I’ve been re-reading Tim Keller’s Center Church, an immensely helpful and frequently challenging book. Among Keller’s many insights, I was recently struck by his discussion of worship. Here is a modified summary of that section, with my own editorial notes interspersed (from pp. 303–307):
Three Underlying Principles for “Evangelistic Worship Services”
1. It is a false dichotomy that we must choose between pleasing God in worship or thinking of what outsiders think. I can’t tell you how often I hear this. But it’s a false dilemma. Remember, one of the times Jesus got the maddest was when the Israelites had turned the Court of the Gentiles into a place of religious convenience (cf. Mark 11:17). Yes, the temple was primarily intended to offer God sacrifices as he ordered them, but God also intentionally had it set up thinking of the outsiders. Might not Jesus feel the same way today regarding churches who make no accommodations to make the gospel accessible to outsiders—be that in their preaching, their guest services, their parking, their music, their children’s program, their signage?
2. Worship should both edify believers and evangelize nonbelievers. One of the most common complaints that many pastors get is that they’re preaching isn’t “meaty” enough. The assumption here is that teaching the gospel is fine for nonbelievers, but believers need to move on to more significant matters. But by “significant,” they usually mean, “I want to know what separates churches and denominations from each other.” And that’s simply not fruitful. After all, the point of a sermon is not information, but transformation.
3. Evangelistic doesn’t avoid bold proclamations of the truth; it simply leads with the offense of the gospel. People often hear “evangelistic worship” and think that means we water down our teaching—both in preaching and in song. It doesn’t. It merely means that we are majoring on the most central truths of the gospel. But that isn’t a concession, because the gospel challenges people at their very core, calling them to absolute devotion to Jesus Christ. As we say at the Summit: the gospel is offensive; nothing else should be.
So how do we make worship comprehensible to nonbelievers?
1. Worship and preach in the vernacular. It’s fine to teach your congregation theological terms—I do it often—but we need to remember that a lot of our terminology requires explanation. We may know what we mean when we say “sin,” “praise,” or “glory,” but most people outside the church don’t.
2. Explain the service as you go. This can get cumbersome if done poorly, but can be a helpful teaching moment. A simple line explaining why we sing songs (or celebrate communion or give tithes) goes a long way.
3. Directly address nonbelievers. Even if you know they aren’t there. At some level, it’s up to people to bring their non-believing friends. But people are more encouraged to do that if they know we’ll be periodically addressing nonbelievers from the front. Begin by addressing the nonbelievers, and you’ll find that they tend to show up.
4. Consider using highly skilled artists in worship. The phrase we use here is “resourceful excellence.” A high level of musical performance must always be balanced by other important needs, and we’ve crossed a line if our devotion to a slick production diminishes other important ministries. But non-Christians will quickly dismiss a worship service if elements of it are poorly coordinated and sloppy.
5. Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice. One of the roles of the church is to be a “city on a hill,” showing the world the justice and compassion of God. Living during an age when most communities find churches an annoyance rather than a blessing, it is important that we highlight acts that give our words plausibility.
6. Present the sacraments (or ordinances) in a way that preaches the gospel. I get mad when I hear a bad sermon. I get really mad when I hear someone botch communion. If you aren’t preaching the gospel during communion or baptism, you aren’t doing it right.
7. Preach grace. Remember, everyone needs the gospel. It isn’t just the diving board into the pool of Christianity. It is the pool itself.
8. Call for commitment—either in a prayer or through a class offered later. The gospel isn’t the gospel without a call to respond. That can happen during the service, but in many contexts, it is more effective in a small group or one-on-one setting. The important thing is to provide clear steps for nonbelievers to take their next step of commitment.