Often I’m asked if unsaved people are welcome in our assembly. This may seem a strange question, but it’s a fair one for several reasons. For one thing, we are often reminded about the importance of keeping the church pure, yet the Lord Jesus gladly received sinners. Also, the Great Commission sends us into the world with the gospel, yet where beside the church might people go to learn more about God? Moreover, growing Christians want to understand the role of the church in outreach. Finally, there seems to be no end to different views churches take on the subject, anywhere from “outsiders are not welcome,” to groups that build the entire life of the congregation around visitors. I have heard more than one elder say, “You do whatever works to attract new people.” This is surely a subject worth considering.
Before going further, I should answer the question. Yes! “Lost people” are very welcome in the church where we fellowship. We’re blessed to have them coming and going continually. But we also keep in mind the lesson from the second parable of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matt. 13, that we must be cautious about pronouncing who are the wheat and who are the tares.
One other caveat; this article is not intended to critique the way other churches handle this question, nor is it aimed at convincing anyone to change. We thank the Lord for all who love the Lord and are seeking to win people to Christ. But it is not uncommon to find elders who are tired of “canned” outreach programs, having discovered some things that clearly do not work. They want to see people coming to faith in Christ, not in spite of the church, but through its efforts. Then, too, there are new gatherings that want to understand what options are available and worth studying.
Help For Elders
The following list of suggestions is not offered in the spirit of “Here are the answers,” but as lessons that have made an impact on this writer after many years of studying the subject, and therefore things that may be worthy of prayerful consideration.
1. Be familiar with the mission of the church as set forth in the several accounts of the Great Commission. Simply stated, the commission is to make and train followers of the Lord Jesus. The word “mission” refers to sending people out with a purpose. The local church will have some important priorities such as worshipping the Lord and training the believers, but its mission is to reach out to the world with Good News from God.
2. Have a plan to accomplish the mission, and be sure the people in fellowship know it. A local church cannot do everything, but it can do some- thing and it should know what that is and what steps are needed to carry out its part of the mission. Scripture speaks of growth of the church in quality through the equipping of the saints (Eph. 4:11,12 NKJV) and in quantity as the body makes increase (Eph. 4:16). Don’t shy away from either!
3. Study the example of the early church. All Scripture is profitable, and we must not relegate the record of the Acts to merely “history.” True, methods must adjust as times and cultures change, but there are some timeless principles to be learned from how the earliest church grew. In His great prayer for all believers (John 17), the Lord Jesus emphatically connected the unity of His people with the world’s coming to faith in the message. Accordingly, we see greater emphasis on unity (“being of one accord”) in Acts than on any outreach program or method in the church. Because of the unity and purity of the church, the Holy Spirit was free to convict the world of sin (John 16:8).
4. Teach clearly the difference between witnessing and evangelism. The former refers to all believers (Acts 1:8), as all believers have a story to tell and must be ready to respond when asked (I Pet. 3:15). The latter refers to one of many spiritual gifts given as the Lord sees fit (Eph. 4:7, 11) and describes a special enablement to initiate reaching out to people with the gospel. Any believer may seek to do the work of an evangelist (II Tim. 4:5), but it is wrong to make any spiritual gift the possession of every believer.
5. Teach clearly the nature of the local church. It is not a mixed multitude, but a family which gathers around the Head of the body. Lost people may be welcome, but they are looking in on “a royal priesthood, a holy nation; a special people…….” (I Pet. 2:9) coming together to attend to family business (Acts 2:42). Welcome as they are, the unsaved do not become the center around which church functions revolve. Along this line, it is helpful to note how the apostles address the church; always as the spotless bride of Christ, with terms like “holy” and “faithful”, “saints” and “brethren,” in spite of the many failings which were undeniably present at times.
6. Check your environment. This includes everything that pertains to Christian courtesy, the setting in which the believers gather. Is the meeting facility clean and neat? Are there realistic provisions for families and children? Is there a warm welcome without condescending? The checklist of questions could become long, and it’s not a bad idea to ask repeat visitors to share what impressed them or what things they found difficult to work with during early visits. Of course this is not referring to matters of doctrine, but to the setting in which the congregation learns and works together.
7. Rest assured in the long established fact that healthy sheep multiply. The old adage is true: “If you want more sheep, feed the ones you have.” Wise elders will make certain that the feeding of the flock is taken seriously, that the ministry given is both faithful to God and relevant to the people. This will have a purifying effect on the lives of the Christians, resulting in a living fellowship that moves from superficial social activities to that refreshing love and care for one another that has been so aptly described as “body life.”
The great story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 has occasioned much discussion about whether the prodigal pictures a lost soul being saved or a son being restored. Probably both are valid lessons but without question, the parable has been greatly used of God as a great gospel text.
In that sense it is interesting to note what the joyful father did not do. We might have expected him to say something like this to his servants: “Bring this boy into the house and get him washed and cleaned up, and then put on him clothes, the ring and so forth.” Rather, the father tells the servants to bring forth (i.e., out of the house) the marks of sonship – clothes, shoes and a ring – and put them on him right there in the street, apparently unconcerned about his ragged and vile condition. The boy entered the house with the marks of sonship on him!
Let me suggest that this is a good lesson for all of us to ponder. The Great Commission has at its heart the word “Go.” As the Lord once came looking for our first parents in the garden (Gen. 3:9), and as the Son of Man went out “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), so the church today must be willing to go out to the world with Good News. But when lost people do come into the church, they can be greatly blessed as onlookers to what God is doing among Christians. How often it has been rightly observed that the best gospel meeting is a good time of worship and remembrance around the Lord Himself!