What was I supposed to do? What Scriptures were going to tell God’s story that week? How would I do this EVERY week? Was there a method to guide me? Questions lingered in my heart and mind those first few weeks. I drew on my educational resources, listened to wise counsel, and read widely.
The years of both my formal ministerial education/formation and my first steps into the vocational role of pastor coincided with the Worship Renewal Movement in North America. The rise of contemporary Christian music, a denominational suggestion for more frequent celebrations of Holy Communion, and an increased awareness of the Christian calendar and lectionary influenced worship renewal in my pastoral work.
Perhaps the larger Worship Renewal Movement is best cast as two smaller movements shaping American worship over the last 50 years. The first, an international liturgical renewal movement, recovered the ancient pattern of a weekly communal service of Word and Table, produced a new generation of service books based on a three-year lectionary, and made numerous ancient worship texts available.
A second corollary movement, the contemporary worship movement, involved designing the worship service to be culturally relevant and understandable to someone unfamiliar with the Christian faith. This was most pronounced in music, architecture, and language. Evangelical megachurches such as Willow Creek Community Church (in suburban Chicago) and Saddleback Valley Community Church (in Southern California) remain the exemplars for this movement.
The Worship Renewal Movement was an important conversation partner for me in those early years of pastoral ministry. The bookshelves behind my desk are filled with texts from both streams of this larger conversation. The synergism between my attention to the worship renewal conversation and my commitment to faithfully narrate God’s story came to life as a pastor and people gathered in worship. Each week we told God’s story: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This gospel proclamation centered and focused our worship.
As a pastor, I borrowed from both the ancient and the contemporary. The Christian calendar helped me mark time. For example, the season of Lent, especially a more developed march through the agony and suffering of Holy Week, infused Easter Resurrection with great joy and hope. In my own pastoral work, I recovered Pentecost as a third holy day alongside Christmas and Easter. This triad of days framed how the congregation bore witness to God’s being and presence in the world.
The lectionary, a systematized three-year cycle of biblical readings, organized my preaching across the breadth of the canon of Scripture. Old Testament narratives helped me consider how pilgrimage, an ancient Christian practice, continues to shape both a Christian’s personal life and a community’s shared life. New Testament epistles situated my preaching in the mess of shared life showing us how Christian communities work through conflict and disappointment. Each year, a different gospel account would highlight particular understandings of the person and work of Jesus. Today, the lectionary continues to hold my preaching accountable to the breadth of Scripture. When I break from lectionary preaching, I do so with an awareness of the importance of preaching the entire canon of Scripture (some biblical texts are under-represented in the lectionary).
Even smaller corporate acts in Christian worship took on greater meaning for me in these years. I learned the difference between social greetings and Christian greetings. As we dismissed the “good mornings” as we entered the sanctuary, I came to see the liturgical act of “greeting one another in the peace of Christ” to be a radical act of reconciling hospitality. That discovery opened space for me to see connections between our gathering around the table of Holy Communion and our practices of reconciliation and hospitality in the world. Before long, we joined a community partner to provide a meal for hungry neighbors. Our practice of Christian worship began to shape our participation in God’s mission in the world.
Yet, as a pastor, I desired to see our congregation grow numerically. Together we prayed that more in our neighborhood might come to know Christ and be incorporated into God’s body, the Church. Young families would visit our church one Sunday and not the next. Why?
Again, books began to line the shelves behind my desk. As I prayed about the congregation I served and the neighborhood in which I lived, I asked theoretical questions first. Questions like: what are the causes of church growth, what are the barriers to church growth, and what principles of church growth are reproducible captured my thinking. One author, Donald McGavran (considered to be the father of the Church Growth Movement), seemed to be asking similar questions. I read. I studied. We prayed. We invited. We sent cards. We greeted guests well. But too frequently they did not return.
A congregation with a weekly worship attendance of 20-25 often wonders about its faithful participation in God’s mission. Pastors of such congregations often doubt their own faithful participation in God's mission. Why don’t they come back?
By the late 1990s, the Church Growth Movement’s understanding of seeker sensitivity, meeting felt needs, and church marketing was challenged. In too many places it just didn’t work. New questions were beginning to form on pastors' lips. Such questions as: what does it mean to participate in the missio dei, how might one assess faithfulness to the Great Commission, and is the gospel of Jesus even compatible with North American capitalism challenged basic church growth principles. These questions invited pastors and congregations to draw clearer and stronger connections between Sunday and the remainder of the week.
This shift in questions and priorities birthed what is known as the Missional Church Movement, a child of the Church Growth Movement. Our denomination bears the stamp of this shift in its own organizational structure and core values. In fact, the Missional Church Movement continues to be a critical conversation partner for the church today. The question, what does it mean to participate in the missio dei, lingers. To answer this question, I return to the practice of Christian worship: to participate in the missio dei is to participate in God’s reconciling hospitality.
In the congregation I serve, the Table centers us liturgically. God invites and welcomes us into Table Fellowship. Every time we gather around God’s Table, we are reminded to welcome and serve everyone who comes hungering and thirsting after God. God’s good news in Jesus is for everyone. This is God’s radical act of reconciling hospitality. Receiving the bread and the cup catches us up in God’s saving mission. We become a part of God’s narrative plot: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. The gospel is clear: being saved is a gift.
Being invited and welcomed to God’s Table transforms us, enabling us to welcome others. God’s Table manners—reconciliation and hospitality—become our table manners. This newly formed way of being shapes all our interactions around every table. Family dinner tables. Corporate board tables. Sunday school class tables. Lunchroom tables. Soup kitchen tables.
There appears to be a relationship between an increasingly frequent gathering around God’s Table and increasingly frequent acts of love and service to one’s neighbor. The transformative power of the gospel is clear: gift recipients become gift givers. It seems that our worship of God compels us to acts of love and service.
A food donation box rests in front of our Communion table. It’s in the way. Yet, each week the box is filled and then donated to the local food pantry. For us, this box extends God’s Table beyond the walls of the church’s building into the neighborhood where we live. Food and drink invite and welcome others to God’s Table. This practice links worship and mission. God’s people participate in God’s mission through living God’s way in the world.
The gift of the Worship Renewal Movement and the Missional Church Movement might be found in drawing attention to the Church’s participation in God’s mission. Be warned: the temptation is subtle. It may sound like this is dependent on us. While we may have a major responsibility to articulate clearly the narrative plot and to live God’s way in the world faithfully, all this rests on God. The Christian life is a communal life received as gift. Brothers and sisters come to the Table and share bread with a neighbor. Such is God’s way. All is gift. All is grace.
To discern a cause-effect relationship between these movements seems premature. To dismiss the questions raised by either the Church Growth or the Missional Church movements seems too simplistic. One case study does not establish a pattern. However, it would likewise be irresponsible to suggest there is no connection.
JEFFREY T. BARKER is senior pastor of Bethel Church of the Nazarene and associate professor of Practical Theology at Eastern Nazarene College.