Do any of these quotes sound familiar?
Our Sunday morning worship services are “foyer” environments. We want our guests to come back, so we do everything with them in mind.
Everything from the music to the printed program is designed specifically for unchurched people. We have services on the weekend, because if nonbelievers finally decide to attend church, that’s when they expect to go.
When we launched _______, our vision was “to create a church that unchurched people would love to attend.” … We were committed to create a church for the unchurched or, to use a phrase Bill Hybels coined, “irreligious people.”
Later when we started _______, we formulated our plan around this given: a weekly seeker service that would provide a safe and informative place where unchurched people could come to investigate Christianity further. … And time and time again we have seen God draw people to Himself through the outreach ministry of a seeker service.
Many of today’s popular Christian leaders and conferences will talk about church growth. They will address topics like using more contemporary (or secular) music, creating “relational environments,” or building large and impressive children’s and youth ministries. They say every sermon should be built with the unchurched in mind. This means using simple words, keeping it short, and having one or two specific applications to give them a sense of accomplishment until the next Sunday.
Some of what these church growth experts have to say is worth thinking over. Not everything they say is as radical as my conservative brain tries to force it to be. I have read a few books by the people quoted above and I’ve found some of their thoughts helpful. For example, organs have gone the way of the lyre, being greeted by coffee and a warm handshake is better than being ignored, and “propitiation” could use some explaining. When we hear suggestions to change our practices or style, we should try to find the truth in their critiques. Maybe congregation of ESL Christians wouldn’t benefit much from A Mighty Fortress (a bulwark?). Perhaps the youth could benefit from their own class or a fall retreat.
An Overlooked Passage
But there is a passage dealing with church growth that you won’t hear about on the church growth conference tour. If you made a good portion of your living by advising others on strategies to grow their churches, you’d probably want to study and learn from one of the greatest growth periods in the early church. Yet for all the conferences, books, and websites, this passage is never even mentioned. Acts 5:12-14 says,
“Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,”
This passage provides ample reason why people would want to join the early church. The apostles were doing signs and wonders: working miracles and bringing about healings. They were meeting in an easily identifiable and accessible location. Peter had previously healed a man and preached the gospel in that same area. Jews would often go to the temple to pray or offer sacrifices, so it wouldn’t mean adjusting their schedule or going out of their way to make it to services. The believers were even held in high esteem. That stands in contrast to the countless Barna surveys that reveal that modern-day nonbelievers think Christians are judgmental hypocrites and liars.
But we have to remember the immediate context of these verses to understand why nobody would attend their gatherings. Acts 5:12-14 follows immediately after Ananias and his wife, Saphira, fall down dead after lying to the apostles about a sum of money they had given to the church in Jerusalem. Twice in the preceding verses it says that great fear came upon all who heard about their deaths. So it is no wonder that “none of the rest,” that is, nonbelievers, “dared join them.” The church called people out for hypocrisy and God seemed willing to inflict capital punishment for it.
I suppose if a church-growth guru were to attempt to turn these verses into an overly-simplistic strategy, he might suggest purging the membership rolls of nonbelievers and nominal Christians through capital punishment, running a free health clinic, and moving your church to a CVS or McDonald’s for ease of accessibility. No wonder they don’t preach on these verses!
Though entire ministries have been built on less than a full verse of Scripture, these three verses do not offer a new method guaranteed to put people in your pews or turn you into a success story. There’s no need to inflict capital punishment or build a church across from a shopping center. Instead, here are three things we can learn (and should already know) from Acts 5:12-14:
- Nonbelievers are not Part of the Church
- The Church Service is not an Evangelistic Event
- The Church Service is for the Church (to the Glory of God)
Nonbelievers are not Part of the Church
Many churches try to make nonbelievers feel welcome. This is a good thing. But we miss the point when we do “everything with them in mind.” Those who are lost but are interested in learning about our faith should be given the opportunity to come and see our worship gatherings. That’s fine. But we should welcome them as visitors and not lead them to think they are part of the community.
To be fair, and church growth leaders will point this out, it is easy for churches to be judgmental of the nonbelievers who visit us. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10,12-13, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. … For what have I to do with judging outsiders? … God judges those outside…” Later we find in 1 Corinthians 14:23-24 that “unbelievers or outsiders” were welcome to visit the local church. We can expect them to behave themselves in our midst, and we should certainly tell them they are sinners in need of a Savior, but we should not expect them to live or treat them like Christians. They are outsiders. They are nonbelievers
The Church Service is not an Evangelistic Event
I’m willing to step out here with no statistical proof and guess that most “evangelism” in the U.S. consists of inviting someone to a church service. This is an encouraged and expected behavior as church leaders frequently say, “Invite a friend to church next Sunday” and always have a gospel presentation and altar call at the end of their sermons.
As I said before, we should open our gatherings to outsiders. It was understood that they were welcome in 1 Corinthians 14:23-24. We should invite them in. We should engage them with the gospel in our services. But the church service is not primarily an outreach event. This passage in Acts shows that the church experienced unprecedented growth at a time when there were no visitors. And the rest of Acts and the New Testament show that engaging nonbelievers with the gospel largely occurred outside of corporate church gatherings. When our evangelism consists of inviting people to church so the pastor can preach an evangelistic message or so the Sunday school teacher can explain the Romans Road, we are turning the corporate gathering of believers into an outreach event and we are no longer coming together as a church.
The Church Service is for the Church (to the Glory of God)
This follows closely with the last point. Not only do the church growth experts realize that we can’t simultaneously lean toward the nonbelievers and the believer in the same service, they advocate for doing the former over the latter. I’ve heard pastors say that “mature” believers will have to “feed themselves” from the Word of God because their sermons are directed towards the “unchurched.” One church growth book actually distinguishes between holding evangelistic worship services and “believers’ services.” It says,
“Design one worship service to edify believers and another service to evangelize the unchurched friends brought by your members. At _______, our believers’ service is on Wednesday night and our seeker services are on Saturday night and Sunday morning.”
For all intents and purposes, the Saturday and Sunday services should not be considered true churches; rather, they are outreach events. Yet the attendance numbers from those services are most certainly included in their annual church growth statistics.
The other day I was listening to an audio file from David Sills. He mentioned that he met a missionary who said that if he could get unbelievers to meet together on a weekly basis for a Bible study, he counted it as a church plant in his annual reporting. Then he said something very profound and quite central to this issue: Your ecclesiology determines your missiology. In layman’s terms, that means how you understand what the Bible says about the church will determine how you seek to share the gospel and disciple people to become followers of Christ. The problem is self-evident:
The downside of starting a church for the unchurched is that if you succeed, you end up with a church full of baby Christians.
David Rogers, an sbcIMPACT! contributor, frequently cites Ephesians 4 when discussing the end-goal of our gatherings. Here is an extended citation of Ephesians 4:4-6, 11-16:
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. … And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
The purpose of our gatherings is not to create an evangelistic event that is palatable to nonbelievers. Our focus should be on equipping the saints, building up the body of Christ, growth in unity through sound teaching, growing up in godliness in Christ.
We should welcome nonbelievers as nonbelievers. If they are interested in our faith or just visiting because of family, we should give them the opportunity to come and see our worship gatherings. We should welcome them as visitors and not lead them to think they are part of the community.
The purpose of our gathering is not to win souls to Christ, though we should prepare for that and praise God for it. Evangelism should be taken out to our communities, to our workplaces, and to our dinner tables at home. We stunt our spiritual growth by throwing all of our resources into making buildings and programs palatable to nonbelievers for 2 hours on a Sunday morning.
The church is for the church. That means believers. We should take full advantage of our corporate gatherings to equip believers, build up the body, fellowship, and the worship of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.