Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?

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Part 1 of 3

Over the past two weeks we’ve wondered out loud why so few pastors are willing to challenge churchgoers to live out the Great Commission.  We’ve discussed the many internal and external factors behind the near extinction of intensive, personalized discipleship in churches today.  We’ve taken a stab at who would be the first to walk out the door if they were asked to endure the level of life change and disruption involved in becoming a disciple maker, as Jesus commanded.  We’ve pointed out the direct, inherent conflict between the driving force in American culture today (obsession with personal identity) and the driving force behind discipleship (dying to self, “crucified with Christ”).   If, as some would argue, the words “Christian” and “Disciple” should be synonymous, we’re left to consider whether churchgoers unwilling to invest in discipleship warrant the label “Christian”.  If the pews would empty if a pastor tried to hold a congregation to the Great Commission standard, how many of them truly are “believers”?  Add to that number any non-believers only there because a friend invited them, plus any fence-sitters or seekers who responded to an ad or pangs of guilt.

If the presence of so many unbelieving and uncommitted to becoming disciples is causing pastors any hesitation to lay out the full costs of discipleship and launch discipleship programs, it begs the question – “should those folks even be in a worship service?”  That potential connection is concerning enough to make us take a step back and recognize an oxymoron concealed by the near universal acceptance of modern church growth models: “why are those who don’t worship God even in a worship service?”

To answer those questions, we have to go to the source – God’s word.

Church – The Biblical Definition

The Greek word ekklesia is translated as “church” in the New Testament and means “called-out ones.”  It’s comprised of the Greek words kaleo (to call) with the prefix ek (out).  However, the English word “church” does not come from ekklesia but from the word kuriakon, which means “dedicated (or belonging) to the Lord.”

Therefore, the root meaning of “church” does not refer to a building, but to people.  In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul speaks to those “called out” and “dedicated to the Lord” who make up the Church, saying “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”.  Again in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul addresses the church in Corinth specifically as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours;”

At its core, Church is an assembly of those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  They are all believers who have received salvation, filled with the Holy Spirit.  Universally it is the body of Christ, scattered abroad.  Locally, it can meet anywhere, even in homes, because church was never about a building, only believers.  Romans 16:5 says “… greet also the church that meets at their house.”  Paul calls the “church” those meeting in a house, not the house itself.

Jesus intended for His followers to BE the church, not passive participants in something called church.  1 Peter 2:4-5 says “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood,…”  Jesus is the Cornerstone and believers are His “living stones”, His followers are His hands and feet that He uses to build His Church.

In several instances such as Colossians 1:18, 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:29-30 and Ephesians 1:22-23, the Church is defined as the body of Christ…“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”  His body, the Church, should be made up of those united with Christ as His physical manifestation on earth.  As His body, Jesus expects His Church to be holy and undefiled.  Ephesians 5:25-27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  Consistent with the numerous verses referring to “church” as a gathering of believers, those not already made righteous in God’s eyes through the blood of Jesus (i.e. those who don’t worship the Lord) were not intended to be openly invited into a holy worship service.

Further evidence that churches were initially made up of only believers was the first century church in the Book of Acts.  It was growing rapidly not because non-believers were showing up but because the converted were joining the assembly of believers.  Indeed, being part of that congregation could cost them their lives and was not worth the risk for non-believers.


What That Definition of Church Means…

22 “So you see that being able to “speak in tongues” is not a sign to God’s children concerning his power, but is a sign to the unsaved. However, prophecy (preaching the deep truths of God) is what the Christians need, and unbelievers aren’t yet ready for it. 23 Even so, if an unsaved person, or someone who doesn’t have these gifts, comes to church and hears you all talking in other languages, he is likely to think you are crazy. 24 But if you prophesy, preaching God’s Word, even though such preaching is mostly for believers, and an unsaved person or a new Christian comes in who does not understand about these things, all these sermons will convince him of the fact that he is a sinner, and his conscience will be pricked by everything he hears. 25 As he listens, his secret thoughts will be laid bare, and he will fall down on his knees and worship God, declaring that God is really there among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:22-25)


Churches Shouldn’t be Inviting and Advertising to Non-Believers…

Pastors understand those verses.  They know non-believers aren’t ready to hear “insider” messages intended for those “called out” and “devoted to the Lord”.  That’s why churches who ask members to invite their non-believing friends and advertise to anyone and everyone are more reluctant to preach as boldly about the costs of discipleship and Great Commission as they would if only believers were present.  That would be less troubling if churches at least offered separate tracks of one-on-one or triad discipleship for believers looking to go deeper.  However, most pastors cite Small Groups first when asked about their discipleship efforts (but Small Groups aren’t making many disciples) and few churches offer “collegiate or graduate level” alternatives.

What’s most concerning is that churches today have altered how they conduct weekend services and how they market to attract people to an event they weren’t biblically meant to attend in the first place.  They’re not ready to experience what Churches are supposed to offer.  They’re not ready for worship.  They’re not ready for discipleship.  They’re not ready to be fed “solid food”.  Their mere presence and attempts to accommodate them influences numerous aspects of church, both on Sundays and throughout the week.  Meanwhile, all of those ready to go deeper are held back a “grade” as time and resources are poured into engaging and retaining those who aren’t actually part of the body of Christ.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll discuss the affects that inviting and advertising to non-believers have had on the today’s Church:

  • Changed our modern day definition of “Church” away from its biblical roots, and redefined other words such as “outreach” and “ministry”, redirecting their emphasis toward institution-building versus disciple-sending
  • Increased the temptations and tendencies of today’s churches toward Compromise, Comfort, Complacency, Conformity and Confinement


However, Churches Should Welcome Non-Believers if They Wander in…

According to 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, even though preaching the deep truths of God is meant for believers, no one should be turned away.  However, churches should not divert from teaching those “deep truths”, nor from deep discipleship, just because non-believers are present.


Is It Too Late to Turn Back?

Maybe we’ve already made our bed.  Churches haven’t done of good job of discipling members for at least the past couple decades.  Christ intended for His followers to BE the church, but most feel unqualified and are under-committed to live out the Great Commission between Sundays.  Therefore, in this day and age, most of those best equipped to lead people toward Christ are on staff at churches.

As a result, many Christians would argue that if we stop attracting non-believers into churches (through invitations and advertising), many may never hear the gospel and turn to Christ.  In other words, ironically the argument many Christians make is that non-believers may never come to faith if we don’t continue with the current (unbiblical) model.  Even if they understand the biblical definition of Church, they aren’t in favor of reverting to that definition.  Their intentions for parting with scripture in this instance likely originate from a heart of compassion and concern for the “lost” but if that compassion and concern were stronger among more churchgoers, there would be plenty of well equipped workers going into the fields that Jesus said are “ripe for harvest”.  In that case, “seekers” wouldn’t have to step into a church to find what they’re looking for.


It’s Your Turn…

How do you suggest pastors deal with the challenge of staying true to scripture’s definition of “Church” yet still reaching those who don’t know Christ with the Gospel?

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