After a disappointing loss, legendary football coach Bear Bryant was asked if there was separation on his team. His answer was simple: “No, but there’s gonna be.”
Separation can be healthy. Driving tests separate people qualified to drive from those who are not. Prisons separate criminals from law-abiding citizens, and hospitals separate the sick from the healthy.
Yet, contemporary culture abhors the idea of separating people. Everyone gets a participation trophy, Boy Scouts are accused of being prejudiced toward girls, and equal-opportunity has turned into equal results. The value of the day is inclusion and its core tenet is that everyone belongs.
Sadly, the church has bought into the “everybody belongs” mentality. Until the past couple of decades, the Sunday corporate worship service was geared toward church members. Guests were always welcome, but the service was understood to be designed for the membership. In recent years, however, some have altered their services to be more like a rally to draw in unbelievers without drawing a healthy line of separation between believers and unbelievers.
The issue is NOT about who is welcome to attend Sunday services. Rather, it is about for whom to design Sunday services. Unbelievers are welcome to attend. But when visiting, they should observe a service designed for believers, not for unbelievers.
Here are a few reasons why:
Corporate worship on Sunday is usually the only time the entire congregation comes together at one time during the week. Doesn’t it stand to reason that we would take advantage of this time to speak directly to the members? During the one opportunity to speak to the whole flock at once, shouldn’t the pastor focus on the flock rather than those outside the fold?
Corporate gatherings catered to believers in the church are the assumed biblical norm (Hebrews 10:25, I Corinthians 5:4, James 2:2). The idea of a “seeker driven” or “attritional” style gathering would be foreign to the early church. Their lives were their method to reach the lost –not their services.
Scripture never commands believers to invite unbelievers to participate in corporate worship gatherings. Provisions were made for unbelievers to observe worship, but not participate. How could unbelievers be expected to exhort, rebuke, or give testimony? Further, in cases like I Corinthians 5:4, it makes no sense for an unbeliever to be a part of disciplining a believer.
Biblical examples of corporate worship point toward feeding believers, rather than recruiting the lost. The idea of an unbeliever attending is treated as a possibility in corporate worship but not the purpose. Even when Paul entertained the idea of an unbeliever attending a corporate gathering (1 Corinthians 14:26), he explained that edifying believers would be the best gospel witness to unbelievers.
All examples of direct evangelistic preaching to unbelievers take place outside of the church gathering (Acts 17). In situations such as Pentecost and the Areopagus in Athens, Peter and Paul (respectively) shared the explicit gospel message –not a watered-down “feel-good” sermon. They never softened the message or backed down from the truth. They were cordial, loving, and kind –but nonetheless presented a bold and un-equivocating message of repentance.
Blurring the lines between believers and unbelievers has gospel ramifications. The church is Christ’s body and a visible representation of His gospel message. If everyone belongs, then who needs Christ? Further, if the guest of honor in a worship service is the unbeliever and not Christ, why would the unbeliever want to be converted? They would instantly lose their status! The gospel makes a clear separation between the saved and the lost. Whether culture acknowledges it or not, one day, Jesus will separate the two groups like a shepherd separating sheep from goats (Matthew 25:32). A Sunday service geared toward believers is consistent with this message and avoids giving unbelievers a false sense of security.
Sunday worship for believers impacts unbelievers. None of this is to say there is never a time for evangelizing inside the church. As in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Scripture is open to the possibility that an unbeliever may visit a congregational service. And we must also be intentional toward unbelieving children of church members who need to be evangelized. But the Bible never promotes the concept of inviting the lost to church. Such an approach can easily turn into an attractional event in which we re-program worship around unbelievers. Yet, unbelievers do not worship Christ!
If we want unbelieving visitors to be converted during our worship service, we should do everything possible to exalt Christ and worship Him in truth proclaiming the fullness of Scripture! In that way, we are showing them Christ –and not a reflection of themselves.
When an unbeliever visits a church service, they need to see how the body of Christ worships Him. How could we expect them to see His glory if we are not magnifying, expounding, and praising Him! Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32).
Lifting Jesus up means showing how much greater He is than us. He is set apart. Or, in a word, separate.
Ministering to believers and lifting Christ up for unbelievers ares not two different tasks. They can be accomplished all at once. It just requires a healthy separation.