alternatives to the powerful, deeply powerful ways we are formed by these other liturgies, these other cultural paradigms and norms. And thus what we do in the worshiping assembly—and we haven’t talked about all the other things we do, like singing and praying and preaching—all that we do as worshipers of the one true God is a kind of therapy against the false formations all around us.



Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. What is the purpose of worship? For God? For God’s people?

2. What is the relationship between “missional” and “worship”?

3. What is the difference between shaping individuals and shaping a people?

4. How is Baptism a subversive act?

5. How is Eucharist a subversive act?



DebraDeanMurphyDebra Dean Murphy is Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Debra brings wisdom and passion around the dynamic intersection of Christian formation and the church as a worshipping community. While she continues to write on this subject, her foundational work is, Teaching that Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education. Debra currently chairs the Board of Ekklesia Project, and has her own blog, Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.


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

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