(1 Pet. 2:9) Is our mission “singing and praise” or “evangelism?”

CLAIM: The NIV translates this passage in the following way: “You may declare the praises [Greek aretē] of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Some Christians claim that this is warrant for a large, corporate worship service (i.e. “praising” God). One commentator writes, “This heraldic praise is their reason for existing.”[1] Is this the case?

RESPONSE: The NIV does a poor job translating this passage. Consider the NASB: “So that you may proclaim the excellencies [aretē] of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” The Greek word aretē (pronounced are-et-TAY) is never translated as “praise” elsewhere in the NT. Hence, the NASB is a superior translation of this passage.

You might ask yourself: Why is this important? It is actually very important, because the primary mission of the church can potentially become distorted, depending on our understanding of this passage. Under the NASB translation, our primary mission as a church would be to speak evangelistically for God (“proclaim the excellencies of Him”). However, under the NIV [mis]translation, our mission would be to praise God (“declare the praises of him”). Should our primary focus be to praise God or speak for him to lost people?

Jesus was sent for the mission of reaching the lost (Lk. 19:10; Jn. 3:17; Mk. 10:45), and he sent his followers with the same mission (Jn. 20:21; Mt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 5:15-20). Some Christians argue that our primary mission is to worship God by corporately singing together. When we sing and adore God, non-Christians will see us doing this, and this will lead them to Christ. That is, they will see us “worshipping” God, and this will cause them to want to “worship,” as well. It isn’t surprising that this type of evangelism has been called “worship evangelism”[2] by Sally Morgenthaler –one of its proponents. Morgenthaler argues,

Unbelievers (including those who are in churches and unchurched) will draw lasting conclusions about the veracity and uniqueness of our God based on what they see or do not see happening in our weekly church services. Do they detect something supernatural and life-changing going on? Can they sense God’s presence and work among us? Are they experiencing something in our midst they have never seen before?[3]

In other words, according to proponents of this view, non-Christians will come to faith in Christ based on powerful worship services. Personally, I have always been suspicious of such a view: Why would non-Christians enjoy singing songs that they don’t know to a God that they don’t even believe exists? This strategy just seemed bizarre.

However, I’m not alone in my criticism of this view. Critics of worship evangelism have argued that this hardly[4] ever leads to non-Christians into a relationship Christ. Instead, Christians from local churches are being pulled like a magnet from one group to another, depending on the glamour of the worship service that particular week. For instance, Greg Laurie notes,

The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of large churches, including “megachurches” (congregations of 1,000 or more), around the country… during the very time megachurches have sprouted across the landscape, the proportion of Americans who claim to be “born again” has remained a constant 32 percent. According to Dunlap, growth isn’t coming from conversions but from transfers—up to 80 percent of all growth taking place today.[5]

Megachurches will often boast that they have had explosive growth in just a few years. However, when checked closely, most of this growth is transfer growth. That is, Christians from neighboring churches will switch churches, when a megachurch opens. Like small mom-and-pop businesses around a chain like Wal-Mart, these smaller churches don’t survive, when a megachurch comes to town. Laurie continues:

Some church growth experts are telling pastors their “customers” no longer attend to commune with God, but to “consume” a personal or family service. In a recent survey of 1,000 church attenders, respondents were asked, “Why does the church exist?” According to 89 percent, the church’s purpose was “to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.” Only 11 percent said the purpose of the church is “to win the world for Jesus Christ.[6]

Growth expert George Barna writes, “Since 1980, there has been ‘no growth’ in the proportion of the adult population that can be classified as ‘born again’ Christian. The proportion of born again Christians has remained constant at 32%.”[7] Author Ken Sidey writes, “Perhaps church growth’s greatest challenge in North America comes from research that shows that more than 80 percent of all the growth taking place in growing churches comes through transfer, not conversion.”[8] David Dunlap (a teacher at Land O’ Lakes ministry in Florida) writes,

In 1988 a denominational newspaper for the Southern Baptist Convention revealed the evangelistic results for all churches of that denomination and the results were shocking. This denomination, which is the largest protestant group in the United States, reported in 1987 that within its 37,000 churches, there were on the average only 2 converts baptized for every church. The newspaper further reported that 50,000 were baptized who had transferred from other churches.[9]

Finally, in a later article on the effectiveness of her own strategy, even Sally Morgenthaler (author of Worship Evangelism) admits,

In 2001 a worship-driven congregation in my area finally did a survey as to who they were really reaching, and they were shocked. They’d thought their congregation was at least 50 percent unchurched. The real number was 3 percent.[10]

In other words, these strategies for reaching people for Christ are not working to fulfill our mission (Mt. 28:18-20). Instead, we are merely reshuffling Christians from one church to another –based on the drama, music, or entertainment of the week. This would be similar to my wife giving me ten dollars as I leave the house for lunch. As she gives me the money, can I really convince myself that I made an extra ten bucks? Of course not. But, what is the difference between this illustration and getting neighboring Christians to come to our church, instead of theirs? It’s really like moving ten bucks from one pocket into the other, or wiring money from my savings account to my checking: what’s the point?

Of course, as followers of Christ, we should have no interest in stealing Christians from other churches into our own –simply for the sake of pride. Instead, we should be primarily intent on penetrating the culture with the gospel and reaching those who don’t even know Christ yet. While it is certainly good to take in wandering or lost sheep (who aren’t in fellowship), why would we ever want to steal Christians that are already involved in fellowship somewhere else?

[1] Davids, Peter H. The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1990. 93.

[2] Morgenthaler, Sally. Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995.

[3] Morgenthaler, Sally. Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. 9.

[4] Of course, I don’t want to overstate my case here. Anecdotally, I have heard a couple of stories of non-Christians coming to faith at such meetings. All I can say to these stories is this: Praise God! I think God can work through a variety of ways, and I feel uncomfortable claiming that non-Christians cannot ever come to Christ in this setting. However, my point is that we shouldn’t redirect our church mission based on one occasional story, when the overwhelming evidence demonstrates that this is a spurious methodology.

[5] Laurie, Greg. “Church Growth.” http://www.equip.org/articles/church-growth/

[6] Laurie, Greg. “Church Growth.” http://www.equip.org/articles/church-growth/

[7] Barna, George. Marketing the Church. Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1990.

[8] Sidey, Ken. “Church Growth Fine Tunes its Formulas” Christianity Today, (June 24, 1991) 46.

[9] Dunlap, David. “The Myth of ‘Growth’ in the Church Growth Movement.” http://www.gracebiblestudies.org/resources/web/www.duluthbible.org/g_f_j/TheMythofGrowth.htm

[10] Sally Morgenthaler “Worship as Evangelism” Rev! May/June 2007. 48.