Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Death of Worship as Evangelism?

Just read a killer article: Sally Morgenthaler's "Worship as Evangelism," in the Next-Wave e-zine. Not all I agree with: the extended quote of an unchurched journalist lampooning a contemporary worship service, and the all-too-familiar accusation that we're all just looking for "an excuse not to do the hard work of real outreach" (evidently only extroverts are real Christians). But there is compelling stuff there:

  • a survey of what has been going on in the last 20 years with the seeker-sensitive/worship-driven model of church growth;
  • the irrefutable stats that show us that "For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers";
  • the fact that churches that think they're reaching the unchurched are finding that only a tiny percentage of their congregations are actually from an unchurched background.
The seeker-sensitive movement had it right that if someone is going to visit your church, it will likely be on a Sunday morning (although that isn't really all that exclusively true, it seems to me). But that has very little to do with reaching people who never visit a church at all, who don't think that church is relevant to their lives. Frankly, there is nothing in Scripture that remotely suggests that the gatherings of believers is a primary evangelism opportunity, or that we should structure our services in order to be evangelistic. The closest you can get is Paul using the synagogue service to introduce Jewish worshipers to Jesus the Messiah. But he was bringing that in from the outside, and the inevitable result was getting expelled from the synagogue, and worse. So that's not really a model for churches to follow. The gathering of believers together was for an entirely different purpose: to strengthen, unify, build up, teach, and equip believers to live out their faith in the larger world when they were not gathered together.

I'm the last person to pretend to have the answers regarding evangelism and church growth. But it seems to me that real evangelism happens almost exclusively outside the church walls, by people who are especially gifted for that type of ministry, and also by people who are really excited about their own Christian lives, about what God is doing in them. People will naturally share what they're genuinely excited about. It can't be hyped into people, and it can't be guilted into them either. It has to be a God-thing, and we need to be seeking God to restore and rejuvenate that excitement. Because if it's not working for us, why would we invite anyone else to try it?

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?


  1. I must admit, I saw the title of Morgenthaler's article when I was at Next-Wave last week and ignored the article assuming she was going the other direction. You know what that makes me... :-/

    Her article is compelling to say the least. There's much I agree with, and much I've experienced myself. The bottom line, to me, is that the entire "relevance" movement in worship is designed to attract people to a church or a religious event, rather than to Christ. Oh, I hear the protests: "We're attracting them to our church so they can meet Jesus." It's a nice theory, and I probably bought it myself at one time, but not any more.

    I must echo your comment, I'm the last person to pretend to have the answers regarding evangelism and church growth. I simply feel that whatever the answers are, they're probably going to look less like Hollywood/Madison Avenue and more like the book of Acts.

  2. I read the article as well and posted on it. As a house church guy I don't particularly see a problem with worship as evangelism. But then everything we do is worship in some ways. But that probably misses the point.

    I think in our day of political correctness, we have a hard time understanding that proclamation (telling the Story) is actually an effective way of evangelism. Worship is often very culturally bound whereas the Story is so eternal. (Can I say that in our Postmodern millieu?)

  3. Keith,

    I'm sorry, this is going to be long. Found you via Julie Neidlinger's post.

    I like what you've written here. I read Morganthaler's book Worship Evangelism back when she wrote it. During the massive book tour that followed I saw her speak twice.

    I'm dumbfounded at her closing statement in the article about exiting the world of corporate worship. If that means what I hope it doesn'tt mean, it's a very bad idea for her personally and for anyone who follows her example, and contradictory to what she said she saw in the few worship experiences that worked. To qoute: "On the good occasions, the worship experience was transporting. (I dug a little deeper when that happened. Invariably, I found another value at work behind the worship production: a strong, consistent presence in the community.)"

    While I'm not sure what she means by that statement, I believe that she's on to something by connecting the ideas of worship and community. Though she may have been thinking about the community outside the church walls, I'm not sure why she (or we) even considers those walls in the first place. Why not rather envision the Church as a community (or if you prefer, household) with an easily permeable boundary; an open circle.

    The journalist she refers to is Jeff Sharlet. The article he wrote was about Ted Haggard and his church in Colorado. His observations from that article were made at a church that probably implemented everything Morgenthaler proposed in her book. The thing about Sharlet's description is, it's uncannily accurate even when applied to many other churches' services including some that I myself have led.

    How about I skip to the end...

    The arguments you've laid out in the end of your post are all very good. In fact, they represent the very criticisms many people leveled at Morgenthaler when she first published Worship Evangelism some years ago. Pity that it took her so long to take a serious look at them.

    Finally, I find it kind of funny that you say you are the last person to expect answers from and then in the next couple of sentences, give us that answer. I suspect that if congregations seriously re-adopted their mission from Jesus to cultivate 'oneness' (call it community, agape, koinonia, whatever), we'd be at least one giant step down the path toward evangelism, worship, and service that comes naturally without having to be hyped into existence by a staff of professional Christians.

    Thanks for your patience.

  4. Sorry it's taken me a while to get back here.

    Bob--Yes, the whole "relevance" thing is a problem in more than just worship. Isn't the real issue making our lives more relevant to God's plan? Also, not only will our methods look more like Acts than Madison Avenue, but what "success" looks like should also not be measured by the methods of Madison Avenue.

    Michael--What do you do when people think they already know the Story, and view it more as a fairy tale than as something that can transform their lives?

    Jim--Welcome, and why are you apologizing? I love the interaction, and I think your comments are spot on. I love the concept of the permeable boundary. And I think you're right: it's not an either-or thing.

    The reason I don't think I've come up with The Answer is that it's extremely difficult to implement, unless your congregation already has people with a strong evangelism gift or single twentysomethings enthusiastic about conquering the world.

  5. Well, I'll agree with you about the difficulty in implementing such a "permeable boundary" community. I think part of the difficulty lies in the temptation to think about it in terms of evangelism and other spiritual gifts.

    If we approached Church as the cultivation of a community of oneness (that's not my phrasing, it belongs to Gilbert Bilezikian) and left the giftedness up to God, that would be a start.

    As Bob said above, it's probably going to look more like the book of Acts. There was very little intentionality about recruiting certain people with certain gifts in the early church, or even before the late 20th century. In fact, there was very little intentionality (or purpose-drivenness, if you will) at all. This is where I think your tossed off comment about introverts comes in. An over reliance on extroversion often (not always, but almost) results in First Church of The Hyper Planned Flashy Worship Service.

    I'm getting long winded again, but the key is organic rather than org-chart, community rather than corporation.

    Not that this makes it "easy." But if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Right?

  6. Jim,

    I tend to agree with you regarding intentionality. I do actually think that "giftedness" has much to do with it, but in the three places where Paul deals with gifts, he's describing a reality that already exists, not something that we have to manufacture. There's nothing wrong with God using extroverted people to do extroverted things (He created them that way, after all). My problem is with the idea that we all have to be that way. The whole point of Paul's teaching on gifts (and on the metaphor of the body, which always occurs in the same context) is that we don't all have to be the same.

    I don't know the context of Bilezikian's use of the phrase, "community of oneness," but it seems to me that many churches are perfectly happy creating a unified community without making that boundary "permeable." Others are all focused on reaching out, without creating much community for those inside. It's not easy doing both.