Worship is not evangelism, but our worship services should always have the free offer of the Gospel in mind, and if we are God-centered and Bible-directed we will be evangelistic. Those who most believe in the sovereignty of God, and most long for his glory in worship and all the world, most yearn for the lost to be found and the prodigal to come home.
Beginning in the 70s, many evangelical churches decided that the real reason we meet on Sunday as a congregation is to evangelize, and so they changed the structure and substance of those services in order to reach the unchurched. The idea was that, if we are going to reach the unchurched then we can’t look and feel like the church. The motives and goal of this movement were laudable, the means were, however, misguided and disasterous.
What happened was, in order to bring people to Christ, the focus shifted away from what God wants from the worshiping assembly to what the unchurched (or whatever specific target group might be in view) wants or is comfortable with. Again, the idea behind this is simple and initially compelling. The unchurched don’t know “our” hymns, they are uncomfortable with pastoral prayers, unaware of the function of our order of service, unfamiliar with expositional sermons and feel out of place in a churchy environment. The best way to win them is to look and feel less churchy. So churches abandoned these things.
What was the outcome? Well, forty years later, as this movement self-evaluated we found out that it did not result in “churching the unchurched” but rather in “de-churching the churched.” That is it actually did not result in growing the church, in enfolding the unchurched, but instead simply robbed the church itself of the corporate benefits of robustly Christian worship. Consequently, congregations today know less Bible, are unfamiliar with solid pastoral prayers, participate less in singing, and have been deprived for a generation of weighty, searching expositional preaching. Christian public worship creates a culture and is actually essential to the kind of discipleship the church is explicitly called to do by Jesus in the Great Commission (“teach them to obey all that I have commanded”). And changing the substance and structure of the service in order to accommodate worshipers instead of to glorify God, undermined that discipleship.
Now, in reaction, beginning in the late 90s and continuing today, folks have pushed back hard and rightly said “enough!” Some have gone the direction of so-called “ancient-future” worship and tried to appropriate in an eclectic way some of the liturgical forms of the pre-Reformation church (without adequately appreciating the Reformation’s robust exegetical/redemptive-historical critique of those forms, or wrongly assuming that the Protestant rejection of medieval worship practice was a rationalist-modernist mistake), while others have grabbed hold of various Reformation liturgies and clung tightly. I’ll talk about this later, sometime.
What I don’t want us to miss though is this: a God-centered worship service, scripturally derived, needn’t be opposed to evangelism and outreach. Indeed, though worship is not evangelism, evangelism is one important by-product of true worship. We don’t become more evangelistic by being less God-centered, we become LESS evangelistic by being less God-centered!
Paul expected that unbelievers would come to the worshiping assembly of Christians and declare that “God is certainly among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25). Consequently, we are always mindful that not all those who attend our worship services are believers. We welcome them, speak in language they can understand, preach the Gospel clearly and boldly, and pray, as did Paul, that they experience the presence of the living God and find the way of salvation in our public worship. But we don’t change the service to fit them! We want them to encounter the God of the Bible when they come, so we do as the God of the Bible tells us to do.
The irony is this, the God-centered worship service can be the perfect context for an evangelistic encounter, and making a service less God-centered can only decrease the effect. But we have to be deliberate and self-conscious about the presence of unbelievers and our desire to see them saved. The pastors need to remind themselves to think and speak and plan with their presence in mind (Tim Keller, Mark Dever and David Robertson have been a huge help to me in this area). The people need to invite them there, welcome them there, show them hospitality and neighbor love, seek their well-bring and follow up in friendship and life.
Isaac Watts catches this combination of zeal for God’s glorious sovereignty and evangelistic desire perfectly in his hymn “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place.” Every Reformed worship service ought to reflect and resonate with its themes of gratitude for grace and gospel desire for the lost: bring the strangers home!
How sweet and awesome is this place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?
“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”
’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.
Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.