Breaking the missional…relevancy… liturgical… code?

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.


Rev. Woodford


5 responses to “Breaking the missional…relevancy… liturgical… code?

  1. 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.


    But….but this is simply because you find God perfectly relevant.

    #1: You believe that you are a sinner
    #2: You believe that your sin is damnable
    #3: You believe God brings forgiveness through Christ
    #4: You believe that in the worship service, this forgiveness is delivered.

    So…worship is entirely relevant to you. It has great meaning — even if there is some crappy organ playing going on, sour chanting, poor reading — even then you would see beyond that to what is truly going on.

    On the other hand, if you don’t see any of this, if you don’t see the relevancy — what then? Isn’t the point then to explain why Jesus matters?

    • Exactly! But I think doing so by way of the church service/worship service has inherent challenges. When the subjective relevancy of Jesus is given sway, I think the problem of relevancy being relative to each subjective filter clouds our ability to ensure Jesus is in fact being made relevant to all people at the service.

      I will concede that there can be flexibility in musical styles as long as reverence and propriety is maintained, but the historic pattern of word and sacrament liturgical worship has provided the relevant means of grace for centuries. I guess I think of it like bringing a person to baseball game for the first time (I will be posting on this thought as well). They have no idea about the game, so you have to explain it to them. But what if they game is simply not relevant to them? Do you then change the game so that it becomes relevant to them or do you continue teaching them the ins and outs and meaning of the game to them…a full count, a squeeze bunt, a balk, a sacrifice fly, etc.? Obviously you teach them the game. And the more they attend the game, the more they learn about it, the greater their depth of appreciation for it, and relevancy to it, until one day they could actually play it themselves (i.e. attend the Lord’s Supper).

      Thus, understanding of the worship/divine service comes not by making the service relevant to them, but by teaching, sharing, giving them Jesus who makes them relevant to God. Otherwise, why attend the means of grace? To be a better you? To find successful living? To be sure, there will be teaching, talking, and explaining of Jesus to them outside of the worship service. My point is that the historic model of worship seems to support the objective reality of God making us relevant through Jesus, as opposed to us make Jesus relevant to unbelievers.

      Yes, I realize we need to make relevant connections to people on a personal level, gain trust, love them, and support them, but ultimately that always points to the greater reality of Jesus making us relevant to one another and to the Heavenly Father, of which is reflected in the Divine Service.

      As always, I appreciate your thoughts brother!

  2. Marcus Williams. Missoula, MT

    I think its important to understand the implications of making the Divine Service relevant to parishioners versus, what Rev. Woodford is suggesting, teaching people about the liturgy. I’m eager to hear the next post concerning the game of baseball. It seems like a great analogy to the situation at hand. If we force our worship life to be relevant to say age, a time period when someone grew up, or the preference of how they would like to worship as oppose to teaching them the parts of the service, which ultimately are geared toward receiving the Sacrament, then we are subjecting the Service to what we believe to be relevant. My Pastor always says “If they were conducting a service geared to the preference of my music while growing up they would have been playing something similar to Metalica.” Now obviously this would not be appropriate.

    Currently we have a liturgy that can be diverse, namely by using one of the five divine services we have interchangeably. For me there is a perfect balance of Law and Gospel throughout the Divine Service which accompanies the preaching of the Word in crushing me with the Law and comforting me with the Gospel. This in turn allows me to examine myself before receiving the Sacrament, as Paul suggests that we do. Also God has been preserving the Church through humble means for thousands of years and will continue to do so.

    And we believe, teach, and confess that not all things, concerning worship practices, are adiaphora. A large part of Article X in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord is concerning itself with certain practices being utilized while facing persecution from the Roman Church. But I think paragraph 7 speaks to the current conversation: “Likewise, when there are useless, foolish spectacles that are not profitable for good order, Christian discipline, or evangelical decorum, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference.” So while there is a time and a place for different musical outlets we can’t allow the “entertainment” or musical aspects overbear on the purpose of the Divine Service, which is to put Christ and Him crucified in front of us, keeping him as the center of things which in my estimation is done by: “some crappy organ playing going on, sour chanting, poor reading”.

  3. I enjoy organ music and I love our rich hymnody. However, many people I’ve invited to church have felt very uncomfortable with all the standing, sitting, reading to each other, and singing hymns to an antiquated instrument. Yes, I would be concerned with a metallica driven service. To make a service relevant to one segment of the population can make it irrelevant to another. However most of our lutheran churches are relevant only to a anglicanized 15th century german population with is only relevant to us because we grew up in it.

    If we don’t use music or speak in ways that are understandable to our parishers, most won’t stick around to find out how relevant God actually is and how relevant they can be to God as his redeemed baptized children. I like the baseball analogy to a point, yet it’s much more important to that they are connected to the Word of Life then to being a commited baseball fan. I know you’re not equating the two at the same level. Still, knowing Christ is a matter of life and death so I want to make sure that everything I do conveighs the Gospel in a way they can understand.

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Marcus Williams. Missoula, MT

    I don’t understand the notion of making the service “relevant”. A Church doesn’t grow, in a proper sense, if the foundation that is being used to convey its relevancy is music. A liturgical service with an organ (an in exceptional cases other, non overbearing instruments) bridges the gap between the old and the young. People might view the organ and the liturgy as something that only appeals to an older generation but the fact that our liturgy is injected with God’s Word in a very theologically rich way makes it relevant to anyone. The problem with using music to make the Church more relevant is the fact that you’re taking the focus off of Christ who is the center of the Divine Service. I have a lot of friends who prefer a non denominational setting. And when you beg the question as to why, you almost always hear the same response: “Because you can just come as you are, there is great music, you can have snacks and coffee during the service, and its just very laid back.” Now I don’t want to speak in generalizations but this very notion dumbs down the reason why we gather. We don’t gather to hear the music, I would say not even to hear the organ, and the hymns are sung insofar as they testify to God’s Work to us. The things being highlighted in the “laid back” churches are distracting us from the cross.

    So how is the problem solved? If you understand how the liturgy flows and understand its components you can share these with friends before they attend. Yes they seem overwhelming but when they are understood, there is richness there unlike any other form of services. I can’t say that I “grew up” in the Lutheran Church. I was taken on rare occasions by my mother but I never attended Sunday school, never was baptized (until I was nineteen), never experienced confirmation I just walked into a Lutheran church in Missoula, MT, which by the way is more traditional than my mother’s Church, and what grabbed me? God’s Word, which is the most relevant thing in our lives. If people aren’t being caught by the nets of God’s Word then there is a problem.

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