Milner: Evangelism and the Divine Service

As with many things in life, God doesn’t provide specific step-by-step instructions for how to conduct a worship service. Though Scripture should indeed guide us in all our doings, you won’t find the heading  “The Perfect Order of Service” in the pages of the Bible. In other words, much of it can be called adiaphora. This leads to much confusion and debate about how worship “should” be conducted and many Christians get very passionate about it. After all we do know that as in 1  Corinthians 10:23 “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Just because something is adiaphora doesn’t mean its necessarily beneficial to the Body of Christ. So what’s “right and wrong?” Instead of discussing specific details about liturgy, music etc., I’d like to speak to the heart of what I see as a vital difference in understanding about modern day “worship.” It comes down to a difference between receiving and giving, as well as where evangelism primarily happens and how.

First, a vital difference between Confessional Lutheran worship and most other varieties: we call it the “Divine Service,” while for others it’s simply “Worship” or other catchy titles one could think up. This seems an insignificant difference in vernacular but it speaks to what we see as the focus of the event. “Divine” denotes that there is something supernatural happening here. To the Confessional Lutheran, this gathering of believers is where God reaches down and serves us through Word and Sacrament. In the preaching, reading of the Word, Communion, and Baptism, God is the one acting. Not man. This is a 180 from seeing worship as something primarily we do. Many other church bodies have an inverted idea of the sacraments. When I’m baptized, I’m making a choice for God. When I take communion, I’m simply remembering and celebrating what happened on the first Maundy Thursday. In these instances, a supernatural change is not occurring, I’m simply doing something that shows my love and devotion to God.

This is incorrect and many far better writers and theologians have detailed why. Suffice to say that in the Sacraments, through the power of His Word, God is actually showing HIS love and devotion to our spiritual well being by gifting us faith and grace abundantly. Yes, we do worship and pray and sing God’s praises, but that is something that happens after and as a result of God acting first. After receiving all that He offers us, our souls can’t help but respond in praise. And that’s the vital question here: who do we believe is acting first and foremost? And what does this difference imply? Well, when following the line of thinking that church is something we do first to serve God, the logical conclusion is that it’s a prime location for evangelism and bringing people to Christ.

Many churches make decisions about their services with the visitor in mind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are indeed many things we can do to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable without sacrificing the integrity of the Divine Service from Bulletin structure, to training ushers and the congregation as a whole how to welcome and guide visitors when they see them. But many congregations have gotten into really iffy territory when they’ve made the service primarily about evangelism. “How can we change things to draw people in? . . . Well, the confession of sins might make them uncomfortable. Let’s remove that. . . Closed communion? Too unwelcoming etc.” When it’s about us and our efforts to make believers, even if well-intentioned, we can’t help but focus on the superficial and inevitably chip away at very important facets of the Divine Service that may not immediately feel “visitor friendly.” But here’s the thing, (and this is going to come off horribly rude) the Divine Service isn’t primarily for visitors, it’s primarily for believers. Now before you grab your torches and pitchforks, let me clarify that I’d never go so far as to say evangelism can’t or won’t happen in a service. Someone can certainly walk in and have the Holy Spirit work in his heart through the Word and praise be to God for that! Yet this isn’t a product of our own doing, it’s a work of God revealing His Divine truth to that person.

Often, when someone raises concerns over certain changes being made to the Divine Service for the sake of how it appears to visitors, they are accused of not caring about evangelism or reaching the lost. Though, as sinful humans, I’m sure this is occasionally true for some, by and large it isn’t. Remember, this is where God is acting and serving His people in Word and Sacrament. A right view of the Divine Service actually strengthens the congregation’s evangelism efforts and increases a congregation’s desire to reach new people because rather than being the prime location for evangelism, the Divine Service is the starting point. Just as our prayer and praise flows from hearts filled first by God’s Grace, we leave worship and should inevitably respond by wanting to share this Grace and make disciples for Him.

Now it is our joyful vocation to be missionary in our personal lives. We’ve been connected to the branch and watered with the Word, now we bear fruit by sharing our faith with others and serving them. Many times when we see the Divine Service as primarily evangelism, we have a tendency to put our personal responsibility for evangelism off on our church and pastor. It’s up to them to draw people in, make them feel welcome, deliver an entertaining sermon, make sure the music is great, etc. I just show up and sit back and then ask them what else they can do to get more butts in the pew. Conversely, if I’m really focusing on and dwelling in what God is offering in the service, I can’t help but want to share it and do the good works that inevitably flow from faith.

Also, bear in mind that the common visitor doesn’t have the faith yet to grasp the things being said or lay hold of the gifts being offered. 1 Corinthians speaks to this truth several times:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” 1 Corinthians 1:18-19

As believers it isn’t by our own merit or wisdom that we comprehend any of God’s Word or ways but by the power of the Holy Spirit alone.

“[. . .] even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:17-20)

My husband is constantly sharing his faith with friends and co-workers. He was recently approached by a young woman who said she couldn’t help but notice how involved and passionate he is about his faith and hoped he could share more with her. She asked if she could go to church with us, and he said we’d love to have her but maybe we should wait a little and not make church the first step. He knew that if he just brought her one Sunday, she’d probably be a bit overwhelmed by the language, liturgy, and kneeling for confession and absolution. And though we’d be there to try and explain it, she’d probably be more focused on these “confusing” elements than the heart of the faith. So instead he plans to take time and meet with her to progressively explain Christianity/Lutheranism, to answer her questions, and just to listen to her thoughts and feelings. He’s not just dropping her in a service and expecting the pastor and church to do the rest. He sees it as his Christian duty to walk with her and make sure she has a basis of understanding.

I hope no one will take my words here as fuel to run out visitors and strangers from the church, that’s not at all my suggestion. But I think it is of the utmost importance that we understand the primary purpose and actor when the Body of Christ meets each week. It’s not us and it’s not any visitor who walks through our doors. It’s God alone. And let’s be honest, while evangelism can certainly happen in the walls of the church, it mainly happens out there: in the world and daily life; in offices and coffee shops and shelters. Church is our home base where we come to get refueled and gain our strength back before heading into the trenches again. And that’s the difference. That’s what needs to be considered when making any decision about the service. Where does the power come from? Who is acting? What is He doing? Any of our efforts are simply a response to His amazing and inconceivable Grace. That’s the Gospel after all. Christ acted first to save us from our sins. We hear that message each Sunday, and it can never get old. It’s a message worth talking about. Praise be to God.

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