Sunday morning. The pealing of bells. The carved wood. The pipe organ. The nooks and crannies of the sanctuary. The high roof. The dim light. The towering pulpit. The minister in flowing robes and bibbed collar ponderously ascending the pulpit. These were some of my childhood memories of worship that left a picture of God: God was a serious person; He liked order, ritual, solemnity, and a subdued constituency. As a child I observed that the baptismal service consisted of sprinkling and christening of babies. Never once did I see an adult baptized. It seemed that adults never became church members—not even by profession of faith. If worship on earth were to be a foretaste of heaven, then heaven surely seemed boring!
I also recall, however, another child hood worship experience. A warehouse in Sydney. Concrete floor, white painted walls, festive banners, and an orchestra. Singing included hymns and Scripture songs, projected on a large screen. A lectern served as the pulpit. The pastors wore no robes. Baptism was by immersion, and each week there was a baptismal service, with adults joining the church. The congregation was animated, involved, full of awe and joy, and yes, even enthusiasm.
As a youngster I often reflected on the two worship styles: In the first, God seemed like a grandfather—wise, old, stern, and not at all favoring joyful expressions. He seemed to wait in heaven until we died, then took us in some spirit form into an ethereal abode of placidity. In the second place, God seemed young (like Jesus, in His 30s?), active, involved in life to the extent of changing the lives of those who believed in Him. He seemed happy, giving His people salvation, peace, and joy in this world, and inspiring them to tell others about their Saviour who is coming again to gather His people to be with Him. He seemed like a hero to His constituents—most of whom were university students.
At first I even thought that we worshiped God the Father in one church and Jesus Christ in the other. But upon more mature reflection, the two experiences represented two different concepts of God: in one, God was transcendent; in the other, He was both transcendent and immanent!
Upon listening to my experience, a friend observed, "Well, what does it matter? You just worshiped God in two different traditions." But it does matter, affecting the very life of the church: the first church today is only a shadow away from death; the second has relocated, has its own modern building, and is a thriving congregation of several thou sand.
Putting it bluntly, the first church majored in traditional liturgy and liberal "relevant" concerns in worship and is dying. The second church majored in evangelical and biblical issues, brought an evangelistic thrust to worship, and is experiencing both qualitative and numerical growth.
Worship and evangelism
Should worship have an evangelistic purpose? Let us observe two New Testament passages. First, Paul's concern for unbelievers who worshiped at Corinth: "So if the whole church conies together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everyone is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner.... So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!' " (1 Cor. 14:23-25).*
Paul's burden is that the quality and mode of worship should not only honor God but also serve an evangelistic purpose.
Worship is never neutral. Paul is troubled lest a charismatic excess of tongues should convince unbelievers that church members are insane. On the other hand, he believes that Spirit-filled prophecy, 1 together with signs and wonders, will convict the unbelievers of their sinful condition, and lead them to worship God.
For a second passage linking (by inference) worship to evangelism, we turn to James: "Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:2-4).
Primarily James is using his illustration to warn the church against discrimination. Secondarily he is concerned that the members avoid evil thoughts and judgmentalism. We are to welcome people (believers or unbelievers) to our meetings without favoritism. Such an attitude among believers has both nurturing and evangelistic implications.
It is unlikely that people against whom members discriminate in the church's worship meetings will return and be come members of the body of Christ. Because worship affects both values and relationships, it is quite legitimate to question both the worship and the God who is worshiped in a church that practices discrimination.
James, then, is raising a legitimate concern about discrimination at church meetings. Worship makes a strong statement about the values that a congregation adopts in relation to its God. Thus the quality and style of a church's worship do affect the nurture of the converted and the evangelism of the unconverted. As evangelism leads men and women to worship God, so worship affects, for better or for worse, the evangelistic potential of a congregation.
The Evangel, worship, and evangelism
Crucial to the thesis of this article—that a church's worship service affects its evangelism—is the definition of worship: worship is communication with God. Secularization has introduced a shift in the way people see things today. In the New Testament world, and for that matter even until recent times, mystery was in everyday thinking. God was in heaven high, holy, and in majesty. Today the awe and reverence have been replaced by intellectualism on the one hand, and a "buddy-buddy" experience on the other.2
Worship is communication. But it is not simply coming together for another meeting, not simply a weekly ritual like that of a club or a PTA meeting. It is communication evoked by its Subject—God. For the Christian it is a celebration3 of the God who has made a difference in our world. He is our Creator. He is our Redeemer. He is our Provider. He is our Providence. He is our Future. And we worship celebrating the crucified, risen, and living Saviour of the world.
Worship is communication with God. It is ascribing praise, reverence, and honor to Him. It derives from worthship (Anglo-Saxon woerth "worth," with the suffix scipe, Eng. ship)4 and therefore involves values. It also prepares a person to hear from God—through His Word, and by proclamation of the gospel. Gospel is good news—God's promise of salvation through faith in Christ. Those who accept God's promises by faith are counted worshipers of the true God (Rev. 14:6, 7). Paul's contention is that the unbeliever "will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you'" (1 Cor. 14:25). An experience of the presence of God in congregational worship convicts the unbeliever to con fess Christ. Viewed thus, true worship is evangelism.
Pastors are responsible to lead the congregation in worship. They must also equip members for soul winning. But first they must win over their congregations, gain "entry" to the local congregation—regardless of the style and ethos of its worship service and its missionary outreach. This may mean that pastors need to spend their first year visiting members, listening to their stories, gaining their confidence, and making con tact with unbelievers through parishioners' friend networks.
With confidence established, a pas tor can move to effect changes in worship, which in turn will impact the mission of the church. Meanwhile every pastor needs to find out:
1. How many in this congregation regard the sermon as the "high event" and all that precedes it as mere "preliminaries"?
2. How much of the service incorporates the congregation's participation in God-focused worship?
3. Does the assembly experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in church on Sabbath? Are members aware of the vertical, horizontal, and internal dimensions in worship?
4. What about music? Does the singing consist of hymns of exhortation (speaking to each other about God), or is there an element of genuine praise and thanksgiving (as in the Psalms)? Are the lyrics addressed to the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, or to our selves? Is there a balance between songs of worship, praise, and exhortation?
5. When an elder offers the pastoral prayer, is it soaked in biblical allusions and yet personal with reverential awe? Do the elders know how to move through a pastoral prayer from praise, to confession, to supplication with intercession and thanksgiving, concluding with affirmation?
6. Is the preaching biblical, grace-oriented, expository, filled with the drama of the stories of the Bible, and yet practical in terms of culture, current problems, and individual needs? Are appeals extended at the conclusion of every sermon—whether or not an altar call is given?
Honest answers to these questions sensitize pastoral leadership to changes that may be needed to construct worship with an evangelistic thrust. Changing the liturgy, however, touches one of the most sensitive areas of congregational life and can endanger church unity as well as pastoral tenure. Therefore, education must precede any attempted change in worship style.
Practical worship evangelism
How can we reach people for Christ and invite them to worship with us at church without giving them a long series of Bible studies? Perhaps the easiest method is to use the church's side door! When Christians assemble in small groups and follow the house-meeting practice of the early church, the church will grow as it did in apostolic times (Acts 5:42; 6:1). In these groups, unbelievers need to learn as much about worship as about God and fellowship. Worship, of course, must consist of, as in the primitive church, prayer, praise, lessons, prophecy, the use of other gifts, and contributions.5
The intimacy of a small group offers security to the unbeliever. If the group focuses on relationships and worship (through conversational prayer), most people will continue to fellowship and worship week after week with their group. Soon they will discover Jesus in a new way, meeting their deepest spiritual needs. Church attendance will be their next step. Simply stated, when believers invite unbelievers into a small group, offer them acceptance and Christian love, and then teach them how to worship God in praise, prayer, and Bible study, the unbelievers are usually led to Christ and to worship Him in His church.
Consider the experience of our Desert Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church at Tucson, Arizona. We have seven small groups functioning at various times of the week. The groups stress relation ships and worship. Members study and fellowship in their group. Within a week or two after the initial exposure to Christian worship in these small groups, unbelievers often come to church. For ex ample, four new people attended our May 12 small group meeting. Three of them attended church May 15, and they returned to the group meeting on May 19, bringing another (unbelieving) friend with them. He also attended church May 22. These four have already asked for baptism, and two have requested to be married in our church. Before baptism, however, Bible studies are given. For new Christians we have a Serving in the Spirit Sabbath school class. This experience helps new members identify spiritual gifts, and motivates them in Christian service before they discover the art of "pew warming."
Worship evangelism is a powerful method of soul winning. "Jackson" was invited to attend one of our small groups. He came for a few weeks. He requested prayers for an emotional distress that had caused him much suffering. We prayed with him by the laying on of hands. He learned to pray himself and began to study the Bible at home. Later he brought his three boys to church, and invited a divorced couple to his baptism. "Jill" and "Bert" came to the church in jeans. Later they said they have attended several churches, but they felt at home, welcomed, and loved in our church. They were impressed by the Christ-centered, gentle, and flexible style of worship, and are now preparing for baptism. As a consequence of their communion with Christ, their marriage found healing; their two children have been taken out of temporary homes and are back again with them. "Jackson's" estranged wife has now agreed to attend worship services with him, and has stopped divorce proceedings.
Communion with Christ and the power of prayer are the most potent evangelistic media we possess. Spirit-filled worship wins people to Christ. It meets hearts' deep hunger for God. It provides healing from sin and guilt.
* All Scripture passages are from the New
1 One meaning of "to prophesy" is to forthtell,
to speak openly, to proclaim the divine
message. The primary usage in 1 Corinthians 14
denotes inspired preaching, rather than foretell
ing the future. "For Paul, prophecy was one of
God's greatest gifts to His church for edification
.. . , and he ranked the prophet second only to an
apostle in honor and importance. ... By 'prophecy,'
Paul understands intelligible preaching that
builds up the church in faith ..., explains mysteries,
and imparts knowledge" ("Prophet in the New
Testament," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962]).
2 See Robert E. Webber, Worship Is a Verb
(Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1985), pp. 30, 31.
3 Some may object to linking the word
"celebrate" to worship. I tried for a synonym, i.e.,
carnival, feast, festival, gala, jubilee, party,
commemoration, observance, ritual; ant.: depressing,
dull. The range of meanings restricts me to
"celebrate," a good King James word: "From even to
even, shall ye celebrate your sabbath" (Lev. 23:32).
4 "Worship," A Dictionary of the Bible, ed.
James Hastings (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902).
5 In Hastings, p. 943.