There is a struggle between worship and evangelism within our churches. Over the past few decades, there has been a movement in the United States to convert the Sunday worship service into an evangelistic gathering. Historically, however, Christians gathered for worship and scattered for evangelism. The worship service has never been intended to be an evangelistic event. This makes sense as only those who believe in God can worship God. It may sound obvious, but those who do not know God cannot worship the God they do not know. In fact, Scripture calls those who do not know God, enemies of God (see Rom 5:10; Col 1:21; Jas 4:4). The worship of God is the priority and ultimate culmination of his redemptive work. Though important, evangelism is not the primary purpose of the gathering (see 1 Cor 14).
It seems that Christians today have turned evangelism into inviting people to church rather than sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Marva Dawn states:
"Worship is the language of love and growth between believers and God; evangelism is the language of introduction between those who believe and those who don’t. To confuse the two and put on worship the burden of evangelism robs the people of God of their responsibility to care about the neighbor, defrauds the believers of transforming depth, and steals from God the profound praise of which he is worthy."
Nowhere in Scripture do we find, “Worship the Lord to win over unbelievers.” Instead, we find countless passages that encourage us to worship God because he is worthy of our worship. I agree with James McDonald when he states, "The problem in the church today is that we treat God's glory as a by–product and the missional activities of the church as the primary thing when the opposite is what Scripture demands."
Historically, Sunday worship expresses three truths: It remembers the story of God and his saving action in history; it experiences the renewing presence of God; and it anticipates the completion of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth. The worship of God is a supernatural experience as mortals commune with the Immortal. Pastor Matt Chandler states:
"Worship gatherings are not always spectacular, but they are always supernatural. And if a church looks for or works for the spectacular, she may miss the supernatural. If a person enters a gathering to be wowed with something impressive, with a style that fits him just right, with an order of service and song selection designed just the right way, that person may miss the supernatural presence of God. Worship is supernatural whenever people come hungry to respond, react, and receive from God for who He is and what He has done. A church worshipping as a Creature of the Word doesn't show up to perform or be entertained; she comes desperate and needy, thirsty for grace, receiving from the Lord and the body of Christ, and then gratefully receiving what she needs as she offers her praise—the only proper response to the God who saves us."
Our worship services must be a place where we expect something supernatural to occur as we meet with, magnify, and exalt Almighty God. Oftentimes, however, we have turned our worship services into evangelistic meetings with the intent to wow unbelievers into the kingdom.
There are some concerned that evangelism will somehow get lost if the Church focuses primarily on worship. Dawn would counter that,
"In a culture just as pagan and anti-Christian as ours (both Romans/Greeks and Jews were opposed to this “Jesus movement”), the early Christians did not try to figure out how to attract their neighbors. They did not try to control the process. Instead, they simply practiced Churchbeing, so that the Lord could do his work of adding new believers."
Now don’t get me wrong; I am not minimizing the church’s responsibility of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am a firm believer in evangelism. There are people all around us—family, friends, co–workers—that are on their way to an eternity without Christ because they have not yet heard of, or have rejected, God’s grace. This should break our hearts and compel us toward evangelism. But we must not confuse the purpose of our worship gatherings as times for evangelism. As John Piper states at the beginning of his book “Let the Nations Be Glad,”
"Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporal necessity. But worship abides forever."
This is not to say that we must wait on loving others until we have figured out how to love God properly. Returning to Jesus’ Great Commandment found in Mark 12, following the two commands does not encourage the neglect of one command over the other. Our primary calling in life is to worship God. As we worship we are compelled to love others and share God’s love with them. It is clear, therefore, that as we obey the first command we become better at obeying the second. By obeying the second command we are compelled to further obedience of the first command. We must realize that there is an important connection between worship and evangelism:
"Of course the distinction is not total, for if believers worship with gladness and passion, anyone not yet a part of the community certainly will be attracted to the One who is the object of their worship. But to focus the worship on evangelistic introduction deprives believers of deeper nurturing toward Churchbeing and deprives God of the intimate and involved worship due him from the Church."
A.W. Tozer states that “practically every great deed done in the church of Christ all the way back to the apostle Paul was done by people blazing with the radiant worship of their God.” This would include sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. It is through our worship that we are set ablaze to shine the light of Christ in a darkened world. As Dawn states,
"To be the sort of people who will gladly fulfill our responsibility for witness and mentoring and nurturing care we need meaty worship—worship that engages us deeply in an encounter with the God whose splendor is illimitably beyond our understanding, worship that shakes us out of our narcissism and consumerism, worship that disciplines us and thereby equips us for the work of the kingdom in witness and vocation and suffering."
Reformer John Calvin believed that “Christian worship both testifies to the goodness of God before the world and is an act of separation, signaling a clear delineation between the world and the worshiping community.”
One other item to consider, before moving on, is the neglect of the corporate worship gathering in lieu of other activities, often for the sake of evangelism. I have heard of churches doing “Gone Serving” Sundays where they send their congregation out into the community to pick up litter or paint park benches, i.e. community service, in lieu of gathering together for a worship service. This is admirable, but potentially a dangerous misuse of the Sunday morning meeting time. As spiritual leaders, our desire should be that our congregation would be spiritually formed during the worship service so much so that their lives reflect Christ in ways that manifest itself in community service and care. Instead, we try to manipulate our congregations into serving and attempt to make it as convenient as possible for them to serve others.
What about sacrifice? Christ makes it very clear that following him and serving others in his name will not be an easy task:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24)
The cross is not fun. It is a tool of torture and excruciating pain.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt 10:16)
Following Jesus and serving others in his name should cost something of us. It will not always be easy, convenient, or fun.
Christians often have the tendency of focusing attention on reaching out to the world for God that they neglect getting to know God deeply themselves. Robert Mulholland states, “They were so busy being in the world for God that they failed to be in God for the world.” I have known families who claim that doing sports on Sunday mornings is a form of evangelism. This may be the case, but what about their time of corporately worshiping with the body of Christ? How is the family receiving spiritual nourishment and guidance? Moreover, this may be evangelism for the parents (although I would argue that for many, what they call evangelism is not really evangelism), but what about the kids who are on the field playing the game? When do they get their corporate worship time? You cannot homeschool Christianity. The family component is vitally important in the discipleship journey, but the Christian life is one of community that requires the body of Christ, in all of it’s beauty, and sometimes ugliness, to fulfill God’s desire to make us more into the likeness of His Son. You must have consistency in your spiritual life in order to build relationships with people at church and to grow as a disciple of Christ. This is especially true of children as they are developing into the human beings God intends them to be.
I understand that sometimes parents feel they have no choice. Maybe their kid is in a sport they love and Sunday mornings are the only opportunity for them to play at this particular level. Maybe there is a certain obligation to the team because it is a tournament situation and either all play or nobody plays. Regardless, there is a long–term effect to missing church. Our society is set up to undermine the discipleship of our children and missing the gathering with the body of Christ on a regular basis is exactly what society is pushing us toward. I have personally seen the effects that choosing something other than church has had on families; even when they chose the other for good, possibly even spiritual, reasons. There are always deep regrets. The good has been chosen over the great. I’m not saying that church attendance is the goal, but church is a primary way in which God has provided us an opportunity to grow spiritually.
There is a reason Chick–fil–A restaurants are closed on Sundays. Can you imagine the criticism they’ve endured for that decision? How much money is that business losing by choosing to be closed on Sunday? And yet, Chick–fil–A’s founder Truett Cathy, a devout Christian, saw the importance of the gathered body of Christ and established early on in his company’s history that his employees would be given the opportunity to actually take a Sabbath and go to church to worship with others.
The writer of the book of Hebrews pleads with the church to not neglect the corporate worship gathering:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24–25)
Scripture is clear that the gathering of worship is vitally important to our spiritual development.
As we learn to worship better, every other aspect of our lives will become better. You see, corporate worship fuels evangelism. Service, including evangelism, is the natural byproduct of worship. As we worship, we are being drawn to the very being of God by reflecting the nature and being of his Son, Jesus. Jesus cared for the least of these and proclaimed the gospel. Our worship, therefore, leads us to care for the least of these and proclaim the gospel.