The Lord Jesus Christ gave the church its commission before he ascended to his Father:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19–20)
How public worship fits into this commission is often a matter of confusion. On the one hand are those who make every church service an evangelistic meeting and consider worship something we’ll do in heaven some day. On the other hand are those who insist that the purpose of a church service is for believers to authentically worship God, and evangelism should happen outside the four walls of the church building.
I would like to suggest that the relationship between worship and evangelism is actually more complementary than either of these perspectives imply. Rather than pitting worship and evangelism against each other, we should shape corporate worship in such a way that it is itself profoundly evangelistic.
What is worship?
I should begin with a brief explanation of the nature of worship. Worship is drawing near to God in fellowship with him and obedience to him such that he is magnified and glorified.
This idea of drawing near to God in worship permeates the storyline of Scripture. It is what Adam and Eve enjoyed as they walked with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 2:8). It is described in Exodus 19:17 when Moses “brought the people out of the camp to meet God” at the foot of Mt. Sinai. He had told Pharaoh to let the people go so that they might worship their God in the wilderness, and this is exactly what they intended to do at Sinai. It is what Psalm 100 commands of the Hebrews in Temple worship when it says, “Come into his presence with singing and into his courts with praise.” It is what Isaiah experienced as he entered the heavenly throne room of God and saw him high and lifted up. To draw near to God is to enter his very presence in fellowship and obedience.
God created people to worship him.
Ultimately, this is why God created people. God created the world to put on display the excellencies of his own glory, and he created people therein that they might witness that glory and praise him for it. In Isaiah 43:6–7 God proclaims,
Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
Likewise, Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”
Worship — magnifying God’s worth and glory — is the reason God made us.
Sin is failure to worship God.
Adam and Eve’s fall into sin — their disobedience of God’s commandments — was essentially failure to magnify the worthiness of God to be their master and bring him glory, and thus it was a failure to worship him acceptably. This broke the communion they enjoyed with God and propelled them out from the sanctuary of his presence. After they sinned, and they heard God walking in the garden, “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God” (Gen 3:8) — they recognized their unworthiness to walk with him. Their sin created a separation between them and their Creator, and they were forced to leave the sanctuary (Gen 3:23–24), never again able to draw near to the presence of God.
All sin is essentially failure to bring God glory (Rom 3:23) — it is failure to worship him. This failure creates barriers from drawing near to God in worship, and it brings with it severe punishment: eternal separation from the presence of God in hell.
Christ’s sacrifice enables those who trust in him to worship rightly once again.
Sin prevents us from drawing near to God in worship; it prevents us from doing what we were created to do.
However, worship is possible through a sacrifice, the vicarious, substitutionary atonement of the Son of God. Sacrifices in the Mosaic system pictured this kind of atonement, but they were unable to “make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1).
But this sacrifice can perfect those who draw near. Jesus is fully man, and thus he can stand as our substitute, and he is fully God, and thus he can pay an eternal punishment to an eternal, holy God that no normal man could. And because of the perfection and eternality of this sacrifice, it need not be offered day after day after day to atone for sin; it is offered one time and the complete wrath of God is fully appeased.
This is what God pictured when he slew the animal in the garden and covered Adam and Eve’s guilt. This is what was pictured when Moses offered a sacrifice at the foot of Mt. Sinai so that the elders of the people could approach God. This is what was pictured each year in Israel on the Day of Atonement when an animal was sacrificed and the high priest entered the holy place to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. This is what was pictured when the seraph took a burning coal from the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s lips, saying, “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And this is pictured no more beautifully than with what happened at the moment of Christ’s death. The gospel accounts of the crucifixion tell us that Jesus cried out with a loud voice and gave up his spirit, and at that exact moment, the veil of the temple was torn in two, as if that veil was the body of the Son of God himself prohibiting entrance into the presence of a holy God, and that access that had been lost by the fall of man is now restored! There is now a new and living way (Heb 10:20) to draw near to God, and that way is his Son.
Thus those who repent of their sin — their failure to worship — and put their faith and trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf are saved from separation from God and enabled once again to draw near to him in worship!
The gospel is a call to return to right worship.
What should be apparent is that the essence of worship is itself the language of the gospel — a drawing near to God in relationship with him, made impossible because of sin that demands eternal judgment, yet restored through the substitutionary atonement of the God-man for those who place their faith in him. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes worship possible.
The gospel — the good news of Christ’s death on our behalf — is a call for people return to the reason for their existence; it is a plea to accept the simple truths, repent of failure to worship God aright, and call out for forgiveness.
This is what we are called to do as we make disciples of all nations. When we preach the gospel, we are proclaiming the worthiness of God to be praised, the inability of sinners to draw near to a holy God, and the forgiveness that is possible through faith in Christ’s atoning work.
In corporate worship, believers reenact this gospel.
Because this faith in Christ requires belief in facts about Christ and his work and trust in him as Savior and Lord, evangelism requires preaching the gospel:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Rom 10:14)
But corporate worship also proclaims the gospel, not that the sermon and hymns will necessarily always be explicitly evangelistic, but in the act of corporate worship itself. Corporate worship is the public acting out of the spiritual realities of worship; it is a dramatic re-creation of drawing near to God through Christ by faith.
In other words, a worship service can be structured so that it proclaims the gospel simply in its order, whether or not the content of the hymns or sermon is explicitly evangelistic. Such a gospel-shaped worship order will look something like this:
1. Revelation: God Making Himself Known to Us
2. Adoration: Exalting Our Glorious God
3. Confession: Lifting Contrite Hearts to the Lord
4. Propitiation: Forgiveness Through Jesus Christ
5. Proclamation: God Speaking Through His Word
6. Dedication: Responding to the Word of God
7. Supplication Praying for the Church and the World
8. Commission: God Sending Us Forth to Serve Him
This basic flow of a worship service (one that has characterized worship in many traditions for centuries) reflects the flow of the gospel: God reveals himself in his Word (Revelation), which leads a person to recognize God’s greatness (Adoration) and his own sinfulness. He then confesses his sin and puts his faith in Christ (Confession), which leads to forgiveness in the gospel through the merits of Christ (Propitiation). This christian is now ready to hear God’s Word (Proclamation) and obey (Dedication), bringing his burdens before the Lord (Supplication) and ready to go into the world to serve God and fulfill the Great Commission (Commission).
This reenactment of the Gospel in corporate worship is profoundly evangelistic.
Structuring worship services in this way both allows believers to truly draw near to God through Christ by faith, which is the primary purpose of a worship service, and ensures that unbelievers who attend the service will always be confronted with the gospel.
Corporate worship and evangelism are, therefore, not mutually exclusive. The gospel is what makes worship possible, and gospel-shaped corporate worship is evangelistic.
If churches would return to this kind of corporate worship, they might see more examples of what Paul hoped for the Corinthian church when an unbeliever witnessed their worship:
He is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 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 14:24–25)
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.