The place of gathered worship in mission
Reflections on Father James Mallon’s book, Divine Renovation: Bringing your Parish from Maintenance to Mission
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
By virtue of our baptism, Christians have become missionary disciples and hear Christ’s command to ‘go and make disciples.’ Yet how are they to go, and what place does gathered worship have in mission today, if any? In the Baptists Together magazine (Summer 2022), there was no mention of kerygmatic proclamation in relation to mission. Several articles explored going to the margins and serving the community through social action. I was left with a question: does gathered worship still have a place in mission today?
I still remember the sheer relief at leaving the ‘helicopter’ that church can become when we worked with a pioneer missional community abroad. Church could suck you in, consuming every spare evening and weekend, leaving little time for anything else. It was refreshing to wake up to a blank diary and to the Holy Spirit’s leading. We got involved with language teaching and hospitality. We rarely went to church and instead built friendships with people who would never have walked into an evangelical church. Over time, we began to open up the Bible around tables in homes. Shared meals, parties and language classes were invaluable in breaking down barriers and in sharing God’s love.
Yet after four years, I reluctantly concluded that these things, while good, did not replace gathered worship. People would come to faith and then – what? Where were they to be baptised? Where were their children to grow in faith? And in such a homogeneous group, where were they to serve amongst those who were not like them? Could coming together to worship and to hear the Word of God be a place where God’s people get formed into missional disciples?
I returned to the UK and later trained for Baptist ministry. Yet as I returned to a belief that gathered worship had a place in mission, many were deserting it. Ironically, it has been the reflections of a Catholic writer that helped me see how church might be more missional: less helicopter (sucking us in), more roulette wheel (sending us out). Father James Mallon works in pastoral ministry in Nova Scotia and leads the New Evangelization movement within the Roman Catholic church. His book, Divine Renovation: Bringing your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (2014) addresses the challenge of falling church numbers. As Baptists wrestle with similar challenges, perhaps we can learn from Mallon’s core values:
Give priority to gathered worship
‘This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ (Palm 118:24)
Mallon urges pastoral leaders to invest more time in preparing for Sunday worship and to see this investment as missional. Leaders need to make time to prepare for the Sunday service as a celebration of what a missional God has done for us. We are beggars who have found the bread. It is out of this joy and thankfulness that we invite others to come. Sundays should feel like the wedding banquet of the kingdom of God. There should be a feast! (Matthew 21: 1-14)
This involves investment of time. Mallon suggests that Sundays are the time when ministers see 80% of their congregation, yet typically only 20% of their week is invested in planning for Sunday services. He argues that this balance needs redressing, with more time spent preparing, particularly for sung worship and the message. Quoting Paul, ‘Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!’ (1 Corinthians 9:16), Mallon urges preachers not to tire of proclaiming Christ crucified, even to regular church-goers. If William Willimon’s definition of evangelism stands: ‘a matter of addressing those who live by narratives other than the gospel,’ then preachers should not be ashamed of being Christocentric and evangelical. The good news is so strange to our ears.
‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for the building up the congregation.’ (1 Cor. 14:26)
Mallon defines meaningful community as a sense of belonging and commitment to the church’s mission. Engaged members are far more likely to commit to spiritual growth, serve others and give sacrificially.
After taking part in an ME 25 Gallup poll to assess how engaged people felt within his church of St Benedict, 24% were reported to be engaged, 47% were disengaged and 29% were actively disengaged (i.e. were vocally critical of the church). Mallow started to run Alpha courses in different forms: Pub Alpha, Sushi Alpha, Daytime Alpha, Prison Alpha, Youth Alpha, Alpha by the Hearth. The only common denominator was hospitality.
Within two years, the ratio had changed to 41% engaged, 44% disengaged and 15% actively disengaged. Over the years the shift continued. The number of adults engaging in evangelistic programmes and faith formation tripled. The number of parishioners in ministry doubled, as did the weekly offering.
Alpha is not without its challenges, not least how to disciple people after they have come to faith, which will be addressed in section 4 below. Alpha embraces a ‘belong-believe-behave’ approach to discipleship. Mallon sees Alpha as a place where the hungry are fed (quite literally), the gospel is proclaimed, the lukewarm are brought to life and non-believers come to faith. In my experience, Alpha not only helps to renew a church, but also creates an invitational culture where people can ‘come and see,’ bringing their questions, without judgment.
‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ (Matthew 25:35)
As new people join us, every church member should have a role to play in welcoming others. Mallon uses ‘Nametag Sunday’ where everyone wears a nametag at church. Since introducing this on a monthly basis at Millmead, we have found it helps people overcome the barrier of talking to newcomers (or worse, people they know but have forgotten their names!) We also have ‘Hospitality Sundays,’ where people can sign up either as hosts or guests and we ensure that everyone has a home to go to for lunch.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 13:28)
To create meaningful community, people need to know what is expected of them. Mallon believes that healthy churches are clear about expectations and are not afraid to communicate them. He noticed that most Catholics who joined other Protestant churches generally joined a church that expected more of them than the church they had left behind. I suspect the same is true of those who leave our Baptist churches. In seeking to be welcoming, we are sometimes in danger of saying: “You are welcome here. We don’t expect anything of you at all: you don’t have to give anything, do anything, you don’t even have to show up if you don’t want to, but please just know that you’re a most welcome member of our church.” What kind of welcome is this and what kind of disciples is it making?
Jesus was the embodiment of welcome: lepers, sinners, outcasts were all welcomed. Yet Jesus also set high expectations for his followers (Luke 14:27).
We need to set clear expectations that say: ‘We believe that God will work in you and work through you; we expect it, and you should too.’ Mallon is unabashed in stating what people can expect from his church (pp.156-157):
Saint Benedict Parish is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Everyone will be welcomed, regardless of their stage on their faith journey. At our church you can expect:
- A place where you can experience transformation and become more and more like Jesus.
- A place where you will be valued and recognised as having unique gifts and where you can use them to help others.
- A place where you will be loved and supported in your spiritual journey, regardless of the messiness and struggles of your life.
- A place where your needs will be listened to and addressed.
- A place where your financial contribution will be honoured and put to work for the building up of the Kingdom of God with transparency and accountability.
Mallon then outlines his expectations to those wanting to commit to his church (pp.157-159):
- To connect: Christian community is one in which we are truly accountable to and for one another. Connecting involves gathering for worship in person each Sunday unless illness or travel prevents you. It also involves joining a small group. The larger the church, the smaller we must go. If you are a small group leader, we will trust you with real responsibility, set you up and be in regular communication with you.
- To serve on one ministry each year: each person is part of the body of Christ and has something to offer to build the body up. As leaders, we will take time to sit down with you and find out what you love doing and what you do consistently well. We will avoid ‘hole-plugging.’
- To grow as a disciple of Christ (meaning ‘one who is learning’): by committing to one faith formation course each year. In Millmead’s case, this might be Alpha, Shaped by the Word, the Bible Course, the Prayer Course, Practicing the Way or some other short course. It could happen as part of your small group or outside it, but it is important to invest in your own growth as well as to serve. The Dead Sea is dead because it has no tributaries and no distributaries.
- To give generously as part of your worship in proportion to what you have received.
Our expectations should be clear and should be woven into our discipleship, including Alpha follow-up, as well as baptism and membership classes.
In conclusion, Mallon sets the bar high. The values he outlines helped steer his church of St Benedict from a culture of ‘maintenance’ to one of mission, which helped the whole church live as missional disciples. Less helicopter, more roulette wheel. Gathered worship still has a place in mission. We gather to worship and are spun out into the world.