“A Church is never any bigger than the front door to the back door on any given Sunday. I know some pastors brag about this, “We don’t have many, but we keep them.” That’s death folks, thats what the cemetery does.” – John Wimber
It seems as though John Wimber was taken from us too soon. But his wisdom still speaks to us. The quote above shows how much we need to care about The Front Door, that is, new people coming into our congregations. And also how much we need to care about new people coming into Christian faith.
How can we close the front door? Well, we could demand our worship services be performed in Latin. Or we could be like a certain German congregation I knew which had ‘All Welcome’ written on their sign. (Except it was in German!) But both of these probably aren’t high-risk temptations for many congregations. We ma not be literally closing the front door in people’s faces but we can lose our awareness of what it is like to enter a worship meeting for the first time. And we can forget what it is like to know nothing (or nearly nothing) about the Christian faith. Does the sermon make sense? Is the community welcoming? Is what is going on being explained in such a way as to help new people understand?
We forget that our worship gathering is a public act. We are never really alone. When we gather as a community of faith it is not private. We are a family. But we’re not a family that eats with their elbows up and there isn’t a place for anyone new to sit. A congregation must be a community with permeable edges. Someone has to be able to see their way in. This is not just true of those who are already Christians. People with no background in faith have to be able to see the Gospel enfleshed in the local community. They may not believe as we do. They may not be comfortable with everything we say or do. But they must have the door opened to them so that they can at least begin to understand what it’s all about. But isn’t that compromising? Does that mean we have to cater to unbelievers or the lowest common denominator? Isn’t that the beginning of the slippery slope to Seeker-sensitivity? Well…no. It isn’t. It’s love. And it’s a concern for what God’s heart is all about. He wants people to be introduced to Him. And the local Church is the place to do it.
What does the Bible say about the front door? Does it say anything? Well, turns out it does. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he actually calls on them to consider the presence (actual or inevitable) of outsiders in the midst of the worship meeting. Read:
23 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? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 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. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 ESV (emphasis added)
1 Corinthians 14 is not an easy chapter of the Bible to navigate. But it is the passage of Scripture that gives some of the clearest instruction on what Church should worship like. A few important observations:
-Paul is expecting the presence of two types of folks: outsiders and unbelievers. That means folks who may have little to no idea about Christianity. It may also include visiting Christians who may be unfamiliar with the pattern of worship a particular congregation has. He uses the word if . That means even if they may not be there, take into account that they might be sometimes. This is important because if you aren’t already caring about them, they probably won’t be showing up.
-He gives instructions about worship gatherings but isn’t laying out an exact template. But he is encouraging them to err on the side of intelligibility – hence prophecy over tongues. Tongues is great but don’t preach in them because then you can’t be understand. And you’ll seem crazy. Prophecy can be understood. It is in the understanding that the power lies. Paul wants outsiders and unbelievers to be able to understand what is going on.
-Paul’s NOT discouraging use of spiritual gifts or passionate worship. He’s not saying to tone it down to cater to non-Christians. This is NOT seeker-sensitive compromising to tickle the fancies of those who don’t know God. It’s love. God’s heart burns for those who don’t know Him to hear of Him. Paul’s instructions here are really a call to awareness that is rooted in love.
The Front Door of a Church – keeping it open – is really about love. Being aware of what it’s like to walk through for the first time may be more important now than ever before. We must never forget that we do not exist, we do not worship, we do not meet just for ourselves. We do it first for God, true! But we must never forget that Church isn’t a closed spiritual club. To be like that – even in the name of some deepness – is a slow way to die. Hear it from Big John if not from me. Church is a community (and a meeting which defines that community) for the sake of the Gospel. And that Gospel needs to be heard and understood.