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Re-Narration Takes Practice

“Through worship God trains his people to take the right things for granted.” —Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells

Let’s return to where we began: Christian worship and Christian education both have the same end. Both the church and the Christian university are institutions caught up in the missio Dei, recruiting the hearts and minds of the people of God into the very life of God so that we can once again take up our creational and re-creational calling—to bear God’s image for and to all of creation. The church and the Christian college (and Christian schools) are sites of formation that culminate in sending: to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” by taking up our cross along with our commission to cultivate the earth. Christian worship and formation, as practices of divine action, culminate in Christian action—being sent as ambassadors of another “city,” as witnesses to kingdom come, to live and act communally as a people who embody a foretaste of God’s shalom. This is not to “instrumentalize” worship as merely a means to an end, nor is it to reduce worship to a strategy for moral formation; neither should it be confused with an activism that sees Christian action as some Pelagian expression of our abilities. Worship and the practices of Christian formation are first and foremost the way the Spirit invites us into union with the Triune God. Worship is the arena in which we encounter God and are formed by God in and through the practices in which the Spirit is present—centering rituals to which God makes a promise (the sacraments). As Boulton observes, while John Calvin persistently emphasized a “preferred suite of formative practices” as “disciplines of regeneration,” he also constantly emphasized that these were not routines of spiritual self-assertion or human accomplishment:

Disciples may and do perform these sanctifying practices, but their performances are themselves divine gifts, and they take place properly and fruitfully—that is, in ways that produce genuine humility and insight for them and others—only by way of divine accompaniment and power. . . . Thus following Calvin, we may reframe “spiritual practices” as in the first place works of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ, the sanctifying, regenerating, restorative labor of God with us and in us. . . . Each of the church’s key practices is still something human beings do, but they do it neither alone nor as the act’s primary agent. Rather, in and through the practice, they participate in divine work.

So in the practices of Christian worship, and in related spiritual disciplines, we encounter the Lover of our souls. We are drawn into the life of the One our hearts were made for, the Lord of heaven and earth.

And it is that creating and re-creating God who tells us to go even as he goes with us, “even to the end of the age.” Christian worship culminates with a sending (“Go!”) accompanied by a promise (“And as you go, you go with his blessing”)—the benediction that is both a blessing and a charge, a co-mission-ing accompanied by the promise of the Spirit’s presence. So while we are sent to act, to labor in love for God and neighbor, the Spirit of Christ goes with us so that even “our” Christian action, undertaken as we are recruited into the missio Dei, is never merely “ours”; we “act in communion with God.” Worship is not merely time with a deistic god who winds us up and then sends us out on our own; we don’t enter worship for “top up” refueling to then leave as self-sufficient, autonomous actors. “In the conception of Christian praxis,” Ward notes, “there is no room for such a modern notion of self-sufficiency.” Instead, the biblical vision is one of co-abiding presence and participation (“I in you and you in me”). In other words, our Christian action is bound up with the dynamics of incorporation. “By the act of receiving the Eucharist,” for example, “I place myself in Christ—rather than simply placing Christ within me. I consume but I do not absorb Christ without being absorbed into Christ. Only in this complex co-abiding are there life, nourishment, and nurture because of, through, or by means of this feeding; there is both participation of human life in God’s life and participation of God’s life in human life.” So our action is not merely motivated by worship of the Triune God; rather, it is in worship that we are caught up into the life of God, drawn into union with Christ, and thus recruited into this participation that generates Christian action as we “go.” “The Christian act,” Ward continues, “has to be understood in terms not just of the church but also of the church’s participation in Christ, the church as the body of Christ. That is, the Christian act is integral to the church’s participation in the operations of the Triune God within realms created in and through Christ as God’s Word. Discipleship is thus not simply following the example of Christ; it is formation within Christ, so that we become Christlike. And the context of this formation is the church in all its concrete locatedness and eschatological significance.”

To emphasize the s/ending of Christian worship is not to reduce worship to moral formation or to treat the presence of God as a tool for our self-improvement. Rather, the centrifugal end of Christian worship is integral to the Story we rehearse in Christian worship; sending is internal to the logic of the practice. To emphasize that Christian action is the end or telos of Christian worship is not to instrumentalize worship but is rather to “get” the Story that is enacted in the drama of worship—the “true story of the whole world” in which we are called to play our part as God’s image-bearers by cultivating creation. Integral to that Story, and to the practice of Christian worship, is the sense that we are now enabled and empowered to take up this mission precisely because of the gift of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–17). At the same time, the Spirit meets us where we are as liturgical animals, as embodied agents, inviting us into that “suite” of disciplines and practices that are conduits of transformative, empowering grace. So even if there is a centrifugal telos to Christian worship and formation, there is also a regular centripetal invitation to recenter ourselves in the Story, to continually pursue and deepen our incorporation. It’s not a matter of choosing between worship or mission; nor are we faced with the false dichotomy of church or world, cathedral or city. To the contrary, we worship for mission; we gather for sending; we center ourselves in the practices of the body of Christ for the sake of the world; we are reformed in the cathedral to undertake our image-bearing commission to reform the city. So it is precisely an expansive sense of mission that requires formation. It is the missional telos of Christian action that requires us to be intentional about the formative power of Christian practices.

James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine. Smith has authored or edited many books, including Imagining the Kingdom and the Christianity Today Book Award winners Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and Desiring the Kingdom. He is also editor of the well-received The Church and Postmodern Culture series (www.churchandpomo.org).

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2009. Used by permission. http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com