Is Your Worship Service Upside Down?

by Jared C. Wilson May 3, 2016

Our church worship gatherings ought to be welcoming and comprehensible to unbelievers who are present, but many churches actually structure the entire worship service around them. There is no real biblical precedent for this, and furthermore, it's not the most effective way for your church to reach lost people, anyway. If your church orients its weekend gathering around "reaching seekers," it's quite possible it has adopted some of the working assumptions outlined below, programmatic arrangements that I want to argue actually turn the biblical shape of evangelism and mission upside down.

How might your worship service be upside down?

1. Emphasizing feelings before and over doctrine.

I know, I know. Many of us come from hard church backgrounds where doctrine was all that mattered and people were cold or harsh or uncaring about their neighbors. That's another way to be upside down. But in many evangelical communities today we see a downplaying of theology and doctrinal truth to make way for personal feelings and relational connecting. The problems with this approach are numerous, but the two main problems I'd cite are these:

– Feelings about God detached from knowledge of God tend to reveal more that we are worshipers of feelings, of ourselves.

– Just as serious, perhaps, is the problem of expecting lost people to sing songs about their feelings about a God they don't believe in. Too many of our Sunday morning worship sets get the cart of affections before the horse of belief.

This is all besides the persistent problem of singing theologically shallow or doctrinally vacant songs to begin with. But just in terms of missional or evangelistic strategy, helping folks sing about how the God they don't (yet) believe in makes them feel is wrongheaded. It's upside down.

2. Giving lost people religious homework.

The dominant style of preaching in the so-called "attractional" or "seeker-targeted" worship service is of the "practical application" variety. In these sermons, teachers attempt to make the Bible more relevant (as if it's somehow irrelevant without our help) but offering a weekly set of steps or tips to make Christianity more applicable to daily life. You will freqeuently see individual sermons or whole sermon series devoted to "Making Life Work" or "Succeeding at Home" or "Becoming a Better Whatever."

This is not to say, of course, that the Bible is impractical or that there aren't lots of things to do in the Bible. The Bible has lots of commands! It is imminently practical and applicable to daily life. The problem we face, however, is that the practicality of Christianity is aimed solely at, you know, Christians. What I mean is, the expectation of obeying and pleasing God is placed on those who have both a heart changed to desire obedience and the Spiritual power to carry it out.

In the seeker-oriented teaching, however, we direct a steady diet of how-to at people who have yet to receive a heart of want-to. Unbelievers should hear the commands and applications of God's designs, sure. But the primary thrust this application of the law has on unbelievers is one of conviction, not empowerment. In fact, the commands of the Bible — whether they are of the "don't commit adultery" variety or the "love your neighor" variety — have no power in themselves to help us. They can only tell us what to do (or not to do); they can't help us do them.

The only thing the Bible calls power (to save us, to transform us, to motivate us) is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it's a little strange to make sure the dominant thing lost people hear in our church service is a list of things to do rather than the thing that's done!

If your weekend teaching is heavy on how-to's for the lost, you're giving religious homework to a bunch of spiritual corpses. You might even be increasing the sin in your church with such a practice. Regardless, it is philosophically and theologically upside down.

3. Offering a gospel invitation after a legal message.

This is probably one of the primary ways the attractional church goes about the weekend preaching upside down. The pastor has spent 30-45 minutes encouraging a lost person to do a bunch of things that please God, and then aftewards adds on an invitation to receive Jesus.

This kind of heavy law/added gospel message creates a kind of spiritual whiplash, as a teacher now invites someone to believe something the teacher has not spent very much time communicating and in fact has spent most of his time operating as if it's unnecessary. As I said above, the Bible assumes the kind of obedience to God that pleases God comes after our heart has been changed by grace. Simple religious behavior modification doesn't glorify God; it glorifies self. If we preach a sermon on behavior modification and then try to invite people to receive grace, it seems disjointed, strange. It's like you've suddenly changed the subject.

I remember hearing a well-known attractional pastor preach a sermon directed at women in which he said over and over again that God finds them captivating. (The tone of the message sounded very much like God worships women.) Then at the end, in his invitation to receive Jesus, he said God would cover their ugliness and shame. It was a strange message tacked-on to a sermon in which he belabored how much God found women beautiful and captivating only to now learn he thinks they're ugly and need him.

This is an extreme example, but I think it is a fitting one, given how much evangelical preaching these days treats hearers like they are "good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people like them," like they're beautiful unique snowflakes with endless potential, and then wants to somehow segue into the utter emptiness and need we have apart from God. "Wait a minute," we think, "You just went on and on about how awesome I am. Now you say I'm not?" It's upside down.

This kind of sermon arrangement is also out of proportion to biblical teaching. In Paul's letters, for instance, he always begins with some kind of gospel proclamation. In length, it is scaled to the proportion of the letter itself. So, for instance, in Romans, the gospel story takes more chapters than it does in Colossians or Philippians. Then, he moves on to the practical matters, because the practical matters flow from the grounding of our justification. Doing flows from being. But in so much attractional teaching, the tacked-on invitation seems to make being an afterthought to doing.

It's upside down.