For a long time, I thought church should be a place where I could invite my friends who don’t believe in Jesus. Actually, I should be more specific. I thought Sunday morning church services should be places where I could invite my friends who don’t believe in Jesus. I don’t think that anymore.
When the members of our church come together on a Sunday morning, we come together as a community of believers, and we intend to worship God. To anyone who doesn’t know God and/or believe in Him, it’s awfully strange. We sing songs with words like, “We adore you” and “I want to live my life for you” and “In Christ alone my hope is found.” We celebrate preposterous ideas like Jesus rising from the dead. We talk about being sinners and needing salvation. We talk about needing Jesus’ blood. And, at least in our church, sometimes people raise their hands and close their eyes and pray out loud. No matter how “contemporary” the service, no matter how casual or formal it feels, no matter how enthusiastically the people in the pews (or chairs) welcome newcomers, worship is awfully strange for an outsider. And I suspect that’s as it should be.
I no longer intend to invite my friends who don’t believe in Jesus to church on Sunday morning. But I do hope that the churches we are involved in over the years will become communities that offer ways for outsiders to enter in. Again, I’m guessing a worship service isn’t a great point of entry. But I suspect there might be other ways to walk into God’s house, so to speak, without it seeming so intimidating or alien. A Bible Study, for instance, for men and women from our neighborhood, where everyone has a chance to participate should they want to do so and no one assumes they know what anyone else believes. A retreat designed for churchgoers to invite friends–complete with good food and time for relaxing together and also a speaker (but probably not a worship team) laying out the basics of Christianity and how following Jesus can change our lives.I used to work for a Christian ministry. We weren’t aiming to convert. We were aiming to introduce students to Jesus–through small group discussions, large group meetings with talks about the Christian faith, and through friendships and mentor relationships that developed over time. Generally after participating in these activities, which happened on school campuses or in friends’ houses or local coffee shops, it became appropriate to invite students to church, to invite them to move from observer to participant, from one who discusses God to one who worships God.
I’d like to think that similar opportunities could exist for my friends who aren’t in high school anymore and don’t have an itinerant youth worker coming to their lacrosse games or eating pizza with their friends. I’d like to imagine churches that continue to provide space for believers to worship together but who simultaneously provide a way for that worshiping community to go forth and invite friends and family to think and watch and wonder about the possibility of knowing God. This model depends upon the church providing structures for multiple points of entry–materials and training for Bible Study leaders, or programs like Socrates in the City or Spiritual Shots, or retreat weekends with compelling activities and speakers and so forth.
So when I say I’m not inviting my friends to church, I’m not giving up on them or on the church. Instead, I’m holding out hope that I (and you, if you too follow Jesus) will actually engage with our friends in a way that invites them to think about life with God. I’m holding out hope that an invitation will lead to a conversation will lead to transformation and that one day we might stand side by side, maybe even tentatively holding our hands in the air, worshiping the Lord together.