For nearly 20 years I have had a question lingering in the back of my mind: Who is church for? It really stems from the “seeker-sensitive” (SS) church movement that has Willow Creek and Saddleback as de facto flagship churches. The basic methodology of the SS movement is to bring seekers of God to church, where they will hear the gospel. And since Sunday morning is the time that most Americans think of when they consider going to church, the Sunday morning services are geared specifically and unabashedly toward seekers. Willow Creek has midweek services geared toward believers; I don’t know if Saddleback has a similar setup.
There are a wide range of criticisms of the SS model in general and of these churches in particular, but one is foremost in my mind: that “the church,” by definition, is comprised of believers in/followers of Jesus…and therefore, that when we gather as the church, we should gather as believers. In other words, a church service should not be primarily evangelistic.
Here is my quandary: I tend to agree with that from a strictly etymological standpoint, but not from a hermeneutical perspective. In other words, I agree with the dictionary definition of the Greek word for church, but not with the interpretive idea that simply because we don’t see a New Testament example of unbelievers coming to “church,” we should exclude them from our gatherings. Some people hold to the belief that our methods should align only with what is expressly allowed or clearly demonstrated in the Bible (or, more specifically, the New Testament). Others believe that we are free to do anything that is not expressly forbidden in scripture. I put myself somewhere in the middle, exercising great freedom and latitude in those areas where scripture is either silent or inconclusive. (And, of course, I think that is the best place to be, theologically!)
For now, here are my conclusions: the chief task of the body of Christ (i.e., the church) is to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). The first step to becoming a disciple is to answer Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Answering that invitation requires hearing it (cf. Romans 10:13-15). And if hearing it means coming to church on Sunday morning, then I say, Move over, Christian, and let the seeker have a seat!
Sidebar: One of my chief concerns with “come-and-hear” methodology is not a watering-down of the gospel that some lament; I don’t think that is a valid criticism. Rather, I am concerned that it may tend to downplay the personal responsibility for evangelism; “if I can simply invite my friend to church to hear the gospel, then maybe I don’t need to be so well-versed to share the gospel myself”. I do not believe that Willow Creek or Saddleback or most other SS churches actively teach this; in fact, I think they actively teach that I am responsible to share my faith. Nonetheless, it can offer an easy escape for someone not inclined to move out of their comfort zone.