Recently at a conference I was attending, I had a conversation with a worship pastor from another church where he insisted: “Sundays are for the saints.”

I asked if it was important for those leading in different church communities to communicate why we do what we do in case someone shows up during a service and doesn’t share our faith. Certainly there are children and family members and guests who come to a service even before they follow Jesus.

He felt it was unnecessary since those outside of faith don’t have the Spirit of God to help them understand. Our conversation ended prematurely as the conference shifted back to the main speaker and away from the small group discussion. I hope to continue the conversation the next time we meet up.

Shifting Our Thinking

With instructions from Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:23-24 to consider “the unbeliever among you,” it appears we need to shift our thinking. The Church is made up of those who follow Jesus, but what we do together should allow people to “come as they are” and help them to change in the process. (See No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come As You are Culture in the Church by John Burke)

Certainly there can be intentional times when we have experiences designed for those in leadership. Too often, I think we expect Sunday mornings to be like the Upper Room experience Jesus had with his disciples, but in our culture Sunday morning services can become much more like the Sermon on the Mount where people came from a variety of spiritual places.

A major theological issue relates to understanding what the church is and how someone who does not follow Christ can and cannot connect.  The Church equals the Body of Christ, those men and women who have repented of their sins and chosen to follow Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.  In the Scriptures, the term “members” refers to those who are “members of the Body of Christ” (See Romans 12:4-5; I Corinthians 6:15, 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:25; and Colossians 3:15).

When Paul wrote the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians, he was writing to the Body of Christ, to those who followed Jesus.  They may have met in different homes or all of the believers in that city may have all met together. Either case, the “members” refers to all followers of Christ.

An Inclusive Gospel

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive.  Anyone from any background can become a follower of Jesus.  Once you are a follower of Jesus it is then that you are a “member of the Body of Christ.”  All are invited to become a “member.”  No one is excluded, but unfortunately, many choose not to join the Body of Christ and too many do not know how to join the Body of Christ.

The word “member” describes those who have chosen to follow Jesus, but it does not mean that others cannot also become “members” through a personal relationship with Jesus. In many churches, the term “member” has been in a more exclusive way than Paul intended.  Many churches use the term “member” to designate the specific people committed to a particular local church thereby excluding believers who have not joined that particular church.

In most instances, the “members” also adhere to a specific interpretation of the Scriptures. In other words, you cannot become a “member” of this local church which has a Baptist worldview if you have a Lutheran understanding of the Bible. Paul was referring to “members of the Body of Christ” whereas some churches are referring to “members of this local expression of the Body of Christ.”

I would not characterize this as unbiblical or heretical, but it has certainly made the term more confusing and the local church more exclusive. Further confusing the issue would be the designation of the word “church” to refer to a building or weekly service.  Paul referred to both a universal Church (all followers of Jesus – Matthew 16:18; Eph. 1:22, 5:23) and to local churches (the believers who gathering in a particular city or location – Acts 14:23, I Cor. 1:2; I Thess. 1:1; Rev. 2:1), but he never used the term “church” to describe a building or a weekly service.

What is the Church?

The term “church” comes from the Greek word “ecclesia” which literally means “gathering.”  In recent history, we have confused this to mean that the “church” equals the Sunday morning service, but like the word “member,” the term “church” refers to the people who follow Jesus.

We gather together on Sunday mornings, and we should be gathering together for “teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…” along with acts of service (“selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need”) and reaching out to others (“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47, NIV)

By redefining “member” as a more exclusive term and by redefining “church” as a building or a weekly service, we have misunderstood the relationship of the “Body of Christ” to those who are not following Jesus.  Following the examples of Jesus and the early church, the “Body of Christ” can and should befriend, love, and even reach out to those who do not yet follow Him.

We can allow people without faith in Jesus to belong within our sphere of influence, to enter into our buildings, participate as part of our weekly gatherings, and even belong to our broader community. In the process, allowing people to belong before they have to believe creates the opportunity for people who do not follow Jesus to investigate the teachings of Jesus, experience the presence of Jesus, and even surrender their lives to Him.

Eric Bryant May2013Dr. Eric Michael Bryant leads a cohort earning a Doctorate of Ministry in Missional Effectiveness through Bethel Seminary. Eric serves with Gateway Church in Austin, a church known for their mottos: “no perfect people allowed” and “come as you are, but don’t stay that way.” Prior to Gateway, Eric served as part of the leadership team at Mosaic in Los Angeles. Eric’s book, Not Like Me: A Field Guide for Influencing a Diverse World, equips people to engage with others no matter what their differences.