Simon Chan’s book Liturgical Theology, in chapter two, makes the claim that worship is what distinguishes the church as the church. Worship is what makes a church a church, as opposed to some other kind of thing. There are other things the church does, and ought to do, but none of them are as foundational or essential as worship.
I think he is going to go on to explain, too, that what he means by worship is a lot more than that bunch of songs we sing before the message or that new genre of Christian music everyone seems to be getting into these days. It has to do with Word and sacrament. More on that later.
But this idea that worship is the essential activity of the church has some implications for talking about “missional” church, don’t you think? Is mission the foundation of the church? Or is worship? It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive (I actually think they’re quite organically linked), but what is foundational? Does mission give rise to worship, or does worship give rise to mission? Do we think of mission in terms of worship, or worship in terms of mission? The answer to that question carries huge ramifications, so it’s one we’d better get the right answer on, methinks. Read Chan’s words on the subject:
…worship could be said to be the defining characteristic of the church. n this world the church may be many other things: a voice of conscience in the community, a champion of the poor and oppressed, a preserver of traditional values and so on. But these functions are not what make it the church, for they could as well be take up by other religious and secular bodies. The church’s defining characteristic is its worshipful response to the call of God to be his people. This may explain why in the Scriptures Christians are sometimes simply called worshipers (Phil 3:3; 1 Tim 2:10; Heb 12:28; Rev 13:12-13; 14:11). Worshiping God is the hallmark of the people of God.
He goes on to talk about how many “missional” activities in the Scriptures are spoken of in terms of worship, a service we offer to God. The Scriptures treat many of the basic activities of the church as essentially liturgical acts. So not only is everything in life to be pervaded by a spirit of worship, including eating and drinking (1 Cor 10:31), but preaching the gospel (Rom 15:16) and service (Heb 13:15-16) are seen as liturgical acts, something we do primarily unto God, even though in one sense we are serving and speaking to other people.
Chan strongly argues that worship is the deepest foundation of the church, and therefore the church’s mission needs to be seen primarily as an act of worship. So much of modern evangelistic impetus is focused on the need of people. “Go preach the gospel because people are going to hell, and they need to find new life in Christ.” Of course the needs of people are legitimate, but Paul seems to have seen his evangelistic ministry primarily in terms of worship: it was a priestly service he offered to God. A couple more quotes from Chan will round out this post.
Mission is ultimately theocentric rather than anthropocentric.
What marks Christians as God’s people is that they have become a community that worship God in spirit and in truth. This is what the church must aim at in mission.
Only when mission is carried out as an act of worship will it truly build up the church. For only when the church presents people as unblemished sacrifices before God will it become the community of God’s people. In the church’s encounter with the triune God, it is formed into the community of God. In true worship we become the church.
Chan’s argument seems to be saying that the church could be failing miserably in mission and remain the church, but if she fails in worship, she stops doing the thing that makes her the church. Of course, if she is worshiping in spirit and in truth, I believe she’ll be propelled into the world in mission. So perhaps we could say that failure in mission shows a failure in worship, but failure in worship causes failure in mission.