Gospel Otherness: the Liturgical Shape of Mission

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Recently on social media I’ve made a few comments like this:

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And this:

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I’ve also elaborated to include the idea that mission can quickly become misshapen when it is abstracted from the worship gathering where formation takes place. In other words, all of those missional strategies that pit the church “going out into the world” against the church “attracting people to itself” are misguided. They make critical assumptions about what exactly the church gathering entails which then produce a misinformed solution to the problem.

If you’re keeping score, that’s a lot of misses.

The missional conversation itself needs to transition from a form-based attempt at defining church as a small, scattered expression that’s nearer to “the world” (missional communities, house church, etc.) to a substance-based attempt at defining church as a centered, gathered expression that is other-worldly for the sake of the world. 

And honestly, this definition of church is gloriously ancient, as urgently needed as it is in our present context. Externally, this is something like a parish model of church – a rooted, neighborhood church that is fundamentally formed around a worship experience. Internally, this is something like a liturgical emphasis – a weekly gathering that is committed to holistic repetition in worship, with the Eucharist as a primary, not secondary, practice.

This is not to say that the worship gathering is all the church does, but simply that it defines what the church is. This shapes mission. This forms God’s people as God’s people for the sake of renewal and restoration and kingdom expansion and living witness in the neighborhood.

Missional community practitioners are known to heavily emphasize the experience of community as central to the definition of church. They will routinely demean the “Sunday service” as an unnecessary and cumbersome attachment to what the church really is, and what God’s mission is really about. Missional communities take shape as affinity groups of often younger people who want to be together, who talk about theological subjects together, and who serve people together. None of which is bad – but these tend to become like campus groups for grown-ups, highly temporary in their manifestation, and lacking the substance of the practices which nurture and sustain the identity of the church.

Missional practitioners will often say: “The world is not interested in going to church – the world is looking for authentic community!” And while they may be right, they are overlooking a critical truth. Yes, the world is looking for authentic community – but the world is also finding authentic community. In all kinds of places. And honestly, as someone who has grown up in the church and experienced all manner of church community, and planted a church community with lots of passionate people, I can say with confidence that the world is often finding better community and more authentic community than anything the church – including the missional church – has to offer!

In our church plant Dwell (which closed last year), we were unbelievably passionate about community. In fact, if there was any banner that we waved, any anthem that we sang, besides Jesus of course, it was COMMUNITY. Yes, we idealized community because we thought we were experiencing the very best version of it. And yes, we even emphasized it so much that it became a bit of an idol.

We deified community.

And soon we learned, through conflict and turmoil and transition, that it was not all it was cracked up to be.

Since I’ve entered the post-church-plant wilderness, I have become more certain than ever that the world has plenty of community, and good community at that. And the church can certainly fill a need for good community. But the world is really looking for something else – something other. What makes the church different?

The church is truly different when it embodies gospel otherness.

At the center of the church’s identity must be the rooted, repetitive practices that shape people into the body of Christ, the broken yet beautifulfulness of him who is filling everything in every way.” This, moreso than simply theological conversation (Bible studies) or fellowship and service, is what gives the good news its true and concrete expression. “Missional communities” may comprise a part of the church’s life in the world, but they do not really identify the church as the church. They are not the central thing. The central thing must be the Table. The central thing must be the proclamation of gospel over the community by foundational leaders. The central thing must be the passionate worship which takes shape through songs and prayers. The central thing must be the sharing in ministry to the least among us and around us in our corporate life together (dare I say, offerings presented “at the apostle’s feet“?!).

It is conceivable that all this could happen in a home, especially as a parish church is forming. A “missional order” type group that intentionally takes on practices which will shape it in gospel otherness may provide the foundation for missional people to form into a local expression of ecclesia in the neighborhood. But my personal experience suggests that the other-worldly experience of worship happens more effectively in non-home spaces. I am pleased to see the redemption of old church buildings happening for the sake of this parish approach, in addition to common spaces.

Lastly, the initial missional pushback against the “institutional” or “attractional” church gathering has to do with assumptions about what an organized church expression and gathering entails, namely, lots of unhealthy hierarchy and economics. This need not be so. The more substantial missional impulse which recognizes that God is always pressing forward and outward into the margins of culture and society to seek and to save that which is lost, that God is a missional God and the entire work of restoration and reconciliation through King Jesus for all people in all places is the mission, is absolutely vital in creating a streamlined church organization that truly exists for the sake of the world. At the root, the missional church recognizes that the church is sent, the church is mission, the church has no mission but the mission of God to restore all things. It does not exist to keep its own organization alive or make itself prosperous.

And yet, with a rooted, parish expression, the uniqueness of the church may be emphasized in the centered gathering and still be wholly missional. The other-worldliness of its practices and rituals are yet oriented outward, contextualized to the time and place in which it emerges. The goal is still to be shaped FOR God’s mission in the world. This resists the pendulum swing in both directions – toward cumbersome, wealthy, institutional church or minimal, unstable, home communities. And perhaps it  provides a way beyond the other predominant model in North American consumer Christianity – namely, the non-local megachurch with all its business hierarchy and unhealthy economics. The parish church shaped by liturgy for God’s mission is one that will probably include a plurality of bi-vocational leaders, a desire to organize “politically” for a peaceful presence, and a pushback against ideologies of success or church growth. And, it will be a truly unique (though far from perfect) gospel-shaped, authentic community.

There are some brilliant organizations that are getting to the substance of missional churches shaped by worship to become something truly “other” and powerful in a post-Christendom world. Check out Missio Alliance, Parish Collective, and Fresh Expressions, for starters.

And let me know what you think about this approach!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • http://jenniferclarktinker.wordpress.com/ Jennifer Clark Tinker

    Thanks so much for fleshing this out. Your tweets about it sim

    • http://jenniferclarktinker.wordpress.com/ Jennifer Clark Tinker

      (Oops, I accidentally submitted my comment before I was done.)
      Your tweets about this simply did not do justice to your ideas here which are clearly brilliant. Just hanging out and talking about God is no substitute for gathering around Word & Sacrament. I like how you suggest church as centered and gathered without all the hierarchical trappings.

      • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

        Jennifer Clark Tinker thanks jenn! often, my tweets are soundbites of the running narrative in my head, i’m always surprised if other people understand them :).

  • MAGuyton

    I listen to Father Thomas Hopko on Ancient Faith Radio. He defines church as a eucharistic liturgy that has some institutions attached to it. I think it’s very critical for us to be actively “othering” ourselves through the eucharistic liturgy as our first task in mission. So totally in sync. Thanks for breathing some more kingdom!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      MAGuyton breathing kingdom ftw!!

  • Greg Flagg

    “…with the Eucharist as a primary, not secondary, practice.”
    This…a thousand times this.  There has always been something that slightly bugged me about how my church celebrated the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, communion, etc.) as simply symbolic, a memorial that honestly felt secondary to the rest of the service.  This became more apparent to me as I went through seminary.  The Eucharist should be central to the worship and gathering of the Christian community and it is somehow, mysteriously, transformative to the believer and the community.  Now, I’m not treading into the waters of what actually happens to the bread and wine and whether they become the body and blood of Christ, however…what I think should be more of a focus is what happens to the church, the gathering of believers, when they “take and eat” of the bread and wine offered.  Who do we become, how are we changed and what are we proclaiming?

  • MarkADemers

    Got to reply to this!  Great post.  I confess … I am one
    to whom you are speaking – often wondering why bother to go to church on Sunday
    (and I’m the pastor) – why not simply engage in “mission”?  But
    then, I find myself recoiling when I read about “The Church has left the
    Building” – some designated Sunday the congregation goes out and paints a
    porch.  I say to myself: Why didn’t y’all do that on Saturday?  Or
    Friday?  What is it about Sunday morning that makes that so special all of
    a sudden?
    But now … I come out of a liturgical tradition where the Eucharist is not
    a “symbolic reenactment”, but an “incarnational
    re-embodiment” of the crucified, risen Christ.  Unfortunately, one
    has to guard against excesses in both directions.  That being said – I
    think I get the gist and the power of your post.  We will never be
    ‘distinctive’ by doing good stuff.  Lots of people do good stuff, and we
    have to hope they’ll keep on doing it, whatever their motivation.  The
    difference in the Christian Community is (and has to be) the transcendent
    mystery of the embodiment of Christ – the crucified, risen Christ.  His
    vision for the world is larger than loving your neighbor.  His vision is
    that we become the neighbor.  We are called not to be the community
    that takes care of each other; we are called to become the community that incorporates
    one another – and ultimately, everyone – into the mystery of shared life
    together.
    The Eucharist is the centerpiece.  It’s not the only thing we do, but
    it is the most distinctive thing we do.  It’s the spiritual (and
    theological) equivalent of the family dinner.  Having just had our family
    almost completely reconstituted for the weekend, I can say that something
    happens beyond just mastication, digestion, etc. when the grandparents,
    parents, grandchildren, significant others of loved ones gather together and
    break bread.  It is that same dynamic intensified by a number of decibels
    that happens when the church breaks the bread and shares the cup
    “re-membering Me”.
    I’m convicted by your post – in part because I agree with you (which doesn’t
    make you right).  The community gathered for worship with the table center
    stage is the plutonium of the parish, the primary charism of the church. 
    It is the defining characteristic, the ecclesiastical tattoo that marks
    us.  It is the best gift we can receive and the best gift we have to
    offer.  AND THAT IS WHY SUNDAY MORNING (or whenever the church decides to
    gather) DESERVES THE BEST PLANNING AND EFFORT WE HAVE TO OFFER.  Once we
    have prayed, planned, and given our all, we can relax and let the moment bless
    us.
    Very good post.  Thanks, Zach.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      MarkADemers Mark, this: “The difference in the Christian Community is (and has to be) the transcendent mystery of the embodiment of Christ – the crucified, risen Christ.” 
      And, THIS: “The community gathered for worship with the table center stage is the plutonium of the parish, the primary charism of the church.”
      Thanks for this comment, brother.

  • Joshkap

    Zach- ” At the center of the church’s identity must be the rooted, repetitive practices that shape people into the body of Christ”
    Our Communion Dinner met for the first time last Sunday night.  We had positive reactions from all 30 people, but there was a persistent question of “what is this?”  We ate together and then made a circle, short sermon on Unity in the body and then  discussion followed. 
    I think celebrating Eucharist with around a real dinner table is a good way to show that it is central to the gathering.   I think we might need more structure going forward.  I’m interested in this idea of “shaping.”  Sounds different than the standard: teacher and listeners approach.  What are the repetitive practices that are important to you?  Or whats a good resource on this?

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      Joshkap hey josh, sorry for my delay in reply. I’ll do my best to get some resources for you, but a great starter is A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight.

  • http://www.oneanotherdaily.blogspot.ca/ gregathome

    Well, Zack, you certainly have a passion for your experience but I honestly wonder if it will stand up in the face of serious persecution. From my admittedly lonely place on the periphery of mainline church, I see shuffling chairs within Evangelical minds and certainly hear a renewed excitement for mission etc, but Im looking outside the tent to see who’s listening and see very few.
    What I do see, and its finally being documented, are hordes of church escapees, mainly from Evangelical churches, who are regrouping under a new ad hock category of believer currently known as ‘nones’.
    In my 40 yrs as a believer Iv’e only been to (organised) church for a few visits, my children have never been either, and scads of our growing number of disaffected church friends say there is nothing on earth that will ever lure them back. 
    I respect your love of traditions like Eucharist and your emerging renewal of mission minded fellowship. It sounds genuine and meaningful from your heart but it just doesn’t talk to me, or many others.
    I get your dissolution with home based church, as we went thru that wilderness too, for thirty years, although I cant say we ever saw ourselves as anything other than a small hangnail on the toe of the rest of the family. As you outlined, we also self destructed, and the reason was that only a few of us were not trying to build something out of our experience. My contentment to simply be a Jesus following man within the context of my family and fellow believers, doing whatever God led us to do, being with whomever He put us in front of, was my own death sentence.
    I just wasn’t ambitious enough I suppose. 
    When I had turned down multiple requests (over 20 yrs) to become a recognized leader, with a title, I was coined a user and irresponsible, and selfish, even a breaker of unity. What I personally learned from that 30 yr journey is that Gods people simply cant be content with the church as a simple family of families, who exist for no other reason or agenda than to live every day for God. 
    I’m afraid the church is still in need of a laxative, a purging of having eaten its own rhetoric, and our collective stomach is full of its indigestion. We take ourselves far too seriously, and in doing so, unwittingly relegate Gods ability to run his own family, to textbooks and history. In my books, as an average Joe who has little education and even less experience in leadership or travel to meet a variety of other believers, I’m going to continue to resist looking for the fix for the broken church. If we broke it, and I believe we did, how can we be the ones to fix it? But that doesn’t seem to stop each new generation from trying. 
    Sad, and such a waste of good intentions, talent and zeal that God might use if we would just stop trying to help Him.
    blessings
    Greg

    • MarkADemers

      gregathome Greg, your post leaves me with a melancholy that goes way beyond a lack of ambition, and I don’t see any contentment in your words.  What I do see read is a load of disappointment.  I’m not sure if that is accurate.
      Where is the balance between contentment with things as they are and conviction that God is calling us to something different?  Can there be peace in trusting that the Spirit of God is present in this moment, even as there is excitement that God’s Spirit is inviting us to take some new risk, help create something better, wanting to enliven our spiritual taste buds so as to more deeply experience the flavor of some new wine?
      Where is the balance between being alone (as your post suggests you are) and our need for community (which your post suggests you have always wanted and have actually experienced with some frequency)?
      Indeed – I completely agree that we often take ourselves far too seriously.  And your post leaves me feeling that the author of the words I’ve read takes himself far too seriously.
      Full disclosure: I’m a pastor in a mainline denomination.  I’m over 60.  I’ve never been more excited with regard to the potential in the Church to experience joy in ways that are contagious.  Jesus is still bringing people together, isn’t he!  It’s a miracle.  Folks like me, who have been in the church and been so much a part of the problem – the ones your post says have “broken it” – I can come back much the same way Peter time and again.  I can keep striving to “get it”.  I can repent for all the ways I misshaped the gospel message.  I can acknowledge all the well-intentioned attempts which have only served to contort the true message.  I can fall to me knees under the burden of my sin, and then leap for joy with the news of forgiveness and new life.
       Help God?  Of course I’m trying to help God.  Here’s the thing: For me, the joy is in the creative tension between “Come and see” on one hand, and “Go and tell” on the other.  And Church is experienced at both ends, and everywhere in the middle.  It’s a muddled, mystical, marvelous mess.

  • http://www.oneanotherdaily.blogspot.ca/ gregathome

    Mark. it still doesn’t answer my honest question of how will our current malaise as a church stand up to serious opposition?  And, other than pollsters and demographers, who in the church is honest enough to take responsibility for the hemorrhage of church members? 
    There comes a time in the trajectory of a people, a nation, a civilization, to admit that a critical mass of ideas, sin, tradition et al has been reached and is fading into history. Prophets thru the ages, in all eras have pointed out their respective devolution’s, and usually been killed for it. 
    Israel is the one history the church is supposed to understand, especially when we find ourselves at the same crossroads, and for the same reasons.
    So, upholding precious traditions that once were allowed by God, and defending the status quo that now no longer stands up to those tensions you spoke of, is the same as going shopping or hanging pictures on the wall, which is acceptable under normal circumstances, but if your’e broke or if the house is on fire, then its just plain crazy.
    We are collectively bankrupt as a church and our house is on fire, and way too many folks are hanging up pictures, because that’s what they’ve always done. 
    Haggai told his generation that God was the one who was blowing apart their offerings, that He likened to putting money in bags with holes. The reason He no longer was going to tolerate their offers to help was because they were building their own houses while His house laid waste. He told them to abandon their own building and go up the mountain, get wood and come back down and complete His house.
    That message is for us today. Not twenty yrs ago and not 10 yrs from now. Today. 
    There is usually only a small remnant that are willing to break tradition and follow God as He leads the way into uncharted territory. He doesn’t condemn those who stay back, because He’s a kind and loving father who will always care for all His kids, but ….they don’t get to share in the new wine because they are content with the old stuff, and that’s their reward.
    Im saying Ive heard God say for us ALL, (because He always calls ALL of his children to stay together and be one family) to move out of our traditions and wrestle with how to build His house together, when we hav no precedent, plan or leaders who know what that looks like. 
    There comes a time when He doesn’t wait for everybody any more because its the appointed time to build, or go , or stay or whatever His will is. He works with whomever is willing to leave all and follow Him.
    That’s what I was saying in my first post. Sure, I’m very discontent, especially having tasted 20 sweet years of my 30 yrs in fellowship. That discontent isn’t bitterness but its longing, and crying and loneliness, and after 10 more years of wandering in the wilderness, meeting many other wanderers in the same place, with the same longing, I cant shut up any more. 
    I’ve tasted what we all want and need, and I suspect the only way we are going to arrive at a place of contentment, unity, one-another-ness that truly satisfies and meets real needs in real daily lives, is to completely cut our moorings with traditions (that are frankly boring, repetitive and spirit numbing to many).
     All those wonderful Sunday School lessons about stepping out in faith, walking into the water, facing the giants etc…. well its time to put our money where our mouth is and do it. I cant tell anyone how, but I can tell everyone why. Its simply to not lose a small tiny window of opportunity that God has given us in this generation, to stay connected to Him, and not fool ourselves that continuing to revel in the blessings He previously allowed to comfort and satisfy us, will continue to be there in the future. 
    That’s a bogus assumption, because His gifts and blessings are connected to His person and presence, and when He moves the camp, we had better get off our duffs and move with Him.
    I’m afraid my 40 yr journey, much of it in a wilderness, has soured me on staying in any comfort zone of the past, (because they always end up being temporary) and conversely, has put in me a deep hunger to live in a land (church family fellowship) flowing with the milk of His Word and the honey of His presence. 
    I suggest we all encourage one another to get up and follow Him, and not make it easy to leave any one behind just because they are afraid, lame or invested where they are. The US Marines have a motto that I think they must have got from God. They never leave a man behind, dead or alive,and if there’s any more beautiful sentiment than that from our loving heavenly Father, I don’t know it. 
    Please hear Gods loving, dove like coo-ing, calling those who have an ear to hear what He’s saying to the church in our time, that its time to move on.
    blessings
    Greg

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