THE WORSHIP WARS
One of the basic features of church life in the U.S. today is the proliferation of worship and music forms.
This in turn has caused many severe conflicts both within individual congregations and whole
denominations. Most books and articles about recent worship trends tend to fall into one of two broad
“Contemporary Worship” (hereafter CW) advocates often make rather sweeping statements,
such as “pipe organs and choirs will never reach people today.” “Historic Worship” (hereafter HW)
advocates often speak similarly about how incorrigibly corrupt popular music and culture is, and how
they make contemporary worship completely unacceptable.
Contemporary Worship: Plugging In?
One CW advocate writes vividly that we must ‘plug in’ our worship in to three power sources: “the sound
system, the Holy Spirit, and contemporary culture.”
But several problems attend the promotion of
strictly contemporary worship.
First, some popular music does have severe limitations for worship. Critics of popular culture argue that
much of it is the product of mass-produced commercial interests. As such, it is often marked by
sentimentality, a lack of artistry, sameness, and individualism in a way that traditional folk art was not.
Second, when we ignore historic tradition we break our solidarity with Christians of the past. Part of the
richness of our identity as Christians is that we are saved into a historic people. An unwillingness to
consult tradition is not in keeping with either Christian humility or Christian community. Nor is it a
thoughtful response to the post-modern rootlessness which now leads so many to seek connection to
ancient ways and peoples.
Finally, any worship that is strictly contemporary will become ‘dated’ very, very quickly. Also, it will
necessarily be gauged to a very narrow ‘market niche.’ When Peter Wagner says we should ‘plug in’ to
contemporary culture, which contemporary culture does he mean? White, black, Latin, urban, suburban,
‘Boomer,’ or ‘GenX’ contemporary culture? Just ten years ago, Willow Creek’s contemporary services
were considered to be ‘cutting edge.’ Today, most younger adults find them dated and ‘hokey.’
Hidden (but not well!) in the arguments of contemporary worship enthusiasts is the assumption that
culture is basically neutral. Thus there is no reason why we cannot wholly adapt our worship to any
particular cultural form. But worship that is not rooted in any particular historic tradition will often lack
As one of many examples, see Michael S. Hamilton, “The Triumph of the Praise Songs,” Christianity Today (July 12, 1999)
vol.43, no.8, p.28. He speaks of ‘Reformers’ who value tradition and look for greater unity among churches through common
liturgical forms and of ‘Revolutionaries’ who promote contemporary music and who encourage broad diversity in worship style.
Representative figures who emphasize historic continuity, tradition, high culture, and theological exposition in worship are
Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Eerdmans, 1995) and David Wells, “A Tale of Two Spiritualities” in
Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998.) (See also the web page for “Church Music at a Crossroads”: http://www.xlgroup.net/cmac.)
Examples of those urging a move to contemporary worship with emphasis “visual communication, music, sensations, and
feelings” are Lyle Schaller “Worshipping with New Generations” in 21 Bridges to the 21st Century (Abingdon, 1994) and
C.Peter Wagner, The New Apostolic Churches (Regal, 1998.)
See C.Peter Wagner, who says that contemporary worship: “is ‘plugged in’ to three important power sources: the sound system,
the Holy Spirit, and contemporary culture” p.3 of “Another New Wineskin–the New Apostolic Reformation” in Next
(Leadership Network: Jan-Mar, 1999.) That is a good description of tradition-eschewing contemporary worship.
The critique of Willow Creek as a ‘dated’ and ‘Boomer’ model can be found in Sally Morganthaler, “Out of the Box: Authentic
Worship in a Postmodern Culture,” Worship Leader, May-June, 1998, p.24ff. This and an interview with musician Fernando
Ortega in Prism Nov/Dec 1997 are indications of some major cracks in the foundation of evangelical assumptions about what
kind of services will reach young secular people. However, if a church abandons ‘Boomer’ contemporary music for more
alternative rock, won’t it be in the same position in another 10-15 years that Willow Creek is in now? More historic worship
forms have a better claim to durability. the critical distance to critique and avoid the excesses and distorted sinful elements of the particular
surrounding, present culture. For example, how can we harness contemporary Western culture’s
accessibility and frankness, but not its individualism and psychologizing of moral problems?
Historic Worship–Pulling Out?
HW advocates, on the other hand, are strictly ‘high culture’ promoters, who defend themselves from
charges of elitism by arguing that modern pop music is inferior to traditional folk art.
But problems also
attend the promotion of strictly traditional, historic worship.
First, HW advocates cannot really dodge the charge of cultural elitism. A realistic look at the Christian
music arising from the grassroots folk cultures of Latin America, Africa, and Asia (not commercially
produced pop music centers) reveals many of the characteristics of contemporary praise and worship
music–simple and accessible tunes, driving beat, repetitive words, and emphasis on experience.
U.S., an emphasis on strictly high culture music and art will probably only appeal to college educated
elites. Second, any proponent of ‘historic’ worship will have to answer the question–‘whose’ history?
Much of what is called ‘traditional’ worship is rooted in northern European culture. While strict CW
advocates bind worship too heavily to one present culture, strict HW advocates bind it too heavily to a
past culture. Do we really believe that the 16th century Northern European approach to emotional
expression and music (incarnate in the Reformation tradition) was completely Biblically informed and
must be preserved?
Hidden (but not well!) in the arguments of traditional worship advocates is the assumption that certain
historic forms are more pure, Biblical, and untainted by human cultural accretions. Those who argue
against cultural relativism must also remember the essential relativity of all traditions. Just as it is a lack
of humility to disdain tradition, it is also a lack of humility (and a blindness to the ‘noetic’ effects of sin) to
elevate any particular tradition or culture’s way of doing worship. A refusal to adapt a tradition to new
realities may come under Jesus’ condemnation of making our favorite human culture into an idol, equal to
the Scripture in normativity (Mark 7:8-9)
While CW advocates do not seem to recognize the sin in all
cultures, the HW advocates do not seem to recognize the amount of (common) grace in all cultures.
Bible, Tradition, and Culture
At this point, the reader will anticipate that I am about to unveil some grand ‘Third Way’ between two
extremes. Indeed, many posit a third approach called “Blended” worship.
But it is not so simple as that.
My major complaint is that both sides are equally simplistic in the process by which they shape their
Marva Dawn does an excellent job of distilling Ken Myer’s concerns about pop music in her chapter “Throwing the Baby Out
with the Bath Water” in Reaching Out, p.183ff.
See “The Triumph of the Praise Songs,” Ibid.
Too often, advocates for ‘high culture’ or ‘pop culture’ worship music try to make their advocacy a matter of theological
principle, when their conviction is really more a matter of their own tastes and cultural preferences. For example, when pressed,
HW advocates admit that jazz is not really a product of commercial pop culture, but qualifies as a high culture medium which
grew out of genuine folk roots and requires great skill and craft and can express a fuller range of human experience than rock and
pop music.(See Calvin M.Johansson, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (Hendrickson, 1984) pp.59-62 on “Folk Music
and Jazz.”) On their own principles, then, there is no reason for traditionalists not to allow jazz music in worship, yet I see no
Tradition-worship proponents encouraging jazz liturgies! Why not? I think that they are going on their own aesthetic preferences.
Unfortunately, for many people ‘blended’ worship consists of a simple, wooden 50-50 division between contemporary songs and
traditional hymns. This is often quite jarring and unhelpful. It is more of a political compromise than the result of reflection about
your community’s culture and your church’s tradition. A far better example of a ‘Third Way’ is Robert E. Webber, Blended
Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship (Hendrickson, 1996.) Webber is talking of a more organic blend of
liturgical elements, content-ful preaching, and a variety of music forms. In many ways my essay agrees with Webber’s basic
thrust. We would not use the term ‘blended worship,’ however, because it usually connotes the political compromise mentioned
above. On the problems of 50-50 music division, see comments at end of the paper, under “Selecting Worship Music”. CW advocates consult a) the Bible and b) contemporary culture, while HW advocates consult a) the Bible
and b) historic tradition. But we forge worship best when we consult a) the Bible, b) the cultural context
of our community,
and c) the historic tradition of our church.
The result of this more complex process
will not be simply a single, third “middle way.” There are at least nine worship traditions in Protestantism
That is why the book you are reading provides examples of culturally relevant worship that
nonetheless deeply appreciates and reflects its historic tradition.
This more complex approach is extremely important to follow. The Bible simply does not give us enough
details to shape an entire worship service. When the Bible calls us to sing God’s praises, we are not given
the tunes nor the rhythm. We are not told how repetitive the lyrics are to be or not to be, nor how
emotionally intense the singing should be. When we are commanded to do corporate prayer, we are not
told whether those prayers should be written, unison prayers or extemporary prayers.
So to give any
concrete form to our worship, we must “fill in the blanks” that the Bible leaves open. When we do so, we
will have to draw on a) tradition, b) the needs, capacities and cultural sensibilities of our people, and c)
our own personal preferences. Though we cannot avoid drawing on our own preferences, this should
never be the driving force (cf.Romans 15:1-3.) Thus, if we fail to do the hard work of consulting both
tradition and culture, we will–wittingly or unwittingly–just tailor music to please ourselves.
THE SEEKER-SENSITIVE WORSHIP MOVEMENT
Sally Morgenthaler’s interview with young pastors (Chris Seay, Mark Driscoll, Ron Johnson, Doug
Pagitt, Clark Crebar) in Worship Leader (May/June 1998) “Authentic Worship in a Postmodern Culture”
and Fernando Ortega’s interview in Prism in Nov/Dec 1997 are indications of some major cracks in the
foundation of evangelical assumptions about what kind of services will reach ‘secular’ people.
A good case for a balanced view of consulting culture within an evangelical view of the authority of Scripture is made by
Andrew F. Walls in “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” and “The Translation Principle in Christian History” in his
The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.)
A good case for a balanced view of consulting tradition within an evangelical view of the authority of Scripture is made by
Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon for Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1993), pp.83-101. He writes that
Christian humility makes us recognize the reality of our biases and prejudices when coming to Scripture. This means it is
unbiblical (in our doctrine of sin) to think we can find the Biblical “way” without consulting our own tradition and other tradition
to check our own Scriptural findings. See also John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, (John Knox, 1981) Chapter I –
“Traditioning the Faith.”
James F.White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Abingdon, 1993) p.107, identifies the Protestant worship traditions as
16th cent: Anabaptist, (Continental) Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran
17th cent: Quaker, Puritan/Reformed
18th cent: Methodist
19th cent: Frontier
20th cent: Pentecostal
John M. Frame (Worship in Spirit and Truth, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996) does a good job of showing how great a
variety of forms the basic Biblical elements can take. Some have argued against the use of choirs and solos on the basis of the
‘Regulative Principle’, namely, that they are not prescribed by Scripture. But Frame asks, if some are allowed to pray aloud, while
the rest of the congregation meditates, why can’t some be allowed to sing or play aloud, while the rest of the congregation
meditates? (p.129) Why would song be regulated in a different way than prayer and preaching? Some have argued against using
hymns and non-Scriptural songs on the basis of the Regulative Principle. But Frame asks, if we are allowed to pray or to preach
using our own words (based on Scripture), why can we not sing using our own words (based on Scripture)? (p.127) Why would
song be regulated in a different way than prayer and preaching? Some have argued against the use of dance in worship, but aside
from many apparent references to dance in worship in the Psalter, Frame asks, if we are exhorted to raise hands (Neh.2:8;
Ps.28:2; 1 Tim.2:8), clap hands (Ps.47:1), and fall down (1 Cor.14:25) is it not expected and natural that we accompany words
with actions? (p.131) We can’t preach, surely, without using our bodies to express our thoughts and words, so how can we
arbitrarily ‘draw the line’ to exclude dance? Frame points out that the real way to make decisions about these issues (such as
dance) is wisdom and love–namely, what will edify? In other words, if you think that dancers in leotards will be too distracting
and sexually provocative for your congregation, just say so–don’t try to prove that the Bible forbids it. It is a bad habit of mind to
seek to label “forbidden” what is really just unwise. The crisis (that is here? coming?) in the church growth movement due to the fact that the attack on
seeker-sensitive worship is coming from inside, that is, from the pastors of fast growing ‘mega-churches’
(though the name and category is eschewed) filled with under-30’s. These pastors claim that the Willow
Creek inspired services supposedly adapted for the unchurched were calibrated for a very narrow and
transitory kind of unchurched person: namely, college educated, white, Baby Boomers, suburbanites. The
increasingly multi-ethnic, less rational/word-oriented, urban oriented and more secular generations under
the age of 35 are not the same kind of ‘unchurched’ people. The critique is that Willow Creek ‘overadapted’ to the rational, a-historical ‘high modern’ world-view.
The younger pastors say that Willow Creek services do several things that alienate the seekers of their
a) It removed transcendence from its services by utilizing light, happy music and tone, complete
accessibility of voice, using dramatic sketches that create a nightclub or TV-show atmosphere. But their
generations hunger for awe.
b) It ditched connection to history and tradition and went completely contemporary in all cultural
references, from sermon illustrations to decoration to antiseptic ‘suburban mall/office building’ setting.
But their generations hunger for rootedness, and love a pastiche of ancient and modern.
c) It emphasized polish and technical excellence and slick professionalism and management technique,
while their generations hunger for authenticity and community rather than programs.
d) It emphasizes rationality and practical ‘how-to’ maps, while their generations hunger for narrative and
A SOLUTION: EVANGELISTIC WORSHIP
Two models, with problems
The most thoughtful members of the Seeker Friendly Service movement agree that the straight “seeker
service” is not really worship, and therefore new believers are brought out of the seeker service into a
weekly worship service for believers. The critics, on the other hand, generally see the worship service as
the place for renewing and edifying believers who then go out into the world to do evangelism. The two
models then, seem to be:
Seeker service (evangelism)–> Worship service (edification)
Worship service (edification)–> World (evangelism)
There are pragmatic problems with both models. The SFC model is financially very expensive, it is hard
to assimilate new Christians out of seeker services into real worship services. And if the main worship
service is very oriented toward seekers, the Christians often feel under-fed.
On the other hand the critics
Some disadvantages of the SFC approach:
1) Expense issue. It is extremely expensive and difficult to do seeker services well. Essentially, they don’t “work”
unless the unchurched person feels the art is as good as what they could pay to see in a theater. Many SFC attempts are mediocre,
and unless you hit a “home rum” every time, the effect is quite discouraging.
2) Sunday issue. Also, when Sunday is the day for seeker-focused services, it gives the world the impression that this is
the people of God in worship, that “this is all there is.” And it isn’t good for Christians to have to squeeze their weekly worship
into a weeknight evening, between two busy days of labor. It robs Christians of a whole day for worship and renewal (I Cor
3) Assimilation issue. Regular weekly seeker-focused services can also create a large assimilation problem. If a person
comes to Christianity through a seeker service, he or she may settle into that environment for weekly worship. Supposedly, the
new Christian is to be invited out of the “seeker” service into worship, but the jump is not easy to accomplish. In one church, new
believers through the seeker service could not be assimilated into the regular worship, because the “believers worship” was so cannot avoid the charge that they are not proposing any alternative to the current evangelistically
ineffective church. One critic is very typical when he writes: “”While we [the seeker-friendly church] try
to entice the world to come to church to hear the Gospel, the New Testament proclaims a powerful church
worshipping God going out into the world in order to reach the lost (cf. The book of Acts.) True revivals
have historically proved…that a revived and healthy church reaches a dying and lost world through its
own awakened people.”
This view says, “evangelism will take care of itself as long as we have great
worship”. But the history of revivals also shows us innovations in outreach.
The Great Awakening was marked by two men who were remarkable innovators–George Whitefield in
evangelism and John Wesley in organization. Many criticize seeker services because they are “not
worship” and contain many elements of “entertainment”. Often they call us to look, instead at the revivals
of the past. But they do not criticize George Whitefield for attracting huge crowds to his own “seeker
programs”. He drew people into open air meetings with a kind of preaching that was unparalleled at the
time in its popular appeal–his humor, his stories, his dramatically acted-out illustrations, and his
astounding oratorical gifts drew tens of thousands.
At the time he was labeled an “entertainer”. His
meetings were not worship nor did they replace worship, but they were certainly critical to the revival.
They provided Christians with a remarkable place to do friendship evangelism. His meetings were all
over the city on virtually everyday of the week. Whitefield’s evangelism was enormously aggressive and
passionate. His preaching was racy and popular yet pointed toward the transcendent and holy God. Yet
his public meetings shared many of the characteristics (and criticisms) of seeker services today.
Whitefield and Wesley did not become instruments of revival by simply being great expository preachers
and renewing historic worship.
My main problem with the two models, however, is theological. They both assume that worship cannot
be highly evangelistic. I want to show that this is a false premise. Churches would do best to make their
“main course” an evangelistic worship service, supplemented by both a) numerous, variegated, creative,
even daily (but not weekly) seeker-focused events, and b) intense meetings for Bible study and corporate
prayer for revival and renewal.
God commanded Israel to invite the nations to join in declaring his glory. Zion is to be the center of
world-winning worship (Isaiah 2:2-4; 56:6-8.) “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people
not yet created may praise the Lord…so the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion, and his praise in
Jerusalem when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the Lord” (Psalm 102:18.) Psalm 105
is a direct command to believers engage in evangelistic worship. The Psalmist challenges them to “make
known among the nations what he has done” (v.1.) How? “Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of his
wonderful acts” (v.2) Thus believers are continually told to sing and praise God before the unbelieving
nations. (See also Psalm 47:1; 100:1-5.) God is to be praised before all the nations, and as he is praised
by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song.
totally oriented toward long-time Christians who are immersed in the evangelical sub-culture and inhabit a very different world
than the new Christian. (See Ed Dobson, Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service (Zondervan, 1993), p.83) And if the seeker service
becomes the worship service of the new believers, either those new Christians will not be fed properly, or the service will inch
over into becoming more of a contemporary worship service, and will lose its effectiveness in outreach.
4) Friendship evangelism issue. The most effective way to reach a non-believer is for a Christian to share the gospel
with him or her in the context of a friendship. But if a Christian wants to bring a non-Christian friend to a seeker-focused weekly
service, he or she will have to come out twice a week, once to take the friend to church, and once to get his or her own nurture.
5) Nurture issue. We said a church may have one seeker-sensitive service that is heavily focused on the unchurched,
but which serves as the weekly worship for believers. As time goes on, however, the Christians often hunger for something
“deeper”. In response to complaints, the pastor often “gets more meaty” and begins to lose the non-Christians.
John H. Armstrong, “The Mad Rush to Seeker Sensitive Worship”, Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1995, p.25.
Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. (Eerdmans, 1991.) Peter tells a Gentile church, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people
belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his
marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9.) This shows us that the church is challenged to the same witness that Israel
was called to–evangelistic worship. A key difference: in the Old Testament, the center of world-winning
worship was Mt. Zion, but now, wherever we worship Jesus in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-26) we have
come to the heavenly Zion (Heb.12:18-24.) In other words, the risen Lord now sends his people out
singing his praises in mission, calling the nations to join both saints and angels in heavenly doxology.
Jesus himself stands in the midst of the redeemed and leads us in the singing of God’s praises (Hebrews
2:12), even as God stands over his redeemed and sings over us in joy (Zeph. 2:17.)
I Corinthians 14:24-25.
Paul is addressing the misuse of the gift of tongues. He complains that tongues speaking will cause
unbelievers to say they are out of their minds (v.23.) He insists that the worship service must be
comprehensible to them. He says that if an unbeliever “or unlearned one” (an uninitiated inquirer) comes
in, and worship is being done “unto edification”, “he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will
be judged by all” (v.24.) Of what does this conviction consist? “The secrets of his heart will be laid bare”
(v.25.) It may mean he realizes that the worshippers around him are finding in God what his heart had
been secretly searching for, but in the wrong ways. It may mean the worship shows him how his heart
works. The result: “so falling on his face, he will worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you'”
When the Spirit falls on those in the upper room, a crowd gathers (v.5) because a) they are hearing the
disciples praising God (“we hear them declaring the wonders of God” v.11), and b) and also because this
worship is “in our own tongues” (v.11.) As a result, they are first made very interested (“amazed and
perplexed they asked one another, ‘what does this mean'” v.11), and later they are convicted deeply (“they
were cut to the heart and said…’Brethren, what shall we do?'” v.37.)
There are obvious differences between the two situations. I Cor 14 pictures conversion happening on the
spot (which is certainly possible.) In Acts 2 the non-believers are shaken out of their indifference (v.12),
but the actual conversions (v.37-41) occurred at the end of an “after meeting” in which Peter explained
the gospel (v.14-36) and showed them how to individually receive Christ (v.38-39.) It is often pointed out
that the tongues in the two situations are different. But students usually are looking so carefully at what
the two passages teach about tongues and prophecy that they fail to note what they teach about worship
and evangelism. We can learn this:
1. Non-believers are expected to be present in Christian worship. In Acts 2 it happens by word-of-mouth
excitement. In I Cor 14 it is probably the result of personal invitation by Christian friends. But Paul in
14:23 expects both “unbelievers” and “the unlearned” (literally “a seeker”– “one who does not
understand”) to be present in worship.
2. Non-believers must find the praise of Christians to be comprehensible. In Acts 2 it happens by
miraculous divine intervention. In I Cor 14 it happens by human design and effort. But it cannot be
missed that Paul directly tells a local congregation to adapt its worship because of the presence of
unbelievers. It is a false dichotomy to insist that if we are seeking to please God we must not ask what the
unchurched feel or think about our worship.
3. Non-believers can fall under conviction and be converted through comprehensible worship. In I Cor 14
it happens during the service, but in Acts 2 it is supplemented by “after meetings” and follow-up
evangelism. God wants the world to overhear us worshipping him. God directs his people not to simply worship, but to sing his praises “before the nations.” We are not to simply communicate the gospel to
them, but celebrate the gospel before them.
Three practical tasks
2. Getting unbelievers into worship.
The numbering is not a mistake. This task is actually comes second, but nearly everyone thinks it come
first! It is natural to believe that they must get non-Christians into worship before they can begin
“doxological evangelism”. But the reverse is the case. Non-Christians do not get invited into worship
unless the worship is already evangelistic. The only way they will have non-Christians in attendance is
through personal invitation by Christians. Just as in the Psalms, the “nations” must be directly asked to
come. But the main stimulus to building bridges and invitation is the comprehensibility and quality of the
Christians will instantly sense if a worship experience will be attractive to their non-Christian friends.
They may find a particular service wonderfully edifying for them, and yet know that their non-believing
neighbors would react negatively. Therefore, a vicious cycle persists. Pastors see only Christians present,
so they lack incentive to make their worship comprehensible to outsiders. But since they fail to make the
adaptations, Christians who are there (though perhaps edified themselves) do not think to bring their
skeptical and non-Christian friends to church. They do not think they will be impressed. So no outsiders
come. And so the pastors respond only to the Christian audience. And so on and on. Therefore, the best
way to get Christians to bring non-Christians is to worship as if there are dozens and hundreds of
skeptical onlookers. And if you worship as if, eventually they will be there in reality.
1. Making worship comprehensible to unbelievers.
Our purpose is not to make the unbeliever “comfortable”. (In I Cor. 14:24-25 or Acts 2:12 and 37–they
are cut to the heart!) We aim to be intelligible to them. We must address their “heart secrets” (I Cor
14:25.) That means we must remember what it is like to not believe; we must remember what an
unbelieving heart is like. How do we do that?
a) Worship and preaching in the “vernacular”. It is hard to overstate how ghetto-ized our preaching is. It
is normal to make all kinds of statements that appear persuasive to us but are based upon all sorts of
premises that the secular person does not hold. It is normal to make all sorts of references using terms and
phrases that mean nothing outside or our Christian sub-group. So avoid unnecessary theological or
evangelical sub-culture “jargon”, and explain carefully the basic theological concepts, such as confession
of sin, praise, thanksgiving, and so on. In the preaching, showing continual willingness to address the
questions that the unbelieving heart will ask. Speak respectfully and sympathetically to people who have
difficulty with Christianity. As you write the sermon, imagine an particular skeptical non-Christian in the
chair listening to you. Add the asides, the qualifiers, the extra explanations necessary. Listen to
everything said in the worship service with the ears of someone who has doubts or troubles with belief.
b) Explain the service as you go along. Though there is danger of pastoral verbosity, learn to give 1 or 2
sentence, non-jargony explanations of each new part of the service. “When we confess our sins, we are
not groveling in guilt, but dealing with our guilt. If you deny your sins you will never get free from them.”
It is good to begin worship services as the Black church often does, with a “devotional”–a brief talk that
explains the meaning of worship. This way you continually instruct newcomers in worship.
c) Directly address and welcome them. Talk regularly to “those of you who aren’t sure you believe this, or
who aren’t sure just what you believe.” Give them many asides, even expressing the language of their
hearts. Articulate their objections to Christian living and belief better than they can do it themselves.
Express sincere sympathy for their difficulties, even when challenging them severely for their selfishness and unbelief. Admonish with tears (literally or figuratively.) Always grant whatever degree of merit their
objections have. It is extremely important that the unbeliever feel you understand them. “I’ve tried it
before and it did not work.” “I don’t see how my life could be the result of the plan of a loving God.”
“Christianity is a straightjacket.” “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” “I could never keep it up.” “I don’t
feel worthy; I am too bad.” “I just can’t believe.”
d) Quality aesthetics. The power of art draws people to behold it. Good art and its message enters the soul
through the imagination and begins to appeal to the reason, for art makes ideas plausible. The quality of
music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power. In many churches, the
quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Why? Their faith makes the
words of the hymn or the song meaningful despite its artistically poor expression, and further, they
usually have a personal relationship with the music-presenter. But any outsider who comes in, who is not
convinced of the truth and who does not have any relationship to the presenter, will be bored or irritated
by the poor offering. In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor
aesthetics exclude. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will
continue to come. For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will have a major part in drawing them
e) Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice. We live in a time when public esteem of the church is
plummeting. For many outsiders or inquirers, the deeds of the church will be far more important than
words in gaining plausibility. The leaders of most towns see “word-only” churches as costs to their
community, not a value. Effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that
outsiders will say, “we cannot do without churches like this. This church is channeling so much value into
our community through its services to people that if it went out of business, we’d have to raise
everybody’s taxes.” Mercy deeds give the gospel words plausibility (Acts 4:32 followed by v.33.)
Therefore, evangelistic worship services should highlight offerings for deed ministry and should celebrate
through reports and testimonies and prayer what is being done. It is best that offerings for mercy ministry
be separate, attached (as traditional) to the Lord’s Supper. This brings before the non-Christian the impact
of the gospel on people’s hearts (it makes us generous) and the impact of lives poured out for the world.
f) Present the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear. Baptism, and especially adult baptism, should
be made a much more significant event if worship is to be evangelistic. There may need to be opportunity
for the baptized to offer personal testimony as well as assent to questions. The meaning of baptism should
be made clear. A moving, joyous, personal charge to the baptized (and to all baptized Christians present)
should be made. In addition, the Lord’s Supper can become a converting ordinance. If it is explained
properly, the unbeliever will have a very specific and visible way to see the difference between walking
with Christ and living for oneself. The Lord’s Supper will confront every individual with the question:
“are you right with God today? now?” There is no more effective way to help a person to do a spiritual
inventory. Many seekers in U.S. churches will only realize they are not Christians during the fencing of
the table after an effective sermon on the meaning of the gospel. (See below for more on addressing
unbelievers during communion.)
g) Preach grace. The one message that both believers and unbelievers need to hear is that salvation and
adoption are by grace alone. A worship service that focuses too much and too often on educating
Christians in the details of theology will simply bore or confuse the unbelievers present. For example, a
sermon on abortion will generally assume the listener believes in the authority of the word and the
authority of Jesus, and does not believe in individual moral autonomy. In other words, abortion is
“doctrine D”, and it is based on “doctrines A, B, and C.” Therefore, people who don’t believe or
understand doctrines ABC will find such a sermon un-convicting and even alienating. This does not mean
we should not preach the whole counsel of God, but we must major on the “ABC’s” of the Christian faith.If the response to this is “then Christians will be bored”, it shows an misunderstanding of the gospel. The
gospel of free, gracious justification and adoption is not just the way we enter the kingdom, but also the
way we grow into the likeness of Christ. Titus 2:11-13 tells us how it is the original, saving message of
“grace alone” that consequently leads us to sanctified living: “For the grace of God that brings salvation
has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live selfcontrolled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the appearing
of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” Many Christians are “defeated” and stagnant in their growth
because they try to be holy for wrong motives. They say “no” to temptation by telling themselves “God
will get me” or “people will find out” or “I’ll hate myself in the morning” or “it will hurt my self-esteem”
or “it will hurt other people” or “it’s against the law–I’ll be caught” or “it’s against my principles” or “I
will look bad”. Some or all of these may be true, but Titus tells us they are inadequate. Only the grace of
God, the logic of the gospel will work. Titus says it “teaches” us, it argues with us.
Therefore, the one basic message that both Christians and unbelievers need to hear is the gospel of grace.
It can then be applied to both groups, right on the spot and directly. Sermons which are basically
moralistic will only be applicable to either Christians OR non-Christians. But Christo-centric preaching,
preaching the gospel both grows believers and challenges non-believers. If the Sunday service and
sermon aim primarily at evangelism, it will bore the saints. If they aim primarily at education, they’ll bore
and confuse unbelievers. If they aim at praising the God who saves by grace they’ll both instruct insiders
and challenge outsiders.
3. Leading to commitment.
We have seen that unbelievers in worship actually “close with Christ” in two basic ways. Some may come
to Christ during the service itself (I Cor. 14:24-25.) Others must be “followed up” very specifically.
a) During the service. One major way to invite people to receive Christ during the service is as the Lord’s
Supper is distributed. We say: “if you are not in a saving relationship with God through Christ today, do
not take the bread and the cup, but, as they come around, take Christ. Receive him in your heart as those
around you receive the food. Then immediately afterwards, come up here and tell an officer or a pastor
about what you’ve done, so we can get you ready to receive the Supper the next time as a child of God.”
Another way to invite commitment during the service is to give people a time of silence after the sermon.
A “prayer of belief” could be prayed by the pastor (or printed in the bulletin at that juncture in the order of
worship) to help people reach out to Christ.
Sometimes it may be good to put a musical interlude or an
offering after the sermon but before the final hymn. This affords people time to think and process what
they have heard and offer themselves to God in prayer. If, however, the preacher ends his sermon, prays
very briefly, and moves immediately into the final hymn, no time is given to people who are under
conviction for offering up their hearts.
b) After meetings. Acts 2 seems to show us an “after meeting.” In v.12 and 13 we are told that some folks
mocked upon hearing the apostles praise and preach, but others were disturbed and asked “what does this
mean?” Then Peter very specifically explained the gospel, and, in response to a second question “what
shall we do?” (v.37), explained very specifically how to become Christians. Historically, it has been
found very effective to offer such meetings to unbelievers and seekers immediately after evangelistic
worship. Convicted seekers have just come from being in the presence of God, and they are often most
teachable and open. To seek to “get them into a small group” or even to merely return next Sunday is
asking a lot of them. They may be also “amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:12), and it is best to “strike while
the iron is hot”. This is not to doubt that God is infallibly drawing his elect! That knowledge helps us to
An example: “Heavenly Father, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through your Son
Jesus, I can be more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I thank you that he lived the life I should have lived, and paid the
debt and punishment I owed. Receive me now for his sake. I turn from my sins and receive him as Savior. Amen.” relax as we do evangelism, knowing that conversions are not dependent on our eloquence. But the
Westminster Confession tells us that God ordinarily works through secondary causes, normal social and
psychological processes. Therefore, to invite people into a follow-up meeting immediately is usually
more conducive to “conserving the fruit of the Word.”
After meetings may consist first of one or more persons who wait at the front of the auditorium to pray
with and talk with any seekers who come forward to make inquiries right on the spot. A second after
meeting can consist of a simple question-and-answer session with the preacher in some room near the
main auditorium or even in the auditorium (after the postlude.) Third, after meetings should also consist
of one or two classes or small group experiences targeted to specific questions non-Christians ask about
the content, relevance, and credibility of the Christian faith. After meetings should be attended by skilled
lay evangelists who can come alongside of newcomers and answer spiritual questions and provide
guidance as to their next steps.