Dr. Marva Dawn, author of Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, is a theologian, author, and educator with Christians Equipped for Ministry of Vancouver, Washington, and Adjunct Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. A scholar with four Masters degrees and a PhD in Christian Ethics and the Scriptures from the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Dawn has spoken at worship conferences and seminaries throughout North America and around the world. She has written ten books, one of which was honoured by the Academy of Parish Clergy as one of the top ten books in 1996. This is an interview that appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of The Regent World, by Paul Jones.
Marva, your ministry is unique in that you are a theologian, a teacher, a musician and an author all at the same time. How do you perceive God's call on your life as it incorporates all of those gifts and abilities?
My call began in a very unusual way. I knew that I was going to be a teacher in Christian circles, but I did not know how I would be a teacher because I grew up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church which is quite conservative about women. So when I was in college, I majored in theology because I loved it and I majored in English because I had to have a job. Because of my theological background, I wound up teaching literature of the Bible at the University of Idaho and discovered that's what I really felt I was created to do: to teach the Bible.
How have your biblical and theological studies shaped your understanding of worship?
Some of my friends who were in the liturgy track at Notre Dame, where I did my PhD, were surprised that I wrote a book on worship, because I was not in the liturgy track, I was in the ethics track. But ethics is exactly why I started getting concerned about what is happening in churches concerning worship. I discovered that many churches were making very bad decisions about worship out of a panic over declining numbers. And instead of asking questions about how to form Christians more deeply by what we do in worship, they were asking how we can attract unbelievers by worship — which is to mix up evangelism and worship to the detriment of both.
Do you think that worship can be effectively used as an evangelistic tool, or should worship and evangelism be kept separate?
Good worship will always be evangelistic, but that's not its purpose. Its purpose is to worship God. Evangelism primarily should be happening because every one of us who is a Christian loves our neighbour. And when the worship service is forced to bear the brunt of evangelism, then several things decline: 1) God does not get the praise that God deserves, 2) believers are not strengthened as they should be strengthened, and 3) the believers cop out of their responsibility. They let the worship service do it and don't realize that each one of us in our daily life all the time are being witnesses.If we slant the worship service toward evangelism, then we're facing the wrong direction; we're facing our friends instead of facing God. I say it this way: worship is the language of growth and adoration; evangelism is the language of introduction.
Is your book — Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down — about the compromises being made in worship to attract people to church?
Primarily it's a positive asking about what is worship, and focusing on how we keep God at the centre, how worship forms believers, how worship forms the community. My second book on worship, A Royal "Waste" of Time, has chapters distinguishing between evangelism and worship, and how we can do a better job of evangelism.
Yes, the title of your most recent book is rather provocative-what exactly do you mean when you say that worship is a royal "waste" of time?
According to the world's functionalistic expectations, worship is a royal waste of time. To worship God is to be so lost in loving God that we don't expect anything in return. I'm very disturbed that we have made worship "functional" — utilitarian, that's the word I want — and we say, "I didn't get much out of that worship service" as if the only way to judge a worship service is whether or not I feel good. But if I'm worshipping God, it doesn't matter what I feel like. So I've used that expression, a "waste" of time, provocatively to say "are you really willing to waste your time and not get anything out of it?"
If we say we've got to have a certain kind of worship service so that we get more numbers in our church, then you're not worshipping God; you're worshipping numbers.
How do you see your role in Christian academic and teaching circles?
Actually, that has changed. When I first began working under Christians Equipped for Ministry, almost all my work was in congregations, serving lay people to help them gain more skills for Bible study. Now, since I finished my PhD, almost all of my work is at pastors' conferences, where I'm primarily equipping pastors to be more able to equip their lay people to do the work of ministry.
Marva Dawn has a unique ministry in that she stands as a bridge between the academy and the church. As a gifted teacher, she has much to offer all those who hear her. Pray for her and for Christians Equipped for Ministry as she continues to direct the church toward an all-consuming love for God.