July 23, 2021 / Rory Noland

Worship that Forms and Transforms

In my new book Transforming Worship, I argue that Sunday morning is a golden opportunity to nurture the spiritual lives of God’s people. While writing this book I was driven by two overarching questions: What would it look like to conceive of gathered worship as if spiritual formation mattered? And how would that affect the way we plan and lead worship services?

In my new book Transforming Worship, I argue that Sunday morning is a golden opportunity to nurture the spiritual lives of God’s people. While writing this book I was driven by two overarching questions: What would it look like to conceive of gathered worship as if spiritual formation mattered? And how would that affect the way we plan and lead worship services?

Scripture emphasizes that spiritual formation is the foundational task of the church. Jesus charged his followers to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to live in obedience to his commands (Mt 28:19-20). The Great Commission is fundamentally a call to produce disciples—obedient followers—of Jesus Christ who in turn make other disciples. In John 17, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prays what many believe to be the deepest desires of his heart, including an urgent prayer that his followers be sanctified (Jn 17:17).

New Testament church leaders had no confusion about their overarching mission. Paul was adamant that God wants every believer to be sanctified (1 Thess 4:3), so he aspired to bring his people to full maturity in Christ (Col 1:28). His goal was not merely to win a lot of people to Christ but to help them mature spiritually and to equip them for ministry in the community at large (Eph 4:12). Making disciples is not a sidebar activity relegated to a specialized subministry of the church; it is not the pet project of the church’s education department or the latest trend the church rallies around for a few months but abandons when the next popular craze comes along. Spiritual formation is not an optional pursuit but the very reason the church exists in the first place. For that reason church leaders are responsible for providing their flocks with resources and opportunities to help them grow spiritually.

Spiritual formation is not an optional pursuit but the very reason the church exists in the first place. Share on X

In my new book Transforming Worship, I argue that Sunday morning is a golden opportunity to nurture the spiritual lives of God’s people. While writing this book I was driven by two overarching questions: What would it look like to conceive of gathered worship as if spiritual formation mattered? And how would that affect the way we plan and lead worship services?

Defining “Transforming Worship”

I define “transforming worship” as a communal experience that combines classic spiritual practices with a formative encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Notice, first, that it’s communal; it is something we do in the company of others, in partnership with God’s people. It is also experiential; the bulk of the activities are not designed for people to sit back and watch but to join in and participate. Transforming worship draws from traditional Christian disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, confession, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, all of which the church has been practicing since its inception. The assumption here is that every major part of the service, not just the sermon, can be spiritually formative. At the heart of this wonderful experience that we call “church” is a lifechanging encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Transforming worship has nothing to do with a certain style of music or method of worship. Nor am I promoting a particular genre of musical praise. Transforming worship is not even a new idea; it has biblical and historical precedence and is grounded in a sound theology of worship. Its biblical principles of worship apply to all churches—mainline, nondenominational, independent, charismatic, liturgical, spontaneous, traditional, or contemporary. Instead of advancing a new, trend-setting philosophy of worship, I’m appealing to the modern church to return to a biblical vision of gathered worship as a formative spiritual practice.

I’m appealing to the modern church to return to a biblical vision of gathered worship as a formative spiritual practice. Share on X

Edification vs. Evangelism

Discussion of a more formative approach to worship, especially among church planters, raises a host of questions around the issue of edification versus evangelism: If we purpose to edify believers on Sunday morning, do we risk turning off unbelievers and fail to reach lost people? Is it possible to edify and evangelize on Sunday morning? If so, what does that look like? Is it a matter of equal time given to each? Does one take precedence over the other? If so, what is the proper balance? To answer these questions, I suggest we drop in for a visit to the ancient city of Corinth.

Scripture offers a fascinating glimpse through the window of a prominent first-century church on a Sunday morning. Toward the end of a four-chapter discourse on establishing order in worship, Paul writes, “If an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14:24-25). Whether Paul is reporting what he actually witnessed or writing hypothetically, he paints a vivid picture of a non-Christian experiencing a meaningful, life-altering encounter with God at a church service. Reading this passage in the context of Paul’s entire letter reveals that the Corinthian church was able to edify believers and evangelize unbelievers on Sunday morning. Let’s consider how they accomplished both at the same time.

Edifying believers. Throughout 1 Corinthians 14, Paul repeatedly states that the purpose of a Christian worship gathering is the edification of the believer (vv. 3-5, 12, 17, 26). Spiritual gifts were to be used for building up others. Paul conceived of public worship as a highly participatory, spontaneous event in which everyone comes with a song, a teaching, a story, or a word from God to minister to fellow believers (v. 26).

When Paul was with the Corinthians he modeled a preaching style that stressed Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). Sunday sermons at the First Church of Corinth were far from trite or shallow; these were not watered down, self-help messages. They centered on Christ and his saving work in our lives and in the world. Paul did not edify worshipers by addressing their heart-felt needs but by directing their attention to Christ. Church services at Corinth contained substantive, spiritually-formative content specifically designed to build up believers.

Sunday sermons at the First Church of Corinth were far from trite or shallow; these were not watered down, self-help messages. They centered on Christ and his saving work in our lives and in the world. Share on X

Evangelize unbelievers. Paul seems to assume that non-Christians would be present at a worship service, which is a rather extraordinary assumption given that early church gatherings were not designed to attract unbelievers; they were not seeker-sensitive at all.1 Evangelism in Paul’s day was a grassroots effort that happened quite naturally as believers developed relationships with unbelievers. Eventually, Christians would invite their non-Christian family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to church.

The fact that nonbelievers could be in attendance is one of the reasons Paul warned the Corinthians to restore order to their services. Their worship gatherings had become chaotic. People were speaking in tongues, for example, with no interpretation. Paul was worried that the congregation wouldn’t understand what they were hearing, that instead of receiving a meaningful word from God, people would hear nothing but unintelligible gibberish (1 Cor 14:9). It was customary for worshipers to chime in together and shout “Amen!” in agreement after each prophetic word; if people couldn’t understand what was being said, they couldn’t reply with a hearty amen (1 Cor 14:16). In other words, they wouldn’t be able to participate in the service. Paul was especially concerned about outsiders who came to church out of curiosity or at the invitation of a friend or relative (1 Cor 14:24). Visitors would be lost and confused. Paul wanted everyone who walked through the church doors to feel welcome and included. He called on the leaders at Corinth to ensure that every part of the worship experience was intelligible and comprehensible.

Paul wanted everyone who walked through the church doors to feel welcome and included. He called on the leaders at Corinth to ensure that every part of the worship experience was intelligible and comprehensible. Share on X

A Both-And Opportunity

In the book, I offer practical suggestions on how churches can edify believers and evangelize unbelievers on Sunday morning. For now suffice it to say that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians prove that edification and evangelism is not an either-or proposition but a both-and opportunity. More importantly, Paul establishes clear priorities in the matter: when it comes to church services, the first priority is believers; the second priority is unbelievers. Seekers are a concern, but not the top concern. Encouraging the congregation to reach out to unbelievers during the week takes the pressure off Sunday services to carry the full weight of the church’s evangelistic efforts. Though worship services are not meant to be seeker-driven, they can still support and supplement outreach.


[1] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 11, 14. Kreider reports that after Nero began systematically persecuting Christians in AD 68, “churches around the empire—at varying speeds in varying places—closed their doors to outsiders” (11).