What should we do about people’s ulterior motives for coming to church?

One of the issues we run into regularly in our church is that of ulterior motives. We have a number of people who come to the church whilst seeking asylum. It doesn’t take a genius to see that such people have a whopping big (potential) ulterior motive for coming to the church. Sadly, there are those who believe if they appear to be faithful, the church will support them in court and they will get their asylum; as soon as they get it, away they go, never to be seen again.

That isn’t to suggest all, or even most, are doing this. We have seen plenty of genuine folks who stick around when they get refugee status. We have seen others who move on and we know to be blessing other churches elsewhere in the country. But the truth is, we can never be sure – or as close to sure as one might hope to get – until after the fact. The ever present danger of ulterior motives hangs in the air.

But, of course, it isn’t only asylum seekers for whom this is a live issue. I can think of a list as long as your arm of reasons why people come to church. Many indigenous Brits come for cultural reasons inasmuch as it is something they have always done and a habit they never kicked. Others come for social reasons; they just enjoy hanging out with people who have become their friends. Some enjoy the intellectual stimulation of a sermon, without any of it necessarily affecting their heart, while others love a good sing-song despite the words meaning very little to them in reality.

On top of all these sorts of ulterior motives, there are those who have needs they believe the church will meet. They know they can get free (or cheap) food, help filling in forms, access to support, a friendship network, they can be needed in service, they can do all sorts of things. Again all sorts of ulterior motives for coming to church that owes little to a response to the gospel.

So what should we do when we know, or we suspect, people are coming to the church for these sorts of reasons? What should we do to, and about, people with ulterior motives?

Praise God they’re coming

Let’s be honest, many of us had ulterior motives for going to church the first time. Some of us were dragged there by parents, others invited by friends and we didn’t want to be rude, others still were desperate and hoped we would “find something” when we got there. We aren’t immune from these things. But in God’s providence, for many of us, he used our ulterior motives to get the gospel through to us. In his goodness, he took our desire (whatever it was) and used it for the good of our salvation. In exactly the same way, praise God that he is bringing people into contact with his gospel through their particular desires. It may be the very means he is using to bring them to himself.

Pray for them

To that end, pray for their salvation. If God can work his plan of salvation through the heinous sin of unjustly crucifying the Lord Jesus, he can work through the considerably less serious issue of ulterior motives. Pray that the Lord would use the desire to be there, for whatever reason, to save them.

Welcome them

The church should be a place where sinners are welcome. That, of course, does not mean we affirm sin and encourage it to continue. But it does mean people who sin should be able to come and experience the grace of the gospel.

One way we can help that to happen is by serving people’s needs. We had one bloke who came to the church because somebody invited him, he was bored and had nothing else to do and he was promised free food. He was quite clear he had no interest in Christianity and was coming for those things alone. He stuck around and ended up trusting in Christ and now serves as a deacon. That all came about because we gladly served and met his ulterior motive for coming. He felt welcomed, he saw what went on and he stayed and trusted in Christ.

Preach and demonstrate the gospel

Just because people are coming for all sorts of reasons doesn’t stop us from meeting that real need that must be met. At the end of the day, the only unique thing the church has to offer is the gospel. People can get friends, tins of food, handouts and support from any number of other places. The one thing the church has got, that nobody else does, is the most important thing they need. So, make sure you give it to them. Tell people the gospel and give it to them straight. The Lord will only turn ulterior motives into godly ones if somebody actually tells the people coming the gospel. Unless it is heard, understood and seen those ulterior motives will never change. So make sure the gospel is preached, proclaimed, taught, explained, applied and lived out. Do not let anybody leave without understanding that Jesus is what they really need.

Be clear sighted

Ultimately, if people are coming with ulterior motives, whilst we should certainly welcome, it pays to be clear sighted about why they are really coming. If we know people are coming for the free food, it doesn’t mean not giving it to them; it just means we are aware that’s why they are really coming. We, therefore, need to think about how we can encourage their focus away from what they think they need most and onto what they actually need most; namely, the gospel.

The other reason to be clear sighted is so we don’t get disheartened. The fact is, some people with ulterior motives will never move beyond them. They will come for the stuff and they will eventually drift off because they don’t feel everything else is worth putting up with to get it. Or, of course, they might not get whatever it is they had originally come for anymore. The sad fact is, that will happen. The Lord won’t save everyone who rocks up for non-gospel reasons. Just being clear about that will stop us falling into despondency every time people don’t stick around.