Revisiting Piper on Mission and Worship

Guitar by JMC Photos

Guitar by JMC Photos

“Missions exists because worship doesn’t” (John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad)

I imagine you’ve heard this quote. In fact, back in the early 2000s you couldn’t go to any Christian conference without hearing that quote. It was scrawled on banners over pictures of the globe. It was cited every time there was a talk on either worship or mission, which, let’s face it, were the themes of virtually every talk in early-2000s-Christian-Conferences.

I’ve never read the book and I know that quote.

I’ve never read the book and I’ve quoted that quote.

(And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone there).

But recently I’ve not heard it so often, which is a shame, because it really is a spectacular quote. And if I’m to be honest, I can’t help but wonder if the maxim of the second decade of the 2000s hasn’t become something more akin to: ‘Mission exists, and so worship doesn’t.’

I’m being only semi-serious, of course. I know nobody would put it as callously as that. But increasingly I’m hearing people talk and write about the ‘primacy of mission’, and all but eradicating worship from their church services.

I know there are good methodological reasons for reducing the amount of time spent in sung worship in our churches, being more ordered, transparent and clear in the way we conduct worship times. I have argued and would continue to argue that we can do worship in a way that both honours God and is intelligible and attractive to those who don’t yet know him. Let’s be clear: the phrase ‘missional worship’ is not an oxymoron. (It does use an annoying made up word – have you never noticed the squiggly red line when you type it out?! – but that’s a different matter). It’s not like ‘married bachelor’ or ‘square circle’. It is very possible to worship in a way that engages and enhances the mission. It’s even possible to do charismatic worship in a missional way, since being truly charismatic and truly missional should go hand in hand.

But tell me this: if worship in our churches is shortened to the point of near-non-existence, for the sake of the mission; and if the mission is successful and we see many new people come to Christ and join our churches; and if our churches are not worshipping regularly and deeply – how will the new disciples ever become worshippers? And if they don’t, then what was the mission all about anyway?

Piper’s quote continues to say, “Missions begins and ends in worship.” Too often today mission begins with the side-lining of worship, and ends by calling people to be part of a worship-lite community.

Are we in danger of creating a culture – which will only bear its bitter fruit in the next generation – in which the only model of worship that new disciples see is a short one, with two (maximum) inoffensive songs, and barely any Spirit-led interaction, which they then assume is what worship is meant to be like? What happens when those disciples become the next generation of church planters and worship leaders?

Read the whole Piper quote. I find it more challenging now than I did eight-or-so years ago, and I wonder if it’s not a quote we need to hear repeated more often now than we did previously: 

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. It’s the goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into the white hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Ps 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Ps 67:3-4).

But worship is also the fuel of missions. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!” who cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord…I will be glad and exult in thee, I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High” (Ps 104:34, 9:2). Missions begins and ends in worship.

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