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FIRST-PERSON: Evangelistic worship style must match your mission field

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–Have you thought much about the church of the 21st century? How we need to use new ways to accomplish old purposes. Frankly, my concern is that far too many of us are trying to put new wine into old wineskins. We’re still caught up in traditions that — at one time — were very effective for winning people to Christ, but now they actually hinder the lost from hearing the Gospel message. Yet, we cling to these traditions as if they were carried down from Sinai right along with the 10 commandments.

For the 21st century, I think the church needs to be consciously focused on bringing lost people into the body and then helping them mature in their faith. I know what you’re thinking — Doesn’t every church do that? Well, I think every church believes it’s doing that, but many of them fail to understand how difficult they make it for lost people to feel comfortable. It’s not just about being friendly to the unchurched; it’s about loving them enough to limit some of your own preferences.

Let me illustrate how thinking should change if we’re going to be focused on the lost:

Who is the Sunday target?

Traditionally, Sunday activities at a church are aimed (targeted) at the members. The worship service is geared toward the preferences of church members: the songs they like to sing, the terms they’re used to hearing, and so forth. Any visitors have to learn the church’s “culture” in order to take part.

Now, imagine a missionary going overseas and saying, “I’m here to share the good news, but first you have to learn to speak my language, learn my customs, and sing my style of music.” You can immediately see why that strategy would fail; yet many churches in America do just that. Even as our culture has changed, we insist on using the same language, programs, customs, and musical style we used in the 1950s! I think that’s a major reason why two-thirds of all the churches in America are plateaued or declining.

So we have to start thinking differently. I think the target on Sunday morning should be the lost. The church should focus on making unbelievers feel comfortable by singing songs they can embrace, by voicing prayers that help them relate, and by preaching messages they can understand. We need to make Christianity available on an introductory level to any Sunday service visitors.

What determines the worship model?

It’s unfortunate in many of our churches, but we have let tradition determine the worship style. I think you’d agree that there isn’t any one right style. After all, Koreans worship differently than Americans; Southerners worship differently than Californians. We see and accept different styles of worship all the time. And as long as the worship is done in spirit and in truth, we don’t have a problem with that. So why do we insist that some of our traditional methods — the ones we prefer — are the only way to do it?

I think we should let culture determine the worship style (and you know I’m not talking about compromising the truth here). Paul said, “I become all things to all men that I may, in some way, save some.” So, if you’re in California, you should have a California culture church. If you’re in Ohio, you have an Ohio culture church. If you’re in Mississippi, you should have a Mississippi culture church.

Why are you using the organ?

Let me give you one simple — yet controversial — example of what I’m talking about related to worship styles. Many traditional churches use organs and hymns, but I’m just telling you that you’re not going to attract many lost people with that kind of music. Do you listen to organ music on the radio? Do you think lost people listen to CD’s of the organ’s Greatest Hits? Do you listen to choir music in your leisure? What makes you think lost people will find choir music suddenly interesting on a Sunday morning?

At Saddleback, we use ensembles, and microphones, and we sing choruses. We do this because choruses are easier to quickly learn and sing along with — even on a lost person’s very first visit. Keep in mind; our target on Sunday is not the person who’s been a Christian for 50 years.

Now let me ask you, who is your target? It’s a little like fishing — if you use “organ bait,” what kind of fish do you think you’re going to catch? Probably people who like organ music, or like more traditional worship, people who have been Christians for many years! There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are plenty of good churches that were already designed for those people. How are we going to attract the lost — the people who aren’t coming to church now?

And let me add, don’t just start singing choruses because they’re popular. Some of them can be just as confusing as a traditional hymn. For instance, if you sing Jehovah Jireh to the average unbeliever — frankly — you might as well be singing Mumbo Jumbo. What’s Jehovah Jireh?

You’ve got to make sure unbelievers can understand the words.

The bottom line is — do we love lost people enough to change some of our preferences in order to help them understand the eternal truth of God’s Grace through Jesus Christ. We never — ever — change the message, but we change our methods to reach the generation of our time, very deliberately pouring new wine into NEW wineskins (Luke 5:38).
Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of the nation’s largest Southern Baptist churches, and author of “The Purpose Drive Church.” Further information about Saddleback resources can be obtained at www.pastors.com.

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  • Rick Warren