Worship as Evangelism
Fr. John Parker · December 7, 2012
In this episode, Fr John Parker discusses the difference between ‘worship evangelism’ and ‘worship as evangelism’, and encourages us to offer to God the most beautiful worship of which we are capable, and to ‘get out of the way’ for visitors—so that they can encounter God.
This is Fr John Parker, the chair of the department of evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America, you’re travelling with me once again on the road, Highway 17 South, Charleston South Carolina to Beaufort South Carolina, you may have traveled this road with me before as in past months I would ride along road on my way to visit a small group of Orthodox Christians and inquirers who were eager to have an Orthodox Church permanently established in Beaufort, one of the oldest towns in South Carolina. Colonial Town, very beautiful and by your prayers and by God’s grace it was this year as I reported in one of my earlier podcasts that St James Orthodox Mission, the first Orthodox Christian Church in the Town of Beaufort ever to be established was indeed established and Fr James Bozeman capable newly ordained priest and his wife matushka Catherine and their children have come to serve this growing congregation and I’m on my way right now to visit with this evening. They’ve already sprung into action and have moved from a borrowed and rented temporary place to a Church of their own. They’ve rented a standalone building and converted it back into a Church complete with some fellowship space and a kitchen and some classrooms, I’m looking forward to that. Thank you for your prayers for the St James Mission and indeed for all the missions of our Orthodox Church in America and all of the Orthodox Churches across North America who are aiming to establish an Orthodox presence in towns and cities and villages and municipalities where Orthodoxy before now could only have been found perhaps in books and in the memories of those people living there who were members of Orthodox families in previous generations but found no Orthodox Church when they moved to such towns.
Today I would like to speak about “Worship as Evangelism” and perhaps by contrast to “Worship Evangelism” and perhaps to the hearer these two things may be one in the same but they’re actually different and I would like to take a few minutes to express a little bit about on the latter, that is “worship evangelism” so that it will be clearer what I mean by “Worship as Evangelism” and we might take perhaps some practical steps in our missions and our established parishes to give to those who come to visit our Churches quite a remarkable quote-unquote “experience of God”.
Last evening at the OCF at the Citadel, a public military college in Charleston South Carolina, a venerable school we were meeting and our OCF is a combination of students from the Citadel, in this cast mostly men although there are women at the school, no female Orthodox cadets yet and also students from neighbouring colleges such as the college of Charleston are invited and so last evening we had one young woman from the college of Charleston who visited a Mega-Church with a friend on an occasion and she had some remarkable observations which would be really worth sharing in full but in this podcast I will just share a few to get at the point of “Worship Evangelism” which I think we want to avoid. And focus then a little bit on “Worship as Evangelism” which I think is something we need to pay intentional…attention to.
So she was invited by her friend who showed up at her doorstep a little bit before going to the mega church. Her friend was in blue jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers and said “hey you want to come to church with me?” She was flabbergasted first because she thought well…let’s call him Scott…Scott you’re not dressed for Church. I mean we dress up to go to Church, my grandmother taught me that when I was child and I always thought we dress our best for Church you know, so to go so casually for foreign to her. She said they went along anyhow and she got dressed in her Church clothes and they went where at the mega church they were greeted in the lobby by a number of greeters and she noticed that in the lobby…it wasn’t a narthex but a lobby, they had a coffee bar and she was invited to have a coffee and something I guess to eat prior to going into the service or maybe to take into with her. And she had her second aghast moment when she said “Scott you can’t eat before Church, everybody knows you don’t eat before Church.” So she declined. They went into the Church where there was stadium seating and a stage, a band, the pastor dressed in blue jeans and some kind of a blazer, came out telling jokes and stories, the band played, some people sang, some people waved their hands, etc. Then it came time for communion and the way communion was served, she described was that they brought out some small tables to put in the aisles and then people dressed in aprons with the church’s logo on them. Carried out baskets of bread and put them in the aisle, and people would simply get out of their rows and go to the basket and take what they wanted and go back to their seats. She was just completely dumbfounded about this, never having had such an experience in her whole life and you know no one was there to serve her communion to her, and there was no chalice, no wine, there was no…well there was a basket of bread and a person wearing an apron and that was that. She was completely dumbfounded and left early because for her this simply wasn’t a church. What was it?
Well we want to be careful not to be quick to judge, however what she experienced in that mega church was an attempt at what we might call and what has been called “Worship Evangelism”. That is to say to design a service around the comfort and interests of non-Christians or lapsed Christians in order that they might enjoy it, feel comfortable, feel at home, learn something about God…I neglected to mention that when she arrived at the church she was handed an outline and sort of a narrative with blanks in it, like fill in the blanks, which was apparently to be used during the sermon time when I guess the message was given almost verbatim and one filled in the blanks with key points that were given out loud…so services are designed in comfortable places where one can have coffee, maybe a pastry, maybe bring it into the church. Sit in comfortable seats, observe something that is entertaining, that makes one feel good, where one hears a sermon about a particular passage in the Bible, perhaps tied in with all kinds of modern stories and references to…I don’t know…novels and popular music and movies and so forth…and thereby might convert people to Christ. The effort springs from a strong and we might say noble desire to meet people where they are and to give them an opportunity in what some might describe as a non-threatening environment, to have some kind of encounter with God.
Now we disagree at least 99% with all of the above with reference to the worship of the Church. We agree wholeheartedly however, I think we could say, with the intended desire, which is to reach hurting people and to welcome them in a comfortable setting…a peaceful setting, a setting where there is not burned placed on them and where they then could be free to somehow meet God. For Orthodox Christians our worship does not lend itself to any kind of tinkering with respect to making people comfortable. This is kind of a no brainer, we don’t have to spend too much time discussing it but the services are the services because this is how we worship. And generally speaking the entire service is not about us at all but rather it’s a very long extended prayer from “Blessed is the Kingdom” to the final “Amen”, in which we spend our time praising God for His mighty acts, naming for Him all of the beautiful things that He has done, supremely made manifest in the Incarnation of His Son, Who came into the world to love us and to show us the way and to hang on the Cross voluntarily, to conquer death by His death and so our worship service is 100% directed towards God. In fact in the most simple terms we can look in our Church services and whereas there has been debate in recent decades about facing the people or not facing the people, we don’t take that perspective at all. In fact our orientation in Church, Orientation here used intentionally meaning facing East, is Eastward, and all of us face that direct to pray basically. The priest leading the people, the deacon when he takes his petitions leading the people all facing East, which is the direction in which our Lord ascended on the ascension, the direction from which He will return according to the Scriptures, it is the direction of the sunrise and therefore the illumination of the World through the Cosmos, and so all of those things with respect to our Lord Jesus Christ.
So for us we all face together one way and the only time that the priest really faces the people is either to bless them. “Peace be to all, Peace be to all, Peace be to all” we say three times, or to teach the people, for example in the Liturgical Homily. Which in of it itself, as far as I was taught, is never intended to be a stand-alone portion of our worship service, but rather an integral part, which would have neither more nor less emphasis than any other particular part of the service. That is, if the whole service were able to be measured on some graph, like a seismograph, you wouldn’t notice the homily any more or less than any other portion of the service, because they are all of one beautiful seamless piece. This is our Orthodox understanding of worship in the way that we do things. So we wouldn’t for example serve coffee in the Narthex, we might have welcoming people at the door to offer a smile to visitors, we might have some materials to hand to them to help them with their first visits to the Church. We do have a rather high barrier for first time visitors because whereas in many Protestant churches one walks in and even can these days greet people and chat with people, say how are you and get to know one another and have small talk before the service. In the Orthodox Tradition generally speaking we don’t talk to anybody before Church, almost as a rule, we come in in silence, we pray in silence, we venerate the icons in silence. So some people might even take that as unwelcoming, so we might have to consider how we act in those kinds of ways so that we might at least help people feel welcome to our Churches, even if we’re not going to spend time chatting with them ahead of time, or we might find quiet ways to let them know we’re glad they’re there and we’d be happy to speak with them after the service.
Why? Because in our Church experience what we’re really looking for is to give people an opportunity to meet God. It’s not so much to spend time with us, though after the service we want to indeed spend time getting to know one another and so forth, but we want to move ourselves out of the way so that Christ could be made manifest. So that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could have the opportunity without our interference to touch the hearts and the lives of those who come to Church. Not only visitors but everyone who comes, including our very selves.
So for us the experience of Worship is an untouchable, that is we have the services and we do what we do because we receive our worship from those who have gone before us all the way back to the New Testament times in fulfillment of the Old Testament synagogue and Temple Worship. And so we’re not going to change those things in order to adjust the comfort level of any person who would be there, whether that’s ourselves or those who would visit. However we must recall that all of Rus was converted because of an experience the Worship of God Almighty, that is when Prince Vladimir sent his emissaries into the world and find me true religion, and they went from place to place to place to place, experiencing many of the world’s religions and their services and their liturgical celebrations. When they came back from Hagia Sophia it was because of the unforgettable and incomparable beauty of that Church and those services that the hearts of those emissaries was turned towards the one true God, Who’s message they brought back to the prince and made that famous quotation “we knew not whether we were in heaven on on earth, one thing we know is that God dwells there among men and we cannot forget that beauty.”
That was the experience they took back to the prince who in turn, in greatly simplified terms, said “sold, done.” We will become that, whatever it is and whatever it takes. And thus the baptism of Vladimir and therefore of all Rus, from which the Russian Orthodox Church comes, from which the Orthodox Church in America comes, into which I and my family were able to be received. So the experience of Worship As Evangelism is a very really thing. What’s the difference then between “Worship Evangelism” and “Worship as Evangelism”? I would say it’s this, “Worship Evangelism” is to tinker with services, the adjusting of their times, maybe having one on Sunday night instead of Sunday morning, maybe having one on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning to give people options of times to come because it’s inconvenient for families or whoever or golfers or voters to come on Sundays. To alter the services, to alter their times, their content, their focus, their aim, in order to quote unquote “reach a certain people group.”
“Worship as Evangelism” however is to serve services in their received form, in such a beautiful inspiring way that the genuine prayer of the people gathered, offered in peace, in beauty, in liturgical musical spiritual social harmony, would be so beautiful that it would change a heart of stone to a heart of flesh toward the One True God, so that whoever would experience that would know God to be God, and know that in this place we cannot forget that beauty and that God dwells there among men. That’s what I mean by “Worship as Evangelism”.
So for us that means there are somethings which are fixed and there are somethings which are changeable. The fixed things are fixed, we have the Divine Liturgy, we have the petitions, we have the antiphons, we have the beatitudes, we have whatever the Traditions are that we have received, Byzantine or Slavic, about how we begin our services. We have the litanies, we have the readings, we have the homily, the Creed, the Eucharist and so forth, these things we have. What’s adjustable? What’s adjustable is the friendly greeter at the back door, the beautiful material that might be available for those who come to the Church for the first time, which would be printed in a beautiful way, which would be decorated with beautiful decorations, which would be printed on beautiful paper, which would be written in such a way that gives honour to God, that is on the one hand generous to the first time visitor, but clear about things like communion and who receives communion and why. That’s an adjustable thing. Another adjustable thing would be the types and styles of music that we sing. For the Divine Liturgy particularly, is it bright, beautiful, is it worthy of the Resurrection of Christ, are we doing our best to practice our singing, to sing in harmony, to sing peacefully, to sing neither too slowly so that the service seems like a dirge, neither to sing too quickly which makes it seem like we’re not there to pray but that we’re trying to get through something in order to get on with coffee hour or get home. But to sing almost as if the liturgy is one long prayer where the priest’s chanting and the deacon’s chanting overlaps the choir’s chanting at the beginning and end of litanies, so that even the litanies are one long prayer, than nine individual petitions or whatever. These are things which are adjustable to have a church which is tidy, a church which is well ordered, a church which is clean, a church which has things which match, it might not be the most extravagant carpet for example in the Church, but if we have two do they match or at least coordinate, are they vacuumed, do the chairs match if we have chairs for people to sit in. Do we at least keep them in a matching way, that is one here, one there, that complements one another. The outward and visible things we adjust and give beauty to, give order to , give symphony to, give harmony to so that when one experiences a Church service, there’s nothing that would be a stumbling block to the people. It’s enough that the Cross would be a stumbling block, it’s enough that God made man would be a challenge to people. Let’s let the Gospel itself if there’s going to be some stumbling block, let’s let that be it, not the externals which we have some kind of command over.
So if we want to even go through an exercise, maybe encourage a small group of people in our Church to observe a service and give us feedback so we can address that. To stand in the Church in a weekday apart from a Sunday service and simply look as if with the eyes of a visitor. And say “If I were visiting here for the first time what would I see?” We want to give people the experience of the emissaries of the great prince and saint Vladimir. This is possible in a retirement home community room, it’s possible in a funeral home chapel, it’s possible in an 800 square foot storefront, it’s possible in a converted Protestant Church turned into an Orthodox Temple. It’s possible in a temple intentionally constructed in the Traditions of Orthodox architecture, it’s possible in all of those places, it’s possible in a living room, because it is almost an attitude that is necessary to create such a place, to create such an environment, to create such…I dare not say feeling…but that’s what I’m trying to get that, a kind of ambiance of True Worship. Not to manipulate people who would come in, not at all. But to clear the way so they might see God in the simple, beautiful, peaceful, harmonious liturgical celebration to which they have come. That’s our aim in “Worship As Evangelism”.
So perhaps it’s enough to ponder on these concepts. There are ways that we can be inspired by those non-Orthodox Christians who very very eagerly and very zealously wish to quote-unquote “reach the lost”, I would not use those terms, but to reach out to those who do not yet know Christ or do not yet know Him in His fullness, we have the greatest treasury, the greatest toolbox, the fullest Church in order to share with people God’s Gospel in Christ crucified and raised from the dead. We won’t tinker with that, but giving our first, giving our best, being tidy, orderly, friendly, generous, harmonious, peaceful and so forth, these things are forms of evangelism for those who come to our worship services. We don’t want to stay there, we don’t want to stop there, because our Lord did give us a command, He didn’t say wait and welcome, though we do have to wait and welcome people, He said Go and Tell, Go and make disciples. But with those who are coming to us, we want to welcome them with open arms, we want to step out of their way as they walk into our beautiful temple, whether that’s a temple in the living room of a rented home, whether that’s a temple in a retirement home that’s been generously lent to us, whether it’s in a rented storefront, a rented standalone building, whether it’s in a converted warehouse, or a rehabilitated protestant church, or an intentionally built Orthodox one, in these places God grant us to offer our worship to Him in such a way that God would be glorified, which is the first intention of our worship, and by extension, the spirit of our worship in truth, would be seen by those who come, that they might likewise say “we know that God dwells there among men and we cannot forget that beauty.”