By Lee Eclov
Part of the seeker-sensitive movement in churches was to make “unchurched Harry and Mary” comfortable if they came through the door. Songs were easy to pick up. There were great visuals and intriguing dramatic sketches. Instead of sermons, there were talks. Everything that happened on the stage was dynamic and well rehearsed.
Visitors could be mostly observers so that they weren’t scared away from church before they even heard the good news. Everything was done to put people at ease and to hold their attention. Whether or not we adopt this philosophy of ministry, many congregations have benefited from this sensitivity to unchurched people among us. In the past we were often oblivious to how foreign a church service was to people. We made it hard to come in.
That said, we may have missed what is most important. When Paul first wrote to the church in the pagan city of Corinth, he gave them instructions about their worship services. Some people who spoke in tongues had become arrogant about their gift. But Paul tells the church that the gift that was most valuable was prophesying, i.e., declaring God’s word and will. He writes in 1 Corinthians 14:24 –25,
But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”Worship services in the New Testament were not showrooms for church shoppers. They were appointments with the living God!The scene here is of an unsaved visitor coming into the typical worship service. The prophecies expressed by members of the church family were likely a combination of both Spirit-directed encouragement and warnings against sin. I suspect they were anchored in Old Testament passages. They may have been very specific, even personal. But rather than mere moral scolding, these prophecies had a powerful immediacy about them, striking unchurched Harry and Mary as personal words from God, laying bare the secrets of their hearts! They fell to their knees in worship, vividly aware that “God is really among you!” Worship services were not showrooms for church shoppers. They were appointments with the living God!
Paul continues in verse 26, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” Do you see why Christians gather? “So that the church may be built up,” and while that is happening the unbelievers and inquirers witness God’s life and love among us. Where else will they see God’s family life if not among us?
Consider a different picture. The Bible describes believers together as the living temple of God. Ephesians 2:22 says, “In him [Christ] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” First Corinthians 3:16 echoes, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
When we travel, I like to visit historic church buildings. The 350-year-old Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California. The tiny log Chapel of the Transfiguration at the base of the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. There is always a sacred hush in these places. But imagine we’re the temple which spiritual tourists visit on Sunday. Whatever it is that they think they are looking for, we must be sure they encounter the Lord among us.
It is easy to forget that even our worship is God’s gift to us before it becomes our gift to Him. Were it not for the working of the Holy Spirit, our songs and sermons would not get off the ground. We and our guests would go home unchanged. Therefore, our preparation for worship is crucial. I don’t mean our rehearsals or sermon study. I mean how we beseech our triune God to display His grace and truth when we gather.
God is certainly not reluctant to be among His people nor is He reclusive. But think how often God’s people in the Bible, oblivious to their terrible sins, presumed upon God’s presence when, in fact, He refused to be among them. Their worship was a fiction, all form and no function. The Lord God makes His presence felt among His people when we humble ourselves before Him and pray, not only during our worship services but before.
We must pray in advance of our services to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace. Sometimes, I’m sure, Jesus stands at our door knocking, only to be ignored, not because we don’t want Him, but because we are too preoccupied with our worship stuff to welcome Him in. Through our preparatory prayers, the Holy Spirit attunes people to the presence of God.
The second priority is that our guests must sense that God’s people love one another and them. After all, our love is how people know we’re Christians. This can be tricky. One woman told me that the first time they came to our church she felt like she walked into someone else’s family reunion. That’s almost good. She saw our love for one another but wasn’t sure how to break in to the family. When we love being with our brothers and sisters it is difficult to even see the guests among us unless we make it our priority.
We all know how oblivious our people can be to our guests. After a service recently I saw a first-time visitor across the foyer standing alone. Somebody talk to him! I thought. I started dodging and weaving through the crowd to get to him. When I did, we chatted a moment and I introduced him to Dave, who was standing nearby. But we almost ignored the guy!
For our guests to have those two powerful impressions—God’s presence and our love—we must pray because these are the Holy Spirit’s business. Perhaps we need to take specific steps, like recruiting prayer volunteers to form a worship preparation team. I call ours the Prelude Prayer Group. Ask them to pray several times each week for these two specific needs: (1) that all who come to the service(s) would sense that “God is really among you,” and (2) that it would be evident that these believers love one another and we love our guests. If possible, establish a time on Sunday morning when at least some of these people can meet to pray with one another before everything starts.
God wants to make His presence known among us! He wants people to realize how unique our love is for one another! God is hospitable. We are His family. Hospitality belongs in church. Company’s coming!
LEE ECLOV (@LeEclov) is Senior Pastor of the Village Church of Lincolnshire (Evangelical Free) in the northern suburbs of Chicago and author of several books, including Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything (©2019), from which this is excerpted. Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.