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Worship and outreach. What is the connection between the two? That is a topic that has been widely debated over the last 20 years or more. Back then, statistics showed that there were a lot of people who were seekers. They were looking for something. As a result, many churches tried to offer people what they were looking for by changing their style of worship and offering seeker friendly services. They did attract a lot of people, but they soon found that a lot of people didn’t stay connected to the church because there was no depth of doctrine. Giving people what they want isn’t the same as giving them what they need. What people need, according to the Bible, is solid law and gospel messages and opportunities to continue to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Worship is outreach in the sense that anyone who comes gets to hear about their sins and that Jesus is their savior, but it assumes that the majority of people are there because they already know about their sins and their savior and want to continue to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord. It’s main purpose is not outreach.
Over the last 20 years or so a lot of things have changed. Statistics now show that there aren’t very many people today who are what we would call seekers. The largest category, especially among the younger people, has been labeled “nones.” These are second generation non-churched people. They have rarely, if ever, been in a church building. They may believe that there is a god, but they have no strong feelings about who that god is or about a particular religion. One writer has described their mindset as “apatheism” a “disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.” Whatever you do in your worship service isn’t going to make an apatheist want to come.
What’s the response to this situation we face in our world today? Pastor Jonathan Bauer writes, “Rather than designing our gatherings to bring people in, more and more we will need to disperse from those gatherings and seek people out. Pastors and laypeople will need to invest in relationships with the people around them, build trust by demonstrating genuine love and concern, and look for opportunities to share the gospel.” Another writer says, “You don’t have to treat the worship services like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers.”
So how do worship and outreach connect? Worship encourages us and equips us to do outreach by holding before us what God has done for us, and by giving us opportunities to put our faith into practice.
As the writer to the Hebrews moves toward his encouragement not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, he begins by holding before us the faithfulness of God.
He is talking to people who knew the Old Testament worship at the temple well. He knows that they understand that the temple had two rooms separated by a curtain. They knew that no one could enter the Most Holy Place behind the curtain except the high priest. And he could only enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement. He could only enter after he had washed himself and put on special clothing, then offered sacrifices for the people, and for himself. When he had done these things, he would slide burning incense under the curtain to fill the Most Holy Place with the smoke of incense. Only after having done all these things, could he go behind the curtain carrying with him blood from the sacrifices to sprinkle on the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant which represented the throne of God.
Did you get all that? Old Testament worship had a lot of rules, but it also had a wonderful way of picturing important truths. These ceremonies made it clear that no one, not even the High Priest, could enter directly into the presence of God. All people are sinful. God is Holy. In order for people to enter into the presence of God our sin needs to be atoned for and in order for that to happen there has to be a sacrifice, there has to be blood. Someone has to get the punishment we deserve for our sin.
What was pictured by the Day of Atonement and practiced for 1500 years God fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus was the sacrifice we needed. He shed his blood on the cross as a lamb without blemish, without any sins of his own. That holy blood was precious because it alone was sufficient to atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “it is finished”, bowed his head and entrusted his spirit to the father, and the father accepted his sacrifice as the payment for sin, you remember what happened. The curtain that symbolized our separation from God because of sin was torn in two. The old way of entering into his presence by having a priest offer animal sacrifices for you was dead. We now have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place through the blood of Jesus. It is a new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, his flesh. Our hearts have been sprinkled with his blood assuring us that our sins are forgiven. His blood is on the door posts of our hearts so that when the destroyer comes, he passes over us without harming us, without giving us the punishment we deserve. Our bodies have been washed with pure water. The OT had many cleansings with water, but Jesus sanctified baptism for us at his own baptism by John and by his command that we baptize. As Ananias told Saul, Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his, Jesus’, name.
In worship we are reminded that these things are true. We can have confident faith and unwavering hope because God, who communicates these truths to us is faithful. Since this is the case, how can we not be like the Shepherds, like the Apostles, like Paul, who couldn’t help but share this good news with others!
The answer is, we like to be comfortable. We don’t want to put ourselves in a situation that might bring about some kind of confrontation. We don’t want to be seen as unloving, or judgmental, or exclusive, or holier than thou. We don’t want to lose friends or family because of religion. We want to avoid persecution or any kind of suffering. The devil suggests to us all kinds of reasons for keeping the good news of salvation in Jesus to ourselves and all too often we listen to him.
We need the constant reminder of our forgiveness for the sin of keeping the good news of salvation in Jesus alone to ourselves, and for all our other sins. We need encouragement from those who believe what we do and have the same struggles that we do.
The writer says that as we gather as fellow believers in Christ it’s not just to listen to God speak to us through the word and Sacrament, as important as that is for it is the way the Holy Spirit works in our hearts. Like everything else we do, gathering together is to reflect the two great commandments – both love for God and love for our neighbor. So, the writer says, consider carefully what you can do for others.
That’s a strong word. It means more than saying, “good morning, how’s it going.” It means really think hard about those around you and what they might need. Of course, in order to know what they might need you are going to have to talk about more than the weather or sports. You are going to have to build a relationship with those who worship with you so that you become comfortable sharing struggles, and asking for prayers; and so that there is a high level of trust between you.
The writer reflects what Jesus predicted and what we are experiencing. In the last days being faithful to God and his word is increasingly difficult. We are bombarded on every side, at work, at school, in all forms of media, in music, even by the headlines on the tabloids you see as you check out in stores. We are bombarded by messages through which Satan asks, “Did God really say?” and “if you sin you won’t die, God won’t send anyone to hell” and “knowing evil is a good thing. In fact, God is just a bully trying to spoil your fun, an idea invented by those who want to control your life.” We are bombarded day in and day out with messages that are the opposite of the truth God gives us in his word. That’s why we need to carefully consider how to encourage each other, how to remind each other of what God says, of what is true and what is false, to use God’s law to point out sin and then to apply the healing salve of the gospel of forgiveness.
It’s good to remind each other that, as we worship, we are confessing our sins not just to God, but to each other. We are receiving assurance from God and each other that Jesus has paid for our sins. We are confessing our faith, not just to God, but to and with each other. We are reminding each other to find ways each day to put our faith into practice. We are spurring each other on to love and good works, which begins with showing love and doing good to those of our family of faith, but then extends to everyone we meet.
There is nothing new under the sun. The early church gathered together often to worship in the temple courts. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Their hearts were glad and sincere. People saw how they loved and cared for each other. They praised God among the people, in the community. And here’s the connection between worship and outreach, the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Why gather for worship? So that we are reminded of the faithfulness of God, that he kept his promise and sent his son to be the sacrifice of atonement for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Filled with this good news we can’t help but put our faith into action, showing love and doing good for our fellow believers and everyone we meet. When that happens, the world takes notice and we have opportunities to tell others about the reason for the hope we have, Jesus.
When we have our faith confirmed by gathering around the word and sacrament, and then take the time to think about how we can meet each other’s needs and encourage each other to put our faith into action, we will gladly share God’s word and the Lord will add to the number of those who are being saved.