Any church that has ever wrestled with the issue of what it takes to grow (there are, incidentally, churches that don’t wrestle with this: they think growth is 100% the Holy Spirit’s business, thus planning for growth is a waste of time, which could explain why they don’t grow, but that’s not what this blog post is about) has confronted the question whether its worship is “accessible” or “relevant” to the unchurched and/or the underchurched. Ought a Christian worship service to be “contextualized” so those who don’t know Jesus (and may know almost nothing about the Bible, Christianity, or this thing called “the church”) can feel like they “connect” to it?
To be clear, if the answer to this question is yes, it’s going to be very hard to justify any sort of traditional, much less liturgical, form of worship. Very, very few unchurched or underchurched people in the modern world, especially if they’re under the age of 35, are going to walk into a traditional or liturgical service and say, “Yeah, I get what’s going on here.” Most such people have never in their lives heard a psalm or hymn; they’ve never sat and listened to anyone other than a college professor talk at them for 30–40 minutes (and it totally put them to sleep); they haven’t the foggiest notion what atonement, grace, propitiation, justification, sanctification, theology, depravity, holiness, or even salvation mean; and they don’t see the point in a bit of bread and wine that are supposed to be about a crucified Jewish woodworker named Jesus. It doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t connect. And since I happen to be a church planter in a church that practices liturgical worship, this matters to me. Admittedly, I’m biased. But hear me out.
I don’t think worship is where an unchurched or underchurched person is initially supposed to “connect” to the church. It may indeed happen that way. It’s even likely to happen if you have a rock band play the worship music, all the songs sound like popular radio, your preacher talks for ten minutes about movies, and you serve iced cappuccinos in the lobby. Admittedly, this brings its own complications: not least, that you’ll have to keep changing your worship track to keep up with the radio; and at some point it might be important to explain to your new friend that meeting with the Almighty God isn’t supposed to feel quite like a U2 concert; but be that as it may. If you practice traditional or liturgical worship, by contrast, I’d say it’s unusual if a non-churched person walks in and immediately “connects.” I’m also saying that’s okay.
The reason it’s okay is that hard-core Christian worship should have the “feel” of a called-out covenant people meeting with their sovereign covenant God; reenacting the great story of His saving grace in the world; and being called, cleansed, equipped, and commissioned to carry out His mission in the world. If this feels immediately “relevant” to an outsider, I would wonder if it’s being done properly. But that doesn’t mean the outsider shouldn’t connect to the church at all; what I’m proposing is that the connection will usually start elsewhere.
Where? In the everyday life of God’s covenant people. Worship isn’t normally what convinces outsiders of the “relevance” of the church; worshipful lives are what convince them of this. One missional writer has said that people often belong to the church before they believe in Jesus. That makes complete sense: if outsiders don’t feel like they have a connection to God’s people, how on earth are they going to feel a connection to the worship these people offer to their God? I’m not (again) saying that it can’t happen (we need, for example, to work out the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25), only that the normal order of things is to be impressed with God’s people before one is impressed with Him. “You are My witnesses,” and so forth.
You, dear saints, are the relevance of the church to the world. Not first your pastor’s sermons, not first the worship music and anthems of Zion, not first the Table of the Lord (though these things should be tasteful and attractive, and pastors in particular must preach as men convicted that the gospel is the most relevant thing on the planet, because it is). You are the epistle known and read by all men, even if they never darken the door of a place of worship. And if they don’t discover the relevance of the church in knowing you – in your loving service, in your gracious friendship – the lights aren’t likely to go on just because you haul them to a worship service.