John was raised in a humanist home. He did not even know the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. As a student, however, he met a radiant, young, Christian woman. He was deeply puzzled as to what was clearly the inspiration of her wonderfully attractive life. She and others explained the gospel repeatedly to him and engaged in many discussions and frequent Bible studies with him. However, it was not until he began attending a vibrant worship service that, as he put it, “the penny dropped.” He recalls, “That’s when it all came alive. The words I’d read and listened to came to life. God himself came to life!”
In the part of Europe where I live, it is not always possible or appropriate to take an unbeliever to a worship service. However, perhaps in the face of the cultural chasm between our secular society and what goes on in most church services, we have lost our nerve and put worship—in particular, communal or congregational worship—and evangelism into two separate compartments. That is an indictment of both our understanding of evangelism and our practice of worship.
Some have responded by focusing on “seeker friendly” services. While these may seem helpful, too often they have mean stripping out anything that could not be equally at home in a pub, a lecture hall or on television. While we need to remove unnecessary barriers and cut away technical language that obscures rather than makes plain biblical truth, it is also possible to stress contextualisation to the degree that we lose sight of the true focus of worship—God himself and what delights him. In other words, in our commendable desire to reach unbelievers, we can reduce our congregational life to a social gathering—it is enjoyable, but ironically missing the very elements of reverence, awe, worship and “otherness” that flow from having God himself at the very heart of what we are about.
Authentic worship must be preoccupied with God. Sadly, much that is labelled worship is focused not on God and his glory; instead, it is focused on our feelings and needs. Many contemporary worship songs are “us-centred.” It is not wrong to open our hearts to the Lord and to express how we feel (indeed, in the Psalms the psalmist pours out his heart); however, worship must revolve firmly around the words, deeds and character of the Triune God himself. Worship is about honouring God. It is about giving him the glory that is his by right and declaring it to one another (and to an unbelieving world) with gladness and thanksgiving. Such worship reminds us that we are creatures before our Creator, sinners before our Redeemer, children looking up to our Father. It is faith-affirming and faith-stretching. It is no less than what God looks for.
Perhaps we need to look long and hard at the widespread trivialisation of “worship” and come back to what it should be. I would like to suggest five ways in which worship and evangelism—the declaration and living out of the good news—belong together.
- Worship: The Purpose of Evangelism. Evangelism is not an end in itself. It is not about seeing how busy we can be, or setting up strategies to persuade as many people as possible to adopt the label “Christian” or to an organisation. The purpose of evangelism is to see men and women, boys and girls, become the worshippers and committed disciples they were created to be. It is to see the Lord being given the worship that is his by right. We engage in evangelism because we are jealous for God’s reputation; but however jealous we are, God is even more jealous. It is an affront to the Lord that any person should give the glory and worship that belongs to God alone to someone or something else.
- Worship: The Inspiration of Evangelism. The more we let the wonderful truths about the character, deeds and words of God soak deep into our minds and hearts, the more we find evangelism flows naturally from and through our lives. As we realise how missionary the heart of God is, we want to reflect that and be missionary as well. As we ponder the grace, mercy and love of God, it becomes urgent to declare them, longing that people should be reconciled to him. As we face up to the righteousness of God, and the inevitability of judgement, we will want to urge people to recognise sin and to seek shelter in the only safe hiding place. As we wonder at the love of God in Christ, we will want to see rebels become worshippers. The more we think about God, the more we will see the obscenity of human beings who do not worship him. Psalm 96 teaches that worship is only truly worship when it declares the character and deeds of God to the nations, that is, to those beyond the present company of believers.
- Worship: The Means of Evangelism. When our expression of worship is truly worship, unbelievers hear and see the reality and dynamic life of God, who is no longer a three-letter word or an abstract philosophical concept. He is a living presence among his people. As we worship, the Spirit breathes life, transforms us and demonstrates his power and authority. The unbeliever observing this knows there is something happening, and Someone present, beyond the purely rational and natural. He or she may harden his or her heart against it; however, this experience may cause him or her to seek the living God.
- Worship: The Dimension of Evangelism. Often, in seeking to simplify the gospel to make it the more easily understood, evangelicals have been guilty of offering a shrunken God. It is as our worship is enlarged and deepened that we understand more of the depth and riches of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It becomes increasingly wonderful that such a God should desire our company, or find our fumbling worship acceptable. But he does! Further, this God demands honour and worship in every dimension of our lives, personal and social, and looks for the obedience of faith in all that we do, are and think.
- Worship: The Consummation of Evangelism. The Apostle John, in his revelation, is given (and then gives to us) wonderful glimpses into heaven and eternity. Around the throne, God’s people—drawn from every tribe, tongue and nation—are engaged in perfected worship. All that has been provisional becomes complete. This is our final destiny: to be the worshippers we were created to be. We hear bits of the heavenly songs. Singing is a natural way of expressing worship among believers; however, singing is not all there is to worship. (The phrase, “Now we’ll have a time of worship,” meaning a time of singing, is most unhelpfully reductionist.) No, these worshippers not only rehearse what God has done, and his nature, but they also offer up their lives. Worship is a total response of all that we are and have and do.
May the Lord help us to worship him in spirit and in truth—more deeply, more joyously, with awe and reverence. As our worship becomes richer, our evangelism will become more fruitful and more spiritual. Like John, may there be many more who will say, “God himself came to life!”