From Decline to Growth – 2

The Worship Myth


As we proposed last time, too many pin their hopes for reversing the decline in church membership on getting people to “come to church.” This usually means we want them to “come worship with us.” If they have a good experience, we reason, they may want to come back. This hope is cherished not just for non-Christians who have the incredible bravery to walk into a building filled with strangers, but also for folks from other churches who might like our “services” better and decide to “place membership” with us.

In addition to being part of the discredited attractional model, there are several problems with this.

Misuse of the word, “worship.” As we should know, worship can take place any time and any place. So, to refer to the assembly of saints (ekklesia) as “the worship” leaves an impression that worship takes place on a certain day at a certain hour. Is “the worship” on Sundays the only time you pray, sing, read the Word and give? Surely not!

Often we ask a fellow-believer, “Where do you worship?” Invariably we are asking where they “go to church.” By asking “Where do you go to church?” we are asking which building at which location they enter on Sundays. Our speech betrays our misunderstanding.

The misunderstood cause and effect of worship. Worship is an effect, not a cause. It is just not true that Christian action is the result of worship. The opposite is true…worship is the result of Christian action which is the result of hearing and applying the teachings of Christ. (Romans 10:17).

My experience confirms this truth. The best singing and most moving worship I ever experienced was in our little mission church in Australia. The gospel was being preached, people were being saved, lives were being changed, Jesus was being exalted, and disciples were living their faith. Consequently, our times of assembly were Spirit-charged celebrations.

Dr. Jack Reese makes an excellent observation in his article called, “Coming Back to the Heart of Worship:”

At one conference I attended recently, a speaker said that in the history of Christianity spiritual revival has always occurred in the wake of worship renewal, especially through the rise of new hymns. The crowd, filled with the sounds of the latest praise songs ringing in their ears, roared its approval.

I couldn’t help but think how wonderful that would be, if only it were true. But in the history of Christianity, worship renewal, especially the writing of new hymns, has always followed rather than led spiritual awakening. It is not music but the hearing of the Word that has sparked the renewal of God’s people.[1]

Do we want “worship renewal” on Sundays? Then we must hear the Word and live as Jesus Monday through Saturday. Mundane, dull, listless assemblies are symptomatic of poor spiritual health. A transfusion of lifeblood is needed and evangelism is the lifeblood of the church.

Misuse of the word, “service,” usually used in combination with “worship.” While used frequently in the Old Testament in reference to the work of the priests in the Tabernacle and Temple, I couldn’t find the term “service” used in reference to an assembly in the New Testament. The only version I could find using the phrase, “worship service,” is the Contemporary English Version which uses it because it is contemporary English! In other words, they used it (incorrectly) because so many already use it (incorrectly)!

The correct English term is “assembly.” Let’s quit using the term, “worship service,” especially with a definite article before it. It’s wrong. I think the beginning of getting things right is getting our terminology right, don’t you?

An incorrect understanding of the purpose of assembly. Worship indeed takes place in assembly, but the primary purpose of assembly is to refuel the saints. Visitors may indeed be evangelized at an assembly (1 Corinthians 14:23-25) but the priority of assembly is stimulation and encouragement, not evangelism.

A successful assembly is not a matter of good choreography, scripting, lighting, music and sermons. Those are the wrong concerns. Here are the crucial questions: were the assembled saints stimulated to love and good deeds? If not, our assembly, no matter how fancy, was a failure. Did our brothers and sisters walk out the doors encouraged, edified, instructed and inspired? (See 1 Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:23-25) If not, our gathering, no matter how slick and professional, was a bust.

OK, let me cut to the chase here. The assembly is not for evangelism! That is “the worship myth.” To depend on the assembly to reach the lost is erroneous, futile and ineffectual. Manipulating the assembly to attract visitors will never work. And yet, most churches have no other plan for evangelism!

We must not keep our Jesus in a box. We must not allow the body of Christ to be hidden in a building. His light must be seen through His disciples in an ever darkening world.

There is only one cure for decline and it is a simple one: “Go…and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19)


P.S. Trey Morgan has also expressed his concern about decline. Check out his good words at including the comments to his post.


[1] This article first appeared in CHRISTIANSTANDARD on 7th May, 2006).


Filed under Change Agent, Missions/Evangelism, Religion

9 responses to “From Decline to Growth – 2

  1. Duane Morgan

    Thank you so much for your courage in putting yourself on the firing line. You write clearly and courageously, inviting reflection, agreement, and/or refutation. That is the mission of anybody who puts words permanently on paper. God bless you, and “good on y’, mate,” as my Australian friends say. I love you in Christ Jesus our Lord and appreciate your sharing. Keep up the good work.
    Some observations: Upon arriving the first time in a city, it would be appropriate for a Christian to enquire, “Where do the saints meet as the church on the Lord’s day?” In 1 Corinthians, a term repeatedly used is, “when you come together as a church….” (11:18, 33; 14:23, 26). The context and the joint activities in those assemblies are distinctive, in one sense, in that they necessitate a time and place (under a tree, in a storefront, beside a river, in a home… wherever) set aside for corporate worship. That assembly is essentially different from a home devotional on Thursday night or giving money to a needy person or a good cause on Monday. That we know.
    You have written,

    “OK, let me cut to the chase here. The assembly is not for evangelism! That is ‘the worship myth.’ To depend on the assembly to reach the lost is erroneous, futile and ineffectual. Manipulating the assembly to attract visitors will never work. And yet, most churches have no other plan for evangelism!”

    May I respectfully suggest, brother, that the second sentence is an overstatement, understandably composed to combat the accurately stated misconceptions of depending (primarily or exclusively) on the assembly to reach the lost and manipulating the assembly to make it more entertaining. You already clearly stated that “visitors may indeed be evangelized at an assembly (1 Corinthians 14:23-25),…” The punctuation there called for a full stop, not a comma. It seems to me that evangelism was part of the Lord’s intent in 1 Corinthians 14.
    I have many times heard the statement that evangelism is for the lost, edification for the saints. To me, that seems wrong, since Paul stated his earnest desire not only to edify the Christians at Rome but also to “preach the gospel” (εὐαγγελίζω, i.e., to evangelize) to them. Unbelievers are edified in 1 Corinthians 14:17, 22, and believers are evangelized in Romans 1:15. The obvious conclusion is that the gospel is at the very core of every message about Jesus Christ, whether preached to believers or unbelievers, and is central to every assembly for worship.

  2. Marilyn Stinson

    Dear Dwight,

    Thank you for your thought provoking words in your last two articles. I believe the most important thing that has been said is that we are to go and make disciples. How is this done? Through lots and lots of love. Read a book in the New Testament and you usually see lots of passages on love. Whether “worship services” bring others to Christ or not doesn’t seem to be the point. Its not a contest. God is glorified in many ways and to edify or evangelize through “worship services” would certainly glorify God.

    The point is, we (also) need to focus on just going out and being Jesus to people. What did Jesus do to evangelize? He loved others. He didn’t make disparaging comments about anyone except the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. He didn’t make friends with only those who were like him (good thing since none of us are perfect!) or only spend time with those who were like minded (like we can be tempted to do as Believers).

    Today I believe Jesus would be hanging out with all kinds of people, loving them, showing them Jesus by his actions and complete respect for them as a precious soul who is in need of his merciful, amazing grace just like you and I are.

    So, please, let’s not let ourselves be distracted by how important “worship services” are. Satan loves that! Let each one faithfully administer the gifts God has given him or her in and out of the corporate worship (or assembly or whatever term you prefer). But please, let’s also spend a good amount of our focus on the lost and building each other up through love. I challenge you today to pray this week for the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to someone in your life you need to disciple (Believer or not yet saved) and then in faith speak words of life and show acts of love, praying and letting God lead you each step of the way. Go and disciple others. Show them the love you read about in the Gospels that Jesus showed. Then we will each truly make our lives an act of SPIRITUAL WORSHIP (Romans 12:1-2.)

    To God be the glory. Lord, please forgive us when we forget that it is ALL about you!!!

    Marilyn Stinson

  3. dwhitsett

    How blessed am I? I have spiritual, thoughtful friends who not only read my scratchings, but make well-thought out comments on them. And, as you have noticed, they don’t particularly agree with everything I say! If I make them think, they do the same for me. Isn’t that what family is all about? Duane, Marilyn, I love you with the love of the Lord.

  4. Bob Chapman

    Hi Dwight,

    Someone recently wrote that the “assembling” of ourselves together as mentioned in Hebrews 10:25, was not referring to a gathering of individualists with individualistic pursuits or agendas, but rather refers to the gathering of Spirit filled individuals working together as one in Christ to accomplish His outcomes as directed by Him.

    Interesting analogy.

    Bob Chapman

  5. Good words! Very thought provoking. What is your opinion on the “seeker worship services” as mentioned in The Purpose Driven Church and other resources? I certainly agree with you that the assembly is for the edification of the disciples of Christ and not for evangelism. And we certainly need to get our termenology straightened out too.
    Great insights Dwight! Blessings!

  6. Although I agree with the majority of this post, I’m not sure that I completely agree with the notion that Sunday morning assemblies should not be used, at least in part, for evangelism. I probably fall more in line with Duane’s statements.

    I agree that our outreach should be based primarily on our “love for others.” Yet, I find no reason to not utilize our Sunday morning assemblies for outreach. My reading of 1 Cor 14 does not exclude evangelism from assemblies. Rather, Paul attempts to organize the Corinthians in such a way that (1)would further their efforts to praise God and (2) not repel visitors. The mere fact Paul mentions guests in 1 Cor 14 seems to indicate the importance of visitors at our assemblies.

    Yes, too often churches have used their Sunday morning worship services as their only evangelism tools. However, on the flip side, too many churches have, and continue to use their Sunday morning worship services to exclude those outside their inner circle. I certainly would not go so far as to say that focus on evangelism during assebmlies is “ineffectual.” Should assemblies become a church’s sole source of evangelism? Of course not. But assemblies can still be tailored to assist a church in its evangelistic efforts.

    Keep up the good work Dwight.

  7. Gary Tannahilll

    Thank you for your comments on “worship service.” I agree we should try to use Bible words for Bible things, not for legalistic reasons but because we will be less likely to introduce non-Bible concepts and practices into our walk with God. I feel “worship service” harkens back to the Old Testament temple regime that has been replaced by the new covemant. It also is kin to the cathedral type events where the laity observes what the “priests” do. It seems to me that he NT image of the church is much more intimate, personable and participatory than this.

    Keep thinking and encouraging us all to draw closer to God.

  8. Terry Smith

    Looking at the big picture. Which is something we do not do very often.
    My thoughts are that of Dwight’s, build the big picture from the complete text instead of off of one verse. Jesus said go or as you go make disciples. Nowhere are we instructed to invite but to rather go. And this is what is seen in the first century of the church.
    We have made Gods people lazy by allowing the assembly to do what they are supposed to be doing.
    1 Cor. is not about evangelism, what is the big picture? Paul is writing to a church that is around two years old and like most two year olds they have a lot of growing to do and a lot of problems to get pasted.
    The first set of lessons I did with the assemble where I Evangelize Eph.4:11-13 was “Words have meanings and meanings come from context.” What is the big picture?
    Love you brother
    Because the tomb is still empty!!!

  9. Thank you, Marilyn. Great reminder – It’s All About Him! When I start to think that my efforts alone – either inside the church or out on the street – can be anything other than noise, I’m missing the point. All I can do is keep my eyes on Him and ask Him to inspire and prompt me, and use the gifts He’s given me in the place He has me. Then, He will reach others and draw them to Himself.

    Excellent discussion – makes you think and keeps you sharp!


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