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Most of you know I spend a great deal of time reading about “mission,” what with being a Mission Pastor & all. On Mondays, I try to get your thoughts going about stuff I read. Today’s thoughts come from Barry D. Jones in Dwell: Life with God for the World

I came to evangelical circles in kind of a breech presentation, if you will.

See, I was raised in a stained-glass & incense tradition. Call, response, silver chalice & wine communion, and move on to lunch in the fellowship hall. You “went to church” on Sunday. We drove 20 minutes to get there, and after the 10am service we enjoyed the covered-dish lunch and that was that. We saw the same people as we greeted each other, but only really interacted with about 10 of them. Then, a week later, we did it again. This same thing happened for over a decade until I distanced from the God thing for reasons too long to get into here.

In my mid-teen years this guy I hardly knew used the gravitational pull of showing me the revolutionary Jesus to bring me back to the fold. He used his relational leverage to bring me in to this small group of guys who studied the Bible and talked a lot about a relationship with Jesus. They met on Monday nights and I started showing up…with my wrong Bible (mine seemed to have some extra books theirs were missing) and having to use the table of contents to find the books these guys turned to without a pause. I was largely unaware of ideas and stories they took for granted but they tolerated my questions and were patient with my questions about the evangelical tradition they began in the Bible church nursery.

It was a few months later they “invited me to church.” It was a stackable-chair multi-purpose room with AWANA squares taped to the floor. A couple of hymns (skipping the 3rd stanza) and an exegetical sermon with plastic communion cups and no incense anywhere. We took notes during the sermon. But those differences in the Sunday service were largely cosmetic.

The biggest difference was the guys I sat with at church (and the others I met through student ministry involvement and such) were going to see each other the next night. We were going to discuss the good stuff going on and deal with some struggles we’d put out there and we’d sharpen each other. We’d touch base in our day-to-day lives at school almost every day…either between classes or during sports or hanging out with our girlfriends or bumming around on a Friday night.

See, the church service was just a chance to engage with God about what was going on the other six days rather than a gathering we experienced something together and then lived six days on our own. And I think Barry touches on these two kinds of experiences in his book:

On one hand, our worship gatherings can be designed and engaged in a way that amounts to simply going through the motions. Little thought is given on the part of leaders or the participants to the formative dimensions of what we are doing. Instead we follow the established patterns. We employ whatever template we have received from the tradition of which we are a part. Scant attention is given to creativity, contextualization or the form of life our liturgies are intended to promote.

On the other hand, many contemporary worship experiences that do take creativity and context seriously do so not for the purpose of forming a people for the mission of God but for attracting people to their church. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money are spent on the weekly gathering, producing services that are culturally savvy, emotionally engaging and relevant to daily life. None of those descriptors inherently compromise the integrity of our worship. The problem comes when those things take center stage in a way that reduces the worship gatherings to a marketing device crafted to appeal to savvy religious consumers. Then the criteria for evaluation of our worship become the post-service buzz and number of return attendees rather than whether or not our congregation is faithfully pursuing the mission of God during the other six days of the week.

Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the high-liturgy of my youth as well as the more contemporary approaches. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I try to appreciate the merits of both no matter the circumstance I find myself in…and I’ve been in 5,000 seat arenas with smoke machines and big screens and a cappella in living rooms and under a tree in Africa with drums as well as urban experiences in Europe and anything and everything in-between. And, like most folks, I have my consumer-driven preferences…but I’m a visitor in those experiences. I’m talking about our “church home.”

But the universal principle that Dr. Jones is highlighting is that a worship gathering shouldn’t be reduced to a church-growth strategy or marketing device…and I live in a part of the country where we’re loaded with “savvy consumers” and you can fill up buildings if you do it right. And folks will leave with the “post service buzz” chatting about how good the “worship” was or the sermon was this week over their lunch until they see each other again next Sunday.

So, I’m thankful I was kind of in a breech presentation regarding how my early experiences with my small group morphed into my participation in worship services. I learned the lesson that it was part of my growth in Him, not even the main bell-cow of it.

And it is a difficult balance, to be sure, to find creativity and context so the worship gathering is actually one piece of the discipleship pie…forming life as it was intended to be–including everyone pursuing the mission God has given us in the moments He’s given them to us–…as Barry put it “forming a people for the mission of God.” A difficult balance indeed.

So, for today, patrons, a few questions:

Do you find that most worship services “follow established patterns” of a template rather than communicate “formative dimensions?”
How do you think a gathering can enhance those “formative dimensions?”
If you were to start from scratch and design your own gathering, how would you position it so it “forms a people for the mission of God?”