For Whom Does the Church Exist?

Does the church exist for believers or for non-believers? Or both? Why? If you believe it can only be one, does this mean you believe the two are mutually exclusive?

For biblical insight, study the life of Jesus. Whom did he call disciples? Were the twelve required to confess publically their belief before being allowed into his small group? What about the three closest to him? What about the beloved disciple? What about Judas Iscariot?

Next, think about the calling by Jesus of Saul of Tarsus as recorded in Acts. Did Saul believe before he was called to be an apostle? And when he was so profoundly called, what was the nature of his waiting period? Was it to train him theologically? Prove himself trustworthy? Or was something else going on?

Then think about the early church on a broader scale. Because there are too many differences to count culturally between the first century milieu of the Graeco-Roman world (encompassing North Africa, Asia Minor and the Near East) and the twenty-first century Western world, it is especially helpful to study antiquities so we can better understand the ancient context. Clearly in the first century there was persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor. To be water baptized was to sign one’s own death warrant. In the contemporary West we know no such danger. In some countries of the Majority world that danger continues. Because of the first century persecution the church was largely forced to go underground, although there is evidence of large meetings in homes; it was not always small house church gatherings as some in the modern house church movement have supposed. Does this mean the meetings were exclusive to baptized believers, or were non-believers welcome to attend? Tricky question to answer given the dangers of the time.

In all of these questions it is best to let the text of Scripture speak for itself. Where Scripture is clear, we have clear answers. Where Scripture is either silent or unclear, it is best not to force a perspective based on tenuous evidence.

I raise these questions because it is one of the interesting philosophical differences between a large swath of churches which hold to their convictions equally passionately. On one hand there are churches who emphasize that the church exists to equip believers to do the work of the ministry. Therefore, they agree that evangelism and mission are vital, but they would argue that the two happen primarily outside the four walls of whatever gathering space their group uses for corporate worship. That is, it is the responsibility of all in the congregation and it happens in the fabric of daily life. The danger of this on a practical level, is that people leave it to the professional ministers to set the pace and pretty do the work. Another danger is that they grow possessive of their experiences with other believers in church, not wanting it to be muddied by the problems that the unitiated and unchurched might bring by being included. Few would admit this, but years of experience can attest to its reality.

On the other hand there are churches who argue that the lost should be made to feel welcome in our midst within the worshipping community. They would say that we should emphasize belonging to the community before any expectation of belief, as opposed to those churches which argue that belief is required before any depth of belonging can realistically happen. It is not only so-called emergent churches who propose this philosophy. The Crystal Cathedral has been a noted proponent since its inception, long before “belonging before believing” become popularized in the last ten to fifteen years by those in the emergent movement. As a follower of Jesus who is not involved in emergent, nor a self-conscious post-modern practitioner, I have a great deal of sympathy, within limits, of this sensibility. I would not want to lull the lost into a false sense of security, but I am happy to be friends with them long before they believe, and even in spite of the fact they may never believe. One great danger is the temptation to give into situational ethics and relativism in order to make people feel comfortable. The gospel offends folks. After all, if someone is not in Christ through faith, they remain at enmity with God. Yet even then, God calls them tenderly through the gracious love of his Holy Spirit and through the life witness (actions and words, especially those which we are not consciously aware of influencing others) of believers.

How does this look in your church? How should it look? What influence might a “belong before believe” attitude have on your outreach, particularly in children’s ministry? Would it be helpful or not so much? Why? Feel free to comment. I look forward to learning from you.

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