Unbelievers in Church

By Jon Anderson


        If I were to guess, based on many conversations I’ve had, I would say that inviting people to church is a common method of evangelism today. And though I don’t think it should be our primary means of evangelism, there is nothing wrong with inviting unbelievers to church. It’s great to invite unbelievers to church and it’s great to have unbelievers in church. At the same time, however, I don’t think unbelievers should feel particularly comfortable in our church services and we should be alright with that.

            Now, what I am not saying is that we should cease to be welcoming, kind and accommodating toward visitors. We should strive to make visitors feel loved and go out of our way to alleviate the stress of visiting a church. But there are certain things that we believe about what the church is and the purpose of our Sunday gatherings that will leave unbelieving visitors feeling out of place and a little uncomfortable, and that is more than ok, it is actually a good thing.

            Firstly, an unbeliever in a Sunday morning service should feel out of place because of what the church is. The most common word used for the church in the New Testament is ekklesia, which simply means “gathering” or “group”. It is a generic term, but it is used in a very particular sense through the New Testament. It speaks of the gathering, the assembling, of the Christians. Our church services are the gathering together of believers and an unbeliever will, by necessity, feel out of place. Paul says that we are the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-8), “the church of God which He obtained with His own blood (Acts 20:28). We are all united under “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…”. That is a radically deep connection and fellowship that we have with one another, and the unbeliever, by their unbelief, simply cannot join in that fellowship. The unbeliever attending our Sunday morning service is and should feel themselves to be welcomed, but standing on the outside looking in. The church is a unique thing that an unbeliever simply cannot be a part of and they should sense themselves to be welcomed, but standing on the outside looking in. 

            Secondly, the unbeliever should feel uncomfortable at church because there are things happening in which they simply cannot participate. As mentioned above, there should be a depth of fellowship and unity to which they are foreigners. But it goes beyond that. The service is filled with elements in which they cannot fully engage. As the music begins to play they may be able to sing along, but as unbelievers, dead in their sin (Ephs 2:1), with no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:18) they cannot truly worship God in their hearts. They cannot do it, and they should see that there is something happening around them which is beyond their experience. Then, as the singing ends and the preacher rises to preach, there is yet again an element where the unbeliever finds themselves excluded. Now, there are many churches where the sermon is a combination of self-help tips and moralism. In that sermon the unbeliever can certainly participate. But if the sermon is focused on true gospel transformation for the glory of God in Christ, as it ought to be, then the unbeliever will be left out. They may understand what is being said, take notes and interact intellectually but the true spiritual apprehension and application is a work of the Holy Spirit in the born again heart and the unbeliever is ultimately excluded again (1 Cor 2:15).

            Finally, the unbeliever will feel uncomfortable at the gathering of the church because they cannot engage with the purpose of it. A church service has two very intertwined purposes. The first purpose is to glorify God in Christ, which has already been shown to exclude the unbeliever. And the second purpose is for the edifying of the saints; growing them us together toward maturity (Eph 2:12, Heb 10:24,25). Once again the unbeliever finds himself looking in at a service that is not geared toward him and leaves him on the outside. The purpose of the Sunday service is not outreach or evangelism directly but on the gathering of the saints together for worship and edification. 

            An unbeliever in a biblical church service will necessarily feel out of place. He or she will be, to a certain extent, uncomfortable. And that is not just ok, that is a good thing. Firstly, it means that we are doing something right. What would it say about your church if an unbeliever could come in and feel totally at home; like they completely belong and are able to fully participate. That can only be true of a church that is not honouring God in its gathering.  But secondly, it is good for the lost person. If they come to church and do not feel like they are on the outside at all, or that they are missing anything, they are likely to leave that place feeling reassured about themselves and confidently carry in in their lost state.  That sense of unease, of discomfort, of being on the outside, should serve as a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit to bring a longing for God and conviction of their lost state.

            And the good news, of course, is The Good News: the gospel. Though the service is not geared toward an unbeliever what the unbeliever needs for their salvation, is the same thing that the believers need for their sanctification and edification; the gospel Jesus Christ, by which we are being saved (1 Cor 15:2). Our services should consist of preaching the gospel, singing the gospel and seeing the gospel through communion and baptism. The gospel should be ever central in our services. And therefore, though the service is not necessarily geared for the unbeliever, and they will necessarily feel somewhat uncomfortable because of that, it does offer exactly what they need. So let us continue to bring unbelievers to church. And let us do everything we can to make them feel loved and welcomed and as at ease as possible. But our main goal should never be that unbelievers feel at home in our church services. Our goal for unbelievers in our service should never be that they be comfortable, but that they be converted.