Including Non-Christians in Christian Worship

We want to nurture an atmosphere where people sense God's presence and respond to him.

In each Sunday morning congregation sit many for whom Jesus is not yet Lord. Whatever their reasons for attending, they have come more to observe than worship. Their presence presents worship leaders with a challenge: How can we involve non-Christians in a service in which the main act is the worship of Christ?

Here are some things we try to do during each service to make the non-Christian feel a part of the service.

Make Them Comfortable

We recognize that many visitors find our worship service unusually open and expressive. Because they are on unfamiliar turf, we consciously try to make them feel comfortable. Here's how we do it.

Invite them to relax. We do this before the service formally begins. I walk in and from floor level welcome them with an introduction like this: "Good morning, everyone! Isn't it a great day? Nice to see you. We're going to praise the Lord in just a few minutes, and as we do, I want us to let our hearts be filled with wonder and praise. Don't worry about making an impression; here it's okay to be yourself. We can't impress God with how smart or sophisticated we are anyway, can we? So let's come together as his children and let the joy of the Lord Jesus fill this house today. He's alive! He's risen! And we want to praise him! Do you feel that way?"

We've found that many people do feel that way, so they respond. Once they are given permission to relax, they often do.

Acknowledge the awkwardness. All through the service we seek to be sensitive to those in the congregation who may feel awkward about what is happening. For instance, we raise our hands when we sing songs of praise; not everyone is used to that. If even one person appears mystified, or on the verge of panic, I will wait for an appropriate juncture in the service and say something like, "Incidentally, this may the first time you've been in a place where there's open, expressive praise like this. I want to assure you that nothing weird is going to happen. Although, I can hear someone thinking right now. What do you mean 'going to?' It already has!"

They laugh, of course. But acknowledging that our service is different and some may feel awkward helps people relax.

Encourage partial participation. Awkwardness about participating in our distinct worship practices can also be alleviated by encouraging partial participation. If the worship leader has invited people to raise their hands in song, yet senses some discomfort, he may say, "Raising hands may be new to you. That's okay. Instead, let's all just hold our hands out in front of us, palms up, like this, the way you would if you were going to say to someone, 'What would you like me to do for you?' In fact, as we do it, why don't we say that to the Lord: 'Lord, what would you have me do for you today?' "

Instead of making visitors do something completely unusual to them, and instead of isolating them in a sea of waving hands, this gets everybody to perform a modified, everyday act together. It also focuses people's attention away from the act and onto Christ.

Explain the service as it progresses. The above example also shows another technique we use to make our visitors feel part of the service. From time to time we explain what we're doing: "The reason for special music is to help us focus not on the performers but on the Lord" or "This is why we raise our hands," or "This is why we sometimes applaud."

For example, I might say, "I'm reminded this morning of how the writer of the Book of Lamentations said, 'Let us lift up our hearts with our hands unto God in the heavens.' Have you ever felt like your heart has been stepped on? Have you ever felt your heart empty? Why don't we together take our hands and make them like a cup and say, 'Lord, here's my heart. I bring it to you. I need to be filled anew.' "

Naturally, we don't want to lecture about every part of the service every Sunday, but we regularly try to integrate biblical teaching on what we do and why. Once newcomers understand the service better, they're more likely to participate.

Encourage Them to Interact

We encourage people to interact with one another during worship. This not only helps us be "in one accord," it also helps visitors experience warm, Christian fellowship. There are two major ways that happens in our services.

Greeting and affirming. Interaction begins with the greeting. After the opening songs and invocation, I usually say something light, humorous, or happy. I may relate something that happened that week in the community or in my life. Sometimes it has a spiritual focus, sometimes not. But it's always bright and positive, and it's always tied to our greeting one another.

For example, one Easter Sunday I told the story of a pastor who was concerned about reports that the Christian education program was ineffective. He decided to check it out for himself. He stopped in a fourth-grade classroom and asked one of the students, "Janie, when is Easter and what happens on it?"

Janie said, "Well, Easter's in the fall, and we dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating."

Oh, no! the pastor thought. This really is a problem. Hoping for better results, he tried another student. "Jimmy, can you tell me when Easter is and what happens on that day?"

Jimmy said, "Well, it's in the winter, and we put up the tree and decorate it and exchange gifts."

Now the pastor was queasy, so he went to Mikey, the smartest kid in the class.

"When is Easter," he asked, "and what happens then?"

Mikey answered, "Well, Easter is in the springtime when Jesus came up from the grave."

"Very good!" the pastor said, relieved.

Then Mikey added, "And if he sees his shadow, he goes back, and we have six more weeks of winter."

When the laughter died down, I said, "As we greet each other this morning, turn to two or three people near you and say, "He didn't go back. He's alive and with us today!"

The place came alive as people turned to greet others around them. The introduction had helped create a warmer, less threatening atmosphere.

Sometimes we'll use a verse of Scripture or something from a song we've just sung to introduce the greeting. Whatever it is, we get the people to speak an affirmation to one another.

Sharing and praying. The heart of the interaction in the service comes in what we call our ministry time. In the middle of the service, people form groups of three to five and share their requests, and then one person prays. We only spend about four minutes in the prayer circles, but we spend eight minutes or so leading into them with a song or a brief text—anything to sensitize us on how we need one another.

We emphasize four things during this time. First, one of the worship leaders mentions a specific need that each group will pray for. That way the entire congregation is focused on one concern together.

Second, each person is strongly encouraged to share one prayer request for himself or herself—not for a neighbor or distant relative. Such sharing helps us bear one another's burdens and function as a church.

Third, we underline that we're about to pray. This isn't group therapy or a psychological exercise, but an encounter with the living God.

Fourth, we expect the Holy Spirit to minister to us while we're praying. We encourage people to believe healing is available or that a word of comfort will come.

Since this act of worship may intimidate newcomers, as we move into that part of the service I'll say, "If you're visiting and this is new to you, please accept the invitation into the circle even if only to observe. It may be novel for you, but you're going to love it."

Even though these groups would seem threatening, I'm convinced they are one of the major reasons so many people become Christians in our service. Unbelievers are loved by people who believe Jesus is alive, and it impresses them.

Offer Opportunities for Commitment

Naturally, an unbeliever cannot fully engage in worship until he or she has made a commitment to Christ. Part of our service, then, is designed to encourage commitment. So, nine times out of ten, I will make an evangelistic appeal following the sermon.

"Every time we gather," I'll say, "there are some who have yet to begin their life with Jesus Christ. If you haven't begun trusting the Lord, you're aware of that. And there's nothing we can say or do that can force you to change. But we also know that when people come to our service, they often say, 'I feel the love of God in this place. I hear the ring of truth.'

"If that's you today, if you sense God's love and want to respond, then I invite you to open your heart to him."

This is not a time dripping with heaviness; it's not presented like a test they can fail. Instead, we simply give people an opportunity to respond.

A less traditional means we use to encourage commitment is the Lord's Supper. We invite all the people to gather around the Lord's Table and partake in small groups. We believe it is the Lord's Table we are invited to, the Lord is doing the inviting, and no one is excluded. To us that means unbelievers are invited, as well.

We explain clearly, of course, what we are doing, and what an unbeliever is doing by partaking: making a commitment to Christ. We stress the gravity of the event to reflect the serious nature of faith in Christ.

At the same time, we want people to know that they are welcome. For example, I might say, "If you are visiting with us today, you are not only welcome to participate, you are urged to. If you were at my house and it came dinnertime, I wouldn't leave you sitting in the other room while I went to the dining room. And if you said, 'Well, I'm not really hungry,' I'd say, 'Come in and sit with us anyway.' Now, as we come to the Lord's Table, join us. And when the bread is served, take a portion."

After everyone is served, I continue, "Everyone here who knows the Lord Jesus might thank him for …" and here I'll encourage them to thank God for something that relates to the morning's teaching. "If you've never received Christ," I continue, "you might say, 'God, I know I can't earn salvation by partaking of this. But in receiving this, I'm telling you I'm opening myself to your life.' " If they are not ready to take that important step and partake of Communion, they are encouraged to sit with us at the table while we partake.

So the Lord's Supper is not only a significant time for the church body, we also use it as a way to incorporate non-Christians into the service, and some into the body.

We recognize using Communion as an evangelistic opportunity troubles many people, and for understandable reasons. We're not arguing that every church should do it, or that it is necessary for churches that want to include unbelievers in their services. But it is one of the ways we incorporate unbelievers into our service.

From Beginning to End: Sincerity

There is no part of our service, then, in which the non-Christian visitor is not invited to participate fully. But our goal is not mere participation. We want to nurture an atmosphere where people sense God's presence and respond to him.

We use all these means, then, not as mere techniques to get people to do what they don't want to do. For us they simply are ways to help the visitor experience the presence of God as we experience it. If we don't lead our service with a sincere yearning to know and love God, our service will become a mere manipulation of people's religious feelings.

By God's grace, we'll continue to maintain sincerity. After attending our service, dozens of people have said within my earshot, "I walked into this place, and from the time the people began singing, I began weeping." These are not emotionally troubled individuals, but strong, successful people who are impressed simply by the presence of God.

In the end, then, it is God, not anything we do, who draws people to himself. Our job as worship leaders is graciously to prepare the way.

From the book Mastering Worship. Copyright © 1990 by Christianity Today International.

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