A few years ago, I met with a pastor of a church near a large campus. As the university grew in prestige, it attracted thousands of international students, many of whom had never been exposed to Christianity. The church began to reach out to them with language classes and tutoring. Church members even “adopted” students into their homes for meals and holidays .
The church also changed their worship service. They jettisoned anything that might offend mission. Their Vision Statement reads: “Each and every element of our Sunday worship service must revolve around the single, ultimate purpose of the Church: which is mission.”
Nothing in their worship service was sacred:
- They edited worship songs that mentioned sin, sacrifice, or God’s wrath.
- They eliminated prayers of Confession.
- They refused to preach from the Old Testament or Paul’s letters, claiming they only wanted God’s words of love.
- They abolished the historical Christian liturgical practices of, Invocation, Call to Worship, Apostles’ Creed, and a Benediction.
Their good deeds are great, but this church is missing the mark. Mission is part of our purpose, but the ultimate purpose of God’s people is worship. And true worship involves submission to the whole counsel of God, understanding our sin as well as His love. If our mission isn’t empowered by sub-mission to God, we deceive ourselves. 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 Commandment prohibits idols, and that prohibition is the most repeated command in all of Scripture. If God decided that commandment needed to be repeated hundreds of times for thousands of years to 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 our deeds can still be 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 willingly (maybe joyfully) submit ourselves to whatever most brings us life, be it career, romance, or impact. 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 those shams sets our sights back on the vine for real life.
Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” The ultimate invitation from God is His soulful summons to oneness with him of heart, mind, soul, and life.
God invites us to Intimate Theology: the interpenetration of His life into ours.
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 missional service, yet he invites us into partnership with him: He call is for us 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, but when we aim for intimate worship, our very lives become the crushed grapes and broken bread which nourish the world.