Mission Idolatry

Last summer I met with a pastor who serves a church near a large campus. As the university grew in prestige, it attracted thousands of international students, many of whom had little exposure to Christianity. So the church began to reach out to them with language classes, tutoring, and members who “adopt” students into their homes.

The church also changed their Sunday morning worship service. They threw out anything that doesn’t support outreach. Their Vision Statement reads: Each and every element of our Sunday worship service must revolve around the ultimate purpose of the Church: which is mission. Nothing in their worship service is sacred:

  • Worship songs
  • Prayers of Confession and Assurance
  • Sermon topics
  • Whether to use a Call to Worship, Apostles’ Creed, or a Benediction

I applaud their service (which is great), but their vision statement is wrong. Mission is part of our purpose, but the ultimate purpose of the Church is worship. And our passion for service is our biggest barrier to unadulterated worship.

Jonathan Edwards said, “It is true that by doing great things, something is worshipped, but it is not God.” When we turn our hearts from worship to deeds, we forge the idol of mission.

Deeds and Misdeeds

The history of faith is the battle of idols. The first of Ten Commandments prohibited idols, and it is the most repeated command in all of Scripture. If it needed to be repeated hundreds of times for millions of believers, should we expect ourselves to be immune?

Old Testament idols were obvious because they were physical images adopted from the surrounding culture. By the time we get to the New Testament, Israel has completely rejected Baals and Ashtaroth. Instead, they worshiped their own deeds. But these are still idols.

  • Many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And I will declare to them, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:22-23)
  • Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you are done, you make them twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves. (Matt. 23:15)

We are called to deeds (faith without works is dead), but mission itself is not the ultimate mission of the church. Worship is. Anything else is idolatry, just as it was for the Pharisees.

The “Why” of the Father’s Pruning

We worship whatever most brings us life, be it career, family, or service. That’s why the Father prunes branches which bear fruit: we too easily gaze down our branches and declare, “What glorious leaves and what magnificent grapes.” Pruning sets our sights back on the vine for life.

Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” It is the ultimate invitation from God: a connection and interpenetration with him of heart, mind, soul, and life. It is intimate theology.

The cattle on a thousand hills belong to God; he doesn’t need our sacrifice, yet he invites us to worship. Likewise, he doesn’t need our service, yet he invites us into partnership with him, to be co-laborers with him in worship and mission.

In the counterintuitive alchemy of spiritual life, if we aim for fruit we get barrenness, and if we aim for intimate worship, our very lives become the crushed grapes and broken bread which nourish the world.


P. S. There is a purpose in God’s salvation, for us to worship; but that involves a real relationship with God. We don’t worship a being who is distant but one who is close, who wants intimacy, who wants communication with you.

To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (What are we saved for?), and please consider buying, Hearing God in Conversation.

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What do YOU think?

18 thoughts on “Mission Idolatry

  1. Thanks, Sam! Spoke exactly what the Lord wanted to say to me at the moment the notice of the post arrived in my Inbox. I had just closed my journal with the words, “Am I missing anything, Lord?”

    My problem is that I prefer fruitfulness/accomplishment over worship/intimacy with the Lord. I know it’s not the way it should be, but it seems I’m kind of hardwired that way. But I’m pretty sure the Lord can re-do the wiring. That’s a bit scary.


    • Hey Pete (love that last name!),

      When I write a blog, it is almost always because I find myself guilty of something. In this case, I share your inner instinct for “fruitfulness/accomplishment over worship/intimacy with the Lord.”

      I think God’s wiring changes is just the modern metaphor for pruning. He knows we can’t do it on our own.

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. Another AhHa! moment just occurred for me – this happens quite frequently when reading your posts. This one came when reading your quoting of Matthew 7:23.

    In the old days, when I read scripture with the lens of works orientation, I interpreted “I never knew you” to be you are not a true follower of Christ and do not have eternal life, and with the ears of my heart I heard sternness and rebuke in His voice. Oh oh! One more item on my checklist of behavior modifications!

    As I embrace His grace and leave works behind, my interpretation of scripture is always changing (i.e. improving). This time I interpreted it as we did not have an intimate relationship where you progressively get to know me better and open yourself up to me to allow me into your heart and life. (There is still salvation in the most basic form, just no relationship.) The ears of my heart heard compassion and mercy in His voice as He spoke those words.

    My opinion is that true worship is intimate involvement … not singing certain songs or mouthing certain phrases that religion has labeled as worship. Worship is responding to the goodness, the generosity, and mercy, the grace — the LOVE of our Abba and Jesus. It is a natural outcome of “knowing Him and Him knowing us.” You can’t get that from works – even good works like missions.

    Your posts impact my life. Thank you for them, Sam.

    • Hi Joanne,

      You always have great insights. And I always look forward to your comments.

      I used to feel the exact same way about the Matthew passage (more of a rebuke). But just in the last years (maybe two 😊), I see it more as an invitation.

      During the last supper (the upper room discourse in John 13-17), Jesus says to Philip, ““Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9). It has the same feel. Jesus WANTS Philip to know him better.

      He wants us to know him better too.


  3. BOOM! As our church struggles with dwindling funds, leadership and congregation all grasp at schemes for making money and getting more butts in the pews, and seem to neglect the relationship that will ultimately deliver us on the other side of the crisis. Thanks, Sam, this is truth.

    • Hi Jenny,

      Yes. If Christianity is about a relationship with Him (abiding in Him and His word in us), then the solution is that abiding worship.

      G. K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

      Our problem isn’t that we’ve really worshiped but see no fruit; our problem is we haven’t really worshiped.



  4. “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” – John Piper

  5. I will often tell our campus ministry students that Mission begins and ends with worship. It begins with lives that are offered joyfully to God, and ends when Philippians 2:10-11 is fulfilled–every knee will bow before Jesus Christ. We cannot do mission apart from worship. Great word Sam!

    • Hi Ben,

      I KNOW your students and ministry, and I KNOW worship comes first.

      Watchman Nee once said, “God will only back and bless what he initiates.” He initiates in our worship and he fulfills in lives devoted to him.


  6. Negative. No. Nope. Nopety. Nope. The only part of worship that is important is love. Love of God, love of others. Mission is the expression of that love. It is the proverbial baby in the bathwater. You should really go back and reread the Bible. Good grief!

    • R. Myers,

      While worship and love have a huge overlap, they are not synonymous. The truest form of biblical worship is to recognize God is Lord; that’s why many of the Hebrew words for worship mean to bow or prostrate oneself. It is to say, “Your way, not mine; your thoughts, not mine; your glory, not mine.”

      Real Christian worship is the solution for self-centeredness. It is fixing our mind on the Ultimate Other.

      It is a heart-gaze on God, contemplating the majesty and glory and goodness of God. It is consciously staring at his unimaginable love, his unstoppable power, his ultimate justice, his attention to the sparrow’s needs, and his care for every human being.

      Worship is attributing ultimate value to the Ultimate Being who is ultimately beyond us; and yet who is beside us as we sit in our desk chair and in us as we wash the dishes.

      Real worship involves an intense focus (of heart, mind, soul and strength) on the beauty of God. It is looking, gazing, meditating, and reflecting on the majesty of God. It is seeing him for all his is, Lord, Master, King, Father, Shepherd, and Friend.

      The church’s problem with mission is that our missions frequently point to us: look how great a leader I am, look what sacrifice I make, look how many people I’ve brought to the Lord.

      We are absolutely commanded to mission, but we are also called to preach. Paul says some preach for good reasons and some for bad: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry … [they] proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely… What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:15-18)

      Is that what we want on our tombstones? “Here lies Sam Williamson. He did his mission work from envy, rivalry, and selfish-ambition. But hey, at least he did mission.”

  7. Sam, I so appreciate you! I have yet to read something of yours that wasn’t well worth spending the time to ponder. My own thought is this: God wants a family. That’s why Jesus constantly called him “Father.” The kind of father who wants his kids up close, hugged–the closer, the better. Jesus himself is the bridegroom, another extravagantly intimate word. How much closer can you get than a marital bed?

    It’s not our heart but our flesh that wants to make our relationship with God about mission, about service, about evangelism, about what we’re going to do for him. In a way, it’s like saying that marriage is all about having babies. We know better than that! It’s about a love relationship, and everything else flows from that. The Father wants a family–us; the Bridegroom wants a bride–us. And when that truth comes alive in us, all the rest will follow.