I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent. [Luke 5:32 (NLT)]
Let’s go back to the sixties—a time of “turn on, tune in, drop out”—a counter-culture of “flower power,” anti-war sentiment, and discontented disillusioned youth. When Chuck Smith saw these “hippies” on the California beaches, he said they needed a bath but, when his wife Kay saw them, she said they needed the Lord! Moving their message onto the streets and beach, they opened the doors of their church to those kids and anyone else who wanted to come in. Regardless of faith, background, attire, length of hair, addictions, political views, cleanliness, or finances, the church unconditionally welcomed everyone. While still preaching the uncompromising truth of the Gospel, what began as a congregation of 25, within eight years had to conduct three Sunday services in a 2,200-seat auditorium!
Although we’re not looking for growth like that, my church recently embarked on an outreach campaign to better establish our presence in the community. One of the phrases used in our mailings, flyers, and Facebook ads is, “You don’t have to believe to belong.” Some local pastors berated our pastor for the campaign and even accused him of heresy. Perhaps their complaints stemmed from fear that we were trying to poach their congregations but the message implied just the opposite—we were looking for people who didn’t belong! After all, there are more than enough unbelievers to fill every churches’ pews.
Apparently, the “heresy” part of the accusation was because our ads said belief was not a requirement for belonging. Just to clarify—we clearly identified ourselves as a non-denominational Christian church and never said that people didn’t have to believe to be baptized or didn’t need faith in Jesus Christ to be saved. Nothing implied a universality of beliefs, the lack of a Christian creed, or that what one believes doesn’t matter to God. In fact, a quick view of our website clearly outlines our fundamental Christian beliefs! Adding that we love God, love others, and follow Jesus, the advertisements simply said that people didn’t need to believe to belong. Nevertheless, some pastors disagreed and said that belief should be a prerequisite for belonging! While Scripture does warn of unbelievers in the church, it also calls us to share the gospel and to let our lights shine before men.
Saying you have to be saved before you can belong to a church family seems like saying you have to be physically fit before you can join a gym. When most out-of-shape people join a gym, they’re not too sure about the whole exercise thing. Granted, after trying out the elliptical, free weights, leg press, or spinning classes, some will quit because they don’t like it there. On the other hand, some people may realize how much better their health is because of the gym and enthusiastically embrace fitness, invite others to join, or become trainers themselves! But, if they couldn’t come to the gym because they weren’t fit enough to join, that can’t happen!
How can unbelievers or seekers become believers if we don’t welcome them into our churches? How can people be transformed by God’s word if they don’t hear it? How can they call on His name without knowing who Jesus is? How can they know Him if they haven’t met His followers? How can we preach God’s love if we don’t practice it? Granted, not everyone who comes will stay or choose to believe—but unless we welcome them into our church family, they may never become part of the body of Christ! What we must never do, however, is preach a modified, revised, or tweaked version of the Gospel to accommodate unbelievers. They must understand that, eventually, a decision has to be made—there is only one way into the Kingdom!
Our churches shouldn’t be private clubs where only believers know the secret handshake or password to get in the door! Jesus didn’t divide people into the washed and unwashed when He taught, prayed, healed, or ate—neither should we. When our Lord said He came for sinners, not those who thought themselves righteous, Jesus defined the mission of the church.
A local gym here claims to have a “non-judgmental” philosophy when it comes to joining—perhaps some churches around here need to adopt it, as well!
The church is not a select circle of the immaculate, but a home where the outcast may come in. It is not a palace with gate attendants and challenging sentinels along the entrance-ways holding off at arm’s-length the stranger, but rather a hospital where the broken-hearted may be healed, and where all the weary and troubled may find rest and take counsel together. [James H. Aughey]