I’ve recently begun to discover that you can get a sense of whether a church is inwardly or outwardly focused by their approach to worship. For the last two months I’ve been able to visit and speak in churches across the country and across my city. It’s a whole new experience after spending 20 years primarily worshipping with the same church family. For me what I’ve been seeing is quite startling, that the approach a church takes to worship is a barometer on the extent to which they are outwardly or inwardly focused.
Okay I am using the word “worship” in the narrow sense of what happens during a church worship service, and yes I do know that worship is far broader than that. My point being, it’s what happens when the church gathers, that can tell you a lot about how the church views and practices its mission.
What I’ve discovered as I’ve travelled the country is that while we have a growing number of churches who are taking a more “contemporary” approach to worship, there’s a strong set of boundaries on what that looks like. The ultimate goal seems to be to allow younger Christians more and more influence on worship styles while not overly offending the older saints. It’s an attempt to be all things to all Christians, tipping the balance slightly in favour of the younger generation.
These churches are strong on promoting intergenerational harmony, but are not always thinking about how their worship service might impact those who are not yet Christ followers. The big giveaway is not as much the style of music (although it can include the style of music), as much as it is the vocabulary of the worship leader. Twenty years in one church setting and I had forgotten how we evangelicals have a very unique vocabulary that is only appreciated by those of us within the movement, or maybe not even appreciated by everyone in the movement, but simply tolerated because it just is. I leave the examples to your imagination. I don’t really want to create specific offence to any of the worship leaders I’ve been with recently, who sincerely have done their best for the glory of God.
As the “seeker church movement” is now going out of vogue, as the concept of “attractional church,” is seen by so many as a negative, as the word “missional” seems to be used by so many to only mean what happens outside of the church gathered, there seems to be a new push to make the weekend worship experience a much more exclusive deal for committed believers.
This leads to worship that is more about placating various factions within a church in the name of harmony including the use of insider vocabulary, that at times is not just weird for outsiders, it’s just weird, period. (With apologies to Craig Groeschel whose book “Weird” deals with something quite different!) We seem to be moving back into worship as “time warp,” now that we’re being told that the “seeker sensitive” model doesn’t work. In many cases what we end up with is neither contemporary worship nor historic worship, just the nineties and early 2000’s revisited.
But then there are a few churches out there that seem to understand that missional is what happens both when the church is gathered and scattered, and that the church had better be attractional, making the beauty of Jesus visible both when gathered and scattered. Worship in these churches is not about trying to keep all the Christians happy. More it’s just about authentically using the diverse breadth of styles and rhythms found on a typical radio dial, concert hall or move theatre as well as weaving some ancient and historic tunes and rhythms into the mix, and using this worship tapestry to lift up the name of Jesus. The desire of these churches is that this experience of worship would draw believers into the tangible presence of Christ as humble worshippers, while inviting those who are not yet believers to keep going in their journey towards Christ.
It has nothing to do with dumbing down the Gospel and everything to do with lifting up Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures, using the tunes and rhythms that are capable of stirring the hearts of the believer and unbeliever alike, using words that communicate effectively with believer and seeker alike.
I’d like to use the phrase “missional worship” to describe this. It’s what you see in the teaching and worship of the early church, where gatherings of believers for worship and teaching were generally inclusive and sensitive to those who were not yet a part of the Christian community. After all, we the church are the one gathering, the one institution that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet a part of our community.
Take a look at 1 Corinthians 14 when you get a chance. As you wade through the issues in that passage, one thing comes out loud and clear: Paul instructs the congregation there to adapt its worship because of the presence of unbelievers. (With thanks to Tim Keller for this thought) Paul wants local church worship to be sensitive and inclusive of those who are not yet regenerated Christ followers. That’s both/and. It’s what I would call “missional worship.”
Could I humbly encourage us to be churches of the both/and, churches who practice “missional worship” where in the midst of leading believers into a powerful worship encounter with God, we make worship comprehensible and engaging to the unbeliever. Let’s design our worship experiences to be inclusive and welcoming of both believers and unbelievers, leading both into a dangerous life-transforming encounter with the living God.