At few other places is the compromise of the church more evident than the often heard claim that Sunday morning worship services should be oriented around the needs, real and perceived, of unbelievers. This is not a new view. The Presbyterian “new school” and the various revivalist and crusading movements of the 18-early 20th centuries each desired to reshape the church’s worship services and programs around the single idea of “saving the lost.” This was also the first time since the glorious Protestant Reformation and Spirit-wrought deliverance from papal slavery that the “church became theater.” It should also be noted that Arminianism was the driving theological force behind this change.
Said simply, if we can package the gospel in ways that suit the tastes and meet the supposed needs of unbelievers, they will come to our services. It does not take a great deal of creativity to move from here to worship services that have more in common with personal therapy sessions and motivational seminars than anything resembling apostolic worship and preaching. But these modifications are preceded by theological shifts: away from sovereign grace to individual self-determination, from Spirit-wrought conversion under our King’s prescribed means of grace to psychological manipulation and persuasion, and from “Thus saith the Lord” to “thus saith the guru du jour.” This is nothing but “man as God.” The underlying assumption is either that unbelievers know what they need more than sanctified churchmen do, or that church leaders know what unbelievers need better than God does.
Apart, however, from these timeless and sufficient theological objections to all new school movements within the church, two other concerns should be raised. The first is very simple. Where in the Bible does it ever say that the worship services of the church should be primarily directed, in form, content, and psychology, to the needs of unbelievers as defined by unbelievers themselves, focus groups, marketing results, and the broader culture? In the absence of such warrant, the movement collapses as “wholly unauthorized by the Head of the church,” nothing but the latest expression of our propensity to “worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator,” and therefore utterly impotent to accomplish its expressed purpose, however noble is the idea and desire to see the world converted to Jesus Christ. At this point, we are facing an issue of authority as well as ecclesiology. Since Jesus Christ alone is the Head and King of the church, all her activities, missions, and methods must conform to his will, at least if they are to have any legitimate expectation of his blessing. His will is known by the Scriptures alone. Perceived needs do not equate with justification; nor do personal desire, frustration with your local congregation, or concern about the perishing. Either Christ is King, or man is. Protestantism’s abandonment of this principle is not only one of the leading causes of her present weakness, but it is also evidence of great theological immaturity, historical ignorance, and the re-adoption of Romanism, albeit with the substitution of the guru for the pope, and moving images for iconic ones.
Before considering the second concern, we should ask: “How does the New Testament address the issue of the presence of unbelievers in the weekly worship of God’s people?” Broadly, there is never the slightest indication that even in the most pagan of environments, the church under apostolic leadership ever brought gladiatorial shows, Roman festivals, or any of the other “culture-bridging” methodologies so much in vogue today into the worship of God’s people. Their worship was simple, word-driven, and God-centered: preaching, praying, singing, fellowship, Lord’s Supper (e.g., Acts 2:42). Confronting unbelievers with the gospel was never considered justification to introduce “will-worship” (Col. 2:23). In fact, Paul’s entire discussion of tongues-speaking in 1 Corinthians assumes the possibility of the presence of unbelievers but not the normality or focus, as if there was a weekly call from the Corinthian pastors to “get them in.” In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul says: “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” Two points are of interest here. First, the very reason Paul is against unbridled, non-interpreted and therefore non-prophetic tongues-speaking in the church is that “tongues are for a sign, not for them that believe, but to them that believe not” (v. 22). Since Lord’s Day worship is for believers, nor for unbelievers, tongues-speaking may be allowed minimally, always carefully controlled and never displacing the prophetic word. Why? This leads us to the second point. He says “if” in verse 23. This is a third-class condition of possibility, not certainty or likelihood. The presence of unbelievers in the early church’s worship was neither assumed as the norm nor utilized as a justification to orient the services around their expectations. The same condition holds in verse 24, but with an important statement that has enormous bearing upon this discussion. Should an unbeliever be present, what does he need to hear? Prophecy, or preaching. He needs to hear God’s holy Word, which is God’s power unto salvation. Only hereby will he fall down on his face and worship God, when the beliefs and preferences that he brought in the door with him are utterly overthrown by the exposing power of God’s preached word (Heb. 4:12), which, interestingly enough, is what leads him to confess that “God is in you” (v. 25).
Here we face the second concern. Mount Zion, whether in the Old or New Testaments, is God’s dwelling place (Eph. 2:22; Heb. 12:22). The most important thing, then, about drawing near to worship God, whether at the tabernacle, temple, or in the apostolic congregation, is the presence of God with his people. It is here, in the congregation, that Christ proclaims the name of his Father and “hymns” the Father (Heb. 2:12). Our Savior, “God with us” (John 1:14), is by his Spirit the very presence of god with us. Therefore, the worship services of the local congregation should not be oriented around the needs of unbelievers or even of believers. Their entire focus must be the living God. It is for this reason that orienting our worship services around unbelievers is in fact evidence that we have missed the point of worship entirely. It is not primarily about saving the lost or edifying believers. It is about drawing near to God, sitting before him as our only Teacher, singing praise to him for his many benefits and mercies, and seeking our good in him. Yes, we should ardently pray for and expect unbelievers to be converted and believers to be edified, but only as God is truly in our midst. He saves; we do not – nor do our efforts to make unbelievers feel comfortable and welcome. Unbelievers should not feel at home before the presence of the living God. In one important sense, neither should believers, for before his presence, all are undone, exposed as weak and wayward, and in dire need of his life-giving presence to heal, recover, and make alive. And God is only in our midst if our attitude toward his worship is: Hands off.
Yet, how will unbelievers be reached unless we make our services more attractive to them? It is better to recognize that it is the presence of God “shining in the face of Jesus Christ” through the Spirit of truth that saves unbelievers. Invite them – but not to a show, a therapy session, or to a rock concert. Invite them to hear the voice of God and witness how saved men respond to the presence of God – with joy and awe, fear and thankfulness. Invite them where Jesus Christ, the wisdom and righteousness of God, is preached in all his fullness, where he himself preaches through weak men so that no flesh may glory in his presence. Ah, you say, I cannot find this; something else must be done. Our present weakness does not justify presumption in the presence of God. Pray for your local congregation. Pray that the Lord Jesus will erase “Ichabod” from over our collective door and relight his candlestick in our midst. Pray that the word of God may catch the heart of preachers on fire again, which is nothing else than Christ’s own presence by his Spirit causing his word to “burn within them.” Pray that the Lord will grant us the spirit of supplication and repentance for thinking that we can do by our creativity and fervor what he says can only be performed by a renewing work of his Holy Spirit through his own voice. Pray that the Lord will dwell among us again. When he is in our midst – and he is only there when we leave to him the sole right to govern and teach us by his Word – unbelievers will be reached. We will not be able to cease talking about the things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20), in our own lives and in the sanctuary. Our lives will be different. It will be clear that we have been with Jesus, that we are clinging to his cross, that he is all our delight. Short of this, whether we orient our worship around unbelievers or not, we may as well waive the white flag now, for if God’s presence go not forward with us, unless he builds his House, all our efforts are for nothing. Therefore, seek and pray for no other change in worship than to have more desire toward Christ’s presence, more open ears to his voice, more fervent preaching, praying, and singing, and more conformity to his revealed will. Seek him! When he is in our midst, and he only is when his word is given chief place among us, unbelievers will fall down and confess that “God is with us.”