When I speak at churches, I am constantly amazed by how many services are designed and executed in a way that excludes everyone but the twenty-percent of members who are the most active. Worship services in the local church are rightly designed for the gathered community of believers to grow in the gospel and exalt the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – by declaring the supremacy of the crucified, risen, and returning Christ. Nevertheless, even within a given local church there are differing levels of involvement and awareness among those who are active. Also, we should always want and expect there to be unbelievers present and listening in our services.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is dealing with the misuse of tongues in the gathered worship services. Paul complains, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Cor 14:23). Notice that he is urging the church to function with the awareness that unbelievers are present. He certainly is not advocating changing the message to accommodate the unbeliever. Rather, what he desires is for the unbeliever to understand the message so that “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25).
In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes in power, unbelievers listening in say, "'We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God'…. And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, 'What does this mean?' and others listened in and mocked" (Acts 2:11-13). The bottom line is that unbelievers are expected and the believers gathered in worship must want them to comprehend and hopefully be convicted and converted. So, are church worship services for edification or evangelism? Yes. Those facts should shape all that we do in worship and the way we do it.
I am reminded of the time when I mentioned to church leaders that we needed more signage inside the building and one person replied, “Why? We all know where to go.” It never seemed to occurred to him that the signage was primarily for people who do not attend the church regularly. There was also the time I said the gospel is going to offend and our preaching is going to be expository and direct, so in every other way we need to create an environment where people feel comfortable rather than awkward. Someone responded, “Who wouldn’t feel comfortable here? I sure do.” I suggested they head over to the mosque or the Buddhist temple for the first time and let me know if they felt awkward. It is easy to become self-referential and trapped in one’s own perspective, but such a disposition is antithetical to our responsibility to point others the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Stop Using Insider Language
Too often, church announcements sound something like, “We’ve got that Good Sam meeting over in the Beulah room, right after the Sonlight club, and don’t forget the Together Fund 5th Sunday Offering. Also, if you want to sign up for the Paris mission trip find Ken in the vestibule after the service. One more thing, Todd said 180 ain’t meeting tonight for the Vine service it’s changed to Monday at the Tyson’s place.” That way of talking in a public worship service communicates that there are insiders in the church and those insiders plan on making it as hard as possible for anyone else to become an insider. This problem is easily corrected by using non-jargony explanations of things, providing clear directions, always provide multiple concrete ways to sign up for things and to get more information (text, email, call….). Just get everyone to speak in public worship in a way that the first-timer can at least get up to speed with what is going on. Practice beforehand if necessary.
Quickly Define Technical Terms
I am referring to both technical biblical-theological term and to any other terms that might be difficult for someone to understand. Of course, no biblical term should ever be jettisoned in the life of the church, but there is a great deal of technical non-biblical theological categorization and terminology that would rarely be helpful to use. This adjustment is as easy as providing a simple explanatory phrase. This is not difficult. In fact, most good doctors do it every time we visit them. I have often wished that the preacher who fills his sermon with high-sounding theological terminology would see a doctor who only speaks to them using hyper-technical medical jargon.
Think about what you need to do as a verbal parenthesis:
- Justified (to be declared righteous in Christ)
- Reconciliation (enemies made friends)
- Propitiation (bearing wrath)
- Eschatology (study of the end)
- Sanctified (being made holy)
- Vestibule (the are at the front entrance – though it would probably best to retire this terminology)
- Southern Baptist Convention (our voluntary partnership with like-minded churches)
Do Not Talk as if All Christians are Morally Superior to All Non-Christians
This is first of all a theological matter: we are not morally superior. The dividing line between the church and the world is not morality, it is Christ. Talking in this unhelpful way breeds self-righteousness in Christians and an adversarial relationship with those we are trying to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Cultivating an adversarial us-versus-them mentality from the pulpit or the platform is detrimental to both believer and unbeliever. The truth is that we are all sinners, the fallen children of Adam. The only other category is the saved, children of God, redeemed by the last Adam—Christ.
One example of this is how we confront a sin like homosexuality, a sin people in our cultural context are attempting to normalize. We can say something like, “Homosexuality is a sin and we are not going to allow them to jam an abomination down the throats of God-fearing people. We are going to fight the homosexual agenda every step of the way!” Or we can say something like, “The Bible is abundantly clear. Homosexuality is a sin. Have you ever wondered why people fall into the sin of homosexuality. It is easier to understand than you think. Why do you sin? Looking for joy, pleasure, contentment in the wrong place? I also wonder what your reaction would be if you found out your new neighbors were a homosexual couple? Would you put your house on the market or would you say thank God they moved in next to us so we can love them and tell them about Jesus? After all, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6, that those ’who practice homosexuality …. will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (v. 9-10), but notice he then says, ‘And such were some of you’ (v. 11).” The first approach takes sin seriously—other peoples' sin—the other takes all sin seriously, but it takes the gospel seriously too.
Climb Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction
People tend to struggle with understanding biblical-theological truth in two directions. They tend to have a hard time seeing how the concrete realities of life have anything to do with God and they have a hard time seeing what God has to do with the concrete realities of life. Thus, we must never assume the congregation is making the connection between the two realities. This fact should be obvious to a people who believe in the Incarnation. A people who confess that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us, died on a cross for our sins, was resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
When you say something like, “God is sovereign,” do not assume that the worshippers have a sense of how that truth should transform Monday. Show them concrete ways that ordinary people make different life choices because God is sovereign. Likewise, when you talk about Vacation Bible School, don’t assume that listeners think about anything more than a kids activity. Show them Satan hates children and rages against them since the first gospel promise of the birth of a child that would crush his head and that VBS is a part of that spiritual war. It is one way to obey the ascended Christ by carrying out the Great Commission. Climb them up and down the ladder. Proceed on the assumption that people will not automatically see the connection.
I hope you understand that what I am suggesting is greater gospel clarity and for the good of all who gather for worship. It is an attempt to apply comprehensively what we say we believe about God, the gospel, image bearers, and worship in the way we design and execute all of our activities in corporate worship. This approach is not watering things down in the worship service so nominal Christians and unbelievers will think our services are cool. It is the opposite of that.
This approach cuts through all of the ways we build artificial barriers between biblical gospel truth and those gathered for worship whether they are believers or unbelievers. Applying this approach means not letting people off the hook by making what’s going on comprehensible enough to be confronted with truth that calls them to repent, believe, and follow Christ.