Through many epochs of the Christian era, vivid discussions about the relationship between worship and evangelism have been commonplace. Some people say the relationship is very weak. They argue that evangelism is an activity directed toward humans as they are invited to hear the message of the gospel, to react and to accept it in order to start a new life with Jesus Christ. As for worship, these same people often argue that it is primarily an activity whose object is the Triune God to whom the worshipping congregation addresses its prayers, praises and devotions. Other people see strong ties between the two subjects, believing that attempts to separate one from the other will make worship dry and fruitless because the church will not develop its worship system in a way that attracts outsiders to join the congregation. John Bolt formulated this conflict by saying:
“Is such worship intended primarily for the church or for the world? In other words, is worship only the goal of the believing community or can it also be an evangelistic means by which the unchurched are drawn into the believing community? Must we choose between worship and evangelism in our Sunday morning gatherings? Alternatively, is there some way intentional Christian worship could still indirectly have an evangelistic effect?”1
In this article, I try to answer the last question in Bolt’s series. Through some biblical patterns, especially in the New Testament, we notice the impact worship has had on the evangelistic role of the Church. And from these observations, we get some fresh applications.
1. Worship as a Context for Evangelism in the Early Church
As we open Acts, we face many situations where God gives missionary tasks to a Church that is in a worshipping state. In such cases, worship can be seen as the context for evangelism. Two of these situations follow:
- In Acts 2:1-4, we read about the spark of Pentecost and how the miraculous signs (the voice from heaven and the tongues of fire) happened while the disciples were together in one place. This term, “one place,” refers to the upper room where the disciples would gather to worship the God of the risen Christ. When this little congregation was filled with the Holy Spirit, the crowds began hearing the Christian message in many languages. Evangelism took its place and influence in the midst of a congregation which was worshipping together.
- In Acts 13:1-3, the mission of the Holy Spirit to Barnabas and Saul occurred in a worship event as well: “There were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” The Christian congregation was able, through continually being in God’s presence, to acquire the spiritual sensitivity which enabled them to make right choice in sending certain apostles to the new ministry field. To this, F.F. Bruce says: “There are indications in the New Testament that Christians were especially sensitive to the Spirit’s communications during fasting.”2 Fasting, then, as one of the facets of worship, was a very effective way to enhance and sharpen spiritual sensitivity, a necessity for Christian evangelism in its first century.
2. The Church Gathers Believers and Unbelievers
The attempt to separate worship and evangelism emanates from a long heritage that tried forcefully to keep the Church away from dealing with the secular. However, in the first years of the Church, the new community included in its daily life both believers and non-believers. Worship was an activity in which both groups participated: the former by practice, the latter by observation, which God sometimes used to draw these unbelievers to himself.
Patrick Keifert establishes this idea on a theological basis which sees that the reception of the Church for those non-believers is a tangible application for the spiritual truth of God who, in the worship of the Church, is the host. Consequently, all the congregation—believers and unbelievers—are his guests:
“The God whom we worship created all things and is the host in our public worship; all are welcome in the house of this God. Furthermore, God is often present through the presence of a stranger. God both commands and attaches a promise of hospitality to the stranger.”3
Hans Boersma formulates this concept in another way:
“The Church’s practice of hospitality is, in the words of Reinhard Hütter, 'both a reflection and an extension of God’s own hospitality…God's sharing of the love of the triune life with those who are dust.' In her liturgy, the Church extends God’s hospitality in Christ precisely because the Church is, in a real sense, the continuation of Jesus’ presence through the participation in anointing with the Spirit.”4
In 1 Corinthians 11-14, Paul discusses worship. In chapter 14, when he deals with the subject of tongues and how to handle it inside the Church, he points to the presence of “some who do not understand” and “unbelievers” in the midst of worship. He therefore calls the Church to consider the presence of these two groups by putting more stress on the ministry of prophecy (teaching) so that they may find something to grasp:
“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you.'” (1 Corinthians 14:23-25)
Worship here is directed not only to believers; it also aims to make the sinner face his or her sins and to incite his or her polluted conscience, leading to repentance before the living God.
Tim Keller suggests three “practical tasks”5 which can help us in providing an accepted and meaningful worship for unbelievers.
First, get unbelievers into worship. In many psalms, we encounter the repeated message for the pagan nations to join the people of God in rendering homage to YHWH (Psalms 2:10-12; 22:27-28; 47:1-9; 57:7-11; 66:1-4, 8-9; 67:1-6; 68:32-34; 72:16-19; 86:8-10; 96:1-13; 98:4-9; 99:1-4; 100:1-5; 111:1-4; 117:1-2). With such a renewed message, it is unavoidable for the Christian worship to involve those who are far away from Christ. A worship which includes believers only and closes the door for others will prevent these very believers from inviting their families, neighbors and friends to attend the church. Therefore, it is the role of the pastor to put in his or her mind while planning the worship that some unbelievers will be present the next Sunday. He or she must then ask the question, “How would I communicate with them?”
Second, make worship comprehensible to unbelievers. Through avoiding unnecessary theological or evangelical cultural jargon, explaining the service as the preacher goes along, directly addressing and welcoming outsiders, using aesthetics, celebrating deeds of mercy and justice, presenting the sacraments in a way that makes the gospel clear and preaching grace, the worship conductor makes the worship more tangible and comprehensible to unbelievers.
Third, lead unbelievers to a commitment. This would come in one of two ways:
- During the service. As the Lord’s Supper is distributed, the nonbeliever can be encouraged not to take the elements, but rather to take Christ himself as savior. The next time the Eucharist if offered, he or she can participate. Another solution is to have a “prayer of belief” after the sermon. This prayer can be conducted by the pastor to help the unbeliever express his or her faith reaction toward the word of God.
- After meetings. This can be fulfilled through an immediate follow-up meeting with the pastor and his or her assistants. During this time, the pastor or staff can answer difficult questions and clarify obscure theological or spiritual points.
Although some people try to make a complete distinction and separation between worship and evangelism, by going back to some New Testament situations we can prove the two actually go hand in hand. By linking the two, we can develop a modern form of doxological evangelism which keeps the Christian mission, as much as possible, in a worship context.
1. John Bolt. 1992. “Some Reflections on Church and World, Worship and Evangelism.” Calvin Theological Journal. 27, p. 96.
2. F. F. Bruce. 1988. The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 245-246.
3. Patrick Keifert. 1989. “Guess Who’s Coming to Worship? Worship and Evangelism.” Word & World, IX(1), p. 47.
4. Hans Boersma. 2003. “Liturgical Hospitality: Theological Reflections on Sharing in Grace.” Journal for Christian Theological Research. 8, p. 67.
5. Tim Keller. 2001. “Evangelistic Worship.” June. www.redeemer2.com/resources/papers/evangelisticworship.pdf