They will often make the claim:
It seems like such a waste of time and energy to meet together in these big buildings to worship. It makes much more sense to use all that time, money, and energy spent on the weekly communal worship gathering to care for the needs of the hurting and hopeless in our community. After all, did not Jesus command us that we are to take care of those who are hungry, naked, and in prison, and if we do not, he will tell us to depart from him because he does not know us?1
With such earnest desire to care for the least and lost of our world, I would propose that it must not come at the expense of our communal worship gathering; in fact, I will suggest that separated from Christian communal worship, our care for the lost and least will lose its bearing and empowerment. Christian communal worship is the essential practice of the Church as we continue to be made Christian as God’s holy people, sent from communal worship, set apart (Holiness) to participate in God’s redemption of the World (Missional). Moreover, an essential relationship exists between God gathering (breathing in) the Church for communion, in order that the Church may be sent out (exhaled) to participate in God’s mission in the world, in order that the following week more of the world could be gathered into the communion of God in the Church. Hence, this essay asserts that Christian communal worship is essential in order for the Church to become Christian, Holiness, and Missional as the primary practice and purpose of the Church.
COMMUNAL WORSHIP AND BEING MADE CHRISTIAN
I have often heard it said, “I don’t need the Church to be Christian.” I understand the sentiment of such a statement, but it misunderstands what it means to be Christian. From the Old Testament, we learn that to be a Jew is to be a part of God’s holy people. There is no grammar or discourse of someone being a solitary Jew. To be brought into the covenant as a Jew was, by definition, to be brought into God’s holy people. Furthermore, in the New Testament, to be a Christian meant that someone was part of the body of Christ, the Church. There is no such thing as an isolated and solitary Christian. In this way, all Christians are part of the Church.2 The emphasis that all Christians are part of a local body is not a legalistic definition, excluding those who long to be a part of a local body but cannot. People who are in the hospital, homebound, or prevented from being part of the body are also included. In fact, when those who are not physically able desire to be physically with the Church in communal worship, wherever possible the local body must go to be physically present with them and extend the space and place of communal worship to wherever they are. While there are some cases where even the local body cannot be physically present, they are invited to pray and keep that person in their living memory. So, to be Christian is to be part of the Church.
The Church’s primary task is the practice of communal worship.3 While evangelism, discipleship, Christian education, and ministry in the world is very important, all of this flows from the body, which is empowered and sent by and with the Spirit from communal worship. From the Jews through the early Christians to the present Church, the very definition of being Christian involves God’s gathering of the people to be present to God and other persons for a transformative divine-human healing encounter. God breathes in the church for a time of praise, laments, confessions and many other types of prayers sung or spoken, Scripture, preaching, confessing the creeds, and celebrating the sacraments. As God breathes in (inhales) the Church for communal worship to be renewed as the body of Christ, they are then breathed out (exhaled) to be the body of Christ in the world as an embodiment of their holiness as they are engaged in the world.4 Communal worship is a primary way in which Christians are healed to be more fully Christian.
COMMUNAL WORSHIP AND BEING MADE HOLY
“Be holy, for I am holy.”5 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”6 Many Christians hear such commands by God as impossible and then miss out on the full invitation and healing God desires to work in their lives and in creation as a whole. However, I would suggest that communal worship is one of the primary practices and encounters with God that brings healing to people, enabling them to be more and more holy, and more fully human. To be holy is to be set apart for a distinct purpose. People were created for relationships. Scripture teaches that humans were created to love God, themselves, other creatures, to care for creation, and to be loved.7 Thus, when humans give and receive love, they are doing exactly, perhaps even perfectly (as fulfilling their purpose), what God created them to be and do. Within God’s plan for love flourishing within creation, the choice to move away from love is an option. This option has been taken by humans and has caused destruction in all parts of creation. A failure to love well is the very relational rupturing called sin. While sin can be defined in many ways, I would suggest that when people sin, they are actually doing what they were not meant to do; hence, when you sin you are becoming less than human. Through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, the Father desires to heal and cleanse us to be free from the disease of sin—this is the ongoing healing of sanctification. Christian communal worship is the primary place for a healing of relationships between God, myself, and other persons. John Wesley suggested that while God can offer healing of sins, the regular and ordained place for God’s healing in sanctifying grace was at the Christian communal worship service of singing, praising, confessing, lamenting, interceding, reading Scripture, preaching, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.8 Communal worship is a primary place for us in the Church to grow in holiness.
COMMUNAL WORSHIP AND BEING MISSIONAL
In the New Testament, Jesus’ healing miracles are powerful demonstrations of God’s power over sin, disease, and death. However, it is telling that the emphasis of Jesus’ healing the lame, blind, and broken is not simply to make their physical life more convenient or comfortable. In Mark 10, the story of blind Bartimaeus is a powerful narrative describing the full imagination of Christ’s healing. After Bartimaeus asks to see again and Jesus heals him, the narrative notes that Bartimaeus follows Jesus down the road (or "on the way"). Where was Jesus headed? To Jerusalem and. eventually, to Golgotha. We are healed to become a disciple to follow Christ to participate in Christ’s ministry in the world—no matter where Christ takes us.
Within the dynamic healing of being renewed as the body of Christ in communal worship, the goal and emphasis of Communion, is also a reminder that not all of the world is present at this Communion in the Church; hence, by the Spirit, the Church is sent out to be Christ’s broken body and shed blood in the world, to gather those who are still lost, scattered, and forgotten. The Roman Catholic mass undergirds this by understanding the very definition of mass. "Mass" literally means to be sent. After the healing and renewal of persons as the body of Christ, which is their continual sanctification to love in communal worship, the Spirit then blows (exhales) the Church out to participate in God’s redeeming of all creation. In this way, Communion, being breathed in by God for healing, renewal, and empowerment, is then exhaled, and blown out with and by the Spirit to participate in God’s mission. However, this sending to participate in God’s mission it not its own end. The Church is sanctified (set apart) to participate in God’s mission in the world, that by the Spirit more of the world, more of the lost and broken may be breathed in the following week in communion. This rhythm of being breathed in, gathered for healing in communion (communal worship) is then exhaled by the Spirit for mission in the world, which is a continuation of the Church’s worship. For all human beings, if this process of inhaling and exhaling is lost, death will occur. Moreover, the Church’s missional engagement in the world is an extension of its communal worship.
Mission Without Communion
One of the great dangers of the local church body is the seduction of becoming inwardly focused and in the joy of fellowship, those who are not part of the body, those who are lost and broken, are neglected. Of course, Christians will not physically remain in the sanctuary all week long, but as they head out from the communal worship gathering, they may not engage the lost and broken in their world. It may be the case that they are unaware, feel unworthy, or are simply afraid to engage the lost and broken of their corner of the world. It is dangerous for Holiness people to think “be ye separate” means that we are not to be present to the hurting, broken, and marginalized. Like Christ, we are called to be present to all those who are outside the local body. A local body that has communion without mission will become so self-absorbed and toxic it will eventually die. The Church is missional because God is a missional God. From the heart of a missional God, birthed out of the imagination of the Abrahamic covenant to be a light and blessing to all the world, the Church “came into the world as mission.”9
Communion Without Mission
Ironically, many who have grown up in the church feel that the church is so exclusive, inward focused, and unengaged in mission that they leave. While they are right to be concerned about the lack of missional engagement in the world, the remedy is not to abandon communal worship. Why did Christ eat with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes? Why does the Church care for the poor, widows, homeless, orphans, and all broken and lost? Not simply to put food in their bellies or a roof over their heads (though this is very important), but that they may be brought into the communion and fellowship of the Church. Mission’s primary goal is communion. A person cannot exhale without first having inhaled. As such, without the inhaling of communal worship, which provides healing, empowerment, and vision for ministry in the world, there is not a healthy exhaling to be missionally engaged in the world. The rich oxygen inhaled is the necessary life and power for all exhaled mission. Without inhaling (communion), all mission will run out of power and will die.
Christian Communal Worship is a communion of people who are gathered (breathed in) in order to be sent out in mission (exhaled). The hope and goal of the mission of God in the world, in which Christians are invited to participate, has the primary goal of having more of the world breathed in for communion. Communal worship in the Church is the ordained means by which God is helping make persons more fully Christian, Holiness, and Missional.
BRENT D. PETERSON serves as professor of theology at Northwest Nazarene University.
1 See Matt. 25:41-46.
2 See 1 Pet. 2:4-12, Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12.
3 See Heb.10:24-25.
4 See Created to Worship (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2012), 24-56, where I expand of this theology of worship.
5 See Lev. 11:44-45; 1 Pet. 1:15-16.
6 See Matt. 5:48.
7 See Gen. 1—5 where this invitation to relationship is on full display, even as some negative examples are shown in regard to a failing to love God, oneself, others, and creation.
8 See John Wesley’s Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace,” §II.1, in Works, 1:381; and Rob L. Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1991), 240.
9 Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist. trans. Paul Kachur (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2003), 87.