It’s hard to manage expectations about how much our regular church meetings are for evangelism!
Last weekend, I received this feedback from a very mature and committed member, via our comment cards.
Feeling a bit frustrated. We always seem to be preaching to the Christians in church. I want to invite family, neighbours, friends, but we seem to talk about ministry and church but not challenging people about what the gospel is – why we should be Christians.
Are the congregation feeling confident to bring guests that they will hear a clear gospel message? Our church seems to aim at Christians only. Talking about evangelism and not doing it in the services.
Sorry for my negative sounding comment. Very tricky for churches to cater for Christians and the outsider at the same time. Your sermon was good and my girls really enjoyed it today. I should probably get the log out of my eye before worrying about specks in church. Thanks for all your hard work.
I replied… it is always fine to receive feedback. I realise comment cards often have to be written on the fly, and you don’t have a chance to sit on it and edit them and so on. But even when I or the staff do not agree with every bit of feedback or critique, I keep reminding us: find the kernel of truth before blowing any chaff away!
At any rate, you guys are very encouraging.
On the issue, you are right on the trickiness. There are both theological and pragmatic issues. I write at length in what follows, not to ear-bash you, but because your note has given me a chance to articulate some stuff that has been brewing in my head for some time.
Theologically, I think church is for believers, for fellowship/edification rather than evangelism. This is what I think Phillip Jensen teaches (following Broughton Knox), and what our recent Sydney Anglican Doctrine Commission report said in its theology of assembly.
However church is to be done in such a way that
- The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus and his work is always central, (e.g. 1 Cor 1:30, 2:2), and,
- The outsider who enters can always have a chance of being convicted by the gospel as he hears and see what’s going on (1 Cor 14:22-25 of course)!
It is always the gospel that edifies, as well as evangelises people.
Pragmatically, I have no problems with individual church meetings being designated as “guest services”, or running “seeker series” where the topics are designed to interest non-Christians, and to ensure the gospel can be more easily focused on with a view to inviting friends and people’s conversion. We’ve done that, but probably not enough, I’m sure. Definitely, in fact!
However, I am also wary of the old ‘converted by = converted to’ danger. If we ‘dumb down’ most of our public meetings as ‘seeker services’ so as to accommodate the visitor, it has been observed that we’re quite likely to habituate many of them to that ‘easy’ style of service as the staple they expect and might even demand, long after God might bring their conversion about.
In addition, pragmatically, in terms of communicating the gospel of Jesus, even evangelistically, I also want to suggest that we can sometimes overweight the sermon.
For example, sometimes I have heard Christians say in person or via comment cards – generally with some disappointment or disapproval that, “The gospel was not really preached in the service today”.
Sometimes, of course, they will agree that somewhere in the sermon the preacher did mention the Lordship and Saviourhood of Christ and the need to serve him in repentance and faith. I certainly think Christ needs to be there somewhere. But perhaps it was not a major point of the sermon, or could have been weightier or clearer. I concede this.
But perhaps the sermon just did not use our evangelical buzz words. Perhaps the particular passage in front of us led the preacher to came at Christ from an oblique angle. Sometimes – perhaps quite often – there was not a crystal clear cut call to repentance and faith: “Hey any non-Christians here, I am talking to you, and you need to turn and trust in Christ who died for your sins today!”
But Christ as Lord was still truly preached. And I think God’s Spirit is perfectly capable of using that to bring someone to faith, without an explicit call to conversion.
In addition, if we sometimes overweight our expectations of what the sermon should contain to qualify as useful to non-believers, I believe we often underweight what is said in others aspects of the assembly.
For example, in the sort of services you and I are used to (evangelical Anglican), we are often urged to admit our sins, and share in a prayer of confession. This is immediately followed by a gospel-shaped assurance of forgiveness through Christ for those who trust him. We often recite a Creed (Apostles or Nicene) or a Scriptural affirmation of faith (Phil 2:6-11 or Col 1:15-20), which communicate central truths about the person and work of Christ. Not every aspect of those words will be obvious and easy-to-understand to a newcomer, but some certainly will be, if they are listening. Sometimes the non-sermon Bible reading will communicate an aspect of the gospel. And certainly, every week, we have songs that focus on the gospel, (and not just our response in discipleship), often in very moving ways.
In other words, in our church meetings, there are many more ways than the sermon in which the gospel of Jesus may often be communicated. And at our best, it is done genuinely, warmly, clearly and meaningfully. We must not forget this.
Just this week, I talked to a fine young Christian man from elsewhere, who is now serving strongly. He said that when his friend invited him to church, it was the conviction with which the congregation members sung the content of their songs that struck him. God used that as the means to get him to take seriously the gospel. He couldn’t remember the sermon content at all!
There are some pragmatic issues from the side of the edification priority too. If church is primarily for believers, then part of building them up will be thorough teaching of God’s Word in breadth and depth.
Tactically, and by conviction, the way we here are committed to doing this is by systematic expository preaching. That is, one chapter after another in sequence, trying to make sure we cover a wide range of the books of the Bible over the years.
This means that as we traverse the varied terrain of the OT and NT, there will be passages – sometimes for weeks at a time – where the interest level or relevance for a non-Christian is not so immediately high or obvious. Sometimes, there are complexities which they cannot hope to be familiar with on a first or second date! After all, the NT does indicate that in church, we have to go on the meat from time to time, and not just be satisfied with serving up only milk (1 Cor 3:1-3, Heb 5:11-6:3).
And though I think visitors don’t like deliberate obscurity or masses of jargon or a failure to help them follow along, I think most realistic visitors also expect not to understand everything, and to find some things a bit beyond their experience or even comfort zone.
And if they don’t come with those expectations, then maybe we who invite them need to help them be realistic in preparing them… (“You won’t understand everything, but never mind, I didn’t understand everything the first few times I went to the [enter your most recent new sporting or artistic interest]. I’ll help you follow along if that’s OK.”)
So yes, I am preaching primarily to Christians at church. But no, I don’t want to squash for a moment Spirit-inspired compassion for the lost, nor the initiative of those like you who invite friends, even when you suspect the particular service, or even the regular style, might not be as user-friendly, or gospel-focused for the non-believer as you might like.
What do you think? And given what I’ve said, what could we still do better to ensure we’re not only preaching to the choir?