Worship is evangelism. Evangelism is worship.
When we look at the definitions of these two practices, it is clear that they are intertwined.
Christian worship forms the Christian community into the body of Christ proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word, sacrament, song and prayer.
Evangelism strategies look to share this good news intentionally with those who have yet to experience it.
Unfortunately, ELCA congregations have often fallen into practices for both worship and evangelism that separate the essential intertwining of the two.
Established worshiping communities often forget that worship is not just about proclaiming the good news for those already in the congregation. Proclamation reaches beyond the walls of the sanctuary to those who have not yet come to believe.
When this happens, worship practice may become a series of rituals either too mysterious for newcomers to understand or hollowed out from repetition that has lost its connection to a deeper meaning.
Evangelism isn’t about numbers
On the other hand, evangelism practices that emerge from established ELCA congregations may forget what the object of evangelism really is.
It’s not to increase worship attendance numbers or financial giving but to share the transforming encounter with the living gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Unless this happens, aggressive inviting and drawing newcomers into worship leads not to a transforming encounter with the gospel but to a hollow and often short-lived visit with the Christian community.
When worship and evangelism lose their foundational core in the clear proclamation of and encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the result is clear: a crisis of faith.
With good intentions and concern for the church, we often turn to seek the next-great-thing in worship to serve as our evangelism strategy to reach those who are not yet in the community.
Unfortunately, this often turns our focus toward human action and our own creativity and away from the life-changing presence of Christ in our midst in worship and the proclamation of that gospel to the world.
Furthermore, previous worship practice may be unintentionally proclaimed as insufficient without the recognition that these practices have effectively proclaimed the presence of the living Christ, nurturing the community of faith for a long time.
Getting to the core of faith
Understanding the foundational center of worship and evangelism as the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world leads the congregation to ask hard questions that get to the core of our faith:
- How deeply do we believe that what happens in worship in the community of Christ is the living, transformative encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we show this belief to those who are outside of worship?
- Into what do we invite people through our evangelism efforts? How do we make clear that it isn’t about membership into a particular congregation or attendance in worship but rather deep transformation in our lives on account of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Responses to these questions will lead to practical implications for the congregation that seeks to shepherd the transforming and far-reaching proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ through worship.
First, it may be necessary to reinforce and build up the congregation’s understanding about the living presence of Jesus Christ in the worshiping community and beyond.
Be intentional about teaching how worship practice evolves and the meaning behind worship practices.
Focus on God’s action in worship that unites the community beyond personal opinions: the sacraments, the proclamation of the word for the church and the world, and the essential participation of the whole community in worship as the assembly proclaims the word in song, assents to the prayers and embodies Christ in the passing of the peace.
The congregation may choose to work through a worship curriculum that invites conversation about the mission of God in worship such as “With the Whole Church,” which is available for free to download.
Connect to the larger community
Observe the larger community in which your congregation worships. Find ways of connecting to the culture on the basis of meaning and transformation beyond consumerist preferences.
Look beyond what will attract new people. Instead, look to where the culture and the gospel already intersect in meaningful ways.
For example, the congregation and the secular community may share values about inclusivity, community identity and ways the community fights for justice or social service.
Build connections between the ELCA congregation and the mission community based on these commonalities that connect on a deep level of meaning.
Within the worship service itself, intentionally connect worship with the ongoing and everyday proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The congregation’s announcements may be shared in a way that intentionally connects how worship interacts with the activities of the congregation that continue throughout the week.
For example, “After worship today, we continue our fellowship as the body of Christ around lunch tables.” Or, “The social ministry committee invites you to continue to share the story of Jesus Christ by gathering to create health kits to be sent to an area suffering the effects of natural disasters.”
In each worshiping community, use your creative energy to find ways to support and shepherd God’s actions of gathering the community, proclaiming the living Word of God in Jesus Christ, feeding us with the presence of Christ and sending us into the world to continue the proclamation.
In this way, we will truly tell the story of the gospel in worship where we encounter the living Christ who transforms our lives inspiring us to continue telling that story with our everyday lives.