In their 2006 book Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stezter and David Putnam offer some clarity on the nature of the missional movement:
The missional church is not just another phase of church life but a full expression of who the church is and what it is called to be and do. The missional church builds upon the ideas of church growth and church health but brings the lessons learned from each into a full-blown missions focus—within their local mission field as well as the ends of the earth. To be missional means to move beyond our church preferences and make missional decisions locally as well as globally (p.49).
In short, it’s the idea that the church has now entered into a more faithful and authentically recognizable edition of itself, and this over against what the church had been in the past. However, what the church had been in the past, as least for these authors, seems to be limited by what they understood the church to be in its “church growth” and “church health” forms. Nonetheless, they hold that the church of the past was missing out on a more proper “full-blown missions focus” because of each era’s inward focus and emphasis on their own preferences. It’s a malady they assert the church still suffers from today:
Missions makes this point: it is not about us and our preferences. It is about his mission and the fact that he sends us. We want to practice our preferences. We want things to be the way we like them. But God wants us to be on mission with him, to be sent to some group of people somewhere, and to minister in a way that meets their needs, not promotes our preferences. When we are functioning as God’s church sent on mission, we will go into different cultures, contexts, and communities. We will proclaim a faithful gospel there in a culturally relevant way, and we will worship in a way that connects to that setting. When the connection is made, the code is broken. God does not tell us that we will always like it. He does say that we always need to function as his missionary church (p.32).
Overall, the authors do have some thoughtful things for us to consider as we go about being the church today. Though I do not agree with all of it, I wholeheartedly agree with their reminder that the message of the church is “repentance and forgiveness of sins to be preached in his name to all nations.” As they note, “When it becomes something other than repentance and forgiveness, then the gospel itself is lost in the process. When we forget that the job of the church is to proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the future of any church is bleak.” (p.39)
Nonetheless, the conversation about being the church invariably comes back to what it really looks like and sounds like to “proclaim a faithful gospel there in a culturally relevant way,” where “we worship in a way that connects to that setting.” In other words, what does it mean to break the code? Ultimately, they feel that for the church to “truly break the code, it needs to move from ‘every member a minister’ to ‘every member a missionary’” (p.69).
However, I think it’s one thing for the body of believers to be at work as the church in their daily vocations, giving witness to Christ and speaking “relevantly” to others, but I think it’s another thing when they gather for worship. I’m not sure if the need for “relevancy” of both settings can be as easily juxtaposed as the authors might like. I am of the mindset that there is something more to the forgiveness of sins than simply making it “relevant” to people. Isn’t there something about it that goes toward actually being forgiven?
Perhaps a better biblical way of understanding relevance is that God is making you relevant to Him through the forgiveness of sins given in Jesus Christ. Without Him you are irrelevant, dead, and damned. For Lutherans, being made relevant to God is no more clearly done than in the Lord’s Supper. That’s why I think Lutherans have historically ordered their worship around the sacraments and framed it by the liturgy—to ensure the forgiveness of sins gets delivered. Thus, I find it curious when humans feel it necessary to reverse the order and make God relevant to us, rather than allowing God to make us relevant to Him.
As such, worship that merely talks about forgiveness has to be reduced to ways of making those conversations, songs, and sermons become relevant to the listener/worshipper/new believer/long time believer. However, worship that delivers the forgiveness of sins moves past the problem of relevancy and actually gives the forgiveness of sins to all believers present.
Thus, out of necessity, the conversation comes back to our understanding of worship. And I will concede that the daily life and the worship life of the believer are connected, but not by way of human relevance, rather, by way of Divine relevance—the forgiveness of sins given to them and taken with them into their daily vocational lives. I think that’s the “code” for bringing the Gospel to the masses. And I think it was a code that was broken hundreds of years ago when the New Testament believers gathered weekly for Word and sacrament worship, received forgiveness, and took it into their daily vocational lives (Acts 2:42-27). They didn’t all become missionaries (yes, I know, some did), but they were all forgiven! And that forgiveness freed them to share it with others in their daily lives.
That we continue to battle over issues of “relevant worship” today seems to imply our various positions regarding the “relevance” of word and sacrament theology (i.e. worship that delivers forgiveness). Herman Sasse critiqued this challenge already in 1948: Martin Luther foresaw four centuries ago the coming of this kind of Protestantism, when in attacking the anti-sacramental Enthusiasts of his day he taught the church of the Augsburg Confession to go forward alone along the difficult and lonesome middle way between non-sacramental Protestantism Enthusiasm and the church of the Pope.
In other words, it’s not easy. Yet, it’s also nothing new. Even so, Sasse notes that in order to take such worship seriously, doctrine has to be taken seriously: If today, to the great blessing of herself and of all Christendom, The Church of the Augsburg Confession still wishes to walk this middle way, if she seeks fully to recover the great liturgical heritage which her spiritual ancestors bequeathed to her but which she has too often blithely squandered and neglected, she must achieve complete clarity on one essential point: A liturgical renewal is impossible unless the church is prepared to take seriously the doctrine which is witnessed to and sung in the liturgy. Liturgy and dogma belong together; you cannot have the one without the other. Dogma represents the doctrinal content—and therefore the truth content—of the liturgy. (Scripture and Church: Selected Essays of Herman Sasse. “Liturgy and Lutheranism,” p.39-40)
Thus, and this question is sure to open a can of worms, do the varying practices of worship among us demonstrate the seriousness (or the lack thereof) in which our doctrine is held? And if worship and doctrine are thus the means to breaking the missional code of the church, shouldn’t we be willing to seriously and collegially talk about them with one another?
As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.