Turning the Reformed Church Outward: The Character of Missional Worship

The Great Commission Jesus issued to the church involves making disciples of all nations. It’s clear from the book of Acts that the disciples engaged this mandate chiefly through preaching and the subsequent establishment of churches. Once constituted, these churches were then, as they are today, to reengage the Great Commission by making disciples of Christ through baptism and instruction. The question we want to pose in this article is, How should contemporary Reformed churches be missional in their worship?

Seeker-Sensitive Worship Critiqued

For years many church growth theorists recommended what were called seeker-sensitive worship services. Worship services, for such theorists, were regarded as a product that could be marketed to the felt needs of the unchurched consumer. Not surprisingly, promotional literature for these services often looked suspiciously like shopping-mall advertisements. In fact, the buildings of some mega churches, whose growth is predicated on such marketing initiatives, began to look like shopping malls, complete with a Starbucks café (e.g., Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas) or even a McDonalds with a drive-through option (e.g., Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas).

The seeker-sensitive strategy was hard to criticize. Churches were growing at unprecedented rates, and people were being introduced to Jesus. It didn’t take long, however, for the fault lines of the approach to become apparent. Churches were attractive largely because of selling features like ample parking, exceptional programs for children, sports leagues for youth in state-of-the-art gymnasiums, great coffee. It seemed people were flocking to church for everything but the gospel, that is, the message of sin and salvation in Christ. Moreover, the dumbed-down, seeker-sensitive Sunday messages made it difficult for those who came to faith in Christ to grow in faith.

Perhaps most importantly, many became convinced that worship should be informed primarily by divine revelation and not simply human preferences. They realized that though the Bible gives few explicit instructions regarding worship in the new covenant, it does provide us more information than we often realize. It could be argued, for instance, that the sequence of sacrifices in the temple liturgy informs the sequence of liturgy today. The movement in the temple sacrifices from sin offering to whole burnt offering to tribute offering and concluding with the peace offering translates well into a liturgical movement in new covenant worship from confession of sin to sermon to offering to the Lord’s Supper.

Furthermore, some scholars began to champion the notion that the church is an alternative culture.1 As a nation or a kingdom whose King is Jesus, the church has its own pledge of allegiance (the creeds), its own anthems (hymns), its own constitution (Scripture), its own rituals (the sacraments), its own symbols (the cross), its own embassies (local congregations). From this perspective the church does not reach the world by accommodating the preferences of the world but by remaining distinctively the church. The unchurched should expect to hear messages unlike anything else you would hear elsewhere in the world. Worship should not be fully intelligible to the unchurched because the church is so distinct from prevailing culture.

Seeker-Sensitive Worship Refined

Reformed church leaders were initially critical of seeker-sensitive worship and sometimes excessively so. After all, Scripture does enjoin believers to be attentive to the unchurched all the time. The apostle Paul, for example, was consistently mindful of those he dubbed “outsiders.” Consider these examples: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Col.4:5, New International Version) and “You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thess.4:11b–12a). Paul even includes this outlook in his qualifications for church leaders: “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Tim. 3:7).

This attentiveness to outsiders is underscored by the Heidelberg Catechism when it teaches that by “our godly walk of life we may win our neighbors for Christ” (Lord’s Day 32). Whereas some are called to present the gospel, all Christian believers are called to promote the gospel.2 If we are to promote the gospel and have a winsome walk of life we must always be mindful of our unchurched neighbors.

This general principle applies explicitly to worship. In the previous article I referred to the apostle Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14. The unintelligibility of speaking in tongues made this gift less desirable for worship than the gift of prophecy largely because of the unfavorable conclusions the unchurched might reach. Paul’s general principle about mindfulness of outsiders, therefore, relates specifically to worship services. In what follows I will provide a few practical suggestions to apply this principle.

Practical Suggestions for Missional Worship

Guests should be warmly welcomed to worship and provided information regarding what to do if one has questions about the church. Here one could consider having visitor information cards and/or a welcome table. At Blessings Christian Church, where I pastor, our small groups take turns hosting luncheons for guests after the morning service in the church basement. This is a great opportunity for unchurched guests to meet and engage church members.

As I indicated in my previous article, it’s great to have greeters at the door and connectors to guide guests beyond the door. Greeters, however, must be conscious not simply to put a bulletin in the hands of guests but ask them whether they would like one. Some guests will be offended by unsolicited information put in their hands.

As far as I’m concerned little in traditional Reformed liturgy (variations of Calvin’s liturgies) needs to be modified. Terms not immediately accessible to the unchurched like “salutation” and “benediction” need not be excised but should be explained, preferably in the printed bulletin. One should not expect the unchurched to understand immediately the vocabulary of the church, but attempts should be made to define and clarify.

The traditional liturgical forms used in continental Reformed churches were not written with an unchurched audience in mind, and therefore the content should be thoughtfully contextualized. Whereas most people in the time the forms were written had some familiarity with the sacraments, twenty-first-century North Americans often don’t. Using the term “ritual,” for example, to describe the sacraments helpfully conveys something understandable. The term “covenant” is so important to know and understand, but it must be explained and perhaps distinguished from “contract,” for example. Though not a liturgical form, the form for marriage cannot include terms like “headship” and “submission” without careful nuancing. Last, these forms should be abbreviated and crystallized lest the message is lost in the verbiage.

Furthermore, when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated the invitation for believers to partake should be prominent, though a verbal warning should be issued for the unbelieving and unrepentant. Here it is important, however, to invite those asked to abstain to use the time when the elements are distributed and consumed to reflect on their lives in relation to God and to understand what is required of an individual should he or she want to partake.

Last, when the offering is announced, guests ought to be invited to pass the collection plate along without feeling an obligation to contribute. Unchurched people sometimes suspect that they are warmly welcomed at church only for their money, and efforts must be made to disabuse them of this suspicion.


Some of the early critiques of seeker-sensitive worship, though fundamentally sound, were excessive. There is an important sense in which we ought to be sensitive to seekers and therefore modifications must be made, not least in our worship services, to turn Reformed churches outward. Because of their rich theology, Reformed churches are poised for missional fruitfulness.

1. This position was capably promoted by, among others, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon.

2. This distinction is derived from John Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

Rev. Bill De Jong (PhD, McMaster Divinity) is a pastor of Blessings Christian Church, a member of the Canadian Reformed Churches, in Hamilton, ON. He can be reached at