by Robert E. Webber
There is a story in the Russian Primary Chronicle that tells how Christianity came to Russia. According to this true story Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, sent several of his followers in search of "true religion." First they went to the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga but returned with the report that they found "no joy" but only "a mournfulness and a great smell." Next they went to Germany and Rome, where they found the worship more satisfactory but still lacking in power. Finally they made a trip to Constantinople, where they visited the Church of the Holy Wisdom, and here they found what they were looking for. They went home and reported to Vladimir,
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty. (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 269) [pg 264 in the "New Edition"].
Evangelism Through Worship
What these seekers experienced in Constantinople was evangelism through worship. In other words, the worship service they took part in allowed them to truly encounter, experience, and believe in God.
Many of us expect such evangelism to occur through our worship services. But does it? Do visitors to our worship services "know that God dwells there among" us? As we prepare for worship, we should keep before us four characteristics of worship that will evangelize those who gather with us.
First, we should recognize that worship itself arises out of the gospel. Worship is not primarily a classroom in which the Scripture is taught, an evangelistic service that preaches for decision, or a psychiatric couch that reaches to the needy. While true worship may accomplish all of this, real, authentic biblical worship is at its fundamental core a celebration of the living, dying, and rising of Christ in recognition that through this historical action the powers of evil have been dethroned and will ultimately be destroyed.
Second, we should understand that worship that would evangelize must grow out of community. The public celebration of the Christ event was never meant to be individualistic. God, through Christ, brought into being an ekklesia, a fellowship of people who are the "people of the event." As people of the event, we now share a common experience that results in a new fabric of social relations. We embody the reality of the new creation as we live our lives out in authentic relationships of love, compassion, friendship, giving, and the like. Such a community has the magnetic power to draw people into faith in a subliminal way.
Third, we should know worship that evangelizes needs to be aware that evangelism is a process. Instant conversions do occur. But more often, conversion and subsequent growth in Christ is a journey that includes various stages of development and growth. Worship that truly celebrates God's saving deed in Jesus Christ in authentic community provides both the impetus and context in which the whole community is continually evangelized.
Finally, we should understand that worship that brings people to Jesus recognizes the complexity of evangelism. Because the gospel speaks to us as whole people, evangelism touches different aspects of the person. Ultimately, evangelism has to do with faith in Jesus as Lord, but people may need to come to that faith in different ways. Some may need their morals or values evangelized; others may need to experience the church as a Christian community; still others may need to encounter the reality of God. All these needs are addressed in a worship that celebrates the Christ event and applies the meaning of that event to the lives of the people.
Fortunately for those of us who wish to evangelize through worship, there are models worth examining. I will refer to three, and develop the third one in particular.
Manifest Presence Evangelism
Manifest Presence, our first model, may be described as the experience of being grasped by the overpowering presence of God in worship. Karen Howe writes of her experience of manifest presence in an Episcopal church:
I became a Christian sitting in a pew, experiencing worship. It wasn't the sermon that did it. No one presented me with the plan of salvation or led me in a prayer of commitment (though that did come later). I simply basked in the presence of God as the worship service progressed around me, and when I left the church, I knew that God had entered my life. He was alive. I had encountered him. That day I was born again in my spirit.
Being "grasped by God" in worship may occur in many different ways. It may "happen" through the hospitality of the community, through the proclamation of the Word, through singing (God inhabiting the praises of the people), or through the presence of Christ in the bread and wine.
A second model of evangelism through worship (or a kind of worship) is the seeker service (see "The Seeker Service," p. 7). This approach, pioneered by Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois (the second largest church in the US), separates the seeker service (designed for non-Christians) from believers' worship (designed for Christians). The seeker service is held on Saturday night and Sunday morning, while believers' worship takes place midweek.
The seeker service fits into an overall sevenfold strategy of mission at Willow Creek Church. In summary, the steps are as follows:
Every member should
1. take part in evangelism.
2. be able to give a verbal witness.
3. bring the person he/she is witnessing to to the seeker service.
4. bring converts (after their conversion and baptism) to believers' worship.
Converts will then
5. attend a small group in which they can be discipled.
6. discover their personal gifts and put them to work in the church.
7. learn stewardship of money and life.
The seeker service is designed as a nonthreatening service for secular people who, because a member of the church has entered into relationship with them, wish to be exposed more fully to the faith. It is not like a church-service, although it contains elements of Christian worship.
The Willow Creek Church auditorium, where seeker services are held, is more like a theater than a church. It contains no Christian symbols, and provides a neutral context in which an unchurched person can feel comfortable and unassailed. Also, both the music and the message at seeker services are subtle and deal generally rather than specifically with spiritual themes.
In a seeker service I attended recently, for example, the theme was parenting: How do you raise children in a world full of turmoil and temptation? One of four points was, "Don't neglect the spiritual side of the child," but nothing specific was said about Jesus Christ. Witnessing about Christ and his work is rather the responsibility of the friend who brought the "seeker."
The third model of evangelism through worship is a third-century model that has been resurrected by the Roman Catholic Church. Among Catholics it is called the Rites for the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). I like to call it Liturgical Evangelism.
This kind of evangelism may be defined as follows: Liturgical evangelism calls a person into Christ and the church through a conversion regulated and ordered by worship. Services that span the church year order the inner experience of repentance from sin, faith in Christ, conversion of life, and entrance into the Christian community.
In the third-century church, evangelism was based on seven progressive steps that took place over a period of three years:
2. The Rite of Welcome
3, The Catechumenate
4. The Rite of Election
5. The Period of Purification and Enlightenment
6. The Rite of Initiation
Note that of the seven steps, four are periods or times for growth and development (Inquiry, the Catechumenate, The Period of Purification and Enlightenment, Mystogogue) while three are rites of passage (the Rite of Welcome, the Rite of Election, the Rite of Initiation). Each of these steps can be tied to a place in the church year in a very meaningful wayóby Protestants as well as Catholics.
The point of beginning is Pentecost Sunday. On that day you may celebrate a special commissioning service for those in your community of faith who are called to the work of evangelism. These persons will now seek to fulfill their calling in a special way in the months of the season after Pentecost. They will invite friends and neighbors to church and will engage with them and possibly other members of the church or elders in discussions about the gospel and its meaning for their lives. During these months, some of these people will consider a deeper commitment. We can speak of them as "converting persons."
The Rite of Welcome
The next step, the first passage rite, is the rite of welcome, a ritual that is celebrated today on the first Sunday of Advent. As part of this rite in the early church, the converting person renounced false gods, received the sign of the cross on the forehead, and was received into the church as a catechumen. Similar symbols may be used today. Each church may develop symbols that express a renunciation of the old way of life and the embracing of the new life in Christ.
The catechumenate is the longest stage. In the early church it spanned two or three years, depending on how certain the church leaders were of the spiritual formation of the converting person. During this stage the converting person is instructed in the Scripture, in prayer, and in holy living. Today this period of learning stretches from the first Sunday of Advent through the Epiphany season. Some churches extend it for another full year, but that is not typical.
The Rite of Election
Once the instruction of the catechetical period is complete, the converting persons gather in public worship for the second passage rite, the rite of election. This ritual takes place on the first Sunday of Lent. In the ancient church and again today the primary symbol of this ritual is the dramatic moment in which the converting person, in response to a question such as "Do you choose the one who has chosen you?" will step forward, say "yes," and then write his or her name in a book placed in front of the pulpit.
The Period of Purification and Englightenment
This fifth stage, which occurs during Lent, is a time for intense spiritual preparation for baptism. It is a time to wrestle with the "principalities and powers" that seek to control life. In the ancient church the converting person came to the church for daily exorcisms during this stage. Today, a church may instead lay hands on the catechumens and pray for them in the struggles they have with the powers of evil that continue to knock on their door and bring temptation into their lives. In this way catechumens may learn that the Christian life is a life of struggle, a life that demands constant attention to the ways in which the church offers God's help in times of temptation or distress.
The Rite of Initiation
The sixth state is then the act of baptism itself. In the early church and again today, converting persons are baptized on Easter Sunday morning in the context of the great Paschal vigil. As part of the early church rite, those to be baptized renounced the powers of evil, received the baptism of water in the name of the triune God, were washed with oil, exchanged the kiss of peace, and for the first time celebrated the Lord's Supper with the faithful. Today the adaptation of these rites for the converting persons places special emphasis on the completion of one phase of the journey of faith and the beginning of another.
The continuation of the converting person's lifelong experience of faith is expressed in the final stage, the period of mystagogue, an old term that means "learning the mysteries." Today, as in the early church, the stage of mystagogue occurs during the fifty days of the Easter season. In the early church's mystagogue, new converts were instructed in the meaning of the Eucharist and were incorporated into the full life of the church. Today, churches use this time to discern the new convert's gifts and to enroll the fully converted person into an active membership wherein his or her gifts are used in the life of the church.
While you may not have heard of Liturgical Evangelism, let me assure you that it is a form of evangelism used quite effectively by renewing Catholic churches around the world and by an increasing number of Protestant liturgical churches (especially the Episcopal Church).
But a congregation does not have to be strictly liturgical to use this form of evangelism. Any church that celebrates the pilgrimage of the Christian year can use this form of evangelism effectively both for converting persons and for bringing new life into the present congregation. In this approach the whole church is aware of the process and can even be involved in a continual process of conversion ordered by the meaning of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
Three Steps to Change
These three approaches to evangelism through worship demonstrate that there is no one way to do evangelism through worship. If your congregation is not engaged in any form of evangelism through worship, I suggest you take three steps.
First, discuss these three approaches to evangelism and decide which one is most suitable for your congregation.
Second, having chosen one or the other, study it. Read books. Attend a conference. Bring someone in who can present the approach to the entire congregation.
Finally, do it. You may find yourself faltering at first, but as you continue to experiment and perhaps fail, pick yourself up and try again. The approach will take shape in your congregation and will stimulate you to be an evangelizing community of worship.
Robert E. Webber
Robert Webber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, a distance education school in Jacksonville, Florida. He is author of many books, including the Ancient-Future series (Baker), Younger Evangelicals (Baker), and editor of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. These resources and a monthly "Ancient-Future Talk" newsletter are available at www.ancientfutureworship.com.