Worship and Evangelism

©David Peterson (2009)[1]


Some Christians talk of worship, evangelism and edification as if they were distinct and unrelated activities. But this paper argues for a certain overlap of meaning in the use of such terms in the New Testament. It contends that there is a biblical warrant for viewing evangelism as a call to worship. It goes on to consider ways in which outsiders might be challenged and converted through the regular ministry of Christians to one another in local congregations. It contends that worship and edification may occur together when the church gathers.

Strictly speaking, evangelism is some form of gospel proclamation or presentation. This generally takes place when opportunities arise for sharing the gospel with unbelievers at a personal level or when special events are organised by Christians collectively. So we train people in personal evangelism and hold evangelistic meetings to which we can invite unconverted friends and neighbours. But what is the place of the ordinary church service in our evangelistic strategy?

Theologically and practically, some would see difficulties in trying to combine evangelism with ‘worship’, as it is commonly defined. How can we bring outsiders into a regular church service and expect them to engage in meaningful prayer and praise if they have no relationship with God? How can we communicate the gospel to them and challenge them to repentance and faith, in a service that is primarily structured to enable believers to be strengthened and encouraged in their relationship with God?

Faced with this dilemma, some churches have geared their gatherings towards evangelism in the form of ‘seeker services’ or ‘gospel services’. Everything is simplified to be accessible to outsiders and the preaching is consistently evangelistic. However, without some other opportunity for teaching and nurture throughout the week, this inhibits the spiritual growth and maturation of the church. Where such services are commonplace, long-term members of the congregation can become frustrated and angry. Their attitude is then interpreted as resistance to evangelism.

Other churches choose not to use their regular services for evangelism. If evangelism is going on at all, it is considered to be the work of individuals or groups throughout the week. When people are converted or challenged to seek after God, they are then encouraged to join the Sunday gatherings. Church services should be for the edification of believers, it is argued. Edification should not be confused with evangelism. But such churches often find it difficult to incorporate enquirers or new converts into the pattern of their weekly meetings.

Before exploring and assessing the practical alternatives, it is necessary to stop and ask some important theological questions. Is our understanding of worship and edification truly biblical? What are the theological links between evangelism and worship? Is evangelism incompatible with edification? What really is the point of a church service?

Worship and the Christian life

The New Testament rarely employs the terminology of worship with particular reference to Christian meetings. It uses worship terms first and foremost to describe the unique achievement of Jesus Christ on our behalf. As high priest of the New Covenant, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to cleanse us from sin (e.g., Heb. 2:17; 9:11-14; Rom. 3 25; Eph. 5:2), fulfilling and replacing all the cultic demands of the Old Covenant (Heb. 10:5-10), enabling us to draw near to God in the sanctuary of heaven (Heb. 10:19-22: 12:22-24), and to grow into ‘a holy temple in the Lord’ (Eph 2:19-22; 1 Cor 3:16-17).[2]

If Christians throughout the ages had truly grasped this teaching, there would have been no development of a sacral priesthood, with any suggestion that we have material sacrifices to offer God, and there would have been no identification of church buildings or special sections of those buildings as holy places or sanctuaries, with ‘altars’ for various forms of sacred ritual.

The New Testament also uses transformed worship terminology to describe the relationship with God that Jesus makes possible (e.g., Jn. 4:19-26) or the response of grateful and obedient service that should characterise our lives as a whole (e.g., Rom. 12:1; Heb. 12:28-29). The language of worship was perhaps not much used with reference to Christian gatherings to avoid confusion with the cultic worship of the Jerusalem temple. Similarly, Gentile converts needed to distinguish Christianity very clearly from the vast number of cults that littered the Greco-Roman world.[3]

Moralisation and spiritualisation of worship terms had certainly taken place in Jewish and Gentile literature by the first century AD.[4] But what was distinctive about Christianity was the notion that we find acceptance with God on the basis of the single, atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that the offering of ourselves to God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in response to all ‘the mercies of God’, is the homage and service appropriate to each of us under the New Covenant. There can be no priestly caste or group of distinctly ‘religious’ or ‘holy’ people who offer more pleasing service to God than others.

Worship and evangelism

. . . in John’s Gospel

The link between worship and evangelism in New Testament theology is not often noted. A good starting-point for a consideration of this is John 4:23-24. Jesus signifies that his ministry initiates a totally different way of relating to God and defines `true worshippers’[5] as those who worship God ‘in spirit and truth’ (ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθηείᾳ). ‘Spirit’ and ‘truth’ are closely connected in John’s portrait of Christ. No one can see the kingdom of God or experience the blessings of the End time without being born again by the Spirit (3:1-8). Thus, in slightly different language, John 4 affirms that the Father begets true worshippers through the Spirit, whom Jesus makes available by means of his saving work, and by being the truth (14:6), who uniquely reveals the character of God and his purposes (8:45; 18:37).

So true worshippers will be those who relate to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 17:3). Jesus is not the focus or object of worship in John 4:23-4 but the means by which the Father obtains true worshippers from every nation (cf. 12:32). But such worship is possible only for those who recognise the identity of Christ (4:25-6, 42) and yield him their allegiance (9:38).

In effect, the exalted Christ is now the ‘place’ where God is to be acknowledged and honoured. He, rather than a renewed temple in Jerusalem or on some other holy mountain, is the ‘place’ of eschatological pilgrimage for all the nations (cf. 2:19-22; 12:20-33). Unbelievers will become ‘true worshippers’ only when they recognise who Jesus is, turn to him as Saviour and Lord, and receive from him the life that he offers. This is clearly the aim of authentic evangelism.

. . . in Acts

When the sermons in Acts proclaim the risen and glorified Jesus as the source of life and blessing for Israel and the nations, the implication is that he is to be the centre of true worship. As the focal point of God’s plans for Israel in the End time, Christ fulfils and replaces the temple and the whole method of approach to God associated with it. The message for Gentiles is not in the end very different: a relationship with the living and true God is to be found by turning from idols to serve the living Lord Jesus (cf. Acts 17:22-31; 1 Thes. 1:9-10).

By the Spirit-inspired preaching of the gospel, the ascended Lord draws people from every nation, race and culture to himself. Consequently, calling upon Jesus as Saviour and Lord, as an initial response to the gospel and as a lifestyle of dependence in prayer, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in Acts 2:38; 9:14; 22:10,16. The exalted Lord Jesus is the object of devotion in a way that was characteristically reserved for God alone in Jewish tradition.[6]From another perspective, Christian life and ministry is viewed as the way to worship or serve the God of Israel (cf. Acts 18:13; 24:14; 27:23).

. . . in Romans

The apostle Paul describes himself as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’, discharging a ‘priestly’ ministry on Christ’s behalf in the ‘cult’ of the gospel (Rom. 15:16, ἱερουργοῦντα τὸ εὐαγγέλιον).[7] Sacral terminology is used metaphorically to portray the ministry of preaching by which he enables the Gentiles to offer themselves to God as an acceptable sacrifice, ‘sanctified by the Holy Spirit.’

The language here recalls Rom 12.1 and suggests that gospel preaching is necessary to bring about that obedience of faith through Jesus Christ (15:18; cf. 1:5; 16:19), which is the ‘understanding worship’ of the eschatological era. This is clearly a response his converts themselves must make, but Paul’s ministry makes it possible for the Gentiles to ‘glorify God for his mercy’ (15:9) and thus to worship him acceptably.

Although the primary reference in Romans 15:16 is to Paul’s evangelistic preaching, it is clear that he sees his ongoing ministry to believers, even the writing of Romans itself, as a means of enabling Christians to live the consecrated life that is pleasing to God.

Paul’s role in redemptive history was in many respects unique and he used transformed cultic terminology to highlight this fact. Nevertheless, it seems legitimate to argue that such terminology can be applied, at least in some measure, to those who share in the task of evangelistic preaching and the establishment of churches in the truths of the gospel today. These vital activities can be regarded as specific and particular expressions of Christian ‘worship’ or service to God. They are also the means by which unbelievers are challenged and enabled to present themselves as a ‘living sacrifice’ to God through Jesus Christ and thus to worship him.

. . . in Revelation

In the Revelation to John we are told that only those who abstain from worshipping false gods on earth will share, by God’s grace, in the worship of heaven. This theme is presented in a variety of ways throughout the book, but one segment is particularly interesting for the connection it draws between evangelism and authentic worship.

An angel summons people from every nation and tribe and tongue to ‘fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come’, and to ‘worship (προσκυνήσατε) him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ (14:6-7). This ‘eternal gospel’ summons the whole creation to acknowledge God as creator, lord of history and judge of all. It recalls the vision of Revelation 4 and the claim of the heavenly host that he alone is worthy to receive ‘glory and honour and power’ from everything that he has made.

The doctrine of creation is given as the primary reason for honouring God as God or worshipping him. Associated with this is the claim that every human being is accountable to God (cf. Rom. 1:18-25; Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31). In line with other New Testament passages, Revelation 14:6-7 suggests that evangelism may be viewed as a call to worship God appropriately. This means acknowledging Jesus as Son of God and Saviour, the one who alone can ‘ransom’ us for God and enable us to serve him as we should, which is the emphasis of the vision in Revelation 5.[8]

What is the value of thinking about evangelism as a call to worship God appropriately?

1. God’s character and purposes, rather than human desires and needs, are placed at the forefront of our attention. We are reminded that the primary purpose of evangelism is to bring people into the sort of relationship with God for which they were created.

2. Biblical teaching about worship reminds us of the need to approach God on his own terms, especially pointing to the importance of the atoning work of Christ in proclaiming the way back to God.

3. The language of worship puts the focus on submission to God’s rule and grateful service in every sphere of life. It also enables us to highlight the central importance of prayer and praise in the Christian life.

4. Rightly understood, this teaching reveals the follow-up or ongoing implications of conversion from the start. Being a Christian is not simply a matter of being reconciled to God and waiting for heaven!

The gospel is not simply a message of forgiveness for the past, comfort for the present, and hope for the future. It is about the way to glorify God and share in the fulfilment of his plan for the human race by devoted service in everday life.

Worship and congregational gatherings

Considering the broad scope of New Testament teaching about worship, it is misleading to restrict the terminology to what we do ‘in church’. Sadly, this is a widespread practice in Christian circles. On the other hand, it is important to see the relationship between our Christian gatherings and this wider perspective.

. . . in Acts

In Acts 13:2 the prophets and teachers of Antioch are said to be ‘worshipping’ or, more literally, ‘serving’ the Lord (λειτουργουντῶν τῷ κυριῷ) and fasting, when the Holy Spirit calls for the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey. The verb λειτουργεῖν and related words were regularly employed in the Greek version of the Old Testament in a technical sense, to describe the priestly service of the God of Israel (e.g., 2 Chr. 11:14, Joel 2:17, Ezek. 45:4, cf. Lk. 1:23; Heb. 10:11). This terminology was not used to describe the worship or service of the Israelite nation as a whole, but only the ministry of priests to God, as accredited representatives of the nation, and of Levites to priests. The terminology is certainly being used in a transformed sense by Luke.

Many commentators take Acts 13:2 as a reference to prayer, since prayer and fasting are mentioned explicitly in the next verse.[9] If this is correct, Luke will be highlighting corporate prayer as the ‘cultic’ activity which replaces the sacrificial approach to God which was at the heart of Judaism. However, it is possible that Luke means that ‘these prophets and teachers were carrying out their appointed ministry in the church.’[10] In other words, the ministry of prophecy and teaching, which was exercised by those especially gifted for the benefit of other believers in the congregation, was a specific way of serving or worshipping God under the New Covenant.

If the service of God involved a certain lifestyle and ministry in everyday contexts (cf. Acts 18:13; 24:14; 27:23), it also had a definite expression when Christians gathered together.

. . . in Romans

The Pauline letters show even more clearly that ministry to one another can be regarded as a form of worship to God. After the call to present our bodies to God ‘as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your understanding worship’ (Rom. 12:1, my translation), Paul goes on to suggest that prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing to the needs of others, exercising leadership and showing mercy to others are aspects of our service to God (Rom. 12:3-8; cf. 14:18; Phil. 2:17-18; 4:18). This must be so since these are ways of glorifying God in word and deed.

Such activities may continue outside the formal meeting of the church, but they are an essential part of such meetings in the perspective of several New Testament passages. While all ministry must be understood as a response to God’s grace, and not in any sense a cultivation of his favour, ministry to others is an important aspect of our self-giving to God. Paul also talks about his own apostolic ministry of preaching teaching and praying for the churches as his own particular form of ‘service’ (λατρεία) to God (Rom. 1:9-12). His adaptation of other worship terminology in connection with his ministry has already been noted in Romans 15:16

. . . in 1 Corinthians

Paul’s single application of the common worship term προσκυνεῖν is in 1 Corinthians 14:24-5, where he mentions the possibility of an unbelieving ‘outsider’ entering a church gathering when ‘all prophesy’.[11] Such a person may be convicted of sin because ‘the secrets of his heart’ may be disclosed. Falling on his face, he may ‘worship God’ (προσκύνησει τῷ θεῷ) and acknowledge his presence among them.[12] This passage is clearly important for our assessment of the link between church services and evangelism and we shall return to it in due course. The gesture of homage mentioned here represents an act of submission or unconditional surrender to God, similar to the spontaneous response of people in the Old Testament when confronted by God’s power and presence (e.g., Gn. 24:26-7: Ex. 4:31; 34:8). Such language suggests the conversion of the unbeliever, thus fulfilling prophecies like Isaiah 45:14, describing the coming of the nations to pay homage to Israel’s God in the End time.

The apostle does not use προσκυνεῖν in connection with the regular gathering of God’s people for prayer, praise and mutual encouragement, but it legitimate to characterise such activities as worship.[13] A genuine relationship with God will involve ongoing expressions of submission to his character and will, in the form of personal and corporate acts of obedience, faith, hope and love. Prayer and praise should characterise Christian living in every context (e.g., 1 Thes. 5:16-18; Col. 3:17) and Paul’s letters indicate how important these things were in his own life and ministry.[14] They must, therefore, be at the heart of any corporate engagement with God. However, it is misleading to think of church services simply as occasions for worship in the sense of prayer and praise. Ministry to others for the glory of God is equally worship. This includes activities such as preaching, giving testimony to God’s goodness and contributing to the needs of others.

Edification and God’s purpose for the church

Paul regularly uses the terminology of upbuilding or edification, rather than the language of worship, to indicate the purpose and function of Christian gatherings (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26; 1 Thes. 5:11; Eph 4:11-16). It is easy to misinterpret the apostle and to think of edification individualistically, meaning the spiritual advancement of individuals within the church, or to think of edification in purely intellectual terms as advancement in Christian understanding. However, this term mostly has a corporate reference in his teaching, describing the growth and development of the church as a body. It involves ‘founding, maintaining and advancing the congregation’, as God’s eschatological ‘building’.[15]

Building the church

Since I have written about this elsewhere, I will briefly summarise the argument here. From Ephesians 4:7-11 we learn that Christ is ‘building’ his church through the people he provides as apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers. Priority is given in this context to word ministries (cf. 2:20-2), which are `to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.’ (4:12).[16] Growth by increase in size would certainly be implied by mention of the gifts of apostles and evangelists in 4:11. This is consistent with the picture of the church ‘growing’ or ‘rising’ to become a holy temple in the Lord’ (Eph. 2:21). Such growth occurs as new members are `built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (2:20).

The notion that Jesus is building his church by drawing people into a faith relationship with himself is clear Matthew 16:18. Paul also takes up the metaphor of building to describe his work of evangelism and church planting in Romans 15:20 and 1 Corinthians 3:9-10. So we must be careful to avoid any simple dichotomy between evangelism and edification. Evangelism will be the means by which the church is built up in size. Nevertheless, introduction of the body metaphor in Ephesians 4 allows also for the idea of the church developing as an organism from within, by means of its own God-given life (especially vv. 15-16). Edification involves both the increase and the consolidation or maturation of the church.[17]

Relating to Christ as head of the body

The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ is regularly used to stress the relationships and responsibilities of the members of Christ to one another. But as the concept is developed in Colossians 1:18, 24; 2:19 and Ephesians 1:22-3; 2:16; 4:15-16, the relationship of the church to Christ as its living and exalted ‘head’ is explored. Although the relationship of believers to one another is kept in view, the focus is on the dependence of the body on Christ, and on his control over it. Much can be made of the body image to stress the importance of meeting together for fellowship and mutual ministry. We come to give and to receive, and thus to take our part in the edification of the church, which is the continuing work of God with his people.

But congregational meetings should demonstrate both truths conveyed by the body image. Christians are mutually dependent on one another and they are collectively dependent on Jesus Christ for life and power. In drawing on the resources which Christ himself provides through other believers for the growth and development of his body, we should be strengthened in our relationship with him.

So the important concept of interacting with one another is not to be divorced from the notion that we come together to engage with God. Rightly understood, edification has a ‘vertical’ or Godward dimension as well as a ‘horizontal’ dimension. Since the terminology of worship, too, is used in the New Testament with ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ implications, it is clear that worship and edification may be complementary ways of describing the same activity. The two different word-groups help us to view those activities in the light of different conceptual backgrounds.

The goal of edification

According to Ephesians 4:13, the building up of the body of Christ is to take place ‘until we all come to meet the unifying faith and knowledge of the Son of God, the Perfect Man, the perfection of the Messiah who is the standard of manhood.’[18] The ministries given by the ascended Christ to his church (v. 11) are designed for the important present activities mentioned in v. 12 ‘until’ (μέχρι) the people of God meet their Lord and share in his glory (v. 13). Perfection is not an ideal to be attained but a reality to be met in Christ.

From this passage we may discern that the purpose of the Christian gathering is to prepare us to meet the Lord. Indeed, all ministry should have this eschatological focus and perspective (cf. Col. 1: 28-9; Heb. 10:24-25). Of course, there is also a sense in which we meet with God in the present, as we hear his word read and taught, benefit from the ministries the Spirit inspires in our midst, and respond to God in prayer and praise together. But this is merely an anticipation of that direct engagement with the Lord that awaits us in the resurrection.

Only by being led away from error and established in the truth can the body be sustained and reach the goal Christ has set for it. The growth of the church ‘toward him who is the head’ takes place by learning, confessing and practising the truth that Christ has revealed (vv. 14-15). The final emphasis of Ephesians 4:14-16 is on the need for members of the body to be ‘rightly related to one another, each making its own contribution, according to the measure of its gifts and function, to the upbuilding of the whole in love.’[19]

Edification occurs when Christians minister to one another in word and deed, seeking to express and encourage a Christ-centred faith, hope and love. Clearly this ought to take place when the congregation meets together, but also as individuals have the opportunity to minister to one another in everyday-life situations (cf. Rom. 14:19-21: 1 Cor. 8:1,10; 10:23).

Guidelines for edification of the body of Christ

According to 1 Corinthians 14, everything that is said or sung in the Christian gathering must be intelligible and consistent with apostolic teaching, so that others may be able to say the ‘Amen’ and be edified (vv. 16-17). Even though contributions may be rightly motivated, they may not be beneficial to others. Certain subjective expressions of faith can even be a source of embarrassment in a public context. Here is an important criterion for assessing the helpfulness of testimonies, hymns, choruses, and various other elements that might go to make up a church service today. Moreover, the very act of ministering the truth to one another should be an exercise of love. We must learn to value the contributions of others, listening carefully and weighing what is said Only when a church is functioning in this way is it being truly edified. Only such a church is exhibiting the control and direction of the Spirit of God. For this reason, Paul concentrates in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 on the manner in which gifts are to be exercised in the congregation.

Incorporating the outsider

Although the apostle’s main point in 1 Corinthians 14 is to encourage his readers to minister effectively to one another as the body of Christ, his concern is that even unbelieving strangers should be able to understand what is said, be convinced by it, and be converted (vv. 22-5). Presumably Christians could bring their unconverted friends and members of their family to church meetings in Corinth. Paul does not want such visitors to equate tongue-speaking with the mania that attended some of the mystery cults in the ancient world, dismissing the Corinthian Christians as mad (μαίνεσθε). Uninterpreted tongues do not build up the church. They neither encourage believers (vv. 1-19) nor add unbelievers to the number of God’s people (vv. 20-25).

Tongues are a sign of judgment to unbelievers, as the text from Isaiah 28:11-12 suggests. They serve to harden them and exclude them from the community of faith (1 Cor. 14:21-22). On the other hand, the inspired word of prophecy is a sign of blessing for believers.[20] Prophecy functions this way when believers are active in ministering to one another (vv. 1-4) and when they see the impact that this ministry may have on unbelieving outsiders (vv. 23-25). Paul does not teach that the meeting of the whole church is for the express purpose of evangelism. But he anticipates that unbelievers may be converted if they have the chance to participate in a meaningful Christian gathering.[21]

Congregational prophecy at Corinth seems to have been the declaration of a revelation or special insight imparted by God (cf. Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15). Fee says that in 1 Corinthians 14 prophecy consisted of ‘spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages, orally delivered in the gathered assembly, intended for the edification or encouragement of the people.’[22] This is a fairly vague and general definition, yet Fee notes that in Jewish history prophetic revelation normally announced judgment or salvation. He also wants to draw a close connection between ‘a message of wisdom’, ‘a message of knowledge’ (1 Cor. 12:8), and Paul’s argument about Christ crucified being the true wisdom of God (1:24, 30; 2:6-16). In other words, the apostle may have expected that the focus of edifying prophetic utterances would be the gospel and its implications.

This becomes clearer when Paul considers the effect that prophecy might have on unbelievers in 14:24-25. The unbelieving outsider may be ‘reproved by all and called to account by all’ (NRSV, ἐλέγχεται ὑπὸ πάντων ἀνακρίνεται ὑπὸ πάντων). NIV offers an interesting interpretive translation here: ‘he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all’. Paul’s language suggests that the prophetic ministry of the Corinthians might have an evangelistic function. The result of this convicting process is that ‘the secrets of his heart will be laid bare’ (presumably to the unbeliever himself, rather than to the congregation at large).

As suggested previously, the language that follows indicates that the unbeliever is moved to repentance and faith. His gesture of homage represents an act of submission or unconditional surrender to God. He acknowledges the reality of God in the midst of his people because he is convinced and called to account by utterances which expose him as a sinner in need of God’s grace.

However, the unbeliever is also convicted because ‘all prophesy’ (πάντες προφητεύωσιν, v. 24), even though we must conclude from Paul’s instructions in vv. 27-32 that only a limited number of members were to contribute to each congregational gathering.[23]Moreover, the message is in some way endorsed ‘by all’ (ὑπὸ πάντων, v. 24 [twice]).  The contrast is with the possibility of all speaking in tongues (v. 23), which appears to have been the desired goal of the Corinthians. The reality of God’s presence in the fellowship of believers and the need to respond to him would be powerfully conveyed by the pursuit of prophecy rather than tongues.

Exhorting them to be zealous to prophesy (v. 1), he notes the impact they can make as a congregation on the unbelieving outsider if they are united in their desire to share meaningful, God-honouring utterances with one another.

Evangelism in church services today

The relationship between prophecy and what we call preaching is much debated, but theologically and practically there must be a link.[24] Preaching in the reformed evangelical tradition is really a combination of proclamation (sounding forth the gospel), teaching (usually expounding some scriptural passage), and παρακλῆσις (exhortation,encouragement or warning, generally derived from gospel proclamation or scriptural teaching).[25]

Sermons may involve some or all of the above elements, in different degrees on different occasions, according to the topic and emphasis. We should pray for the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower every aspect of this ministry, so that it might be ‘prophetic’ in style and character. Sermons proclaiming and expounding the gospel to Christians clearly have the potential to challenge and change any unbelievers who may be present. Preachers and congregations also need to be optimistic about what God can achieve through the regular and systematic teaching of his word in their midst!

But a problem for us is that we expect `the sermon’ to do everything that a range of verbal ministries accomplished for the earliest churches. We need to think carefully about ways of encouraging verbal contributions apart from the sermon in our services, not least because of the evangelistic potential suggested by 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. These might include testimonies, informal responses to the preached word and opportunities for brief words of exhortation. Some people can bring great encouragement to others by the way they pray or sing or lead a meeting. Such ministries for the edification of the church can be a challenge for unbelievers to acknowledge God and worship him.

There is no warrant from 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 for saying that Christian meetings should be fundamentally designed to appeal to unbelievers. On the other hand, as the church is edified intensively——being strengthened, consolidated, and preserved as the community of God’s people——it may also be edified extensively——being enlarged by the conversion of those who may be visiting or invited by Christian friends.

These activities will not be considered incompatible when it is remembered that the basis of all Christian teaching and exhortation in the New Testament is the gospel that saves us. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Paul’s desire to ‘preach the gospel’ to those in Rome (ὑμῖν . . . εὐαγγελἰσασθαι, Rom. 1:15) seems to relate to the edification of the Christians there (1:11-13), though he doubtless also had in mind the opportunity to preach to unbelievers in that city. Similarly, when he told the Colossians about the way he sought to bring Christians to maturity, he reminded them that he proclaimed Christ, ‘admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom’ (Col. 1:28).

Christians need to hear the gospel preached regularly, to re-establish them in their relationship with God and to motivate them to godly living. One of the effects of such preaching should be to inspire us to engage in the work of the gospel more wholeheartedly in everyday life. Indeed, gospel preaching will give a congregation a sense that they meet to affirm, confess and proclaim the gospel, not simply to satisfy their own spiritual needs. Everything we say and do in church should be a means of declaring ‘the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet. 2:9, NIV).

We might call this ‘doxological evangelism’. As we do it together, it ought to be our expectation and prayer that unbelievers will be present and that they may be convicted of their need for Christ and be converted. The focus of the service may be on some aspect of the character of God or the application of biblical teaching to everyday life. Those leading the service may need to explain the specific implications of the teaching for unbelievers from time to time. But this will be part of a range of applications designed to challenge people at various stages of spiritual maturity.

If it is our expectation and prayer that unbelievers may be converted in the course of regular Sunday services, congregations should be encouraged to invite their friends and neighbours and not to view evangelism in a restricted way. In one way or another, every congregational meeting should bear witness to the way we may engage with God through the Lord Jesus and his saving work for us.

While there is clearly some merit in having special evangelistic services, one of the benefits of evangelism through the regular meeting of God’s people is that unbelievers may be convinced by the testimony of all who participate in the gathering. They are confronted with the reality of God amongst his people in a variety of ways (e.g., preaching, testifying, singing. praying, caring for one another in practical ways). They are exposed to the body of Christ in action (rather than to some more artificial or abstracted Christian presentation). Consequently, they have a better chance of being drawn into the congregation as genuine disciples, rather than being left with the impression that being a Christian is a private matter and that being a member of a church is of secondary importance.

Unbelievers or inquirers must certainly be given the option not to participate in the prayers and praises of believers, especially if they sense that it would be meaningless or insincere for them to do so. On the other hand, public prayer and praise have a part to play in the process of instructing outsiders and providing a means for them to express their response to God, as they come to know him and understand his will for them. Certainly, they will need to learn how Christians relate to God in these ways. Clarity, simplicity and intelligibility should always be paramount in our thinking as we plan and conduct services. But it is foolish to reduce the content of a service to the bare minimum each week, in the hope that it will communicate better with unbelievers.

Apart from the frustration that this causes to regular members of the congregation, we need to convey to outsiders the impression that Christianity is all about growing in our knowledge of God and being open to change in ourselves. Congregations that are continually fed a diet of spiritual ‘milk’ will remain immature, unable and unwilling to communicate their faith to others, and resistant to change (Heb. 5:11-14). This applies to the content of services generally and not simply to the sermon. The whole experience contribute to the edification of the church, both intensively and extensively.


Recalling the broad perspective of the New Testament on the subject of worship, this paper has explored the value of viewing evangelism as a call to worship God through Jesus Christ and as a means of bringing people into that experience themselves. Although it is misleading to restrict the language of worship to what goes on ‘in church’, ministry to one another, together with our corporate approach to God in prayer and praise is an important aspect of the worship which the gospel demands. Rethinking the relationship between evangelism and worship in Scripture may help us in the task of incorporating new converts into the community of believers.

Again, noting something of Paul’s teaching about edification, it was observed that gospel preaching is a key to the growth of the church in size and in its progress to maturity in Christ. Edification has a ‘vertical’ or Godward dimension as well as a horizontal dimension. The idea that evangelism and edification cannot take place together was critiqued and the practical consequences of using ordinary church services for evangelism were to some extent explored.

Exploring further

1.    When Luke describes the activities of the earliest Christians in Acts 2:42-47, he concludes by saying ‘And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’. What connection do you think there might have been between the ministry of those Christians to one another and the conversion of more and more of their friends and neighbours?

2.    1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:17-34 suggest that those who participate in the Lord’s Supper ought to have a genuine faith in Christ and a proper regard for one another as the body of Christ. To what extent should we encourage unbelievers or inquirers to participate in Communion services?

3.    In churches where they regularly or exclusively have the Lord’s Supper on Sundays, what could be done to make these occasions more relevant and appealing to unbelievers or inquirers? Would it be better for them to invite outsiders to services of another kind?

4.    What difference might it make to the task of evangelism to think of it as a call to worship God through Jesus Christ? In what contexts might this be especially helpful?

5.    Especially in churches where a set form of service or liturgy is used, how might it be possible to incorporate more contributions from members of the congregation, by way of ministry to one another?

[1] This is an updated version of ‘Worship and Evangelism: Bringing Them Together’, in B. G. Webb (ed.), Explorations 7: Exploring the Missionary Church, (Homebush West: Lancer, 1993).

[2] Cf. D. Peterson, Engaging with God: a Biblical Theology of Worship (Leicester: Apollos; Downers Grove InterVarsity, 1992), 228-60.

[3] Cf. Peterson, Engaging with God, 80-107, 166-93.

[4] Note the helpful analysis of relevant texts from various religious and philosophical traditions by E. Ferguson, ‘Spiritual sacrifice in Early Christianity and its Environment’, in W. Haase (ed.), Aufstied und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II 23:2 (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1979), 1152-89.

[5] The word ‘true’ (ἀληθινοί) in the expression ‘true worshippers’ (οἱ ἀληθινοὶ προσκυνηταί) means ‘real and genuine’, in contrast with the symbolic and typical. Thus, Jesus is the ‘true light’ (Jn. 1:9), ‘the true bread’ (6:32), and ‘the true vine’ (15:1).

[6] Against those who propose that the worship of Christ was a late development, resulting from the impact of Greco-Roman thinking on Christianity, see especially L. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: SCM; Minneapolis: Minneapolis Fortress, 1988), 93-100. He argues persuasively that such devotion was a direct outgrowth from, and indeed a variety of, Jewish traditions.

[7] By derivation ἱερουγέιν means ‘to perform the work of a priest’, but it is also used in Jewish and non-Jewish texts in the broadest sense ‘to present or offer sacrifices, without specifying whether or not a priest is responsible for the action Cf G. Schrenk. TDNT 3, 251-2.

[8] The parallels between 4:9-11 and 5:8-12 make it clear that Christ is being adored on absolutely equal terms with God the Creator.

[9] So E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (ET, Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), 395-96; I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles(TNTC; Leicester: IVP, 1980), 215; D. G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 2009), 375-76.

[10] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, revised ed., 1988), 245 (my emphasis). Cf. 1 Clement 44:3 and Didache 15:1

[11] The word ἰδιώτης in 1 Cor 14:16, 23 has been much discussed. It is doubtful that this is a technical term for an ‘inquirer’ or for some intermediate group between believers and unbelievers. Most likely it carries the nontechnical sense of anyone who is ‘unlearned’. The combination ἰδιῶται ͗ὴ ͗άπιστοι in v. 23 is not designating two categories of people. Paul’s concern is for those who are ‘untutored’ in the faith, namely unbelievers (note that the terms are repeated in reverse order in v. 24). Cf. G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 672-3, 684-5.

[12] A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGNT; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 1129-30, observes that ‘this falling down must not be confused with neo-Pentecostal phenomena often described as being “slain in the Spirit”. To throw oneself to the ground (in prostration) was used in the OT and in the first century “as a sign of devotion, before high-ranking persons or divine beings especially when one approaches with a petition.’

[13] ‘Bending the knee’ to God is a figure for prayer in Eph. 3:14 (cf. Acts 7:60: 9:40; 20:36), but προσκυνεῖν is never used exclusively in the New Testament with specific reference to prayer (cf. BAGD, 659, for verbal patterns). H. Greeven (TDNT 6, 765) does not adequately assess the evidence when he suggests that ‘proskynesis demands visible majesty before which the worshipper bows.’ See Thiselton’s comment in the previous note.

[14] Cf. D. G. Peterson, ‘Prayer in Paul’s writings’, in D. A. Carson (ed.), Teach us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World(Grand Rapids: Baker; Exeter: Paternoster, 1990), 84-101; D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers (Grand Rapids: Baker; Nottingham: Inter-Varsity,1992).

[15] Cf. P. Vielhauer, Oikodomé. Aufsätze zum Neuen Testament Band 2 (Theologische Büchere, Neues Testament Band 3; Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1979), 72; Peterson, Engaging with God, 206-27.

[16] M. Barth, Ephesians 4-6, (AB 34A, New York: Doubleday, 1974), 439, notes that the noun καταρτισμός (‘preparation’), which occurs only here in the NT, describes ‘the dynamic act by which persons and things are properly conditioned’. Pastor-teachers in particular have the task of preparing God’s people for their work of service (on the punctuation and structure of this verse, see his Comment VI, 477-84).

[17] Cf. H. Ridderbos, Paul. An Outline of his Theology (ET, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 429-38, where the point is also argued.

[18] Translation of M. Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 440-41. He argues that one goal is described by three parallel expressions beginning with εἰς. The verb καταντάω implies movement towards an object (cf. 1 Cor. 14:36) and may suggest in this context a ‘solemn meeting’ with Christ at his second coming, when the church will be conformed to his glory (cf. Eph. 5.27; Phil. 3.20-1; Rom. 8 29-30; Col. 3.4). See his Comment VII.

[19] R Y. K. Fung, ‘Some Pauline Pictures of the Church’, Evangelical Quarterly 53 (1981), 95-96. Cf. Ridderbos, Paul, 432-38. Growth comes from Christ (v. 16) to enable the whole church to grow up into Christ (v. 15). The body upbuilds itself in love only because Christ is at work joining and holding it together, providing sustenance to each part.

[20] So the word σημεῖον in 1 Cor. 14:22 will have to be understood negatively and positively. Tongues and prophecy function as ‘signs’ in two different ways, ‘precisely in accord with the effect each will have on unbelievers who happen into the Christian assembly’ (G. D. Fee, First Corinthians, 683). Cf. D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14 (Homebush West: Lancer 1988), 108-17.

[21] W. Richardson, ‘Liturgical Order and Glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 14:26c-33a’, New Testament Studies 32 (1986), 147, overstates his case when he argues that ‘Paul’s over-riding concern in chapter 14 is that of missionary witness’. So also E. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament (ET, London: SCM), 226.

[22] Fee, First Corinthians, 595. He stresses that this is not the delivery of a previously prepared sermon. But why is it assumed that the ‘revelation’ underlying a prophecy always has to be given there and then, during the assembly? Is it not conceivable that some of the contributions were made on the basis of spiritual insights given at another time and in another place. 1 Cor. 14:26 suggests that one might come to the meeting with ‘a hymn, a lesson, a revelation…’ Not every revelation would have been given there and then (as v. 30 might suggest). In other words, the role of the individual who receives the revelation in formulating and presenting the message is not to be minimised.

[23] Paul’s statement, ‘for you can all prophesy…’ (14:31), can only mean that prophecy was potentially open to all. Limitations were placed on the actual exercise of prophecy for practical reasons.

[24] Cf. M. M. B. Turner, The Spirit of Prophecy and the Power of Authoritative Preaching in Luke-Acts: A Question of Origins’, New Testament Studies 38 (1992), 66-88, and my article Prophecy and Preaching in Acts.

[25] See my article The Ministry of Encouragement.


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