The following question is likely to be an area of surprising controversy to some of you out there: Who should we expect to fill the pews on Sunday at church/what should the purpose of the sermon be? (And for those of you in the know out there, please excuse my coarsely unhip terminology). This seems like a no-brainer, right? Okay, then who? Do you have a verse? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Opinions on this question vary, going from the idea that it should only be unbelievers (and purely evangelistic sermons) to only believers (and purely discipling services) and all levels of moderation in between. Everyone has an argument and a verse, but honestly I believe at the end of the day that this comes down to autonomy of the church in making the decision. Ideally I believe that the church should be partly evangelistic and partly discipling, acknowledging that the purpose of our gathering is largely for the building up of the saints (cf. Hebrews 10.24-25), but that there are likely unbelievers or false professors there who need the gospel, and even if there aren’t it’s not always a bad thing to remind believers of the gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.1-4).
Beyond the tilt of for believers versus for unbelievers comes the question of who’s lifestyle carries the day? Should the church inside cater to believers or unbelievers? Again, seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not. We want to be open and encouraging of the poor and lame coming to Christ, but in the white, suburban American megachurch mentality, this seems to be something of novelty that we feel pride over, not something we actually are serious about. The illustration I always use here is of a story that a church member told me about a hippie (for real hippie, this was back in the 70′s) who walked the aisle of our church one Sunday. The church applauded the fact that God could take someone who didn’t shower and dressed in all kinds of tie-dyed rags and make a believer out of him. How wonderful is the diversity in the body of Christ! And yet, my first thought in hearing this story was, “How did the church view his dress the next Sunday?”
It’s true. In so many churches and in the mentality of so many church-goers, people who have truly been saved must come to church cleaned up, bringing their best before the Lord, both in physical and spiritual appearance. We don’t want a hot mess of human depravity coming to church in jeans and a t-shirt saying they’re a Christian, because, I mean, clearly they’re not, right? I’ve even had someone tell me that, sure, a person in rags may come to God during a Sunday service, but as they are progressively sanctified they will make sure to dress nicer on Sunday mornings. Wow! Talk about white-washed tombs!
The thought is this: progressive sanctification leads people to dress better and not talk about their sin so much. Yeah, that definitely sounds wrong when articulated, but nonetheless it tends to be the prevailing philosophy in most of our congregations.
Matt Chandler addressed his church on this two Sunday’s ago, talking about complaints over the way some strippers who have been visiting the church were dressing and various other nuisances. Chandler iterated that sanctification leads to better choices over time, but then he had this to say about who the church expects to fill the pews on Sundays:
“The rule to get in the door can’t be ‘Mature Christian faith’, because that’s cruise ship, country club, nonsense.”
I completely agree. We need to quit expecting these white-washed tombs to gather together on Sunday mornings for a lifeless hour of worship and a sterile 45 minutes of small group where no one has any flaws, no one has sin they are struggling with, and everyone has a prayer for a friend who does not seem to have things nearly as together as they do. We must honestly answer the question for ourselves of “Who should we expect to fill the pews on Sunday at church?” and then not be afraid of the grittiness and reality that some of our answers will bring.