The Numeric Success and Kingdom Failure of Worship Evangelism

Featuring Daniel Collison Posted on September 26, 2008

The Numeric Success and Kingdom Failure of Worship Evangelism
Daniel Collison, September 2008

“…the relationship between the traditional Christendom mode of church and the world around it can best be described as being fundamentally attractional. The church bids people to come and hear the gospel in the holy confines of the church and its community. Evangelism therefore is primarily about mobilizing church members to attract unbelievers into church where they can experience God. Rather than being genuine ‘outreach,’ it effectively becomes something more like an ‘in-drag’. Now, we are not suggesting that people can’t experience God in a church service. Of course they can, for in the preaching of God’s Word and the worship of God’s people his true voice can be heard. But if the church limits God’s agency in this world to particular times and places that the vast majority of not-yet-Christians have no access to, or no desire to attend, then the gospel is effectively hobbled…If they won’t come to us, we have to go to them. This approach, being incarnational, is the opposite of being attractional.”

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch
in The Shaping of Things to Come

At the point Morgnathaler wrote Worship Evangelism in 1995, the praise and worship movement that began in the 1960’s and 1970’s was bourgeoning. The Charismatic and Contemporary Driven music streams were peaking in growth. The Worship Evangelism paradigm resonated with many evangelical churches because they were intrinsically passionate about evangelism, the praise and worship movement was successful at drawing larger numbers of people into church buildings, and the seeker model was difficult to transfer to many settings around the United States. Hundreds of churches across America began to view corporate worship as the new frontier for church evangelism. Morganthaler chronicles seeker churches making wholesale changes to the Worship Evangelism paradigm including this church:

"Recently a seeker-driven church in a fast-growing suburban area added several worship elements to its seeker event…When I asked the church’s pastor why his congregation made such a change, he responded: ‘The seeker event we were offering wasn’t cutting it for some of the seekers who were coming. They said that they were looking for something with more of a ‘spiritual feel’ to it. So, we decided to provide a different kind of service, a celebrative time that both energizes believers and enlightened seekers’."
-Sally Morganthaler, Worship Evangelism

The biblically motivated aspects of Worship Evangelism appeared to be having a very positive effect both for Christians and for seekers. However, some churches appeared to be abandoning the hard work of church wide evangelism in lieu of making the corporate worship experience an attractional evangelistic event. Confronted by a colleague Morganthaler wrote about the realization in 2007 for Rev! Magazine:

"In his view, Worship Evangelism had helped to create a "worship-driven subculture." As he explained it, this subculture was a sizeable part of the contemporary church that had just been waiting for an excuse not to do the hard work of real outreach. An excuse not to get their hands dirty. According to him, that excuse came in the form of a book—my book. He elaborated. "If a contemporary worship service is the best witnessing tool in the box, then why give a rip about what goes on outside the worship center? If unbelievers are coming through the doors to check us Christians out, and if they'll fall at Jesus' feet after they listen to us croon worship songs and watch us sway back and forth, well then, a whole lot of churches are just going to say, 'Sign us up!'"

Morganthaler goes on to explain in the article that as she consulted across the United States indeed a worship driven subculture had formed in the likeness of what her friend described.

This was never the intention of Morganthaler or the Worship Evangelism paradigm. For sure Morganthaler described ways for worship to be biblically based, culturally relevant, and accessible to both Christians and non-Christian. Without question she described clear and practical aspects for worship design like the “four essentials for worship evangelism” in chapter five: “Essential #1: Nearness-a Sense of God’s Presence, Essential #2: Knowledge-Worship Centered on Christ, Essential #3: Vulnerability-Opening Up to God, and Essential #4: Interaction-Participating in a Relationship with God and Others.” However, not once did Morganthaler imply that this form of evangelism was intended to replace the broader work of evangelism in church life. Yet, it was clear that many churches highjacked the idea of Worship Evangelism for the purpose of creating large attractional evangelism events. Morganthaler lamented:

"No, what my friend shared with me wasn't news. He'd simply confirmed my worst fears. How ironic. When I wrote Worship Evangelism, I'd had no intention of distracting people from the world outside. I only wanted to give them another way of connecting to it. I certainly had never meant to make worship some slick formula for outreach, let alone the one formula. I'd only wanted to affirm that corporate worship has the capability to witness to the unchurched if we make it accessible and if we don't gut it of its spiritual content on the way to making it culturally relevant."

But those were different times. To witness through worship, the unchurched actually need to show up. And back then, this was happening. Those were the days when a church start-up could simply put up a billboard sign, send out several hundred glossy mailers, and the unchurched-curious would come to check it out. The contemporary, user-friendly spin may not have been a factory fresh as it was in the '80s, but it was still interesting. To the religiously allergic who hadn't been to church since grade school, it looked like religion had come of age.

The misinterpretation of Worship Evangelism became a problem in two ways. First, for the more savvy churches, the attendance in worship services grew enormously; however, as David Olson reveals in “The American Church in Crisis” the people coming to the large attractional worship experiences were transfer Christians. Second, the spiritual culture of the United States was rapidly changing. Unlike the 1980’s and early 1990’s non-Christians were no longer taking the initiative to visit churches. The modes of evangelism had changed without the worship driven churches taking notice.

If summed up in one phrase the Worship Evangelism movement could be called “a numerical success and a Kingdom failure”. In Like 13:18-21 Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to the mustard seed and the work of flour in bread dough. In both cases the core elements expand outward to produce fruit that far exceeds their original size. The fruit of Kingdom work is new conversions to Christianity not merely the reorganization of Christians.

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