Liturgy and Mission: Why Rachel Held Evans and Keith Anderson Are Right

When did you last think about the relationship between your community’s worship practices and their missions? It’s such a loaded conversation. What makes for “mission”? Why do we set the two practices – what we do in worship and what we do after – at odds with one another? Is it simple geography? One happens behind the ecclesial closed doors while the other is more public? I want to know when we lost the sense that our liturgies were public events rather than secret rites. But that’s another post.

Keith Anderson has written a response to Rachel Held Evans’ post on the sacraments and getting Millennials back in church. From where I sit, both pieces are strong. And Keith’s critique is really for those who think that RHE has given congregations afraid of change a get out of jail free card. She hasn’t. Quite the opposite. And Keith is driving that point home.

“Judging from the comments I’ve seen in the days since Held Evans’s article was posted, I’m afraid that her assertion has had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the tendency toward inertia exhibited by some Mainline ministry leaders. “See, we’re fine. We don’t need to change,” I can hear them saying. “We can keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s put on some coffee, order some new communion wafers, and wait for the young evangelicals to come pouring in.”

Good luck with that.”

He’s absolutely right. Rachel is saying something quite different. You see, she’s doing the work of connecting the mostly obvious dots. By doing, she offers a critique of the “relevant liturgy” industry. Such liturgy is an invitation into a purity cult whereas her experience of the Episcopal church reflects an invitation into something much broader.

“But I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.”

She sees the connection between the liturgy and the mission of the community with which she worships. On the other hand, the communities seeking slicker styles are often masking an inhospitable theology with their very hospitable aesthetic. The beleaguered Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill is an easy example of what I’m talking about.

What I like about both pieces is that they are desperate to connect the dots between the liturgy and the liturgy after the liturgy (Ion Bria’s helpful gloss). Ruth Meyers has a new book out entitled Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission that suggests the image of a Mobius Strip to explain the relationship between worship and mission. It’s worth your time, if you like reading that sort of thing. Here’s a related essay for you as well. In an interview she suggests:

“I introduce a worship matrix as a tool for preparing missional worship. Take one part of that matrix — perhaps the gathering with which worship begins or the way you arrange and use your worship space. Consider how that aspect of your worship can more fully express God’s love for the world and draw the assembly into deeper communion with the triune God. Experiment a bit — try one new thing in worship and see what happens.

Most importantly, pray and study the Bible, listening for the still, small voice of God and opening your eyes to the ways God is already at work in your assembly for worship and in your neighborhood.”

This is what excites me about this kind of exchange we’re seeing right now online. People are questioning the relationship between their worship practices and their missions. Deepening our understanding of these two practices and how they are actually connected to one another can only strengthen the ministry of any community.

Rachel and Keith are both right and they are both providing examples of how we might all examine our own practices.

Rev. Tripp Hudgins is Director of Admissions at ABSW and a PhD student at Graduate Theological Union studying liturgy and ethnomusicology.

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