Book Review: "Worship and Mission After Christendom" by Alan and Eleanor Kreider

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Alan and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission After Christendom.  Scottsdale, Ariz.: Herald Press, 2011, 322 pp.

reviewed by Karl Dahlfred

Are worship and mission doomed to be in never-ending competition for the time and resources of the church?  Must we choose between looking inward and looking outward?  In “Worship and Mission After Christendom”, Alan and Eleanor Kreider give a resounding “NO”, pointing readers to a third way of looking at the relationship between worship and mission in light of the demise of Christendom in the West.

Raised on the mission field in Asia, Alan and Eleanor Kreider served as Mennonite missionary teachers in England for thirty years before returning to the United States, where they continue their work teaching, speaking and writing about issues of worship, church history, and peace making.  In “Worship and Mission After Christendom”, the Kreiders bring together the results of their studies in these areas, together with personal experience to present an alternative vision of the relationship between worship and mission.  

Drawing heavily upon their study of 1 Corinthians 11-14 and associated church history, the authors advance the thesis that the church’s worship is for building up Christians and aligning them with God’s purposes in the world.  They assert that the “primary purpose [of worship] is not the converting of outsiders; it is ‘the glorification of God and the sanctification of human beings” (p.141). So, how is worship related to mission? “[W]orship affects the church’s growth by building up members so they will  participate effectively in God’s mission” (p.140)  As the authors understand it, “God’s mission is bigger than saving souls; it is bigger than building the church.” (p.52). It also includes the broader concept of shalom, encompassing reconciliation and peace making (p.53-54).

The authors spend the bulk of their book chronicling and analyzing the nature and practices of worship and mission in the eras of pre-Christendom, during Christendom, and now post-Christendom.  In the Christendom of Europe, “worship was unavoidable” and “mission was unnecessary.” (p.24).  This state of affairs led to a compromised church. When mission did happen, it was always “out there” in some far away land, the job of specialists (chapter 2).  To fix this problem, the authors suggest that we adopt a missio dei understanding, namely turning our attention to the grand narrative of God’s reconciling work in Scripture and in the world (chapter 3).  

To find our role in the missio dei, the authors turn our attention to the pre-Christendom era.  During this period, Christians adopted the Greco-Roman practice of meeting together in homes for a meal, which was followed by after dinner conversation (p.101).  In chapter 6, which forms the core of the book, the authors do an historical reconstruction of the worship in the Corinthian church, drawing upon evidence from 1 Corinthians 11-14 and cultural background information.  While admitting that we don’t know much about patterns of worship in the early church and that only “in the fourth century, did a homogenization of Christian worship take place” (p.92), the authors proceed on the unsubstantiated assumption that the pattern of worship seen in Corinth was prescribed by Paul for all the churches he started. Thus in later chapters, they talk of “the Pauline vision of table and word” (p.123) and “Paul’s meal and symposium practice” (p.134).

Questions of standard practice aside, the authors paint a fascinating picture of what worship might have (ideally) been like at Corinth and the ways in which inequality is corrected as people of all socio-economic classes eat and fellowship together.  Taking 1 Corinthians 11-14 as prescriptive, not merely descriptive, the authors draw out certain directives for worship that they see as essential to worship, especially the need for every member to participate in the service (“each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation...” 1 Cor 14:26).  Worship services that are directed by only a few people, often pastors, are seen as unfortunate non-participatory hold overs from Christendom.  Later chapters go into great detail as to how churches of various types can integrate times of testimony into their worship services.  This type of multivoiced worship is seen by the authors as an important part of Paul’s directives for worship that was long neglected under a Christendom model.

The second half of the book (chapters 7 to 13) fleshes out the implications of the model of church presented in chapter 6, making practical suggestions for how churches can edify believers and equip them for mission through worship. Chapters 8 and 12 are perhaps the best in the book.  The authors explain the nature and goals of worship, providing probing questions that every church needs to ask itself about its own worship.  A key point is that outsiders will find the Christian faith attractive not because Christian worship is instantly comprehensible (p.230) but because of the distinctive missional living of transformed Christians.

There is a lot to like about this book and I found myself cheering as the authors advocated for God-centered worship that exegetes the character of God, tells the grand narrative of what He is doing in this world, and edifies believers.  Their vision for worship is a breath of fresh air compared to the bankrupt models of hyped-up revival meetings that dominate in so many places.  Any church that gives even half of the thought and attention to worship as the authors have done will reap a great blessing in the lives of its members.

However, the book also manifests some bothersome liabilities.  The theme of non-violence shows up with great regularity, which is understandable given the authors’ Mennonite background.  However, the concept of non-violence comes up in some unexpected places.  Discussing the Bible’s grand narrative, the authors state that “God saves the world by nonviolent means... through incarnation, cross, and resurrection” (p.158).  The cross was non-violent? A couple pages later, we are told that baptized believers “cannot live missional lives unless they understand widely assumed myths such as the efficacy of redemptive violence” (p.161). Although it was not discussed, this phrase made me curious to know the authors’ view on substitutionary atonement.

It was also rather troubling that the authors’ vision of living out the missio dei is largely composed of Christians getting involved in social, ecological, and political causes.  While affirming the value of traditional missionaries (chapter 2) and admitting there “will continue to be need for some Westerners... to go as long-term missional partners” (p.216), there is a general downplaying of the need for proclamation type ministry and the sending of cross-cultural missionaries.  The “worldwide interdependence” and “global partnerships” that the authors envision  (chapter 11) mainly consist of churches from the West and the global south visiting each other and learning from each other.  While such partnerships are good, there remain many parts of the world today without a viable indigenous church with which to partner. The need to send missionaries “out there” has not perished along with Christendom, and merely sending short-term teams with “a special competence in psychology, youth work or the theology and practice of peacemaking” (p.216) will be insufficient if we want to see disciples made and churches planted among the millions of people in the world today living in unreached people groups.

Despite these and other short comings, the Kreiders have an important message to share with the contemporary church about the relationship between worship and mission now that Christendom assumptions are no longer valid.  While some readers will disagree with their low church ecclesiology, broad ecumenism (embracing both Catholics and emergents), or pacifist tendencies, the questions that they ask about worship and mission deserve careful attention.  If this book causes Christians and churches to re-examine the Scriptures and re-evaluate their assumptions about worship and mission, then the Kreiders will have done a great service to the church of Christ.

This review originally appeared in the Great Commission Research Journal (Summer 2011) and is reproduced here by permission.

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