It would seem rather obvious that church is a place for unbelievers as well as believers. After all, where else are people going to learn about who God is and what it means to be a Christian? What better place could there be?
Some argue that church is only or primarily for believers. Church is designed primarily to help believers grow, and then they go out and connect with people in the world. At the least, they might argue, unbelievers should not be a focus of the church as an institution. If they come, that’s fine, but having unbelievers in church is not a goal that the church should pursue, they might say.
I believe that this argument often grows out of frustration with churches that water down the Christian message in order to try and get people to come to church. I have also heard many people who think that if church is also for unbelievers, then it will simply be a church service where a simple Gospel message is presented over and over again with an altar call. Some Christians feel like they never get anything from these services that help them grow. They feel like they have been left behind in the quest for “numbers.”
Whether these sorts of complaints are just or not, I won’t attempt to answer here. It’s sufficient to say that there is no necessary connection between church also being for unbelievers and watering down the message or just focusing only on getting conversions.
In fact, I would suggest that merely repeating the simple Gospel message or watering down the Christian message is not particularly helpful either to believers or unbelievers. While it is true that in order to become a Christian, we only need a little bit of knowledge (i.e., John 3:16), following Christ involves understanding a whole variety of topics explained in the Bible at large.
For those considering whether or not to follow Jesus, it’s good for them to learn about what that means for their families, their work, their emotions, their time, and a host of other things. That’s why being in church where the whole counsel of God is taught is especially helpful for those considering Christianity.
But does the Bible teach that church is also for unbelievers? I believe it does. When God established His worship in the Old Testament, He centered His worship in the temple. According to Isaiah, the design of the Temple was to “for my house [to be] be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).
When Jesus came to earth, the Temple had a walled in area outside of the Temple proper that was called the Court of the Gentiles. This is where money changers and those selling sacrifices set up shop. They took over the place where the Gentiles were to come and worship. That’s one of the big reasons why Jesus took some whips and cleared everybody out. When He did He said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).
If the people of the nations were to come to the worship of God when the distinction between Jew and Gentile was still part of God’s worship, how much more in the era where that dividing wall is broken down (Eph. 2:11–15)?
This seems to be Paul’s assumption in 1 Cor. 14. He says concerning people speaking in tongues: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (v. 23). Notice that his assumption is that unbelievers and inquirers will come in.
So, if this is the case, then what does it mean for the church? Substantively, the church should not do anything differently. We should still sing, pray, preach, fellowship, partake of the sacraments, etc.
However, there are two ways that I approach these things based on the assumption that church is also for unbelievers. First, I try to think about hospitality (which of course would help anybody, even regular attenders and members of the church). Hospitality is when we think about how to make our guests feel at home. When we are hospitable, we think not only about ourselves and what we are used to but how those who are not familiar with our home, organization, or church might experience those places and then seek to make them more comfortable for them.
One of the best ways to learn how to do this is to visit other churches where you don’t know anyone. See what is comfortable and awkward and what is unhelpful. That will give you some sense of what others feel when they are visiting your church, especially those who may have never gone to church or been away for a long time.
The second thing I would suggest is closely related. I try to think of unbelievers when I study the Bible. We all approach passages of the Bible from a particular perspective asking particular questions. I think it is helpful for unbelievers (and actually to most believers) if I ask this question, “if I was talking to someone who knew nothing about the Bible, how would I explain to them why it is relevant for their life in the 21st century?” That can be a hard question, but it is a question that yields significant dividends.
One way I think about this is by asking (HT: Andy Stanley), what is the human question that this task is answering? For example, let’s take the genealogy of Jesus in Mt. 1. We could say that this genealogy shows how God keeps His promises revealed in the Old Testament. That’s true and helpful but probably not a big question on most people’s minds. We could also show how this demonstrates the true humanity of Jesus Christ. Again, a question not a lot of people today are thinking about, though it is an important one.
So, what do we do with it? We can talk about messed up families. All of us have messed up families to a degree. Probably many of us feel like our families are hopeless. Some of us may feel shame about or fear from our families? What the genealogy tells us is that God connects with types of families like ours and literally becomes a part of them. Doesn’t that present a significant amount of hope for families like yours and like mine? Wouldn’t this make us view our families a little bit differently?
My goal whenever I talk about the Bible is this: for each person to walk away saying (even if they don’t believe it), “If this is true, then it would be helpful. It would make a difference if this were true and I let this inform my thought or my actions.”
I think that if we do that, we could help believers a lot more, but we could also help unbelievers to see why church and an ancient book matter for life in the 21st century. I believe they would see that church is also for unbelievers.