The Witness of the Worshiping Community: Liturgy and the Practice of Evangelism by Frank C. Senn, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ, 1993.
A Synopsis Compiled by Joyce M. Bowers
This book has particular significance to the theme of this issue. Although it was written a dozen years ago when the church growth movement with its seeker-friendly services was beginning to make an impact on the mainline church, it retains its freshness and relevance as the church continues to struggle with the relationship between worship and evangelism. This synopsis gives an overview of the book’s central themes through edited excerpts from the book itself and three published reviews, viz.,
- Fisch, Thomas. Review, Worship, Vol. 68 No. 3, pp. 283-284. Fisch serves at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
- Nessan, Craig L. Review, Dialog, Vol. 35 No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 318-320. Nessen is a faculty member at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Des Moines, Iowa.
- Pfatteicher, Philip H. Review, Lutheran Forum Vol. 31, Fall 1997, pp. 58-60. Pfatteicher is co-author of Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship.
Senn (back cover): “In their efforts to reach the unchurched, too many churches in recent years have turned worship into entertainment. Evangelism — a word with profound New Testament significance — has become mere proselytism. The gospel is left devalued.
“In contrast to this movement is the kind of worship that invites people to enter into the gospel mysteries and gives witness to the living faith of the community. Genuine worship reveals God’s presence in the community and speaks to the deepest needs of religious seekers. The best way to draw people into church is to give them an experience of true worship, in word and sacrament, where God becomes accessible and real. Churches that practice evangelism through the quality of their prayer and community life must be serious about how they welcome people and incorporate different cultures. They must reflect on the way faith develops in people and the way new members are absorbed into the community. Ancient models of Christian initiation can enlighten the present practice of evangelism. They also point to a notion of church that is greater and more authentic than the competing congregations of today.”
Pfatteicher: “Senn addresses the current fad for entertainment evangelism and church growth. He asks us to attend more closely to what the church ought to be about: mission, that is the mission of God in the world, a mission of reconciliation in which the church is invited to participate.”
Nessan: “Senn makes a clear and much-needed case for the evangelical thrust of historic liturgical practice. While current experimentation with ‘seeker services’ and entertainment evangelism serves as the counterpoint for Senn’s argument, this book is not shrill and does not degenerate into polemic. Instead, he carefully expounds the inherent evangelical quality of historic liturgy.”
Theological Foundations: Liturgical Worship and the Mission of the Church
Senn presents a stimulating inquiry into the relationship between liturgical worship and the mission of the Church. He begins with a vocabulary study because, as he says, “language is a reflection of our notional concepts and also helps to form them.” We distill the results of his study in the following definitions:
- Worship: an attitude of awe and reverence which occurs within and outside of the cultic community because one renders honor to God in one’s ethical conduct as well as in one’s offering of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
- Liturgy: the work or service that an individual or group performs on behalf of others.
- To witness: to tell what one knows.
- Evangelism: spreading the good news of what God has done in Jesus the Christ.
- Mission: both sending out missionaries to preach, teach, and convert and the special task or purpose a person or group has.
These definitions will be helpful as we continue to hear the author and the reviewers speak of worship and mission.
Pfatteicher: “All of this activity ought to be of one piece, but too often congregations and denominations are fragmented so that ‘worship’ and ‘social ministry’ and ‘evangelism’ committees seldom meet together. This book seeks to show how these diverse parts fit together.”
Nessan: “Worship serves God’s mission in the world. This is the basic premise of Senn’s book. Ancient worship practices have always had this as their aim. The conviction that God is active in the gospel through word and sacrament undergirds what the church has always practiced through its liturgical rites. At the heart of this conviction lies the trust that the transformative power of God’s kingdom becomes manifest through baptism, eucharist, hymn, prayer, and proclamation. References to the way the kingdom of God comes alive through these historic means of grace punctuate Senn’s writing and provide coherence to his vision.”
Pfatteicher: “The book is a careful statement of the obligation of the church, informed throughout by a humility that is all too rare in talking about the mission of the church. Too often church leaders talk as if ‘mission’ is what the church decides to do, as if what the church is doing God is therefore doing, as if God works only through one organization that is often not especially prayerful or self-sacrificing. Senn’s understanding of God is larger and more faithful to the biblical witness. He writes: ‘The church has a place in the mission of God.’ That puts the church in its rightful place.”
Fisch: “Senn skewers both the church growth movement and ‘creative liturgy’ as a method for engineering human change; the liturgy is neither a utilitarian tool nor an aesthetic end. More extensive is his sharply accurate appraisal of individualism and pietism. Within a culture that defines ‘religion’ as private (except for the civil religion which cannot be acknowledged as religion), it is difficult to avoid the traps of ‘me-centered Christianity’ and conversion as a completely private concern. From this perspective, the proclamation of the gospel becomes mere ‘individual testimony to what God has done for me.’”
Pfatteicher: “Senn defines the character of worship over against common and well-intentioned corruptions in practice. Worship is corrupted when it becomes utilitarian, a tool used to accomplish some practical end (‘The family that prays together stays together’) rather than the congregation’s service of God. Aestheticism is another corruption, focusing on the sensual experience as an end in itself, whether the beauty of music exquisitely performed or cheery, up-beat sermons to make the congregants feel good, ignoring the situation of fallen humanity.”
Fisch: “Worship as entertainment or as an intra-familial activity also will not do. Christians must recover the public character of liturgical worship in order to embrace the mystery of a church that exists not for itself, but as a servant ‘for the life of the world’ (Schmemann). The life we serve is not confined to ‘religious’ concerns, but is a vitality that intends the transformation of the whole cosmos. This thoroughly eschatological reality is central to both baptism and Eucharist, as Senn notes. He critiques the false alternatives of eschatology, triumphantly realized or totally apocalyptic, and presents well the eschatological tension of the reign of God which is at once fully realized and fully yet to come. The implications for evangelism are delineated.”
“…The church is engaging in mission when it worships. As its worship is renovated, its mission will be renovated. The church is engaged in mission when it addresses the gospel to those in need, and provides necessary services to the poor and destitute. As it recommits itself to these acts of witness and service, it will be recommitted to mission. Any renewal of any missionary activity will contribute to the renewal of the church.
“This has an important bearing on liturgical reform. The point of reform is not to restyle our worship to make it a better evangelism tool by making it more of a mirror of our cultural fads and fancies. The point of liturgical reform is to make our worship more reflective of what the church is called to be as the people of God, the body of Christ, the herald of the kingdom, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world, the servant of God. There is an essential connection between liturgy and ecclesiology. The liturgy should be styled so that it is done by the whole church — clergy and people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, learned and unlearned, each contributing the gift he or she has to the building up of the whole body. This does not mean that the laity should usurp the pastor’s role as preacher and presider. Nor should the pastor usurp the people’s liturgical roles. [There should be] a spiritual freedom for each to contribute what he or she is able. …We need a variety of gifts: the gifts of hospitality, of singing, of reading in public, of praying, of offering, of making banners, of baking bread, of arranging space — whatever the gift may be, there is a place for it in the liturgy. A liturgy in which all this is happening is a paradigm of the new, reconciled humanity.”
Baptism and Eucharist
Nessan: “Senn devotes key chapters to ‘The Witness of Baptism’ and ‘The Witness of the Eucharist.’ The evangelical character of these sacraments places the cross of Christ at the center of the faith. Evangelism historically led the inquirer ever deeper into the Christian mystery, leading to identification with Christ’s death in the conversion of baptism and nurturing a life of discipleship in participation at the Lord’s supper. Senn articulates the logic of historic practice with regard to these sacraments, highlights their evangelistic intention, and provides helpful guidance for the renewal of contemporary worship practice.”
Fisch: “The chapter on baptism centers on the participation of the baptized in God’s mission to reconcile humanity to himself. The Eucharist is treated as a renewal of baptism. But baptism is precisely entry into the Eucharist; the ecclesial body of Christ and the sacramental body are not two things, but one.”
Pfatteicher: “Senn explores the missionary dimensions inherent in the two sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; both are part of God’s mission of reconciling the world. The two sacraments incorporate Christians into the eschatological mission of God. Thus the church is engaging in mission when it worships as well as when it provides necessary services to those in need. It is to such worship of God that those outside are to be invited. Such worship, therefore, must be authentic celebration and proclamation of the Gospel. Three sample sermons are provided as examples of how this may be done.”
Nessan: “Senn offers suggestions for improving hospitality to strangers who are welcomed to public worship. The role of ushers and greeters, written and verbal directions for visitors, and especially the environment of worship each deserve attention in order to enhance liturgy’s evangelical possibilities. Every culture rightly indigenizes the liturgy in its own time and place. In fact ‘the historic liturgy of the church is already a multicultural expression in that it retains vestiges of all the cultures it has passed through’ (107). The beauty of liturgy begins with its catholic character as it is inculturated among a particular people.”
Fisch: “An essay on invitational evangelism links the theological section and the concluding pastorally oriented chapters. The focus is on evangelistic hospitality that is neither consumer-oriented nor narrowly defined. At the same time, it is something totally distinct from proselytism. The main enemy of true hospitality is too cozy an understanding of church. Outsiders will continue to feel excluded until congregations recognize that the church of Christ is a thoroughly public reality.”
Senn (p. 111): “[A] summary may help to show the progression of thought that has unfolded in this chapter on ‘Invitational Evangelism.’ From the idea of inviting people to church we went on to consider the atmosphere of hospitality that is conveyed by the congregation through its members and facilities. A whole world is being enacted in the liturgy of the church. This is a world with which the visitors must be able to connect. At the same time it must be a world transformed and not just enacted in its fallen condition. The visitor sees the familiar transformed by grace into a new and inviting reality. Worship should project a vision of the new creation which alone can provide hope to those who experience the inadequacies and failures of ‘this world.’ Local worship must and will reflect and express local culture. But complete cultural capitulation is avoided by observing the catholic shape of the liturgy and by accepting the leadership of the apostolic office.”
Pastoral Reflections: Liturgy and Evangelism
Pfatteicher: “History, tradition, and fidelity to the liturgical forms we have inherited and have recovered provide the time-tested ways of making those outside members of the church. Senn’s approach rejects turning the church inside out to meet the unchurched where they are and rightly insists that those outside the church are to be initiated by careful steps into the fullness of the church’s life. Senn makes practical and workable suggestions for instruction related to the church year and issues a call for denominational cooperation, which is the most forceful means of witness by the worshiping community.”
Senn (p. 134): “[L]iturgy is an evangelistic activity because it is a proclamation and celebration of the gospel. Worship in word and sacraments is an integral part of God’s mission of reconciling the world to himself because the acts of proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments are the very means of grace by which God calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies a people who shall be ‘a light to the nations.’ It is appropriate to invite people to come to church — to where the word is preached and the sacraments administered — because that is an arena of encounter between God and humanity. In this arena they meet Jesus who shows us the God who is his Father.”
Senn (pp. 134-135): “Because we are inviting people to ‘come and see’ we must attend to our hospitality to strangers and visitors and the inculturation of the gospel in ways that make it accessible to and connected with the local culture. In short, we must attend to the whole climate of evangelism in the congregation. …But finally we want to say that a liturgical church, that is, a church which lives from its liturgy, must develop a liturgical evangelism. A model for this can be found in the initiation practices of ancient Christianity. Indeed, the rites of Christian initiation made all-consuming demands on the church’s time and energy and influenced the development of the church year. Liturgy serves evangelism as the ritual means of bringing converts to new birth in Christ and incorporating those newly-born in Christ into the body of Christ in the world — the church.”
Proposal: A Renewed Catechumenate
Nessan: “The full evangelical potential of the liturgy can be further enriched by renewed emphasis on the catechumenate. Senn favors a catechetical process such as proposed by the Roman Catholic Church in its Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (R.C.I.A.). Senn outlines the stages of this process and proposes a detailed scheme for the implementation of the catechumenate in today’s church. To adopt such a plan would require new appreciation for the distinct seasons of the liturgical year and a more intentional plan for the scheduling of baptisms than is currently practiced by most congregations. The most far-reaching idea would have Christian initiation and the catechumenate become the task of the territorial church or synod, with the bishop’s office playing a significant role in providing structure to the process. It is in linking liturgical practice with a reformed catechumenate that Senn’s vision is the most radical. Such changes would require a total reorientation of current practice toward the task of incorporating new believers into Christian discipleship. If we are indeed on the threshold of a post-Christian era (and given the widespread ineffectiveness of most new-member classes) perhaps it is exactly a kairos moment for the church to take seriously this approach.”
Senn (p. 139): “This process of education and ritual addresses the problem of the gap between the life of the church and the knowledge and values of the unchurched. Rather than turning the church inside out to meet the unchurched “where they are,” the unchurched are initiated by careful steps into the fullness of the church’s life. The scope of this process is such that it cannot be just one program among others. It resists any kind of “quick fix” approach to evangelism.”
Nessan: “The Witness of the Worshiping Community makes a valuable contribution to the current debate about worship and evangelism. Ancient liturgical and catechetical practices are anything but archaic when understood in service of God’s mission in the world: to incorporate all people as disciples in the kingdom of God.”
Epilogue: Revisiting the Themes
Since The Witness of the Worshiping Community was published Frank Senn has continued to examine the theological witness being offered to seekers and to hold up the vision of an orthodox worldview together with processes of initiating new Christians into such a worldview. He develops these themes in his most recent book, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview (Minneapolis: Fortress 2000), especially Chapters 8, 9, and 10, and in the following articles:
- “‘Worship Alive!’: An Analysis and Critique of ‘Alternative Worship Services,’” Worship 69 (1995), 194-224.
- “What is leadership in worship and evangelism?” in Open Questions in Worship 3: How does worship evangelize?, ed. by Gordon Lathrop (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1995), 14-21.
- “Worship and Evangelism,” Reformed Liturgy and Music XXXI (1997), 22-30.
- “Orthodoxia, Orthopraxis, and Seekers,” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-evangelizing in the Postmodern World, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2002), 140-158.