The Eclipse of Worship and Evangelism – Part 3 (Jul – Aug 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

The Relationship of Evangelism to Worship

by Andre Resner
July – August, 1993

17The first two articles in this series traced the historical background to the eclipse of worship and evangelism, and pointed toward a mooring for each that is not subverted by culture but rather seeks to transform culture. In this third installment I will discuss the relationship of worship to evangelism. With the scope of evangelism widened to include much more than is traditionally understood1, we cannot exclude worship from consideration as one of the aspects of evangelism.

Yet it would be a mistake to understand the worship times of the church as having a primarily evangelistic purpose. This would be to fall prey to a thoroughly American frontier development of Christian worship, namely some form of revivalism. The Lord’s day worship is to be construed instead as happening because there is a community existing that has been initiated into the reign of God, i.e. evangelized. The worship of the community assumes evangelism. Worship is thus an “upreach” to God which is evoked by one’s initiation into God’s Kingdom. The relationship of evangelism to worship is to be seen thus as circular rather than simultaneous. One leads to the other which in turn leads again to the other. A result of an active outreach and upreach in the community of faith is what might be called an “inreach,” namely edification of the body. Thus evangelism and ministries of compassion/benevolence (outreach), corporate worship2 (upreach), and edification (inreach) feed and fuel one another in a circular fashion. We are focusing here on the movement from evangelism to worship.

The sacrament of transition in this is baptism.3 Baptism is neither excluded from evangelism because of pragmatic reasons (and replaced with a rote prayer, or the “four spiritual laws”) nor is it made the focal point.4 Baptism is rather an integral part of initiation: (1) as the gate of entry into the Kingdom of God and into the visible manifestation of the Kingdom’s presence on earth, the church; and (2) as a means of grace in which God acts to provide the forgiveness of sins, newness of life, purity of conscience, reorientation to the moral life, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The sacramental aspect of baptism is irreducible and irreplaceable in initiating one into the Kingdom.

If the worship of God were to be reclaimed entirely without attempts to make it an “opportunity” for evangelizing, what would one do with evangelistic remnants of the nineteenth century that have become an important part of the tradition? I am thinking here about the “invitation” or “altar call.” I would argue on the one hand that the invitation is not necessary as an aspect of Christian worship. Someone will object that we ought to give everyone the “opportunity” to respond to the message. This is to seriously reduce the message and its specificity of address to individual persons. If the church retains the invitation in Christian worship it should be the least of “opportunities” that the church gives the world to respond to the message. Unfortunately, because the church keeps the message pretty much boxed up in the church building, and streamlined to a nineteenth-century sermon by Walter Scott (“Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, be Baptized”), it must continue to have the invitation, because without it evangelistic activity would virtually cease.

On the other hand, however, if, in the normal Lord’s Day worship of the church one feels the need to retain the “invitation,” one might envision the worship service beginning with a call for all present who have not been baptized into Christ to receive baptism. After this the call to worship would be extended and the Lord’s Day service of the church would begin with the newly baptized served both the proclamation of the Word and the Lord’s Supper along with the rest of the community of faith.5 The worship would not attempt to culminate in a call to conversion, rather it would seek to culminate in praise of God’s glory. For worship, as von Allmen reminds us, “is addressed to God, and that is something – we must recognize it, alas! – which we have been apt to forget, as a result of the overemphasis on sermons, and the underemphasis on the sacraments.” 6 And Peter Brunner may not be exaggerating when he says that to confuse the movement to God in worship with the movement to humankind in evangelism is heresy. “That is why worship must not be confused with evangelism or with service, and why, in consequence, any ulterior motives of evangelism have nothing to do directly with the celebration of worship.” 7

The adoration and praise of God and the resultant edification of the saints in its corporate communion in the Word and Supper give the community of the Kingdom an orientation toward its God which in turn gives it a sense of identity of both its God and itself which is indispensable in its witness within the world. The identity gained in the worship of God is not simply acquirable through substitute means such as Sunday School. Though the Sunday School could be seen as an attempt to overcome the loss of the church’s identity which is gained in worship, a loss suffered because of its forfeiture of worship of God for the sake of the evangelism of humanity, the classroom is not a viable substitute for the sanctuary. This is because Christian cognition, identity, and selfhood is not formed simply through the rational means of pedagogy. The Christian community is in the process of becoming something, a something which is not possible without being in the presence of Someone. As Christians in the process of growing up into the head who is Christ, we are not simply trying to learn about the mystery of God and existence as God’s people. Rather, we are being drawn by our God to an existence within mystery. In worship we are being formed as a people who grow into the deeper reaches of mystery. This mystery has to do with a mode of existence and a certain identity which stands in contrast to the way the world understands existence and identity. Indeed, worship is the context in which an alternative world is constituted for the community of faith.8

It is not too little to say that the future of evangelism will hinge in large measure on the community of faith reclaiming the worship of God and locating evangelism more appropriately as an outgrowth and response to the Lord’s Day event of the worship of God. To sacrifice the orientative and sacramental time of corporate worship by the community of faith to some other agenda is to offer up the worship by the saints on the altar of American pragmatism. The effective loss is of both worship and evangelism, thus a betrayal of the gospel. As Karl Barth has said so forcefully:

The Church’s worship is the opus Dei, the work of God, which is carried out for its own sake. Is it not salutary and consoling to the poor pragmatic man of today to learn that here there is something which certainly does have its pragmatic side, but which cannot be justified for pragmatic reasons…. 9

This is not to say that worship will be comprised of only those within the community of faith. Visitors do come, and they are welcome. In speaking of the outsider present at the worship of the Corinthian church, Paul says that there is indeed a sign for unbelievers in the enthusiasts’ tongue speaking: “Will they not say that you are out of your mind?” However, as Paul points out, we must remain aware of the fact that outsiders often do observe our worship and we must take that “peeking over our shoulders” into account. But that does not mean that we sell out what would compromise Christian identity and orientation for the goal of bringing in new converts. Indeed, by our refusal to compromise the prophetic element within worship the outsider may join our worship with the exclamation, “God is really among you!” Much of what the community of faith must do in it corporate worship as the visibly present manifestation of the eschatological Kingdom of God may be a “sign of insanity” to the uninitiated. That is as it should be. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Ghandi when the white priest (played, incidentally, by the same actor who played Eric Liddel in Chariots of Fire) was riding on top of the train with a number of bare-backed lower class natives. One man looked at the priest and smiled a wide toothless grin, to which the priest responded with an uncomfortable smile as they rumbled down the track. The toothless man, nodding his head at him, then said with his wide and gummy Cheshire-cat smile, “I know a Christian. He drinks blood!” The priest stared back in horror, trying not to look too alarmed, obviously wondering what kind of bizarre introduction this poor man had had to the Christian faith, when the man continued, “Blood of Christ… every Sunday!”

The early church was accused of cannibalism because of its participation in the Lord’s Supper. But it did not consider the possible misunderstanding of its participation in it worth compromising its practice. To drop such elements from worship for pragmatic purposes is to compromise the heart of worship. We do not have to apologize for practices that are essential to our identity.

Let the church beware: The cost of reductionism and substitution in worship and evangelism by their continued confusion and collapse together is too high. The identity-revealing and identity-forming character of worship is essential to the church’s evangelistic witness, for the church ceases to become the church when it ceases to worship. Out of its corporate worship to God, its participation in the body, blood, and Word of Christ, it is shaped again into the image of God. This sort of shaping cannot be attained by other mediums. The Christian community must overcome the mindset that thinks it must choose between either worship or evangelism. The situation is not either/or, it is both/and. The either/or mentality actually eventuates a neither/nor reality. To eclipse one with the other results in the fading and darkening of both. Rather, the church worships because humanity exists for the praise of his glory and the church is that sector of humanity who have been graciously shown that by God, have faithfully recognized that and meet together to do so. The church evangelizes because it cannot help but live out its identity in the world in ways that are communicated both verbally and non-verbally – we might even say, “more than verbally.” May the church seek to discover anew the times and the places that are appropriate to live out the fullness of the Christian life in its striving to be faithful to its “upreach” to God (lament, praise, thanksgiving, etc.), its “inreach” to itself (edification and education), and its “outreach” to the world (benevolent compassion and evangelization which leads to initiation which leads to worship).


1This article will not address in specifics the matter of methods in evangelism. Such an issue is beyond the scope of this study. Questions of method ought to be an outgrowth of a theological orientation to what evangelism is, how it relates to worship, and the individual factors of the cultural context in which evangelism is carried out. To attempt to summarize method in evangelism in an article such as this would necessarily be reductive.

2 I am by no means claiming that worship only happens when the community gathers at the church building. I believe that all of one’s life can be an act of worship. In this article I am focusing however on that unique and necessary time when the entire body of believers gathers for the worship of God.

3 The word “sacrament” can be a helpful word if it is understood to mean, as Van A Harvey suggests, “a rite in which it is believed that God’s grace is uniquely active.” A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1964) 211.

4 Again, Paul tells the Corinthian church that he is glad that he did not baptize (m)any of them, because God had not sent him to baptize, but to preach the gospel. In that same context he asserts the mystery of numerical growth (“God gives the growth”) and the task of evangelism: planting seeds and watering them (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-3:9). When the entire Pauline corpus is put in view, Paul’s lack of concern for numbers is remarkable. As far as Paul was concerned, it seems that numerical methods of measurement used in order to determine whether or not a ministry or church was successful would be “to make a good showing in the flesh.” Indeed, it would be to view the growth of the Kingdom of God “from a human point of view.”

5 The anthropocentric element of worship, i.e. the focus on humanity for its repentance, would thus be given attention at the beginning of the corporate worship time, and then the focus and attention of the faith community could be turned to God, without any hidden agenda at work throughout the rest of the service.

6 J. J. von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (London: Lutterworth Press, 1965) 77.

7 von Allmen, Worship, p. 79.

8 See W. Brueggemann, Istael’s Praise: Doxology Against Ideology and Idolatry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) esp. ch. 1; and von Allmen, Worship, esp. p. 79. It would be tempting to expand this discussion of the way in which worship shapes the identity of the community, but that is not possible here.

9 As quoted by von Allmen, Worship, p. 79. Wineskins Magazine

Andre Resner

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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