Is the connection between worship and evangelism still relevant in the new millennium? Sally Morgenthaler, author of the 1995 watershed book, Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God, explores that question with three worship leaders, Jonny Baker, Dan Kimball and Ron Martoria. Together, they discuss the face of worship in the 21st century and its role in connecting unbelievers to God.
What do you see as the role(s) of worship in the Church of the new millennium?
Worship should be the heart of who we are, the primary thing we’re doing. We put lots of creative energy into worship because it’s an extravagant offering to God. It’s also a means for us to encounter and be transformed by God.
Right. Worship is part of everything the Church does, really—definitely not just in the “singing” part of the service. For both Christians and non-Christians, we should be trying to redefine worship as offering everything we have and are to God, every moment of our lives.
It really seems that worship has usually been construed as the musical portion of a church service. If worship is genuinely a lifestyle based on a passage like Romans 12, then worship is something that needs to be happening not just in a weekend event.
Our goal is to create an environment where, through multiple elements, we increase the incidence of people bumping into the presence of God.
Can worship be an effective avenue for outreach? Have you seen people meeting God for the first time through worship?
Worship is the most natural form of evangelism there is. I’m reminded of a guy who became a Christian from the experience of attending our worship gatherings. He said he was amazed at seeing how many people his age (early 20s) were on their knees in worship and prayer. He particularly loved the times of silence. That’s what kept him coming back. Later, he told me that if our gathering had been a pep talk about God and movie clips, he wouldn’t have been interested in coming back.
Another girl became a believer not from our worship gatherings, but from being invited to serve and worship God by feeding the homeless downtown. She talked about how she would pray with the group before they left, and how she saw them as worshippers of God doing something about their faith. She was drawn to God by seeing people worship Him with their time on Friday nights.
I think it’s about authenticity. I do think worship can be effective as outreach. But there is a tension here. People are extremely resistant to being targeted. So if we construct worship that’s deliberately aimed at those who aren’t Christians, and they get a sense of that, it may well have the adverse effect. If our worship is authentic, I believe it will resonate with people who are not Christians.
Our most successful outreach has been running a labyrinth, which originated as a worship service. We set it up in a cathedral, prison or a school. People put on headphones and walk around for an hour. Much to their surprise, they encounter God.
Is worship as outreach a relatively new concept for the Church?
I would say in the last three to four years there has been a much deeper sense that a variety of elements and a variety of interactive [opportunities] help support and bring about that kind of experience.
I was once a youth pastor committed to the “seeker-sensitive” methodology. We, too, would use the interactive elements—all the videos, lights and rock music. Our hope was that kids would trust Christ, then move on to our “serious” meeting. What I found was that both non-Christian teens and young adults were more drawn to our “serious” meetings about God than the “outreach” gatherings. They felt many of the things we did for “seekers” was in a way mocking their spiritual beliefs and subtly communicating that they couldn’t handle “God.” When we began experimenting with worship and inviting nonbelievers into our midst, the response was incredible.
Have you identified any cultural shifts that seem to be affecting the way people (both churched and unchurched) access God and the sacred?
In a nutshell, spirituality is in, but religion is out. People want experiences of God, but they don’t want the power games of church. In part, this reflects a wider cultural trend toward all of life being viewed through the lens of a consumer. So spirituality is another thing to consume. There are obviously real dangers here. But from a mission point of view, I see more to work with than be afraid of.
One good example of that is the labyrinth I mentioned earlier. The experience isn’t scary, and it’s what they want— an experience. But they haven’t joined a church, they’ve simply consumed the experience, God may have spoken to them, and hopefully they may be changed by that. The difficult part is that many people may take these things but won’t commit to community. It’s not enough in some ways, but the church should offer its treasures to people with no strings attached. The door is then open to come in further.
I echo that. The biggest shift we’ve seen is how deeply our nonchurched culture desires experience. It’s this experiential, multilayered, aesthetic ambiance we’re attempting to create that seems to attract many more people outside the church culture.
Emerging generations are craving to know “God.” We aren’t dealing with making things [comfortable] and relevant for Christians anymore. This shift gives us the wondrous opportunity to redefine church and what being a follower of Jesus is.
When people take the time to come to a church service or gathering, shouldn’t we be demonstrating worship to them? Wouldn’t they feel that Christians are trite and don’t take their God seriously if all we do is sing goofy songs, show them video clips and give them a pep talk? Woe to us if we shove God to the sidelines in our outreach events or meetings.
What challenges have you faced as you sought to make worship more accessible to people outside the church subculture?
The biggest challenge we’ve encountered is discerning how far we can push people outside of the church subculture into participating. Beyond singing, will people interact with anointing stations? Or when we use a video terminal with a computer keyboard for people—kind of the 21st century version of testimonies—will they type up stories? What about lighting candles?
We’ve done more interactive things—where we’re reaching out to people who don’t know Jesus—and we’ve seen more participation than we ever would have thought possible just three or four years ago.
One of our greatest challenges is teaching Christians that church is not the weekend service. They are the ones who are the “outreach,” not the service. We should be living among nonbelievers so they see us love others as Jesus would, and then eventually invite them to worship with us.
What about using the arts in worship services? What role do they play in worship evangelism?
We see the whole worship gathering as a canvas really. We began experimenting with using art while I preached, as our PowerPoint backdrops instead of the goofy ones that come with PowerPoint. There was a great response. Before we knew it, artists were coming out from all over. We hosted an art event where over 50 artists, photographers and sculptors displayed their art. We also featured discussion groups about the arts. We were amazed that over 600 people attended. The next year, we had over 80 artists participate, and over 800 people attended a two-day event.
We now place art from those in the church all around the room at our worship gathering, and at least once a month, we have a time for people to leave their seats and draw or paint.
Art is central to our expression of worship. Grace is really a community of artists—in music, video, DJs and Web design. So it’s just grown out of who we are and having the space to re-imagine what worship can be like.
Art is absolutely critical to our overall worship experience. We have six teams who feed the storyboarding team, which are essentially responsible for the actual order of service. It’s done almost exclusively by volunteers and so far is increasingly effective.
Do you ever include the artistic input of nonchurch people in your worship planning and/or actual services?
Not currently, but in principle I think this is a good idea. I have involved people in that way before, and it’s definitely a “way in” by building relationships.
Have you been intentional about using multicultural and more urban elements for outreach?
We have used a series of images of Christ from cultures around the world, as well as liturgies and prayers from other places in the world. A group in London ran a series of services called “concrete liturgies” that specifically explored what it means to worship in the inner city.
How do you typically use visual technology? In what ways would you like to see that area expand?
The key isn’t the technology. It’s the imagination. We use whatever we can get —old TVs linked up, slide projectors, video projectors, computers. We even use old Mac classics as stand alones with words on the screens. (For example, we alternate between “eat” and “drink” on the communion table.)
We use two video projectors—one large center screen and one smaller screen off to one side. We purposely designed our auditorium asymmetrically so that we’ve got lots of visual interest coming at a number of different angles. We also use lots of texture related to lighting and lighting color changes so that we’re constantly creating different shapes and images on the walls and art boards.
We also put a lot of emphasis on visual interest, but we’re careful to use visual elements only as accents to the service, to keep them from becoming a distraction. We use three LCD projectors and feature a blend of stills and moving images. At various times—during my sermon, our corporate worship or times of silence—we project various types of art on the screens. We include a lot of Scriptures with it. Our next goal is to project images on the sides of the room.
How concurrent is your typical worship service? Are there times when two or more different worship responses are going on at the same time?
We usually give people the opportunity to interact with three, four or five different elements. During a time of communion, they might have the opportunity to light a candle, go toss a rock into a large water barrel representing forgiveness, be anointed with oil, or go out and observe some art and reflect.
We regularly have prayer stations set up where people can walk around the room and choose where they want to spend time. Usually, the worship band plays lightly and sings in the background. We sometimes have other types of stations: painting areas, writing in a prayer journal, rituals with bowls of water.
What is the future of worship as outreach? How do you see it changing in the next five to ten years?
I hope there will be a lot of change. I expect there will be a wider embrace of some of the things we’ve talked about—contemplative stuff like ritual, visuals, meditation—all drawing on the more mystical side of Christianity.
I think worship is going to continue to be increasingly interactive—a decrease in talking heads, an increase in the number of elements. I believe there’s also going to be a move away from monothematic programming to multiple themes that interlock but have enough variety so that each person in the room—no matter where they are with God or in their life—can connect with something.
What advice would you give to pastors and worship leaders who desire to make worship accessible to people outside their church subculture?
Let go of the control. Find the people on the back rows of church who are frustrated and ask them what their vision is for changing things. If it sounds good, trust them and ask them to do it. Then protect the space for them to try new things.
I think the most important thing to ask is, “What is it that you are really trying to accomplish in the service?” Our goal is not to get people to necessarily worship, but to encounter God and to deal with barriers that prevent them from taking the next step. As a result, it becomes crucial to deal with themes that allow nonchurched people to take the next steps toward God. Creative change is also extremely important. Each week, we want people to be a little bit surprised at what they encounter—to have the jolt of something new that helps them interact with God in a new way.
Stop trying to be hip and relevant. Stop removing God from your services, and go back to being true worshippers.
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