The Eclipse of Worship and Evangelism: The Historical Background – Part 1 (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Andre Resner
May, 1993

12Every so often the sun and moon align in such a way that, from our vantage point on Earth, the vision of both is obscured. This is known as an “eclipse.” Since the sun gives light to the moon, if the moon stands directly between Earth and the sun (in a solar eclipse), neither can be fully seen. Rather, only the “umbra” and the “penumbra” are visible, the two kinds of shadow that radiate toward Earth from the eclipse. The umbra is the smaller shadow, but is completely dark when the eclipse is total. The penumbra is a partial shadow between the completely darkened shadow and the completely illumined area.

It would be impossible to say whether evangelism or worship is more important for Christianity. Their relationship to each other is rather circular, each affecting the other. The loss of either would result in a loss of what Christianity is. Indeed, without evangelism eventually worship would cease. And without worship the church’s evangelistic witness would be seriously impaired. My concern here is with the often total loss (leaving only an “umbra”), and the frequent partial loss (leaving only a “penumbra” of each), of both worship and evangelism because of the attempt to align them together in one event.

Ever since the revivalistic camp meetings of nineteenth-century America, worship and evangelism have frequently been collapsed into one activity with a necessary confusion of what each is. When worship and evangelism are collapsed into the same activity, the net result is at least a distortion and at worst a loss of each. I would argue further that the trends of the twentieth century in church growth, the mega-church, the meta-church, and the current trends in “seeker-services,” are the off-spring of the revival meetings of the nineteenth century. The pragmatics of reaching the lost, i.e. using the most effective means possible to do so, fueled both nineteenth-and twentieth-century expressions of worship and evangelism and resulted in their being collapsed together.

It is common to think that the church must make a choice between either worship or evangelism in the design of its Lord’s day meetings. When the question has been raised as to whom the Sunday service is “for,” there have been three choices: God, the outsider, or the insider. Those zealous for the outsider effected a major shift in nineteenth-century America by turning what had traditionally been primarily a God-directed, faith-community practiced worship experience into a human-directed, public-arena worship service.

The frontier revival form of worship was a thoroughly American invention called forth by the pragmatic necessities of trying to minister the gospel to unchurched folk scattered across the pioneer landscape.2 Working from a biblicism (which James F. White maintains “was largely superseded by pragmatism”) and a concept of local church autonomy, this burgeoning movement took two primary guides to work in revising Christian worship: “a pragmatic bent to do whatever is needed in worship and the freedom to do this uninhibited by canons or service books. In a sense, it is a tradition of no tradition, but that attitude soon became a tradition in its own right.”3 The pragmatic bent to do whatever is needed in worship stemmed primarily from the requisite that worship “work.” If it “works” then it is not only justified, it is canonized.

“Works” is defined primarily in terms of mathematics. If the numbers are up – in attendance, baptisms, and contribution – then whatever formula was used in accomplishing such mathematical ballooning is acceptable. Successful worship becomes judged by canons of numerical measurement.

With the rise of the camp meeting revival the reality of both worship and evangelism as they had been understood and practiced was altered. Revivalism and evangelism became and remain practically synonymous. Yet it is important to understand revivalism more along the lines of the word itself: “a restoration to use, acceptance, activity, or vigor after a period of obscurity or quiescence;” or “a meeting or series of meetings for the purpose of reawakening religious faith, often characterized by impassioned preaching and public professions of faith.” By definition the word “revivalism” has to do with the resuscitation of something already existing, in the case religious fervor concerning the life of faith in Christ. Evangelism, on the other hand, has to do with the initial presentation of the gospel to someone who has not previously believed it or heard it aright.

The point here is that the newly formed phenomenon of revivalism in nineteenth-century America functionally absorbed the church’s acts of evangelism and worship, thus altering their relationship to one another significantly. This alteration effectively eclipsed their former meanings and functions, leaving only a shadow of each.

Worship became cut and shaped for a specific end: “winning souls.” Simple sermons which aimed at convicting and converting were employed to the end that “worship came to build up the body of Christ by bringing in fresh converts.”4 Worship was where you brought your friends and neighbors for that was the most significantly evangelistic thing a Christian could do: bring someone into the context in which they would be presented with the gospel and be persuaded to convert.

White notes that “For conversion to become a main function of worship was a major historical shift.”5 This cannot be doubted, especially given the fact that the dominant (as far as sheer numbers, or “the canon of mathematics” is concerned) churches, not to mention the only growing churches (again, based on the “canon of mathematics”)6 in our time, disclose in their style and aim their debt to the nineteenth-century phenomenon of Frontier Revivalism. If worship centers on converting the “promiscuous assembly,” one of two things eventually happens: 1) they are converted; or 2) they are driven away. In either case the function of worship as evangelism is lost. The greater assembly of the converted then continues to meet, listen to the “fundamentals” of evangelism (Hebrews 6:1ff), and hopes that visitors attend so that the service reaches its true end of conviction and conversion.

At least as important as the historical shift is the theology at work in such a shift. White attributes the shift to the loss of emphasis on the Word – in daily Scripture reading, study, and familial devotions – and the loss of a sense of the ethical. He notes, “The didactic and moralistic tendency slackened somewhat during the nineteenth century, when preaching for conversion tended to prevail. An emotional factor became important, and worship often became subservient to the pragmatic purpose of making converts.”

A recent article by John Kent further clarifies the issues under discussion here.8 Kent lists the theological stages through which evangelical preaching seeks to move the listener to conversion as conviction of sin, repentance, and assurance of divine forgiveness mediated through the crucifixion of Jesus. So far so good, yet the aim of the preacher is to “crush these stages in religious development together into a single experience and logically into a single night.”9

Probably the most important development in the last 20 years in this regard is the church growth movement10 with the mega-church and meta-church phenomena as its current by-products. This movement has had such influence that it is commonplace for most people to think that evangelism naturally leads to the numerical growth of the church, and that when the topic of evangelism comes up, it is thought of primarily in terms of church growth.11 The dust jacket of McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth thus claims “that slow growth is often unnecessary – is in fact a curable disease. Methods which limit missions and churches to inch by inch advance should be abandoned. God is providing new ways to bring the peoples of the earth to faith and obedience (Romans 1:5 NEB). These should be understood and mastered.”12 Thus, knowledge and mastery of methodological technique cures the disease of stagnant numerical production.

Our current situation is the natural outgrowth of a fundamentally pragmatic mindset. This includes the nearly wholesale adaptation of business models by the church. P. C. Bower has said: “Constantly, we are bombarded with management jargon that labels ministry as understanding church organizational behavior, establishing goals and objectives, setting budgets, managing fiscal affairs, recruiting members, developing leaders, assessing personal, sustaining professional growth, enabling change, managing conflict, and administering programs – from brain-storming through prioritizing, impacting, programming, and evaluating. Whatever happened to preaching and teaching the good news? In a time of decline in membership and influence of the church, clergy and laity are understandably tempted to embrace these seemingly successful models of corporate management. Unfortunately, the ‘goals and objectives’ (if one dares to name them as such) of the gospel are often obscured in the interests of the financial and numerical success of the corporation church.”13

Conclusion

If there were one point to be drawn from this first installment of three on the topic of worship and evangelism it is that the praiseworthy motive to reach the lost must not cause the church to give up what is irreplaceable in its corporate life together, namely the worship of God. This worship of God is done for its own ends, namely to live out humanity’s reason for being: to praise God’s glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). The loss of the worship of God for the sake of the evangelism of humankind actually creates more questions than it answers – ultimately even rendering the church’s evangelistic witness anemic. We must reclaim both worship and evangelism, resisting the urge to merge the two. The refusal to succumb to the tendency to perpetuate the eclipse will allow for the fuller illumination of both worship and evangelism. Such illumination will represent a restoration of each which will in turn serve to fuel all aspects of our Christian existence.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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