The Sunday gathering is primarily for the edification of believers—that is, if 1 Corinthians 14 has anything to say about it. The word group for “edification” occurs no fewer than six times in this chapter, as Paul instructs the church about what he wants to see emphasized in the congregation’s gathering on the Lord’s Day (1 Corinthians 14:1–19). At the same time, Paul also gives instructions concerning the non-Christian visitor. He mentions a scenario in which this unbeliever is . . .
. . . convicted by all, called to account by all, the secrets of his heart [to be] disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1Cor 14:24-25).
So, as pastors, how do we engage unbelievers while keeping our focus on exalting Christ and edifying believers? Here are eight things our church does—not perfectly, but intentionally.
1. Include a clear presentation of the gospel . . . in every sermon.
I once asked a seminary professor if we needed to include Jesus’ name in every sermon, regardless of the text. He actually said no! But clearly Jesus would disagree (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; John 5:39, 46; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:20; Galatians 3:16). Christians don’t just begin with the gospel; we continue and finish with the gospel (Galatians 3:1–5). And if that’s so, then by preaching the gospel as it arises organically in the broad themes, offices, institutions, and images of every text, we engage both Christians and non-Christians with the same truths, even though we might apply the text differently.
If faith comes from hearing and hearing from the word of God (Rom 10:16), then what are your non-Christian hearers hearing from you? If you want God to use your sermons to save unbelievers, then you need to make sure there’s at least a brief, clear gospel presentation somewhere in every sermon. Make sure they see how your sermon text testifies to Christ and the gospel. Make sure they know what to believe about God (as our holy Creator and Judge), mankind (as sinful and helpless under God’s righteous wrath and condemnation to hell), Jesus’ atonement by His blood (His death in our place for our sins, and His resurrection from the dead), and our responsibility to respond in repentance and faith. That message is the message of the whole Bible (Luke 24:44–48). All of Scripture testifies to Jesus; show people that this is true by how you preach it.
2. Address unbelievers directly in preaching and in service-leading.
Preaching is not a conversation, but that doesn’t mean you’re not interacting with your hearers. The preachers at our church address unbelievers directly, like this: “Maybe you’re here among us or listening to this online as an unbeliever. We’re glad you’re here. But did you ever think . . . ?” Or “Have you ever wondered . . . ?” Or “Non-Christian, God is speaking to you in this text, friend.” Those kinds of sentences help non-Christians feel like they’re actually supposed to be in church, that we expect them to be there, that we were actually hoping they’d show up so that we could engage their hearts with gospel logic.
We can do the same thing in leading our services. When a service leader introduces a song or a Scripture reading, we should try to think (at least sometimes) in terms of how this will sound to unbelievers so we can prepare them to hear it. In our church, we try to make it clear that every song and every Scripture reading is chosen to prepare us for hearing the sermon later in the service. The job of our service leader is to show our hearers the coherence of the whole service and how it all centers on the preaching passage. That helps both Christians and unbelievers make sense of the whole service and how it all hangs together so they don’t feel lost.
3. Acknowledge how your preaching text might sound to them.
Try to see your preaching text from an unbeliever’s perspective. Anticipate their objections and take the time to define terms they won’t know. Or, if you’re singing a hymn with some antiquated language, as we often do, explain it for them––not only so they know what we’re singing, but also so that they know that we know what we’re singing!
4. Address current worldviews and isms.
Very often, the Bible addresses modern worldviews—not just atheism, but syncretism, materialism, pluralism, relativism, rationalism, nihilism, and many more. But don’t be a propeller-head about it—you can make yourself sound like a wannabe scholastic when you use too many fifty-cent words. Remember, you don’t have to use a technical word to address the concept it represents; if you do decide to use those words, then define them so simply that both the elderly ladies and the elementary school kids can get your drift. Whatever you do, think about how you can use Scripture to engage the unbeliever’s worldview and expose its inadequacy in light of the gospel. This will also model for your members how to engage unbelievers. As your members overhear you talking to non-Christians on Sunday mornings week after week, it will equip them to become better evangelists.
5. Address public issues.
This can be tricky, so do your homework and take a gracious tone. Both Christians and non-Christians need to think carefully about what the Bible says on issues like racism, human sexuality, justice in the courts, and a host of other topics that dominate public discourse today. So study the Bible, get good book recommendations, think ahead, pray for discernment, and don’t shy away from addressing hard topics when it’s clear that your passage of Scripture for that week is addressing them. You don’t have to have all the final solutions; nor should you come off as if everyone should simply vote like you; but you must be leading both the congregation and your non-Christian visitors to think clearly about what the Bible has to say on these important issues.
6. Fence the table clearly and graciously.
Communion is only for believers, which (rightly) makes unbelievers feel a sense of exclusion. But we don’t want them to feel unwelcome to stay and observe the church receiving this ordinance. So here’s how I fence the Lord’s Table before we take His Supper: “We believe this ordinance is for believers only, so if you’re a non-Christian—someone who’s not explicitly trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection to cover your sins and to reconcile you to God—we’re glad you’re here, and we’d ask that you simply let the elements pass you by. There’s no shame in that; in fact, we’d respect that as a mark of your own integrity before the Lord, and we’d ask that you simply use this time to think and pray over what you heard this morning as God’s Word was read and preached. But if you’re a baptized believer and a member in good standing of another evangelical church that preaches the same gospel you heard preached this morning, then we’d welcome you to participate with us.”
7. Instruct other members to show hospitality to unbelieving visitors.
Think about how you’d feel as a Christian if you attended an atheists’ club meeting with your secular friend—a mix of awkwardness, fear, and maybe just a pinch of sinful condescension. So how do you think he feels coming to church? If no one welcomes an unbeliever, shows him kindness, or even starts a conversation with him, then he likely goes away with more information but nothing that’s changed his mind about how Christians act. A mature congregation can love a non-Christian well, even if it wasn’t your best sermon.
8. Pray for unbelieving visitors.
In our weekly prayer meeting, we pray for more unbelieving visitors to attend, and that they’d be saved as they hear and understand the gospel among us. After all, we can plant and water, but only God can cause the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).