In certain circles, seeking to get unbelievers into church is seen as the highest possible goal. There is nothing better, according to some, when unbelievers come into the church and under the sound of the gospel. That, they aver, is what we ought to be about. At the risk of being deemed a contrarian, I just don’t think that is true.
What goes on inside the church is necessarily for the upbuilding of believers. The church is, after all, a gathering of believers. The world is not the church. What happens in the church is not primarily for the world. It is for believers.
This matters when it comes to our preaching. Sermons are not principally for the purpose of sharing the gospel with unbelievers. They are primarily for teaching and applying God’s Word to God’s people. Sermons are for Christians, first and foremost.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we kick all the unbelievers out the room on Sunday. Of course it is better for unbelievers to be in the room listening to the Word preached than outside not engaging with it at all. Of course the sermon should include some gospel clarity. Not least because the gospel is not just a message we believe when we first trust in Christ, but is the very heart of everything we do as believers thereafter. But we also want some gospel clarity because – even amongst those who think they are genuine believers already – some of them won’t be. It is only clear gospel preaching that will wake such people up to the fact that they don’t actually belong to Christ.
So, on any given Sunday, I fully expect believers and unbelievers to be present in the room. I am more than happy that unbelievers are there. I may even apply the gospel to them at points when, having made the key point I wanted to do, insist ‘this will not be true for you if you do not trust in the Lord Jesus.’ But I have no interest in making them feel comfortable. I am equally uninterested in making the sermon something of significance to them. They are guests looking in on our family time. As with any family you don’t belong to, there will be shared language, shared beliefs, shared culture, shared rituals that they consider normal that are totally alien to anyone from another family. There are inevitably things that unbelievers will find weird in the church; that is, in a sense, exactly as it should be.
The songs will be strange to many, communion is rightly weird to most people, the sermon may even speak into things that don’t always make a great deal of sense to an outsider. But we don’t change any of these things for the sake of the unbeliever. That is because the church meeting, fundamentally, is not for them. They are welcome to be there, to see what we do, but what happens on a Sunday morning is necessarily aimed at the believers. It is primarily for their benefit. Unbelievers may gain something from being there, they may be welcome, but ultimately what goes on it not principally for them.
Our sermons are not supposed to be 25-minute gospel appeals. The assumption in our preaching, certainly the majority of our preaching, must be that the people here are already believers. Of course, we have an eye on the few who may not be. It’s not to say we have absolutely nothing to say to them whatsoever. But our assumption must be the people in front of us, by and large, are Christians. They already know and believe the basic gospel message. That doesn’t mean we never remind them of those core gospel truths. It doesn’t mean we don’t preach gospel-centred messages. It just means our preaching is for those who already know and believe the gospel and so we aim it at, and apply it to, those who are already believers. We are not aiming to do evangelistic services every week. Evangelism is for those perishing outside our four walls. We ought to literally be preaching to the converted every week!
Can unbelievers gain from that sort of preaching? Of course they can. Is it better for them to engage with it than to never come under gospel-centred preaching? Of course it is. But what we do on a Sunday is not primarily for their benefit. The church is the meeting of God’s people. What happens in it is for the benefit of God’s people. Others are welcome to look in, but what we say and do is necessarily for the believers. It is in taking the gospel out to the world that preach the good news to the perishing.