Evangelism: Worship and Evangelism
WHAT HAS WORSHIP TO DO WITH EVANGELISM?
In this series we are exploring the intersection of evangelism and the mission of the church. The first step in our mission is to glorify God. This looks like holiness and worship*.
(*What is worship? I’ll use the word “worship” in the typical two ways. 1) Worship is ascribing worth to something; it the act giving praise to God. 2) Worship is the gathering where people assemble to give praise.)
There’s a strange, sad irony in the Church’s history—Christians often divide and conquer one another in “worship wars.” Music and worship styles have been at the center of major divides of whole movements as well as small-town splits in local churches. Instrumental or acapella? Contemporary or traditional? I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of worship wars.
Beginning in the 1970s in America, churches began to adopt a new approach to worship. The Sunday worship gathering began to be used as the main ministry of evangelism to outsiders. They were described as seeker-sensitive worship. The new approach was (unsurprisingly) controversial. It still is. But they were popular. Many unchurched people came to faith in Jesus in these environments. Some of the largest mega-churches in the country grew out of this approach.
Seeker-sensitive worship services prompted a very important question. Is the church’s gathering primarily for insiders or outsiders? Who is the focus of worship? Now, I know many of you are thinking, “Wait, isn’t God the focus of worship?” Yes! Of course! But for the sake of charity, let’s assume that everyone agrees that God is the recipient of our praise. The disagreement lies not in who we praise but in the purpose of our gathering. To ask it another way, what is the relationship between worship and evangelism?
In this post I will share a few observations about worship and evangelism in the OT, the NT, and then in a special case study from an early letter to a Christian church.
1. Worship and Evangelism in the OT
When we look at worship in ancient Israel in the OT we see it is connected to evangelism. Here are three ways:
First, God seeks worshipers from all nations. God chose one nation, Israel, of all the nations of the world to make his name dwell. But the nation of Israel was intended to be a light to the nations, a royal priesthood for the world. The main hub of worship in Israel was the temple, and it too was meant to attract the nations to the worship of God. The gathered worship of Israel was a sign for all nations. A purpose of the worship gathering was evangelism.
At the opening dedication ceremony of the temple, Solomon describes this purpose.
“when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name” (1 Kings 8:41-43).
Second, the act of singing praise itself invited all nations to join in worship to the one true God. Worship evangelistically announces God’s reign over “all nations.” The Psalms invite “all peoples” of “all the earth” to see and to sing God’s glory. This theme is across many of the Psalms. For example,
“Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.” (Psalm 47:1-2)
Look at how the songs of worship themselves call peoples to join in the song and to “come and see.”
“Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord.” (Psalm 117)
“Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!” …Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Psalm 66:1-3, 5)
Once again, part of the purpose of worship was evangelism.
Third, Israel’s prophets tell of the day when “all the nations” will worship with God’s nation (Isa 2:2). As Isaiah puts it,
“Many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” (Isaiah 2:3)
One day, the nations of the world will finally be reached by and included in the kingdom of God. They will look at God’s people, saying, “Surely God is in you” (Isa 45:14). One day, the foreigners and the outcasts will be welcomed in to the temple for true worship, “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7).
There’s a close connection between worship and evangelism in the OT. Worship is evangelism, and one day the nations will join in God’s kingdom and worship God as his people.
2. Worship and Evangelism in the NT
This connection between worship and evangelism holds true in the NT, though it is transformed in light of Jesus Christ. Here are three ways:
First, God seeks worshipers through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ conversation about where to worship—Gerizim or Jerusalem—Jesus says that the time is “now here” when “the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23). What an amazing statement! When it comes to worship, God is the true seeker! But what does it mean that He seeks true worshipers? In the next verse Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” What do”spirit” and “truth” refer to in the Gospel of John? Jesus! Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the Spirit is the Holy Spirit given by Jesus at his glorification (John 14:16-17).
In the NT, worship most often refers to the unique achievement of Jesus Christ for us. It is he who offers true worship and a true sacrifice to God (Heb. 2:17; 9:11-14; Rom. 3 25; Eph. 5:2). It is he who opens up God’s presence for us (Heb. 10:19-22: 12:22-24), and he opens us up for God’s temple presence (Eph 2:19-22; 1 Cor 3:16-17). God seeks worshipers in the Son by the Spirit. This is the new temple reality that calls all nations to give glory to God. Therefore, true evangelism and true worship are tightly woven and inextricably tied to the person of Jesus Christ.
Second, the church invites all nations to worship. The invitation to all nations to worship God is present but foggy in the OT. It becomes a clear point of focus in the NT. What was once a centrifugal force to the temple in Jerusalem immediately becomes a centripetal force from Jerusalem as the new temple of God’s Spirit marches on in the church. Beginning from Jerusalem, the gospel is announced to all nations.
Perhaps no one embodies this mission better than the apostle Paul. As Paul saw it, the point of Jesus’ entire ministry was, one, “to show God’s truthfulness” by confirming the promises to Israel’s patriarchs (Rom 15:8), and, two, to evangelize the nations that they “might glorify God for his mercy.”
Once again, evangelism leads to the worship of God in Jesus Christ. But Paul takes this another step.
For Paul, evangelism is worship. He makes this point in a beautiful phrase—“the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Rom 15:16). Paul was no priest, in the OT sense of the word. He wasn’t even a Levite. What he’s saying is that, by God’s grace, he was given the worship duty of evangelizing the nations. His act of worship is evangelism. (By the way, evangelism does not refer to the mere conversion of the nations, but the transformation of the nations into the image of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit and the gospel. See Rom 15:16-19.)
Third, the NT depicts all nations in worship together. The hope of the prophets is fulfilled in the people of Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 2:9-12). All nations are made into one “holy nation.” The church is the new “royal priesthood” whose purpose is to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” When we live lives for the worship of God, the nations “may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
The church is called to worship, to make the mission of God public in all the world.
3. A CASE STUDY FOR Worship and Evangelism: 1 CORINTHIANS 14
Based on these reflection on the intersection of worship and evangelism, let’s focus in on a case study from one of the earliest letters written to a Christian church (1 Cor 14:1-25). I want to make three observations, each with a surprise inside.
First, worship must be constructive (1 Cor 14:1-9). The language he uses for the purpose of the assembly is like a big construction project—“upbuilding,” “edification,” and “strengthening.” The Christian gathering is, primarily, for the growth of the church.
I think this is a surprise to many Christians today—the main purpose of the Christian worship gathering is horizontal (14:3). It’s not internal, and it’s not even vertical, strictly speaking. Do you want a wonderful experience of God in worship? Paul says, “That’s great! Me too. But you can do that on your own time.” The purpose of the assembly is us not you. The purpose is the edification of the church. Paul’s point sounds a lot like what my mom used to say, “If you can’t say anything helpful, don’t say anything at all.”
Second, worship must be comprehensible (1 Cor 14:10-20). In other words, worship should be in the language of the worshipers. The reasoning is obvious. Since the purpose of the worship gathering is the upbuilding of the people, then the people need to understand what is happening in the assembly. For Paul, the “mind” must be engaged to have fruitful worship, prayer, and singing.
This section also has a surprise for some. For Paul, the Christian worship gathering isn’t just for insiders in the church; it’s also for outsiders (14:16). (The Greek word for outsiders is idiotai. I still don’t recommend calling your guests, “Idiots!”) Christian worship is a powerful tool for evangelism when it is understood by nonbelievers as well as believers. Churches must translate, so to speak, what we are doing and saying for the unbelievers present.
Third, worship must be confrontational (1 Cor 14:21-25). Imagine a church where everyone speaks in tongues with no translator. Paul says, “Won’t the outsiders say that you are out of your minds?” It’s easy to miss the local context here. Corinth was world-famous for ecstatic worship experiences where leaders were “out of their minds.” The Oracle of Delphi was right outside town. Travelers from around the globe wanted her ecstatic, out of her mind utterances. In other words, Paul’s concern likely isn’t that the worship will be disliked but that the gathering not be differentiated. Christian worship is to be counter-cultural.
The final surprise is just how confrontational the Christian assembly is designed to be (14:24-25). Christian worship is meant to “convict” and “call to account” (14:24). It is meant to disclose secret sin and to illuminate the darkness of the heart. Paul gives no impression whatsoever that the assembly is meant to make outsiders comfortable. He is not advertising the church, saying, “No judgment here.” In fact, he explicitly says that unbelievers and outsiders will be “called to account” by those leading in worship (14:24). This evangelistic encounter then leads to worship. “And so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (14:25; cf. Isa 45:14).
Richard Hays puts it well in his commentary on 1 Corinthians.
“As the church ponders the challenge of evangelism in a post-Christian culture, there have been many proposals for packaging the gospel in smooth, unthreatening ways that will appeal to consumers conditioned by the slick come-ons of advertising and mass entertainment. Paul’s account offers a start contrast: the outsider who wanders in to the Christian meeting ‘is reproved and called to account by all,’ and hears the secrets of his heart disclosed through Christian prophecy. One of two things will happen. Either the outsider will turn and run, or she will fall down and declare, ‘God is really among you.’ If our preaching and prophecy have integrity, they will force such stark choices and radical responses.”
How can the contemporary church best embody the intersection of worship and evangelism? Where can we make our worship gatherings more 1) constructive, 2) comprehensible, and 3) confrontational?
These are crucial questions for churches today.
Next time: evangelism and community in 1 Corinthians 12.