The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God
By Sally Morgenthaler (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI. 1999).

Sally Morgenthaler has written a pentrating examination of what goes on in church on Sunday mornings. She has done a lot of research on contemporary thinking and trends in worship services and synthesizes this wealth of information into a book that is truly cover-to-cover readable and relevant. Though written from an evangelical point of view, the book speaks to members of other movements attempting to reach the world for Christ.
This is a book about worship paradigms-- how we think about corporate worship and how that thinking affects what we do in our sanctuaries and worship centers; week in, week out. The opportunity we have as Christians to meet together and interact directly with the God of the universe is nothing less than extraordinary. Sadly, many of us take corporate worship for granted. Worse, we craft it around human agendas that often have nothing to do with the divine activity or meeting and honoring God.

The central paradigm of this book is that our worship of God either affirms or contradicts our message about God. Unbelievers (including those who are churches and unchurched) will draw lasting conclusions about the ceracity and uniqueness of our God based on what they see of do not see happening in our weekly church services. Do they detect something supernatural and life-changing going on? Can they sense God's presence and work among us? Are they experiencing sometehing in our midst they have never seen before? (p. 9, italics in original)

One target she especially addresses is the so-called "seeker approach" popularized by Willow Creek and other marketing-driven approaches that gave rise to the "mega-churches" and seemed to define the American religious landscape in the last decade. Yet she utilizes research and statistical data to show that the latest trends haven't been working quite so well as one might think. Yes, the mega-churches are growing (or at least, were growing), but smaller churches are dying; the mega-church movement has been mostly a transfer to the local church with the best programs.
Many of us are only interested in a model that works, and they are plenty of voices clamoring to tell us which one that is. Elmer Towns summarizes the view of "the experts" regarding what the 90s church-going comsumer is looking for:
America's Protestants choose churches on the basis of what affirms us, entertains us, satisfies us or makes us feel good about God and ourselves. If we recognize church worshipers as consumers, we will recognize church programs as menus, and types of worship as the main entrees in the restaurant... consumers go where the menus fit their taste... the church menus Americans seek are not filled with doctrinal options but with a variety of worship options. American go where they feel comfortable with the style of worship that best reflects their inclinations and temperament.
In other words, those who want to play the church game are going to have to play it with style, not substance.

Yet there is a discrepancy here. Barna tells us that the number-one piece of information that interests an unchurched person when he or she looks for a church is not the worship style that is offered. Rather it is a church's specific beliefs and doctrines. Similarly, when George Gallup asked, "What do Americans want from their churches?" part of what he learned was this: "[Americans] ... have a strong desire for information about the Bible and its meaning. (p. 19)

The challenge at the core of this examination is highly relevant: Just exactly what are we trying to do on Sunday mornings? Are we trying to teach the people about God and connect then with God-- or just have the slickest product amongst our competitors in the religious market?

Morgenthaler's thesis is simple: People come to church to meet with God, not to be entertained. People should not think that because a church is large or growing and the services are not of the liturgical variety that they succeed in connecting people with God. She passionately argues that God seeks worshippers, and people that visit churches actually do want to worship God. They don't really want the "fluff" of entertainment:

Real worship is a lot more than this week's production. It is where we allow the supernatural God of Scripture to show up and to interact with people in the pews.

Why is church attendance declining? Hendricks summarizes the views of many worship dropouts: "Perhaps the most common complaint was the worship services were boring. It was not just that these gatherings were not interesting; they were not worshipful. They did little to help people meet God. However, I did not hear this as a call for more entertainment, but for more participation." ...

The most significant benefit of a worship service is connecting with God. It does nto matter how chatty and interesting the celebrity interviews, how captivating the drama, how stunning the soloist, or how relevant the message. When personal interaction with God is absent, church loses much of its appeal. (p. 23, italics in original)

All in all, Worship Evangelism is a welcome work of broad contemporary research, careful thought and gospel-centered common sense. It provides stimulating and thought-provoking reading.

Worship Evangelism is not "down" on new approaches to the central goal, having an extensive discussion on various contemporary approaches and how they are satisfying the objectives of worship in relevant ways. Yes, it's important not to take ourselves too seriously, and relatibility is fine. And there's nothing wrong with doing things well. But church worship should never be robbed it of what makes it worthwhile in the first place. Church experience is first and foremost about connecting people and God.

Copyright © 2002 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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