by Rev. Dan P. Gilbert
Recently, I met with some members of one of our congregations for a Q & A about a number of issues. It was a good dialog, just like one would hope for among children of God. There were differences of opinion and even disagreements, but all spoke with respect, kindness, and gentleness—the kind of thing that comes only from the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel.
One of the topics that arose was this: How do we reach out to, or start new outreach to, people who are not believers and who do not come to church?
There is some good scriptural teaching on this topic that we have to know well in order not to do the wrong things and not to condemn things that are good.
First, it’s false doctrine to expect that unchurched unbelievers will come to church on their own. We read in 1 Cor. 12:3: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (ESV). Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).
Paul wrote to believers regarding their lives before they came to faith: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1). We confess in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel. . . .” Unbelievers do not choose to believe; they do not choose on their own to come and hear the Gospel. In order to believe, they must hear the Gospel, because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Unbelievers, then, will not, on their own, choose to come and hear the Gospel. We (the Church) must go to them. So don’t expect your unbelieving, un-churched, un-baptized neighbors to wake up next Sunday morning and, on their own, say, “Hey! I think I’ll go to church today!” That is as likely as a dead person saying, “Hey! I think I’ll be alive now!” It’s not going to happen.
So we (the Church) go to the unbelievers. We engage them in conversations about God’s message of sin and forgiveness in His Son. We proclaim it to them, and we invite them to come and hear more of it. And where do we go to do that?
A Scriptural Model
In Acts, we read how Paul and his companions usually went to a synagogue upon entering a new town. In Philippi, where there was no synagogue, they went to the river to find a place of prayer. But in neither case did they immediately set up a table, buy some bread and wine, say the Lord’s words of institution and invite the people to the Lord’s Supper. The people there weren’t yet believers in Jesus; so the Lord’s Supper was properly closed to them. First, Paul and the others conversed about and proclaimed the message of salvation—always with the hope, prayer, and intent of bringing their hearers to the promises of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the Holy Spirit worked faith through the proclamation of the Good News.
One of my favorite models is Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16–34). Paul went both to the marketplace and to the Areopagus—places where people gathered for a number of things, including what we might call “just hanging out” to talk about stuff. And he talked with them about sin, grace, Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection. He did not conduct the Divine Service; he did not preside over and serve the Lord’s Supper; he went to where people went to hang out, and he engaged them with the message of sin and the message of forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Great!
Now here’s the question for me, for you, for your congregation: “Where’s your Areopagus?”
I’m not talking about a place in Asia or Africa, or in Europe or Latin America. I’m talking about right there in your community, in my community, in this post-Christian culture. That’s not an easy question to answer, and I’m not giving you the answer. But I encourage you as an individual, and as a congregation, to ponder, discuss, pray about, and act upon it as the Lord leads. Since you cannot expect unbelievers to come to hear the Gospel on their own, where do you as a person, as a congregation, go to take the Gospel to them, or to invite them to come and hear it?
This is the question I posed to the congregation that day, and the one I’m posing to you, to all of us.
Through all your pondering and discussing, I encourage you to pray daily that the Lord will send workers into His harvest; that He will multiply new churches and new believers; and that He will add to our number daily those who are being saved.
About the Author: Rev. Dan P. Gilbert is president of the LCMS Northern Illinois District.