In the last post I made the point that when God’s people gather corporately for worship on the Lord’s day, God is present with them in a unique and special way. This important point raises the question, however, of what it is exactly that we are supposed to be doing in worship? What is the reason that you and I enter into God’s special presence every Sunday? In this and the next post, I identify several well intentioned, but nevertheless mistaken ideas about the purpose of Sunday worship. So, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of going to church on Sunday?” Here are two answers that are commonly given:
Worship as Evangelism
Many people believe that evangelistic outreach is chief purpose of Sunday service. The service is primarily for the unbeliever, with the goal being to get as many people as possible to hear and believe the gospel. When this purpose for worship is adopted, evangelistic effectiveness often becomes the main criteria for deciding what happens during the service. “If it works, use it” effectively becomes the motto. This explains why many churches can justify doing seemingly bizarre things (raffle off cars, hire mimes, etc) in the context of a worship service - it gets people in the door. Generally speaking, this belief leads to passive congregations, where the congregation is more like an audience watching a show, rather than an engaged worshipper.
While there certainly is an important place for evangelistic concerns when planning worship, we must say unequivocally that it is a serious mistake to make evangelism the chief purpose of worship. Worship, by definition, is something that has God as its object. We come on Sunday to, as the psalmist describes it, “Ascribe to the Lord glory and honor, ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.” Evangelism can never be the chief purpose of worship then, because evangelism, by definition, has man as its object. Moreover, it is clear from the New Testament that worship is primarily for the believer, not the unbeliever. All of the epistles are addressed to and intended specifically for “the saints,” not the unbelievers. The pictures of worship we have in Acts are of the saints gathering to devote themselves “to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Act 2:42).
Worship as Education
A second view, almost the complete opposite of the worship as evangelism approach, find’s the purpose of Sunday worship as education. Communicating biblical truth and teaching biblical doctrines to God’s people is the ultimate purpose of worship. In congregations that have adopted this understanding, the sermon tends to dominate the worship service. Everything that happens before the sermon is considered “warm-up” for the sermon, and everything that happens after is merely an afterglow of the sermon. Congregants in this type of church will take copious notes during the sermon, but may be relatively disengaged the rest of the service.
Again, while education has an important place, it must not be thought of as the primary purpose of the worship service. The biblical imagery of worship in the Bible is simply too rich to reduce it to that of instruction. The Psalmist calls us to “O come let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” In Revelation 4-5, the grand picture of heavenly worship, we read of God’s heavenly host falling down before him and singing. PCA pastor Jeffrey Meyers is no doubt correct when he observes: “Jesus said that the meeting place of his people ought to be a house of prayer, not a lecture hall.”
In the next post, I will identify two more mistaken notions of the purpose of Sunday worship.