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Worship and the “Mixt Congregation”

The great shift in worship over the last century has been the result of evangelical clergy in America seeking to make the worship of the church more palatable to the so-called “unchurched.” This is without dispute. The church growth gurus have urged Christian ministers to engineer the style and “aesthetic” of evangelical worship so those services are not too uncomfortable for unbelievers.1 The worship gurus urged clergy to make services more to the liking of the unconverted.

This is radically different from the kind of thinking of Christians in previous eras. For example, early English Baptists believed that it was impossible for an unconverted, unregenerate sinner to worship (cf. John 4:24). So as these believers pursued pure worship, the matter of unbelievers praising God weighed upon their consciences. In his excellent book, Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive, Matthew Ward argues that, as a consequence of this, one of the key areas of contention in the “worship wars” of the 17th century was over whether or not one could sing hymns in a “mixed congregation” (that is, an assembly made up of both believers and unbelievers).

The nonconformist Thomas Ford (1598-1674) wrote, “The main thing, I conceive, that troubles the most in a mixt congregation.”2 Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians made plain that unbelievers were permitted to listen to the preaching of God’s Word (1 Cor 14:23-25). But early English Baptists believed that no unbeliever could offer a spiritual worship through singing. They were so concerned about this, some of them took the extraordinary (and arguably disobedient) step of removing congregational singing entirely.3

My point is not that we should remove congregational singing from our assemblies today. I would simply have us consider how far we have and how much the assumptions regarding worship have changed. If we began to grasp some of these changes, we might begin to understand why A. W. Tozer over five decades ago lamented that “Religious entertainment has so corrupted the Church of Christ that millions don’t know that it’s a heresy.”4

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. This was arguably a smoke-screen for ushering in worship according the lower aesthetic tastes of the clergy themselves or even some of the congregation. []
  2. Ford, Singing of Psalmes the Duty of Christians, cited in Ward, Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive, Monographs in Baptist History (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), 179. []
  3. For more on this, see Ward, Pure Worship, 179-82. []
  4. A. W. Tozer, Tozer on Worship and Entertainment: Selected Excerpts, ed. James L. Snyder (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997), 114. []