By Anand Mahadevan
For far too long, I lived under the strong impression that worship was an exclusive two-way relationship between Christians and God.
My idea of worship was eyes closed, arms raised, heart in bliss,
unaware of all that was around me — just me and Him.
Sure, there were other Christians around me as I enjoyed public worship on Sundays. Yes, it helped to have them around me. Yes, we all moved to a common rhythm. But I danced alone with God in worship. These were my private and intimate moments with Him.
As much as I enjoyed this idea of worship for many years, about 10 years ago, I started feeling uneasy about it. I began to wonder if I had reduced public worship to something less than God had intended it to be in a fallen world.
The reason for my discomfort was, of course, the non-Christian. I was oblivious to him in public worship and more often than not, the culture and vocabulary of the church were quite inaccessible to him, too.
I live in India, where Christianity is a tiny minority — less than three percent of the population of 1.2 billion. But that is still 28 million people, large enough for us to form a unique subculture of public worship that excludes outsiders.
While the gospel tells us that God came looking for the lost, many worship services I had participated in functionally told me that the “lost” had to decipher the cryptic code of our worship services and work really hard in order to find God.
Once I recognized this tension, I could not ignore it. As this tension grew within me, one passage from the Old Testament gave me insight, helping me finally begin to understand the true biblical nature of public worship.
It’s a familiar and glorious portion of scripture: Solomon dedicating the temple. It’s a long and riveting prayer culminating in one of the most tangible manifestations of God’s glory among men in the Old Testament. The prayer evocatively captures a beautiful gospel theme: the faithlessness of men and the faithfulness of God.
It was a slice of this prayer that also helped me see how the Bible intends us to plan and participate in public worship.
“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm — when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”
—2 Chronicles 6:32–33
In the middle of his thoughtful prayer for chosen Israel, Solomon unexpectedly flings the doors of God’s grace wide open to all other nations. Solomon expected and planned for ‘foreigners’ seeking God to come to Israel’s exclusive public worship at the temple he built. He did not pray, “if” the foreigners come. He prayed “when” the foreigners come.
Solomon did not pray, “if” the foreigners come. He prayed “when” the foreigners come.
That’s sound theological basis for contextualised and missional public worship.
After my eyes were opened to this passage, I learnt to also see the Psalms in this new light. Many of the Psalms exhort us to ‘sing to the nations,’ or non-Christians in our context (Psalms 9, 18, 57, 67, 108 etc.).
Moreover, when David commissioned Asaph to be his worship leader, the instructions are for worship that draws nations (non-Christians) to God.
“That day David first appointed Asaph and his associates to give praise to the Lord in this manner:
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.”
—1 Chronicles 16:7–8
In short, I began to see that public worship in the Old Testament was a triangle: Christians worshipping God, and in the process, definitely also inviting non-Christians to also worship Him.
Solomon presumed this triangle. The public worship of Israel at the temple would also draw foreigners to worship and, through them, make God’s name known to the world.
Thankfully, God in His mercy, led me into this theological revelation before I began work planting New City Church in Mumbai. We began with the mission to reach English-speaking, well educated, global-minded and successful professionals. These were our ‘foreigners.’
Solomon’s prayer formed the theological foundation of why we contextualised our worship services to reach professionals in Mumbai, a city of about 23 million people. Three years into the church plant, we are still learning the how.
It isn’t easy.
We made several mistakes and encountered various challenges. I will be the first one to admit that we still have a long way to go. But here are a couple of things we are beginning to piece together.
Deep Need and Shallow Needs
All of us are needy. Ultimately, our deepest need is the need for a Saviour. We are sinners being saved by grace. Let’s call this the real need.
But we are needy in other areas too.
Mumbai is a performance-driven city. You are only as good as the last deal you sealed, or the last quarter’s sales you clocked, or the last pitch you made. You have to keep proving yourself over and over and over again. Every day. This births a neediness in us. Or we are in need of new romantic relationships. Or we need our existing relationships to flourish. Or perhaps we need better finances.
These are all shallow needs.
Living in busy, bustling and uber-competitive cities like Mumbai make us more aware of our shallow needs and less aware of our real need.
At New City Mumbai, we are learning that it is the shallow needs that make us self-focused in our public worship.
On the other hand, when we disciple the congregation to see our real need — the need for a Saviour — the sweet aroma of authentic and heartfelt repentance begins to gently sweep through our worship services. This, more than anything else, makes public worship contextual and attractive to non-Christians. Let me explain.
In big cities, it’s amazing how similar the repentance of Christians and non-Christians is. For example, both of us are wrestling with the idolatry of work and the pride and fear associated with our careers. It is therefore quite easy for non-Christians to identify with our repentance.
As we publicly and genuinely repent of the same things non-Christians too struggle with, we open up a gospel pathway for them to follow. When our worship services and congregations are characterised by repenting of the idolatries of our culture, contextualising the gospel (and our worship) becomes natural and spontaneous.
Contextualisation and the Holy Spirit
One of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating God’s role in birthing faith in a non-Christian and overestimating our role in it. To be honest, somewhere down the line, I functionally began to believe that contextualisation was a substitute to the Holy Spirit.
We must simplify, explain and contextualise the gospel. It is our joy, privilege and duty to do so. But ultimately, it is still the Holy Spirit who brings people to faith in Jesus. (As it is the Holy Spirit who also gives us skill and wisdom to contextualise the gospel.)
When we recognize that this is true, all we can do is pray. Prayer is proof of our dependence on God. Humble and audacious, patient and persevering prayer must go hand in hand with skillfully crafting and running contextual worship services.
Finally, we failed to understand that non-Christians often have to make a long journey from understanding the gospel to believing in it.
At New City Mumbai, we were often surprised and discouraged when non-Christians understood the gospel through our contextualised worship services, but still rejected it or at least chose not to believe it just yet. We are also learning that an initial rejection of the gospel need not always mean an eventual rejection of it.
A well-contextualised worship service is a gospel pathway that non-Christians walk on; it’s not a door that opens or shuts on any given Sunday.