Is Church for Believers Only?


Reading an intriguing post about Ted Haggard and his return to the role of pastor triggered a long-held belief of mine:

Church is meant for believers only.

When I consider the state of the American Church, I’ve got to think that our emphasis on encouragingSainte-Chapelle church stained glass lost people to come to our church meetings has only succeeded in diluting our ultimate effectiveness. As it is said: The good is often the enemy of the best.

The early Church model was to send believers out, beyond the doors of the assembly. They shared Christ out in the streets. When the lost outside responded to the message and became believers, they were brought into the church assembly proper.

Today, though, we have believers bringing the lost into the church assembly with the hopes that the church leaders will convert them.

I believe this is a grave error for the following reasons:

1. All teaching and preaching within the church ends up dumbed down. Whether intentional or not, the tendency is to preach and teach to the lowest common denominator—which in this case are the lost. This robs the believers of their opportunity to “go to the next level.”

2. The church remains in justification mode and never moves into sanctification mode, so long-term discipleship suffers. Momentum for mission is lost when unbelievers in the seats cause problems within the church assembly, especially if they have been attending a long time and remain steadfast in their unwillingness to repent and come to Christ. They drain resources that may best be spent elsewhere.

3. The believers in the seats can punt their need to understand the salvation process and how to present the Gospel to others, instead relying on their leaders to do that work through the Sunday meeting. This robs everyone of growth and aborts one of the major bedrock gains of the Protestant Reformation: the priesthood of all believers.

I see this time and again, yet the modern model remains.

What if we made it known that our church was meant for believers only ? How would it change the way we function, grow, and meet the needs of the lost?

30 thoughts on “Is Church for Believers Only?

  1. Dan,
    I think you are correct. My friend, Dave Fitch, sees the Sunday gathering as a time to teach and exhort believers and has actually discouraged some non-believing friends of his from attending. I remember being stunned at first when he said that, thinking “how unwelcoming.” Yet, church folk are being taught to welcome the stranger in their homes as well as being welcomed into the strangers homes (see Luke 10), engage them wherever they meet and to actively love folk whether they are believers or not.

  2. David

    Spot on. The body of Christ is no place for an unbeliever. Harsh, but true. By inviting unbelievers into the body, we weaken the body. The fellowship of believers is for building up and edification, not evangelizing. We need a strong body so we can be in the world and make disciples while there. By handing that responsibility over to the church leadership, we make it more difficult for them to do their job, which is studying the scriptures and praying, and harder for the sheep to grow and be built up.

  3. I’ve believed something along these lines for awhile now. It seems assumed in many if not most church service settings that this is a time when an evangelistic presentation will be given and people might come to know Christ.

    Which may or may not actually be happening. Putting the best construction on it, it probably happens occasionally, yet at the cost of giving believers any depth of content as you say, and also probably hoodwinks a bunch of people into thinking people are getting saved when they’re not.

    Yeah, I pretty much don’t see church as “a place to invite you unbeliever friends so they can hear the Gospel” anymore.

    And wow, what an easy excuse not to have to open your mouth on hard issues like sin and the cross….pretty sure I’ve gone down that road before.

  4. I agree with every one of your points as things that ought not be but I do not agree with the conclusion you draw. Scripture causes me to presume unbelievers are among us (e.g., instructions regarding tongues).

    With that in my mind, I conclude the issue is not that there are non-believers among but that we confuse our organization, our meeting location/time, and our liturgy with “the Church” and we have a incorrect notion that unbelievers should feel comfortable among us.

    Interestingly, just this week I gave the “ok” for an unbeliever to participate in my small group – something I haven’t done since leading groups >20 years.

    • Rick, et al.,

      Here’s the passage:

      If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
      —1 Corinthians 14:23-26

      You are correct about the 1 Cor. 14 passage (and I knew someone would call it up), though I have always understood that while the young Church did not prevent “outsiders” or “unbelievers” from attending, it was not intended to supplant the standard mode of operation. Given that the young churches often met in public places, curious onlookers would be expected (which explains the “out of your minds” comment, which is similar to Acts 2). I tend to see that passage in that context, especially considering how Paul wrote about the churches elsewhere. Whether that applies to our standalone church buildings is open to interpretation, though I believe that hospitality must always be extended. This differs from catering primarily to the outsider or unbeliever, though, which is what I think too many of our churches do, especially those that self-label as “seeker sensitive.”

  5. For believers I reckon, but with an open door – and with that kind of gospel-saturated prophetic word that exposes hearts and brings repentance and worship and awareness of the presence of God.

  6. Excellent thoughts Dan. Instead of equipping all believers for the work of ministry, the church gathering is seen as a place for us to invite unbelievers to come. The recovery of a Biblical understanding of the church gathering will be absolutely vital as Christianity ceases to be the default position in America.

  7. Diane R

    I agree with you completely. A few months ago, an example occurred to me and I would like to share it. Wonder if you meet some nice people at work and find out they’re Mormons. You’re curious about the Mormon church in your town and decide to check it out. Let’s say they are a “seeker-sensitive” Mormon church and tell you stuff you want to hear. So, you decide to keep attending. Then about six months later you find out what they REALLY believe. You feel deceived and that this was a kind of “bait-and’switch” deal. Or put a Roman Catholic church into this story. Would we as evangelicals like this? NO! Well, then why would non-believers like it when we do it? They won’t! You are absolutely correct that we need to preach and teach the faith to beleivers while being inviting, gracious and good hosts/hostesses to non-believers. It is up to the Holy Spirit to draw sinners, not us with our cutsey “methods.”

  8. Excellent points, Dan. I’ve often thought similar things, scratching my heads as to why out church gatherings don’t seem to line up with what is described in the New Testament. When I’ve stated such beliefs in the past, I’ve been looked at with confusion or have been outright rebuked.

    A lot of what goes on now under the Evangelical tent is geared toward the “unchurched”, “dechurched” or those “far from God”. I think that the attractional model is adding to those who are so called “dechurched”, because of this focus. Some of the sheep are hungry to be fed, but the “leaders” are telling them that they need to go feed themselves.

    There is a big focus right now in evangelical circles to be “missional”, getting out into the community to reach others. It would seem that evangelical leaders know that there is something missing in the attractional model, so they’ve come up with another program to take that attractional model outside of the four walls of the church. The problem is, if we’re just going out to be nice to the community (meet needs, but don’t be “spiritual”), we’re not telling them what they need to hear.

    Those of us who consider ourselves be more mature believers are at fault in this as well. If we’re not being like Paul and proclaiming the gospel in the marketplace, and are expecting that the leader on the platform will do all of the having evangelical lifting, then we’re part of the problem.

  9. Dan, what then is the place for the non-believer or the seeker? You can’t really weed out all the non-believers…so would the best thing be to gear the service towards Christians, and make that clear to everyone who comes in?

    • Brian,

      I don’t think the seeker model works, so we shouldn’t gear our church services around seekers or cater the entire service to them. The big “C” Church is only believers, so shouldn’t that be the same with our assemblies? This is not to exclude unbelievers entirely, but we have got to start thinking differently about who the church is for.

      In his book The Great Giveaway, Pastor David Fitch makes it known to people in the seats of his church that if they want the benefits of the church, then they must be born again and commit to the church. Otherwise, they need to move on. Fish or cut bait. That’s what church leaders need to start telling people. Maybe that’s a bit “seeker hostile,” but that’s why it is better to go outside the doors of the church and do the work outside than to try to bring people in before they are ready.

      • Carl Thompson

        Kingdom greetings Bro. Dan. I totally agree with you 100%. This is what I been teaching for sometimes now; We need to go outside the church and evangelized the unchurched and get them converted before we bring them into the church. I am a firm believer, that you cannot invite a thief into your house and expect him/her not to steal. This would be foolish on our part. And so it is with the unchurched. We cannot bring them in among the sheeps and expect them to behave like one. The reason why the Churches are in such ruin now is because we too many wolves among the sheeps. We need to do what Jesus commission the eleven disciples to do and that is “GO OUT” “TEACH” BAPTIZED” and Then bring them to the CHURCH and “TEACH” them to observed the commands of GOD.

  10. Robert T

    It’s a confusing line for most. A couple years back I came to the conclusion that the church is for the believer and the believer is compelled to witness or demonstrate. This line of thinking drives those with the gift of evangelism nuts. They don’t ever really understand those of us that don’t have the gift.

    The words of a respected friend of mine kept ringing in my ears. “I work with sinners, shop with sinners, go to baseball games with sinners, drive the streets with sinners, etc. I want to worship Christ with those sanctified by Him.” It hit me hard and harsh at the time, but as I grew to understand the spirit of the statement I became more convinced his point was good.

    I don’t want to close the door to the unbeliever. Jesus presented a kingdom present and available and citizenship was attainable to all. But citizenship has a burden that many of the sanctified don’t even attempt to shoulder. I agree that if we spent more focus on the believer that we would see stronger believers and the ultimate result would be disciples who are compelled to witness.

    I’ve seen to many churches refer to “making disciples” as making converts. My own personal discipleship has gone light years beyond my conversion. The good stuff is on the other side of conversion. I fear to often we lead people to the cross of Christ and leave them there.

    • Robert,

      I don’t believe there is a “gift of evangelism.” Everyone is called to evangelize. The office of the evangelist in the Church (an office too few of our churches recognize—and it should be recognized) is for those called to it, but if you have the Holy Spirit in you, then you can evangelize. Otherwise, how is the Great Commission fulfilled if only a few are gifted for evangelizing?

      Like I have said in other places in this blog, I don’t see why each Christian can’t be instrumental in leading two people to Christ each year. Seriously, that’s not an outrageous goal. That we are nowhere near that is the issue.

      I agree entirely with your thoughts about discipleship versus conversion.

  11. Paul Walton

    Are you kidding me? Where in the New Testament do we read that we should exclude unbelievers from meetings? I’ll agree that perhaps it shouldn’t be the first place we invite them too, our home, or for coffee, but exclude unbelievers from meetings, I don’t agree at all.

    • Paul,

      I didn’t say that we exclude nonbelievers from our meetings. We shouldn’t. But neither should we promote their being there as the norm. What is normative is to go outside the doors, lead people to Christ, THEN bring them into the assembly. If some come into the assembly before they know Christ, well, that happens, and I think the Bible makes allowances for that. But the problem is that too many of our churches are geared to reaching the lost inside the church itself, which short-circuits the reality that the local church is not a pregnancy care center but a school and a fellowship of the reborn. (Also see my reply to BrianD.)

      • Paul Walton

        On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” John 7 37-38

        Sorry buddy I know your thirsty for living water but we only want people who have already drank of the Lord in our services. Go find the Lord on your own and then come back, oh yeah be blessed.

        • Paul,

          I don’t see where anything I’ve said negates John 7:37-38. No one is forbidding anyone to come to Jesus. As I’ve demonstrated and backed up, the model is to send people out of the assembly to lead people to Christ and then bring them into the church assembly. At no point does that violate the John passage.

          Nor am I saying that unbelievers must be turned away if they show up in church on Sunday. I’ve made that clear elsewhere. We should be wildly hospitable, but without compromising our meeting.

          Lastly, since streams of living water flow from all believers as noted in the John passage, why then are we relying so heavily on our local church leaders to evangelize the lost in the middle of our church meetings? Is our discipleship so deficient that we can’t be streams out in the highways and byways?

          • Paul Walton

            The underscored message I’m hearing, if I were an unbeliever, is your not really wanted in our meetings. I think you are conflicting two different issues, pastors should be teaching disciples how to evangelize, we should not be telling unbelievers to stay away from our meetings.

            New believers need to be taught in a life on life manner how to evangelize, that is a part of dicipleship that has been over-looked by pastors and elders.

            We shouldn’t be tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

  12. Mark

    I think the question that begs to be answered is this: what is our primary goal as the body of Christ? Is it to save the lost? Is it to feed the poor? Is it to build large buildings? Or, is it to become, individually and corporately, more like Christ, so that we exhibit His characteristics more than our own? Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 2 Corinthians 3:18 states “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” I also love Ephesians 4, where Paul discusses the gifts given by Christ, and the purpose of those gifts to bring about maturity in the body (Ephesians 4:11-16). There is no doubt that we are called to proclaim the gospel to the lost, but in my opinion that proclamation comes verbally, but also by our living example. As we seek Christ, we become more salt and light than we are now, and unbelievers are drawn. In light of the above discussion, I fully agree with Dan. I also don’t believe in excluding unbelievers, but our meetings should primarily be to train, equip and disciple believers, so that WE can go out and minister, as the Spirit leads.

    I also believe that our current mode of meeting hampers the process of spiritual growth, as it allows individual believers to abdicate their responsibility to seek Christ to the “Pastor”, and doesn’t give opportunity to those who don’t abdicate, and do seek Christ, to express that part of Christ that is within them. To many people’s gifts remain silent, and we can not grow as a body if this is the case. Where is the New Testament model of plurality of eldership?

  13. TonyP.


    Once again you are ahead of me in this, but God has been showing me these same things….

    Probably explains why I am a churchless pastor… 🙂

    Grace and peace.


  14. Dave

    The church is already a social club, sounds like some folks want it to be even more exclusive. If we really break it down the church in America isn’t even biblical. If it were there would be no need for welfare or food stamps for WE would be feeding the poor and taking care of the homeless. Million dollar churches does not equate to loving your neighbor I don’t care how you slice it. If we were re-creating the examples of Jesus the sinners would flock to us just like they flocked to Jesus when he taught, loved, fed, and healed people. We wouldn’t be able to keep them out. We’d be open 7 days a week, and we’d change the world. Jesus said GO!, He never said “market”.

    • Dave,

      A couple things:

      1. Read more of this blog. You’ll see that almost all of the issues you raise have been addressed here.

      2. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Church marketing. Making a church appealing to others is no sin. The problem is when marketing covers over a multitude of sins or comes at the expense of genuine ministry.

  15. Victoria

    I was always taught as a protestant that you could invite others to hear God’s Word. I also believe that church is where Christians get fed. I just recently was told by someone in my church that I attend, that Church is only for Believer’s. I thought that we are to share our faith by example and the word. You never know where a seed is planted. I believe that various churches devote themselves to different acts for their church. Such as the Homeless, Missions Etc.

    • Victoria,

      Jesus was always admonishing us to go out and share the Good News to the people “out there.” Once they receive the Good News with joy, we are to bring them in. I can’t find anything in the Scriptures that advocates for a different method. This is not to say that unbelievers won’t wander into our meetings now and then—and we should welcome them—but that’s not the preferred method.

  16. craig

    I can’t see how a church can pray with unbelievers. This cannot be a prayer of faith. Jesus often had unbelievers wait outside while he healed someone or raised the dead. Years ago when I had a friend who was a JW, my pastor asked me to invite her to church. She would not have understood much and probably would have found the whole thing weird.

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