Part 2 of 4
There was little doubt that the question “Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?” would stir controversy. Frankly, I felt the same way as most until recent topics addressed on this weekly blog (now in its 90th week) led me to see what the scriptures had to say about that question. Like most readers, I had assumed and never dared ask a question that conventional church growth models, nearly all churchgoers and even seminaries considered a foregone conclusion. Of course non-believers should be encouraged to attend church – any opinion to the contrary is callous and exclusionary at best.
However, it doesn’t take a great deal of biblical investigation to realize that “church” is by definition the assembly of “called out ones” who are “devoted to the Lord” – not a building, and not designed for non-believers. Countless verses support the argument that believers are supposed to BE the church between Sundays, responsible for leading people to Jesus – and only then are those new believers to join the body of Christ in collective worship.
Some readers understood how our modern-day redefinition of “church” has shifted responsibilities from members to pastors and staff – and turned attention from equipping and mobilizing to attracting and retaining. Yet others reacted quite differently, reflexively citing essentially 7 common arguments for why non-believers do belong in worship services. We’ll address the first 4 of those today…
1. “It’s the ‘sick who need a doctor’ and Church is a ‘hospital for sinners’”
Considering the sources (the first Jesus and the second generally attributed to St. Augustine), these two common quotes are often considered irrefutable evidence that there’s no better place for a non-believer to be than at church. It would seem that the “lost” are exactly who church was established to accommodate. In other words, all who don’t know Jesus are terminally ill so we should invite and encourage them to come to the place where they’re most likely to find healing – church.
Yes, the sick do need the Great Physician, but Jesus didn’t wait for or expect non-believers to show up at the temple. He didn’t set up His medical practice within a building. He was a traveling Apothecary – healing and preaching as He went from town to town. He also sent His disciples out to meet the “sick” right where they were – with the power to heal and instructions to evangelize, not to invite to a gathering. We should follow suit and not simply extend invitations to a “hospital for sinners”. Pastors can’t forgive sins and offer redemption, only Jesus can – and Jesus can do that anywhere. Churchgoers should act as medical advisors, telling people where to find healing – which is in Jesus, not in a church or pastor.
Each Christian knows the cure for spiritual “cancer” and yet few tell non-believers what it is. The “cancer” of sin has consequences far greater than those of the bodily illness (i.e. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul…). Missing the opportunity to unveil the cure for “cancer”, withholding that potentially life-saving information in hopes the non-believer will make the unlikely decision to darken a church door, borders on spiritual malpractice. Much of that liability falls on church leaders who haven’t equipped and trained Christians to communicate that cure for sin “cancer” effectively. Pastors fear the consequences of holding a congregation consisting largely of fence-sitters and non-believers up to the lofty Great Commission standard. Therefore, most substitute a softer ask, that of inviting non-Christians to church, enabling members to believe that invitation fulfills the Great Commission and alleviating them of personal responsibility if their invitation to church is rejected. A church calling itself a “hospital for sinners”, failing to build disciples, and asking members to tell non-believers to come next Sunday for spiritual “healing” is effectively saying Jesus (the Great Physician) and forgiveness can only be found inside a church building (the hospital). Yet each of us is by definition the embodiment of “church”, called to be His hands and feet everywhere we live, work and travel.
2. “How else are non-believers going to find the Lord?”
Members are the personification of “church” so they are “insiders”, much more like employees to be trained and deployed than customers to be attracted and retained – to use a corporate analogy. A business would never rely on a 30 minute weekly presentation and 1 hour discussion led by an uncertified volunteer as the full extent of its training program for new hires. Yet that’s what most churches do today, conducting a weekend worship service and optional Small Groups, concerned that congregations don’t have an appetite for a greater commitment than that. As a result, few churchgoers are ready to step into their intended roles as evangelists and disciple-makers.
That failure prompts the question asked in this section, realizing that those most qualified to occupy the evangelist and disciple-making roles today are employed by churches. It’s true – churches have become the best places for non-believers to find the Lord. But that’s not what Jesus intended – He meant for His Church to be living, breathing believers fully equipped and empowered to take the Gospel to “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth”. Instead, “church” is now seen as a place or event we should invite non-believers to come to hear the Gospel preached by the “professionals”.
3. “So we’re supposed to turn non-believers away at the door?”
…phrased another way, “What’s the better side of the door for them to be on?” First, let’s consider whether there should be a “door” at all. Given that Christians are the “church” personified, shouldn’t there be a seamless interface between the churched and unchurched, at least physically, before and after Sunday services? Maybe it’s not about where non-believers should or shouldn’t be (i.e. in worship services), but more about where believers should be (and what they should be doing)?
On a related note, we’ve heard the argument, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to be hospitable?” Yes! As we discussed last week, 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 says that even though preaching is meant for believers, no one should be turned away who wanders in. However, even though some non-believers may be present, pastors should not divert from teaching “the deep truths of God”, nor from offering deep discipleship. Any non-believer who comes to church to learn more about the Lord should be eagerly and enthusiastically welcomed. Yet the Bible clearly spells out that nothing in the message should be adjusted to make it more palatable for non-believers. Nor should churches proactively invite or market to entice those who don’t worship Jesus to join a worship service.
There are many alternatives for engaging non-believers in church-related activities in lieu of inviting them to Sunday services. Some churches reach out to their communities through local missions, fairs, workshops, counseling, and other initiatives and events open to any and all. Others encourage Small Groups to invite those who wouldn’t likely show up on a Sunday morning, some even renaming them Neighborhood Groups to in effect serve as a decentralized “churches” to the communities where the groups meet.
4. “But I accepted Christ in a church…I wouldn’t even be a believer now if I weren’t invited by someone.”
No doubt, many do come to faith during worship services. This argument for why non-believers should be invited to church carries powerful and personal emotional weight for those to whom this statement in this section applies. However, God had a plan to save each and every person who enters the Kingdom of Heaven and nothing, or no one, can thwart His plans. Also, who’s to say that millions or billions more wouldn’t have come to Christ if each and every churchgoer lived out the Great Commission mandate rather than largely abdicating that responsibility. Few non-believers are willing to attend or would be comfortable in a worship service, particularly given the prevailing reputation of most churches as more judgmental and hypocritical than caring and compassionate. Too often non-believers when asked about “church” echo the response the demon gave when confronted by the false disciples, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Society knows Jesus is compassionate and caring but doesn’t recognize the same characteristics in today’s internally-focused Church.
It’s Your Turn…
Which of the above statements summarizes your past or current opinion on this topic, or have you been swayed at all by the arguments these past two weeks that non-believers should not be invited into worship services?
Next week we’ll address the other 3 common reasons many churchgoers give for why non-believers do belong in worship services…