Does The Church Embrace Non-Christians?
‘You mean we’re allowed to wear jeans?’ my friend asked, surprised at the informal dress-code. Excitingly, she was joining me at church for the first time, and after answering further questions such as whether singing was compulsory, we set off. My church at the time was held in the University Student Union; amusingly, Saturday night clubbing was transformed into Sunday morning church. (Sticky shoes and the faint smell of alcohol were not uncommon visitors.) As if that wasn’t a strange enough mix, another shock came for my friend as the worship band got up to play, ‘You mean they actually play those guitars?’ she asked. I laughed - but then it would be peculiar to those who’ve only ever associated church with pure-voiced choir boys and stately organs.
Reading from the bible – confusingly both one and 66 books, raising our hands in worship, praying in tongues, sharing communion in which we speak of sharing the body and blood of Jesus ... All these practices are unique to the Christian setting. Even sung worship can make newcomers feel awkward. The only time some people sing is in the shower, accompanied by superb bathroom acoustics and the rush of water to drown out their heartfelt melody.
How well do we welcome non-Christians into our churches? Jesus calls us to be ‘in the world but not of it,’ which is certainly a challenge (John 17:15-16). How can we be set apart from the world and yet remain culturally relevant?
Clearly the answer is not to refrain from our Christian practices for the sake of the newcomer. In fact, speaking in tongues is an important sign 'for unbelievers’ (1 Corinthians 14:22). Additionally, it’s essential that churchgoers receive spiritual input, being discipled to become more Christ-like (Matt 28:19). Therefore, whilst retaining our identity as a community of believers, it is good to explain the purpose of our activities for newcomers.
As well as providing some explanation, we can choose to accept them just as they are. The last thing we want to do is make anyone feel judged. This includes, as Jeff Lucas points out, not looking surprised if they ‘unthinkingly try to light up a cigarette during the third hymn’ (see Lucas Out Loud).
Hospitality has a key part to play in making people feel welcome and relaxed. If you’ve ever walked into an Apple store, you’ll doubtless have felt thoroughly welcomed yet not at all patronised. If we adopt a similar attitude in our churches – in the welcome, the explanation of practices and the relational coffee time at the service’s end – newcomers would leave feeling valued, accepted and uplifted. What might otherwise be a rather confusing experience could instead be the beginning of a journey that leads them to Jesus Christ.
-Do you think the church in general is good at welcoming non-believers?
-What do you think we do well ... and what not so well?