Evangelism and worship belong together in the life of the Church. To keep them together Christians should freely use whatever forms will communicate the gospel effectively for the local cultural context.
Evangelization is clearly the one mission that the Church of Jesus Christ has all to its own. There is no other organization on the face of the earth that has as its call to proclaim, both in word and deed, that Jesus is Lord and Savior. The Church alone has a mission to say that the reign of God has come in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion which simply means “good news.” For Christians the word specifically has to do with the good news that God has come in the flesh to liberate, save, and fill all things in Jesus of Nazareth. And so if any church says that it is evangelical it confesses that it centers its witness on the biblical message that God loved the world and demonstrated that love by coming to earth in Jesus the Christ. To be evangelical also is to realize that God draws us into a lifestyle of good news so that others may encounter Jesus in us and come to put their absolute trust in him.
Worship, on the other hand, is also central to what it is to be a Christian. Kennon L. Callahan, in his Twelve Keys to An Effective Church, names “corporate, dynamic worship” as his third central characteristic of an effective church. For him worship is celebration of God and God’s presence among the people.
For the American church, which is in a missionary situation, it is a major concern that worship is often the way people attach to the Body of Christ. It is the central point of entry for people who are considering joining the fellowship of the Church. If church leaders are going to reach the masses with the gospel they must make worship a fit vehicle for that timeless message.
For all believers it is apparent that worship is closely involved in the ministry of evangelization. For them worship assumes submission. Only those who consider themselves to be part of the family of God worship. To give “worth” to another is done only by those who consider themselves to be subjects of the One to be worshipped. In one sense when Christians gather on Sundays it is in the progression of the liturgy that they declare that they love the Lord–that they ascribe or give awe and majesty to this God. Worship, in other words, is testimony to the greatness of God. The very fact that the people of God gather is a way of testifying to the world that they have a particular God who should be worshipped. For them this God has been revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And because of this and God’s greatness, in loving response, they believe that this God deserves their worship and praise. Therefore they gather to say to God “We love you. We magnify your name, we praise you.”
Worship for God’s people also has a formative character. It is not only something they do, it is also something that God does to them. All that happens when the people of God get together is part of a process by which evangelists are created and formed. The rites of Baptism and Eucharist contain in them the message that God has given everything for us in Christ’s dying and rising. The words of the liturgy shape and critique the consciousness of evangelists as people who will “Go in Peace and serve the Lord.”
All that we have said so far is the self-understanding of those who are part of the community of faith. They are able to come from the inside with a liturgical motivation as “God’s people doing the work of serving God.” But clearly there are those who come to worship experiences who do not share that same sense of relationship with God and the Church. Paul identifies these persons as “outsiders and unbelievers.” Perhaps, in an evangelistic sense, these persons are seekers. They are persons who have been invited by the Spirit of God and the community of faith.
Seekers are often people whose lives are being torn to shreds. They are people who are hurting. Therefore, they must be able to enter into the experience from where they are that they may more readily comprehend and appropriate for themselves the gospel message. So worship in a missionary situation has an additional responsibility. It gives the opportunity for the faithful community to give praise and honor to God, but it also provides a context in which God speaks to both the faithful and the stranger and inquirer. It is not a private event in the catacombs but a public event in the marketplace.
Lutherans and other liturgical churches have a challenge before them. When it comes to evangelism, highly developed liturgical forms suffer from an inherent weakness: they do not lend themselves well to initiating fellowship. To appreciate the experience of God’s presence that is offered through those forms, participants need to have extensive prior knowledge and training. The symbols themselves usually have to be experienced over time before they become conveyers of deep spiritual meaning. Unfortunately a high liturgical emphasis can drive a wedge between the gathering of regulars who know, appreciate, and love this communication, and an audience of uninformed visitors who have to struggle to follow along, let alone feel included. Watching newcomers struggle with a complicated service book is a sobering reminder that evangelism is at best a secondary concern in this approach.
Few Lutheran churches would ever change their style so much that the heritage of liturgical worship is forgotten. Yet historically within Lutheranism there have been periods of more or less emphasis on traditional structure and symbols. The kind of liturgical renewal that has been totally reliant on traditional structure and symbols has not led to church growth. Instead, growth has happened in those places where leaders have dared to be creative and where they were not afraid of stepping toward those who are outside the church.
Our challenge is to come to grips with what is essentially Lutheran. Moving into the twenty-first century we will need to keep our eyes and ears open to what is happening in our culture, and our minds focused on the Scriptures. We must be mindful of the words of biblical scholar and theologian George Forell when he was asked some years ago what fears he had for the future of the Lutheran Church. His answer was: “That we are moving Lutheran practice to the same level and place as doctrine . . . Some things are adiaphora [matters neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture or doctrine].” In other words, some things are given over to freedom, not law.
If the hallmark of the Reformation is the message of justification by grace through faith, then what is of importance is that people hear that message. If a principle of the Reformation is that communication be in the language of the people, then everything we do, including worship, must communicate in the people’s language. God’s message of grace and love is paramount to what happens among us. Worship leaders cannot allow anything–liturgical form, style, or cultural imperialism–to stand in the way of the sharing of the Gospel. That which advances the propagation of the Gospel is the standard by which we judge all things, including our liturgy.
I suggest that within the Church today there are at least five models for dealing with the encounter of diverse cultures within worshipping communities. Which best describes the style of your congregation? Which might you use to best communicate to the people you are called to serve?
- Assimilation is the model that simply uses the Mass as is. The structure, words and musical setting of the liturgy are used without alteration no matter what the cultural background may be of the seekers who may come to worship. This is the approach which says that not only must all Lutherans use the same worship progression and words, but all must also use traditionally Lutheran musical and liturgical styles as well in order to be “Lutheran” by some arbitrary definition that has nothing to do with our core theology.
- Integration uses the basic shape of the Mass, but intersperses within it songs and other actions more familiar to an audience unfamiliar with liturgical traditions. Take for instance Bethel West in Chicago. They use the second setting of the Lutheran Book of Worship in its fullness. However the choir “integrates” the singing of African American gospel music between the lessons for the day. An altar call is inserted after the sermon for a Prayer of the Day. Hymnody that reflects the history and Christian experience of many African Americans (from sources such as Lead Me, Guide Me, The Broadman Hymnal, and Songs of Zion) is freely used in worship. These songs and other actions are additions to the traditional liturgy of the Mass.
- Reluctant Integration is a take-off on the above model. The traditional Mass is used in its totality, yet once or twice a year something different might happen within worship that relates to the people being served. Perhaps the solo “Mary Had a Baby” might be placed between gospel and sermon to mark a special occasion. It even sometimes happens that the people being served may have such low esteem regarding their own cultures that they are not free to use their own styles, but they feel in their bones that something must be done, so they choose to make a change, but very infrequently.
- Inculturation uses all the parts of the Mass but expresses them in the musical and artistic formats of the local cultural context. Examples of this include “The Detroit Folk Mass,” John Ylvisaker’s folk settings and “The Liturgy of Joy” which I wrote. Inculturation is a term that Roman Catholics have used. For them it is a positive term. For them it assumes the shape and words of the “historic and catholic Mass” are set and not to be violated. But they further believe it is up to each culture to subject the words to musical adaptation so that style consistent with that culture can become a bridge to receiving the catholic faith. The faith, as they understand it, is being inculturated, yet the form of the Mass itself sets the standard.
- Adaptation is the model which places the central concern on communicating with people in terms of their local cultural context. The forms of the traditional Mass are used sparingly if at all. What is employed is that which will communicate the Gospel within the local setting. For the sake of the Gospel this approach frees people to use whatever is at their disposal so that the hearers hear it “in the language of the people.”
I am sure that others may come up with other models of coming together in praise of God. But there is power in this connection between worship and evangelism. What is of most importance is to take seriously both of these aspects of the Church’s life.