Evangelistic worship

The problems of praise and worship and making it relevant to all - and a review of the SFC (Seeker Friendly Church) Movement

Debate exists over the 'seeker-friendly' church movement (SFC). Tim Keller examines the problem . . .

Proponents vilify the 'traditional church' as impotent to reach contemporary people or change contemporary culture. The best critics of the SFC movement blame the impotence of the 'traditional church' not on its lack of contemporaneity, but on its over-adaptation to modernity, on its loss of bearing in historic theology and worship.
The whole controversy is complex, but here I focus on one issue where (I think) both sides err and thus 'talk past' each other. Should the Sunday service focus on the seekers/unchurched or on believers?
The seeker-focused service (as made popular by Willow Creek) has the following elements: multiple communication forms (commonly music, drama, testimony, teaching, questions-and-answers); excellent production/artistic quality; low or no audience participation (but it does challenge the onlooker into participation with Christianity); the teaching/talk is purely apologetic and evangelistic.

The issue

One fundamental of the SFC movement is that the same service cannot target both seekers and believers. It is said that you can reach one or the other but not both. Most thoughtful proponents of the straight seeker-service agree that it is not worship, and cannot give Christians proper nurture.
Therefore, in many churches in the SFC movement, a 'seeker-focused' service is targeted for the unchurched, and some other weekly believer-focused service becomes the worship service for believers. In many other SFC churches, there is only one main weekly service which serves believers and the unchurched. This is called 'seeker-sensitive' worship.

Theological basis

1. God commanded Israel to invite the nations to join in declaring his glory. Zion is to be the centre of world-winning worship (Isaiah 2.2-4, 56.6-8, Psalm 102.18). Psalm 105 is a direct command to believers to engage in evangelistic worship. The psalmist challenges them to 'make known among the nations what he has done'(verse 1). How? 'Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of his wonderful acts' (verse 2). God is to be praised before all the nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song.

2. Peter tells a Gentile church: 'But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light' (1 Peter 2.9). This shows that the church is challenged to the same witness to which Israel was called - evangelistic worship. A key difference, however, is that in the Old Testament, the centre of world-winning worship was Mt. Zion, but now, where-ever we worship Jesus in spirit and in truth (John 4.21-26), we have come to the heavenly Zion (Hebrews 12.18-24).

We can learn from Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.24-25 that:

1. Non-believers are expected to be present in Christian worship. In Acts 2 it happens by word-of-mouth excitement. In 1 Corinthians 14 it is probably the result of personal invitation by Christian friends. But Paul in 14.23 expects both unbelievers and 'the unlearned' to be present in worship.

2. Non-believers must find the praise of Christians to be comprehensible. In Acts 2 it happens by miraculous divine intervention. In 1 Corinthians 14 it happens by human design and effort. But it cannot be missed that Paul directly tells a local congregation to adapt its worship because of the presence of unbelievers.

3. Non-believers can fall under conviction and be converted through comprehensible worship. In 1 Corinthians 14 it happens during the service, but in Acts 2 it is supplemented by 'after-meetings' and follow-up evangelism. God wants the world to overhear us worshipping him.

Practical tasks
1. Getting unbelievers in

The numbering of this section is not a mistake. This task actually comes second, but nearly everyone thinks it comes first!
It is natural to think that you must get non-Christians into worship before you can begin 'doxological evangelism'. But the reverse is the case. Non-Christians do not get invited into worship unless the worship is already evangelistic. The only way there will be non-Christians in attendance is by personal invitation by Christians. Christians will instantly sense if a worship experience will be attractive to their non-Christian friends. They may find a particular service wonderfully edifying, and yet know that their non-believing neighbours would react negatively. A vicious circle persists, therefore.
Pastors see only Christians present, so they lack incentive to make their worship comprehensible to outsiders. But since they fail to make the adaptation, Christians (though perhaps edified themselves) do not think to bring their sceptical and non-Christian friends to church. They do not think they will be impressed. So no outsiders come. And so the pastors respond only to the Christian audience. And so on and on. Therefore the best way to get Christians to bring non-Christians is to worship as if there were dozens and dozens of sceptical onlookers. And if you worship as if, eventually they will be there in reality.

2. Is it comprehensible?

Our purpose is not to make unbelievers comfortable. In 1 Corinthians 14.24-25 or Acts 2.12 and 37 they are 'cut to the heart'. We aim to be intelligible to them. We must address their 'heart secrets' (1 Corinthians 14.25). How do we do this?

a. Worship and preaching in everyday language. It is normal to make all kinds of statements that appear persuasive to us, but which are based on all sorts of premises that the secular person does not hold. It is normal to make all sorts of references using terms and phrases that mean nothing outside our Christian sub-group. So avoid unnecessary theological or evangelical sub-culture jargon, and explain carefully the basic theological concepts, such as confession of sin, prayer, thanksgiving and so on. In the preaching, show continual willingness to address the questions that the unbelieving heart will ask. Speak respectfully and sympathetically to people who have difficulty with Christianity.

b. Explain the service as you go along. Though there is danger of pastoral verbosity, learn to give one-or-two-sentence, non-jargony explanations of each new part of the service.

c. Directly address and welcome them. Talk regularly to 'those of you who aren't sure you believe this, or who are not sure just what you believe'. Articulate their objections to Christian living and belief better than they can themselves. Express sincere sympathy for their difficulties, even when challenging them severely for their selfishness and unbelief. Admonish with tears (literally or figuratively).

d. Aesthetics quality. The power of art draws people to behold it. Good art and its message enters the soul through the imagination and begins to appeal to the reason, for art makes ideas plausible. The quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power.

e. Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice. We live in a time when public esteem of the church is plummeting. For many outsiders or enquirers, the deeds of the church will be far more important than words in gaining plausibility. The leaders of most towns see 'word-only' churches as costs to their community, not a value. Effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say 'we cannot do without churches like this'.

f. Present the sacraments making the gospel clear. Baptism and especially adult baptism, should be made a much more significant event if worship is to be evangelistic. There may need to be opportunity for the baptised person to offer personal testimony as well as assent to questions. The meaning of baptism should be made clear.

g. Preach grace. The one message that both believers and unbelievers need to hear is that salvation and adoption are by grace alone. A worship service that focuses too much and too often on educating Christians in the details of theology will simply bore or confuse the unbelievers present. If the response to this is: 'Then Christians will be bored', it shows a misunderstanding of the gospel. The gospel of free, gracious justification and adoption is not only the way we enter the kingdom, but also the way in which we grow into the likeness of Christ. Titus 2.11-13 tells us how it is the original, saving message of 'grace alone' that leads to sanctified living.

Therefore, the one basic message that both Christians and unbelievers need to hear is the gospel of grace. It can then be applied to both groups, right on the spot and directly. Sermons which are basic-ally moralistic will only be applicable to either Christians or non-Christians. But Christocentric preaching of the gospel grows believers and challenges unbelievers.
If the Sunday service and sermon aim primarily at evangelism, it will bore the saints. If they aim primarily at education, they will bore and confuse unbelievers. But if they aim at praising the God who saves by sheer grace, they will instruct the saints and challenge the sinners.

3. Leading to commitment

We have seen that unbelievers in worship actually 'close with Christ' in two basic ways. Some may come to Christ during the service itself (1 Corinthians 14.24-25), while others must be 'followed-up' very specifically.

a. During the service. One major way to invite people to receive Christ during the service is as the Lord's Supper is distributed. We may say: 'If you are not in a saving relationship with God through Christ today, do not take the bread and the cup, but as they come around, take Christ. Receive him in your heart as those around you receive the food. Then immediately afterwards, come and tell an officer or pastor about what you've done'. Another way is to give people a time of silence after the sermon. A 'prayer of belief' could be prayed by the pastor (or printed in the bulletin at that juncture in the order of worship), to help people reach out to Christ.

b. After-meetings. Acts 2 seems to show us an 'after-meeting'. Peter very carefully explained the gospel, and in response to a second question: 'What shall we do?' found it very effective to offer such a meeting to unbelievers immediately after. Convicted seekers have just come from being in the presence of God, and they are often most teachable and open. To seek to 'get them into a small group' or even to merely return next Sunday is asking a lot.

Two mistakes

Some in the SFC movement claim that they have rejected the bifurcation of 'seeker-focused' and 'believer-focused services and have melded them into the 'seeker-sensitive' worship service. But my limited experience is that many who do 'seeker-sensitive' worship are really just incorporating a little more participation into the basic 'seeker-focused' model. So I think they are loading too much evangelism into the worship.
On the other hand, many of the critics of the SFC movement are calling us back to expository preaching and traditional worship. But when I actually see what they mean by it, I think they are making an opposite mistake. They are loading too much education into the worship. The non-charismatics try to get too much advanced teaching into worship. It has a heavy cognitive component and the preaching is more like a lecture from Sunday school or seminary. The charismatics, on the other hand, try to get too much heavy praise into the service. In both cases it leaves the unchurched behind.
I think that the best approach is to make evangelistic worship as I've outlined it the 'main course' of the church's offering.

Tim Keller formerly taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and is now pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.