Tim Keller on Evangelistic Worship, Part 2

Tim Keller's article, "Evangelistic Worship"(published in June of 2001) should be required reading for anyone who desires to think carefully about the intersection of historic liturgy and contemporary worship styles. Last week I shared the resources that Keller references in the article's footnotes. Today, I want to look at the content. Below is a summary of Keller's main points, followed by a detailed outline of the article.

Keller sees the following problems with the promotion of strictly contemporary worship:

  • Some popular music has severe limitations for worship due to its sentimentality, lack of artistry, sameness, and individualism.
  • When we ignore history and tradition we break our solidarity with Christians of the past.
  • Worship that is strictly contemporary will quickly become dated.
Hidden (but not well!) in the arguments of contemporary worship enthusiasts is the assumption that culture is basically neutral. Thus there is no reason why we cannot wholly adapt our worship to any particular cultural form. But worship that is not rooted in any particular historic tradition will often lack the critical distance to critique and avoid the excesses and distorted sinful elements of the particular surrounding, present culture. For example, how can we harness contemporary Western culture’s accessibility and frankness, but not its individualism and psychologizing of moral problems.


  • Historic worship advocates cannot really dodge the charge of cultural elitism.
  • Proponents of historic worship must answer the question--whose history?
Hidden (but not well!) in the arguments of traditional worship advocates is the assumption that certain historic forms are more pure, Biblical, and untainted by human cultural accretions. Those who argue against cultural relativism must also remember the essential relativity of all traditions. Just as it is a lack of humility to disdain tradition, it is also a lack of humility (and a blindness to the ‘noetic’ effects of sin) to elevate any particular tradition or culture’s way of doing worship. A refusal to adapt a tradition to new realities may come under Jesus’ condemnation of making our favorite human culture into an idol, equal to the Scripture in normativity (Mark 7:8-9). While CW advocates do not seem to recognize the sin in all cultures, the HW advocates do not seem to recognize the amount of (common) grace in all cultures.

KELLER critiques contemporary worship and historic worship
and then proposes a solution:

Contemporary worship advocates consult:

  • The Bible
  • Contemporary culture

Historic worship advocates consult:

  • The Bible
  • Historic tradition

We forge worship best when we consult:

  • The Bible
  • The cultural context of our community
  • The historic tradition of our church
This more complex approach is extremely important to follow. The Bible simply does not give us enough details to shape an entire worship service. When the Bible calls us to sing God’s praises, we are not given the tunes nor the rhythm. We are not told how repetitive the lyrics are to be or not to be, nor how emotionally intense the singing should be. When we are commanded to do corporate prayer, we are not told whether those prayers should be written, unison prayers or extemporary prayers. So to give any concrete form to our worship, we must “fill in the blanks” that the Bible leaves open. When we do so, we will have to draw on a) tradition, b) the needs, capacities and cultural sensibilities of our people, and c) our own personal preferences. Though we cannot avoid drawing on our own preferences, this should never be the driving force (cf. Romans 15:1-3) Thus, if we fail to do the hard work of consulting both tradition and culture, we will—wittingly or unwittingly—just tailor music to please ourselves.

KELLER labels his solution, Evangelistic Worship

Churches would do best to make their “main course” an evangelistic worship service, supplemented by both a) numerous, variegated, creative, even daily (but not weekly) seeker-focused events, and b) intense meetings for Bible study and corporate prayer for revival and renewal.

Evangelistic Worship

  • The Worship Wars
    1. Contemporary Worship: Plugging In?
    2. Historic Worship: Pulling Out?
    3. Bible, Tradition, Culture
  • The Seeker-Sensitive Worship Movement
    1. It removed transcendence from its services by utilizing light, happy music and tone, complete accessibility of voice, using dramatic sketches that create a nightclub or TV-show atmosphere. But their [referring to a group of young pastors being interviewed] generations hunger for awe.
    2. It ditched connection to history and tradition and went completely contemporary in all cultural references, from sermon illustrations to antiseptic 'suburban mall/office building' setting. But their generations hunger for rootedness, and love a pastiche of ancient and modern.
    3. It emphasized polish and technical excellence and slick professionalism and management technique, while their generations hunger for authenticity and community rather than programs.
    4. It emphasized rationality and practical 'how-to' maps, while their generations hunger for narrative and the personal.
  • A Solution: Evangelistic Worship
    1. Two models, with problems
    2. Theological basis
    3. Biblical cases: I Corinthians 14:24-25 and Acts 2
      • Non-believers are expected to be present in Christian worship.
      • Non-believers must find the praise of Christians to be comprehensible.
      • Non-believers can fall under conviction and be converted through comprehensible worship.
    4. Three practical tasks
      • Getting unbelievers into worship.
      • Making worship comprehensible to unbelievers.
        1. Worship and preaching in the "vernacular."
        2. Explain the service as you go along.
        3. Directly address and welcome them.
        4. Quality aesthetics.
        5. Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice.
        6. Present the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear.
        7. Preach grace.
      • Leading to commitment.
        1. During the service.
        2. After meetings.