Between fighting “worship wars,” worrying about “watering down” the gospel, and exploring (or deploring) seeker-targeted services, it’s fair to say issues of worship and mission have dominated the ecclesiological landscape in recent decades. These battles are often waged between the “worship camp,” who believe worship is for building up believers, and the “evangelism camp,” who urge the church to re-evaluate liturgical practices through an evangelistic lens for a world that has left Christianity behind.
Into this fray venture Alan and Eleanor Kreider, longtime missionaries (mainly in England) and academics in worship, mission, and church history (most recently at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.). They bring a fresh perspective, rich with church history and missional theology as well as an academic interest in and participant’s love for worship. They consistently and unapologetically, but also respectfully and deferentially represent a Mennonite-Anabaptist perspective.
Worship and mission as equals
In this book, worship and mission are not treated as competing, or as mutually exclusive interests, as they have often been. They are inseparable as complementary equals in the life of the church – as integrated and collaborative as inhaling and exhaling in biological life. Worship equips the confessing community for mission.
In the Kreiders’ vision, worship is the gathering of the community to ascribe worth to God in a way that conforms to the character, purpose, and mission of God. Mission is the scattering of the community into their lives and work, to locally and globally enact God’s grand story – the comprehensive reconciliation of all things through Jesus: people with God, people with their enemies, and people with creation. Worship is what empowers the community to both embody and witness to this story in full view of the world. Ultimately, this is not a book about both worship and mission, but a book about worship that is derivatively about mission. (Indeed, it ought to have been titled, Worship For Mission….)
Disappointingly, the Kreiders never provide a satisfactory, coherent theology of worship, though they do offer a rough theological sketch of worship as ascribing worth to God by directing our lives to him. In this book, worship is defined by the New Testament Greek words used to describe it: leitourgia, a “liturgy” that leads to mission; proskynesis, affective whole-body reverence; and latreia, worshipful sacrifice that affects the whole body and life. The Kreiders write that worship is executed in keeping with the character, purpose, and mission of God, who is primarily a God of mission. Ultimately, what unfolds from their loose definition of worship, and what dominates the rest of the book, is a sometimes eclectic, always pragmatic discussion of worship practices that form a community for mission in a post-Christian world.
Worship that equips for mission is narrative, founded on the grand story of God’s reconciling action in Scripture and enacted through the small stories of God’s activity in the past, present, and (anticipated) future of the worshippers. The Kreiders call it a multivoiced meal, communally facilitated by the contributions of all, with the meal (actual or stylized in Communion) as the central feature, rather than a presentation by a professional from the stage, with the congregants as spectators. Worship for mission is shaped by the global church, as Christians and churches relationally engage with each other and each other’s practices.
No one “right” way
As historians, the Kreiders’ robust and honest engagement with church history clarifies that neither the free, spontaneous worship of early biblical house churches nor the formalized, liturgical worship of the historic and high church is the one “right” biblical or historical pattern of worship to be recovered. Instead, worship practices necessarily vary from one place to the next, changing shape to suit culture. Worship practices are indigenized to the local culture, assuming cultural characteristics familiar and understandable to its participants, yet remain alien to it, critiquing and correcting culture’s unchristian values.
Patterns of worship also vary between churches in the same locale, due to varying styles, sizes, and philosophies. There is generous space for experimental churches, small churches, traditional churches, and megachurches to each address their own unique challenges in orchestrating narrative, multivoiced, meal-based, global worship for mission. The Kreiders’ surprisingly generous perspective is one that diffuses much of the anger of worship wars.
And yet, despite their admirable generosity, the worship the Kreiders advocate is often simply historical, Anabaptist practice. Though there is no single biblical model of worship, many of their reflections are drawn from Paul’s teaching about worship in 1 Corinthians 11–14, interpreted through an Anabaptist perspective. Additionally, though they graciously embrace large churches, they don’t seem vitally connected to the worship practices of these churches. As pastor at a large, multisite church, I found it difficult at times to connect their perspectives to my congregation’s reality.
The most pleasant surprise in the book was the last two chapters, devoted exclusively to the experience of outsiders in worship. Worship must not only equip for mission, it must be missional. True worship is not absorbed in its own interests, but is hospitably alert to the experience of outsiders, recognizing in ritual, song, and sermon that the service is populated by individuals at various places on the spiritual journey, and making the service accessible to all. Its indigenization has made the experience understandable and open to the participation of the outsider, yet is still foreign enough in how it reflects the character of God, that outsiders might conclude, “God is among you!”
The Kreiders are a welcome voice in the current conversation about worship, one which ought to be not just appreciated, but appropriated, by traditional, liturgical churches and contemporary, evangelistic ones. This book is an important step in rediscovering the missional worship for the church in a world after Christendom.