October 25, 2020

One Stubborn Text That Refuses to Go Away: What Does The New Testament Teach About Unbelievers In Public Worship?

corinth.jpgThe following is my contribution to a question that is dominating discussion among evangelicals: Should worship be “seeker sensitive?” What kind of worship experience should we seek when we want to reach out to the unbelievers in our culture?

The New Testament was written by believers and to believers in Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Its books and letters were written with a concern for the church and those who were part of the church. It is the mission, message and life-situation of churches that come before us in the New Testament, even when such matters seem far away from the focus of a text.

One of the most influential books in my own approach to the Bible was Dr. Raymond Brown’s little “detective” book, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. Brown looks at the clues present throughout the New Testament that tell us what kind of churches produced and preserved the New Testament material. He suggests their unique concerns, their sometimes obvious (and less obvious) differences, and their particular histories from the time of the apostles into the second century. Brown’s study leaves us with the undeniable fact that when we read any New Testament book, we are glimpsing and listening to not only inspired scripture, but part of the history of the Christian movement.

Today, churches of all different kinds are concerned with growth. No other agenda is more important in contemporary Christianity. Growth in numbers, dollars and buildings far surpasses any other pastoral or community priority. We no longer live in the time when faithfulness to the Gospel or church discipline and doctrine are central matters. “Spiritual” matters are peripheral; practical matters are crucial. “Are we attracting people to our church?” is the defining question for most pastors.

At the center of this emphasis on church growth is a nuclear engine of writing, thinking and preaching about the presence of unbelievers in a church’s public worship. Called, by various traditions, “seekers” or “the unchurched” or “the lost,” persons experiencing a church from outside its professed membership are the “customers” every growing church wants to attract. Church growth advocates do not seek to take members from other churches. They go for the “seeker:” the unbeliever who comes to the church seeking to evaluate the experience. It is this person for whom the sermon, the music, the media and the environment are shaped today.

Does the New Testament say anything about the unbeliever in Christian worship? Specifically? Not by implication, but directly, as an issue that the New Testament churches were dealing with?

The answer is “yes,” and the text is in I Corinthians 14, especially I Corinthians 14:21-26:

In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

If this text speaks directly, categorically and clearly to the subject of unbelievers in public worship, it ought to be a highly influential text. In fact, it is not at all influential in the current church growth emphasis. This text is rarely heard, cited or utilized by the leaders of the “seeker sensitive” movement. While I cannot speak for the leaders and practitioners of contemporary church growth methodologies, it appears that the implications of this text are avoided and denied.

All students of the New Testament who approach this question must admit that the placement of this key text in I Corinthians in general, and in chapter 14 specifically, raises many obstacles and difficulties for study. Scholarly resources are important to consult. But a picture that is coherent, even if a bit murky in places, does emerge.

The Corinthian correspondence reveals a church that is unhealthy. Paul’s leadership is tentative and under attack. Local leadership is notably absent in the letters. False and destructive leadership is present. Division is seriously affecting the church. Immorality and sin in the congregation are common and accepted. Compromise with the culture and influence by the culture are both major concerns of Paul. Paul speaks of the Corinthian church in terms that reveal frustration and concern with many issues in their congregational life.

In other words, the Corinthian church is not a healthy church, and reading the Corinthian letters puts us into a situation that must be viewed with a great deal of caution and suspicion as it relates to implementing Paul’s advice to the church. Yet, it is the fact that Paul must deal in such a corrective, parental ministry that causes him to say many things he does not say in other letters. It is in his instructions and correctives to the Corinthians that we hear some of his most helpful prinicples of church life and personal Christian experience.

How can we describe the Corinthian situation? There are many commentaries that suggest widely divergent “back stories.” I would recommend any student of the Corinthian letters to read Dr. Ben Witherington III’s commentary on I Corinthians, which goes into much helpful background and suggests many plausible scenarios that help the reader understand and contextualize Paul’s words.

Here are my own conclusions on what we are reading in I Corinthians- and chapter 14 specifically.

Paul’s time in Corinth did not produce a unified congregation. Within a short time of his departure, the congregation was divided into smaller groups professing loyalty to various leaders. False teachers competed with the disciples of Paul and the ministry of Apollos. While conversions and baptisms occurred, many of the Corinthians were still culturally paganized, and found it easy to bring pagan behavior and thinking into the church. One of the fruits of this situation was the rise of female “Charismatic” leaders in the Corinthian church, promoting ecstatic utterance as a form of spiritual experience and giftedness that was mandatory for anyone wanting to be taken seriously as a person with the “spirit of Jesus.”

Dealing with the Corinthians through letters, and with a return to Corinth not at all certain, Paul is forced into several approaches. At times, he sounds like the angry parent. At other times, he is the flattering church founder. In other cases, he seeks to reason with the Corinthians from within their situation, hoping to influence receptive leaders and members to the right course.

Chapter 14 has been a mystery to generations of Bible scholars. I spent significant portions of my college and seminary years attempting to understand the “charismatic” situation in Corinth. I am now convinced that the overall situation was something approximating the following:

-The Charismatic party in Corinth was deeply entrenched. They could not be treated as false teachers simply on the basis of their imbalance in the area of ecstatic experience.
-The particular ecstatic experience happening in Corinth was a “Christianized” version of Greek mystery religious experiences that many of the Corinthians were familiar with.
– It is highly likely that key women in the church were the leaders and promoters of this behavior.
– Corinthian worship had become a circus of ecstatic speaking by anyone who felt like it, and any semblance of order had vanished.
– Paul makes a pastoral decision to relate to the tongue-speakers as one supportive of ordered, self-controlled and interpreted utterances. Paul may have interpreted while in Corinth, and may have left word to other leaders to follow such a protocol if the behavior continued.
– Paul’s most serious concern is the vanishing of preaching by qualified elders, and the erosion of the worship of the church into chaos resembling pagan rituals.
– Rather than demonize glossolalia, Paul places the Corinthian ecstatic utterance in the context of a Christian reading of Old Covenant predictions of Jewish unbelievers hearing the news of God’s judgement from Gentiles in a foreign language. Paul turns this into a call for the Corinthians to speak in intelligible language so believers can communicate an understandable Gospel. His primary concern is that the chaos in Corinth- and the persistent background of paganism that undergirds it- replaces the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus with the idea that a god is possessing people in a Bacchanalian fashion.
– Paul reasons pastorally throughout the chapter with the goal of putting preaching back into the dominant place in Corinthian community life, where the Gospel can be explained.
– Paul has a developed and ordered concept of worship in mind for his churches, and he reminds the Corinthians of this kind of worship, and its beneficial results. His reasoning is more practical, pragmatic and pastoral than purely Biblical, so the question of unbelievers in worship is addressed as a reality.

(I readily admit that the exact nature of what is going on in Corinth is unknown. I believe, however, that Paul’s pastoral priorities are plain in the chapter, and various interpretations of the “backstory” do not affect that outcome of interpretation.)

What does Paul have to say about unbelievers in worship?

1. While acknowledging the presence of unbelievers in public worship, there is no way to read I Corinthians 14 without concluding that Paul sees public worship as an ordered expression of what Christians believe, involving different activities, all resulting in the building up of believers in the faith they have professed.

The words Paul uses may have application to unbelievers, but the context of I Cor 14 makes it obvious what Paul had in mind in this instance: The church needs preaching. The problem is worse than just hearing nonsense: the church is not built up in its holy faith.

1Corinthians 14:3-6 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. (5) Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (6) Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

1Corinthians 14:12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

1Corinthians 14:16-17 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? (17) For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

It appears that Paul’s use of the word “outsider” here isn’t restricted to unbelievers (as if believers could understand), but refers to anyone who is not privy to the ecstatic experience.

1Co 14:19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

1Co 14:26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

When these passages are considered, there is no doubt whatsoever that public worship is an activity in which believers are instructed, nurtured, built up, encouraged and consoled. I consider it highly probably that vs 26 is not intended to praise a service of individual sharing, but to criticize any concept of worship that is not the corporate building up of the people of God.

Is what is described here ever done for the purpose of entertainment? Is the purpose to make the unbeliever comfortable and at ease? Is the purpose to relate to the unbeliever’s culture and preferences in what he/she likes to hear? It’s a ridiculous notion.

2. Paul acknowledges- positively and hopefully- the presence of unbelievers in public worship, and encourages the Corinthians to create an environment where-at the same time Christians are built up- the unbeliever is presented with the truth of the Incarnation, evidenced in spiritual, God-centered worship that presents the Gospel.

1Corinthians 14:16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the “outsider” here could specifically be the unbeliever in worship, then Paul’s goal is that the unbeliever come to the point of saying “Yes” to the God who is addressed in the church’s thanksgiving. If this refers, as it likely does, to the Lord’s Supper, then it would be an invitation to present the Gospel in such a way that unbelievers say “I believe in the Christ who gave himself, body and blood, for me.”

1Corinthians 14:21-25 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (22) Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. (23) If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (24) But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, (25) the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

In seeking to discourage the chasing after ecstatic experience that was now rampant in the Corinthian church, Paul seems to put glossolalia in the context of a Christian reading of prophetic predictions that the Messianic age would bring Gentiles into the Kingdom, even speaking the Gospel to unbelieving Jews in Gentile languages. This was fulfilled in the conversion of Gentiles like the Corinthians and in their intelligible testimony to Christ. How does he do this?

Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12, which referred to the Assyrian conquest and domination of the Northern Kingdom. In a Christian reading of the text, however, it may refer to the Gospel being heard either as the blessing of the Gentiles instead of unbelieving Israel (judgement of a kind), or as a sign of impending judgement on unbelievers in general. In either case, Paul’s reading of the text is that unchecked and uninterpreted ecstatic utterance is NOT appropriate for unbelievers in public worship, but preaching is appropriate for believers, and has- as we shall see- the possibility of the salvation of unbelievers as it announces that God’s judgement has come, not on Israel or sinners, but on Christ. (Paul is not arguing that an unbeliever will be impressed with glossolalia and come to Christ as a result.) Paul may very well be leaving us a clue that the unbelievers in worship may be Jewish unbelievers.

Paul is, in fact, concerned that Christian worship will appear insane if ecstatic utterance, or chaotic individualism in general, were to prevail. This is an amazing statement. It says that the Corinthians were producing something that was unintelligible either as cultural religion or as Christian experience. It simply appeared insane. Can anyone say TBN? Can anyone honestly say that some evangelicalism is paying any attention to Paul at all? Sanity. Decency. Order. Nurture. Encouragement. A clear presentation of the Gospel. Or chaos so we all have a big time and can go home and say “God really showed up during the worship today.”?

Paul’s goal for the unbeliever in worship is a confrontation with God and the Gospel. His goal is conversion, put in language that is in stark contrast to the self-centered frivolity of the Corinthians:

He is convicted. That means someone is making an intelligible statement about sin, judgement and God. (Mr. Osteen, you have a phone call.)
He is convicted by all. I believe that such a statement probably refers to the participation of all the worshippers present. The behavior, singing, prayer, listening posture, “Amens,” of all evidence the seriousness and reality of the God who is present in worship. (Lutherans, write your own paragraph here 🙂
He is called to account by all. The other possibility is that Paul is saying that all who speak in any way, speak of the Gospel of sin, judgement and repentance. In other words, all who speak, speak of the Gospel.
The secrets of his heart are disclosed. Without overdoing it, could we say that Paul is NOT talking about seeker sensitivity that never makes an unbeliever the least bit uneasy? I know the secrets of my heart, and when the omniscience of God and the sacrifice of Jesus are proclaimed in such a way that the true nature of my sinfulness is revealed, it is uncomfortable. Again, where are the church growth experts coming up with the logic that unbelievers in worship should never hear anything about sin, etc? Obviously, Paul is saying that all are sinners and Christ is the savior of all sinners who believe, but he is certainly NOT saying “Don’t mention this. They might not ever come back.”
Falling on his face, he will worship God. I know that the seeker movement would say Paul wanted conversions and so do they. What has to be seen, however, is that Paul is using the language of the Psalms and the church’s encounter with Jesus. This is a committed, open, public embracing of the faith. It is the “altar call” of the New Testament: a proclamation and invitation to confess your sinful condition and worship the God who has given his son for you and your salvation.
And declare that God is really among you. The essence of the unbeliever’s response is an encounter with God. Not in the spiritual gymnastics of the ecstatics, but in the proclamation and worship of the church. God is present in Word, in sacrament, in worship. Worship should move the unbeliever toward faith in God as revealed in Christ.

One of my contentions concerning worship is that it should be simple, and this passage is a powerful indicator that the Reformation/Puritan ideal of worship is an expression of the New Testament’s own flavor in describing worship. The clarity of these verses is simply stunning. The attempt of the seeker-sensitive movement to remove the voice of such a text is going to be fruitless. A Biblical study of worship, from Genesis to Revelation, will not yield the seeker worship service or the free-for-all chaos of much Pentecostalism or entertainment oriented, music dominated evangelicalism. Calling a concert experience “worshipful” because a large group became excited is exactly the opposite of this passage’s message.

An examination of New Testament texts on unbelievers in worship will come to this text. Its meaning- even in the midst of so much uncertainty- is undeniable and persuasive…unless we don’t want to hear what it is saying, and we plan to use scripture selectively as it serves our own version of a church growth Gospel. What is happening throughout evangelicalism is not just blatant ignorance of this text; it is purposeful rebellion against this text.

As someone said, “Words are stubborn things.” In this case, the one New Testament passage on unbelievers in worship is a stubborn text that will not be silenced, but that won’t stop evangelicals from attempting to do so.


  1. Awesome awesome awesome stuff, Michael.

  2. While I am sure we would disagree on cessationism (I hope I spelled that right), I believe you hit the nail on the head. Simple worship, in truth and in spirit. Who even needs music to TRULY worship. Seeker-sensitive??? (barf, excuse me)

    Anyways Michael, sometimes I love what you say, other times you make me scratch my head and say, “What in the world is he thinking.” 🙂 This is one of the those times that I can say, “I love what you are saying. God bless!”

  3. intowner says

    Compromising the Gospel to cater to unbelief is obviously bad. There are plenty of examples of churches that do this, and they lose real Christianity quickly. That’s the only thing we should be afraid of, and if that’s what “seeker-sensitivity” means for most here, then let’s all condemn it swiftly.

    However, it seems to me that those who bash “seeker-sensitivity” usually understand it to be catering to the culture rather than to unbelievers. I find nothing wrong with this, and neither do you. Unless, of course, you think services should ONLY be conducted in original Bible languages (or perhaps some prime-cultural original language of the Trinity?).

    The fact that we preach in the vulgar language, that we allow people to dress how they’d like, that we drive cars 20 miles to church, sing songs that lift the hearts of people today rather than people 2000 years ago, and so on, is evidence that culture influences our worship, which is not evil.

    A good pastor is sensitive to the people in his parish. This means not only being familiar enough with the culture to “become [the culture] to [the culture]” (i.e. by speaking the local dialect), but speaking at a level that can be understood by ALL the people in the pews, not just the theologically-informed.

    That’s harder and more inclusive than pandering to people who are opposed to the truths of Christianity. We do the latter naturally–it’s called the fear of man. The former takes great effort, and reaches all sorts of people besides the people who have been sitting in the pews for 50 years.

    A GOOD PASTOR ALWAYS AND ONLY PREACHES TO UNBELIEF. Preaching is only necessary because people don’t believe the Gospel, even those who have believed for 50 years. People might know the truths you’re reminding them of, or they might never have heard them before. But Christians need to hear the same things that non-Christians need to hear, because they’re messed up too, and don’t believe the Gospel fully (or else they’d be perfect).

    So please don’t slam pastors who try to make the Gospel accessible to anyone who comes on Sundays (Christian or not), unless you just want a particular anti-cultural version of the Gospel for yourself and a few of your closest friends. (This is clearly NOT you, iMonk.)

  4. A buddy of mine once told me that he believes that church is and should be for the edification of believers, not the evanglization of unbelievers. Frankly, if someone is seeking God, do you think he would be more attracted by a simplistic, feel-good, concert service or one where people obviously get something out of it, even though they have been coming for decades? (It takes a while to realize that in a good church, we get even more BECAUSE we have been coming for decades, not in spite of that.)

    When a church panders to the unbeliever, it cannot truly feed the believer. I suspect that what St. Paul was saying is that when unbelievers come to see what is so great about this whole Christian thing, they should be able to understand at gut level that God really is there with us. Then they will know what is so great, without any doubt. If we just make a big hoo-rah, how do they know that God is there? Or is God even there, at that point?

    When I became a Christian, the church I attended was clearly there for the long-term building of a family of the faithful. I came back because there was something interesting and meaningful in that. It wasn’t the music (all hymns, with piano and organ), the sound system (there wasn’t one), the multimedia presentations (the what?) or dancing by the pulpit (yeah, right!). I came back because there was something real and solid in the preaching and in the purpose of everyone gathering together.

    Sadly, that changed over time and a new pastor can find himself the patsy of the deacons. Or maybe the victim… Dispute over whether a cross belongs in the church at all bothered me a lot, but the pastor being unable to explain his assertions (which clearly contradicted the scriptures I was presenting to him – and unable to produce scriptures to support his assertions) and instead demanding that I bow to his interpretations because he went to seminary and I didn’t sort of drove me out of the church. It took a long time to find a church where I was truly at home in worship and sure of the focus of worship being God, not the folks in the pews. I expect this church to be my home for life.

    If the presence of Christ in his people is not evident, how can we expect anyone to believe in it? I once read a statement by an atheist that he would believe in the redeeming power of Jesus’ sacrifice when he actually saw evidence of it in the lives of those who claim to have it. How many churches have we all seen that this atheist would say reinforced his view? Probably a lot. But, the hope for our faith is that there are plenty where the Good News is still proclaimed and loved. Where God is the true focus of worship, not self. Where the atheist, even if he doesn’t understand what’s going on, at least will know that there is something real and different here. I pray that every church might truly have this in abundance.


  5. Patrick hit the nail on the head. I disagree that a church should cater to the culture. Look at American culture today, are we not all “victims” and we should all “love” each other, so as not to offend and be “happy.” I think a perfect example of a church that has catered to American culture is Lakewood. I know this is a hot topic as of late but I heard Osteen on the tube yesterday and he told his congregation to confess your “faults” to one another, I don’t think that is what it says in James 5:16. I also think that the seeker concept has arisen because believers just don’t evangelize anymore. “Let us bring them to the church building so they will hear the Gospel from the pastor so I don’t have to do it”, many say, I believe.

    I recently read about Imonk’s trip to the Christian bookstore, is it really any surprise that people don’t evangelize anymore with the material that is out there? Not making a general statement here but in most cases, with seeker churches, that is the case. IMHO

    Also since when can “enemies of God” worship? Not against unbelievers in the church, the church should not cater to them but preach the Word for the purpose of building up.

    Imonk is right, I know very few churches who practice church discipline. I know of a situation of a young minister whose spouse caught him in sin on the internet. They went to the pastor, told him and next month this gentleman is leading a mission trip and will preach there! The only church I have heard of that practices church discipline is Macarthur’s in California

  6. Once again, yet another excellent post. This echoes much of what is in my heart concerning the seeker-sensitive movement. In trying to build our entire worship and church experience around the wants and needs of unbelievers, we are suffocating ourselves because we allow our own spiritual needs to go unmet. Surely this is not what Jesus meant in the Great Commission.

  7. franksta says

    Having once been on the staff of a seeker-sensitive church, but now going a totally different direction in my ministry, I generally try to take a live-and-let-live approach to the seeker-sensitive movement. What galls me is that I have spoken to several pastors of such churches who believe that there is no other way to evangelize, and that traditional churches are deficient. I donÂ’t think even Bill Hybels has ever said anything like that. I have known seeker-sensitive ministries that are effectively making disciples, but by and large they have an impoverished worship life.

  8. Agreeing with much that is written here, I would concur that evangelism is something that the Body should be doing OUTSIDE the boundaries of the church meeting together. Paul acknowledges that unbelievers may be present, but it is our functioning as a Body (edifying one another, playing our part with various gifts, prophesy, etc.) that will lead them to recognize God’s presence. Not a “church service” tailor-made for them.

    For several years, I got caught up in the seeker-sensitive and seeker-driven (they are two fairly different models) concept and spouted off all the Hybels and Warren philosophies with conviction. However, I have since realized the futility of that and no longer embrace the seeker-driven concept.

    I would say that Paul was actually teaching some pure form of “seeker-sensitive” concepts in 1 Cor 14, but only seeker-sensitive in the sense that he says tongues will confuse the listener if they are not used properly and if they are not interpreted. But seeker-DRIVEN (the whole forming of programming to cater to the expectations and desires of unsaved people) is not found in Scripture, in my opinion. If people have a burden to evangelize in that manner, great! Go do it! But don’t call it a church, and don’t try to attract believers to be a part of it as attendees and observers! 😉

    steve 🙂

  9. My church is something of an oddity in the LA area where it’s located: it’s a high-church liturgical community, with solid and oft-proclaimed beliefs in absolute truth and the catholic (small “c”) traditions of Christianity. The odd thing is that it’s got a large group of well-educated college students who come, as well as families with small kids, senior citizens, and middle-aged folks. We’ve drawn in a good number of people from the community.


    When asked, most newcomers to the church have stated that they come for two reasons:

    1. They know that there is love to be found in this community–the people at the church obviously care for each other.

    and 2. Because they find truth preached there, even uncomfortable truth.

    The more seeker-driven churches in our diocese can’t figure out why this traditional, old-fashioned, and conservative church is literally outgrowing its budget, and their modern up-to-date services are drawing so few people.

    Kinda interesting phenomenon.

  10. intowner says

    Again, it seems people confuse culture with unbelief. Culture is not intrinsically evil. There are many good things about American culture, and we accomodate these in worship without even thinking about it sometimes. Only the parts of American culture that reflect the unbelief of the society are to be rejected (not “pandered to”). Again, speaking English is a CULTURAL thing, but you don’t reject that for Hebrew- or Greek-only worship.

    As for the idea that evangelism ought to be something done outside of worship, amen and amen. But to say that it should ONLY happen outside of worship is ridiculous. What better time to reach someone with the Gospel than when they’ve come looking for it among believers?? And it’s the SAME GOSPEL that the believers need to hear, so WHY WOULDN’T YOU MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYBODY??? Unless you only want some to hear it and not others…

    I would be surprised if most evangelism throughout history hasn’t happened as someone PREACHES THE GOSPEL in worship.

  11. intowner, I did not say that evangelism should “ONLY” happen outside of worship. Don’t add words to twist my meaning.

    I said that it should be happening outside of worship. If you want to add a word for clarification, I’ll add that it should PRIMARILYL be happening. Does that sound better to you?

    Here’s the problem: If you look at a lot of the seeker-driven and seeker-sensitive model churches today, they are cultivating a body of people who think that witnessing to someone means inviting them to church. That is crazy! That is what I was referring to. Evangelism is NOT inviting someone to hear the preacher speak. Evangelism is you reaching out to those around you and sharing the Gospel with them. Not only in words, but even more so in your actual life.

    If you end up using “worship services” for evangelism on an ongoing basis, you will stunt the growth of the believers in that fellowship. Read the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of 6. The writer of Hebrews says that they should be teachers by this point in their walk, but they were still needing someone to feed them milk. He then says passionately in chapter 6, “Move BEYOND the foundational elements of the Gospel” (my paraphrase). In other words, don’t just stay there talking about salvation all the time. Move into deeper things.

    When churches fail to move beyond the basic Gospel message (if that’s even what they’re preaching), they continue to run a spiritual nursery. Move beyond those things, equip the people (as Ephesians 4 says) to do the work, and watch your city/town/county/country begin to explode with evangelism. We have yet to see that here in 21st-century America, sadly.

    steve 🙂

  12. Another thing: “It’s the same gospel that the believers need to hear”?? If they’re believers already, they KNOW the Gospel and should be able to proclaim it themselves.

    Unless I’m misunderstanding you, your statement makes no sense to me.

  13. You never “move beyond” the foundational points of the Gospel as a maturing believer. Maturing in your faith means beholding and comprehending the same Gospel of the cross of Christ more and more, not leaving the talk of salvation behind for bigger and better things. Paul himself desired to know nothing more than Christ and him crucified. The Gospel that justifies is the very same Gospel that sanctifies. If you’re not fed by new facets of that each week, then your preacher isn’t preaching the Gospel.

    When I say “preaching the Gospel,” I’m not making some big distinction between an evangelistic service and a believer-building service. People are saved and people are built up by the same truth. Believers are better able to grasp the truth of the Gospel, but the same sermon ought to introduce non-believers to Christ as well as build up believers in their faith. I didn’t know what this was about until I started going to the church I do now. If you want to hear an example of what I mean, visit here:


    As for not inviting people to church as the main means of evangelism… Is there some better way to introduce people to the Kingdom of God than bringing them to church? Do you think they’ll get a clearer view of the Gospel from an individual or from the community of God? Again, I would be surprised if most evangelism throughout history had not occurred during worship where the Gospel was preached. Think of Spurgeon. Why do so many mature believers like his sermons, yet they brought so many thousands to Christ? Because it’s the same content that brings people into the Kingdom that builds them up once they’re there.

  14. If you don’t think believers need the Gospel too, your assignment is to read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. 😉

  15. I’m willing to disagree on this, and I really don’t want to just keep beating the same theme over and over, but if you read Hebrews 5:12 – 6:3 like I suggested, you’ll see exactly what I was referring to. I’ll paste it here for ease of reference (this is the KJV):

    “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

    ***Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.***

    And this will we do, if God permit.”

    The part I was emphasizing is enclosed in the “***” above.

    You asked if there was some better way to introduce people to the Kingdom of God than bringing them to church. Absolutely!! But I guess we’ll just end up differing on that.

    Believers should be discipled, to a point where they are eating “meat”, and they should then be turning around and producing more disciples who then are able to produce more disciples….

    Can you show me Scriptural evidence of “worship services” being used primarily for evangelism? And/or show me some real examples of congregations who fed constantly on that type of service and became truly mature in their faith?

    steve 🙂

  16. I challenge you to read some good commentaries or sermons on those passages from Hebrews and see if you can maintain the idea that the Gospel is milk (John Owen, Ligon Duncan, John Piper). It’s important to understand what the problem is for the recipients of Hebrews.

    You say there is “absolutely” a better way to introduce people to the Kingdom of God than bringing them to church, but you fail to give any alternative or justification.

    Tell us what this “meat” is that you’re saying we should progress to, if it’s not a deeper, more thoroughly-believing understanding of the Gospel.

    When you say you want Scriptural evidence for “‘worship services’ being used primarily for evangelism,” you show me that you don’t understand what I’ve been saying. I’m not talking about evangelistic services vs. building-up-believer services. I’m saying the content of the Gospel will accomplish both purposes, if preached properly.

    Examples of this abound in the Scriptures. Every time Jesus speaks in a synagogue or temple, every time a sermon is preached in Acts, or the text this thread is based on from 1 Corinthians, where Paul’s concern is that the Gospel would come across intelligibly to ALL those gathered (so that some might even come to faith!).

    Let me say it as many ways as I can for clarity: I’m not talking about aiming at EITHER unbelievers or believers. I’m talking about aiming at the UNBELIEF in BOTH GROUPS (the only point of Christian preaching at all). The Gospel is not just the five-minute altar call at the end of a sermon, and it’s not just the sermon you give each Christmas and Easter when there’s sure to be plenty of unbelievers attending. The Gospel is the good news of God in Christ redeeming us from all our sins, and it needs to be applied to us specifically in every way possible for us to see how we should mature by faith in grace. In every application is the potential to save and to sanctify. The believer and the unbeliever need to hear the same message of God’s grace in order to go anywhere in life. If you begin by hearing with faith, you should continue that way. There’s nothing more sanctifying than the Gospel that converts. Our major problem as maturing Christians is that we don’t really believe what we “know,” we struggle with assurance of God’s good intentions toward us, and we need to hear the Gospel weekly in order not to live like Pharisees or hedonists.

    Now, please repeat back to me what my view of the Gospel is. And tell me how your “meat” differs.

  17. Your view of the Gospel is the entire message of grace, both to the unbeliever and to the believer. You also appear to believe that it is necessary for even the most mature believer to continue to be reminded of the Gospel on a very frequent basis (weekly, you said) in order to prevent a return to legalism in our lives. I happen to disagree with that assumption, but that’s ok.

    An example of “meat” that I refer to is the life in the Spirit, free from the bonds of sin, that Paul teaches about in his writings. This is something that an unbeliever has no basis to understand because they haven’t even gotten to the point of exchanging their sin-filled existence for the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross to begin that journey into sanctification. Since you’re wrapping all of that up into one term “Gospel”, then it’s probably semantics in our discussion.

    While I’m more than willing to admit that you and I are differing largely on semantics (definition of “Gospel”), I’m not entirely sure that I have completely misunderstood you, as you presume. You appear to come from a perspective that says the Sunday morning service should address all levels of spirituality (or non-spirituality) present, and that service is necessary both for the majority of evangelism to take place (i.e., new converts coming into the Kingdom of God) and for the maturing (protection??) of existing believers. I see that very clearly in your writing, and that’s ok. I just happen to differ with you on that. (I DID offer an alternative to “invite your friends to church” evangelism in my earlier comments, so you must have overlooked that.)

    Having said that, I really, REALLY, don’t want to drag this out into a sound-bite debate, Eric. There are probably other aspects of our own philosophies that are subtly interfering with our ability to easily hear what the other is saying. And I’m ok with that. I really am!

    I happen to believe that the system that says that a Christian has to be reminded weekly by a preacher who is also trying to preach that same sermon to every level of spirituality is going to fall short of truly building up the Body. You strongly assert that everyone needs to be taught weekly.

    I don’t see how that corresponds to your view of Hebrews 6, but your only answer to that is that I need to read some commentaries and get my thinking corrected. Maybe I do, Eric. And I’ll happily read other commentaries on those passages and be corrected if necessary. I’m definitely one who is open to correction. But for now, I think we’ve put some thoughts out there for others to mull over, and I’m not really interested in going back and forth over and over.

    Fair enough?

  18. Fair enough. [Handshake, handshake]

  19. [Returning handshake] Thanks, brother! 🙂

  20. Speaking from my own experience as a speaker, I agree with Steve’s basic point that the best evangelism is not done in church per se. For me, coming from an entirely secular background, conversion isn’t so much accepting a set of propositions, or visiting a certain place every Sunday, but entering a new world that makes even the old one look different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the propositions or the worship don’t matter, it’s just that it entails a change in my whole life, and I require guidance in all areas. So I think of personal relationships, blogging, email, and the Alpha course I took as all being more significant to my changes of heart than what the Sunday worship is like.

    I think the danger in getting to focused on church worship is that being Christian can come to seem like it’s all about joining an impersonal institution, rather than being adopted into the family of God. People in modern society certainly find this easy, as we know a lot about being in impersonal institutions, but we also tend to take a passive-aggressive attitude towards them (think of how most people regard going to school, or working for a corporation, or voting). So after visiting a lot of churches I came to feel that to *really* know a church you need to visit it sometime other than Sunday. Does it even exist outside of Sunday? Or does the “people gathered into one” break up into hundreds of totally separate lives?

  21. I love what Piper said in one of his messages:

    It is true that worship is for believers. And I will never stop doing my best to serve meat for you souls on Sunday morning. But it doesn’t follow that the evangelistic potential of this event should be minimized.

    Now my thinking goes something like this: good evangelism is directing people’s attention to the truth and value of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is the gathering of God’s people to celebrate the truth and value of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it may well be that for many many unbelievers the decicive, culminating witness to the truth of Christ will come when they sit here in the midst of people whose intensity and authenticity of worship draws them irresistibly into the banquet hall of God’s salvation.

    Therefore let us begin afresh to pray daily that God would make the hour of worship an occasion for his regenerating work. And let us bring friends and colleagues who we sense are open to this experience.

  22. You hit it on the head!

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