In your mind, what are the most appealing aspects of our churches for nonbelievers? Is it the personal invitation? The welcoming and thrilling atmosphere? The uniqueness and oddity of Christian worship?
When it comes to corporate worship, I’ve been a bit of a nomad. I grew up a missionary kid, and now have served both in American churches and overseas. I’ve seen the gamut of approaches. In Africa, I’ve been to a church without walls. Anyone nearby knows exactly what happens under that thatched roof. The bright colors of their Sunday best and the loud joy of West African believers sing the invitation, “Come and see our God!”
The gatherings in suburban America, by comparison, are walled in and so tucked away from their neighbors. They often rely on more creative efforts to make their presence known, like professional music, stage lights and smoke, seeker-focused sermons, and craft coffee. It’s still a “Come and see” strategy to reaching the lost but tries to bend worship to look and feel like the surrounding culture.
Still other churches emphasize sending. Sunday mornings are for the saints. While nonbelievers are certainly welcome, the emphasis is on going and telling. As they go out into the workforce and weekly rhythms of errands and bumping into neighbors or strangers, the saints share the good news of the gospel and invite nonbelievers to embrace Christ.
While none of these approaches is necessarily wrong, any one of them (by itself) may be missing how God means to draw people — and not only in the new covenant, but even in the old.
Wisdom of Israel
Moses delivered his final sermons to Israel as the people prepared to enter the long-awaited Promised Land. The western banks of the river meant, for Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Genesis 13:16–17; Deuteronomy 1:8). With God’s help, they would conquer the land, wipe out its idolatry, and become a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
Israel was called to be a holy people whose way of life reflected the righteousness of their God. Their obedience was meant to be a light to other nations.
Keep [these statutes and rules] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6)
God’s law, his gift of grace to the Israelites, was designed to lead them in love toward him and toward one another (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37–40; Galatians 5:14). God desired their flourishing as a nation, as they walked with him in the righteousness for which he created them (Deuteronomy 4:7–8; 5:33). The people of Israel, centered on the worship of God (first at the tabernacle and then the temple), were never intended to be a reclusive nation tucked into that narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. They were meant to shine forth to the surrounding nations as an expression of the goodness of God.
As the surrounding nations watched this strange people, they would see the remarkable fruit of Israel’s two great loves and recognize them as a nation full of wisdom and understanding.
Wisdom of the Church
That’s how Israel drew the nations to God, but what about true Israel, the church? Hours before he went to the cross, Jesus took time with his disciples to prepare them for the events of his death and subsequent return to the Father. Like Moses, he gave them a commandment to follow as they began their boundary-crossing mission to the world.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)
Jesus had just given them a dramatic display of the kind of love he was describing. During supper, he stood up, laid aside his outer garment, and washed their feet. The new commandment Jesus gave the disciples that night was a command to love as he loved.
“As your Teacher, I washed your feet. Go and do likewise.”
“As your Savior, I am laying down my life for the sake of yours. Go and do likewise.”
“Love one another with the same kind of love with which I have loved you.”
What wondrous love is this love of Christ? It is not the love demanded by so many today, which sets the self on center stage and requires unconditional acceptance. Neither is it the natural love that exists between friends or family or a married couple (see Matthew 5:46–47). It’s a distinct love, a unique love, a renewing, life-giving love that causes those who receive it, in the words of Augustine, to be “new men, heirs of the new covenant, singers of the new song” (Homilies on the Gospel of John, 65.1).
Jesus told his followers that as they loved one another in this way — in the same manner as he loved them, with the renewed love that he bestowed on them — the world would come to recognize that they were his disciples. This love stoops down in humility to serve and, if necessary, even to die. “This love like mine,” Jesus says in effect, “will be your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations.”
Gathered Together on Mission
Every time our churches gather — on Sundays, in small groups, and in a thousand informal ways throughout the week — we have an opportunity to put the love of God on display to a watching world. What will draw nonbelievers to God is not necessarily the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that can be curated with large meeting spaces and expansive budgets. Nor will it be mere evangelistic invitations. Rather, it will be the simple attractiveness of how his people love and keep loving. Concerning this, Augustine writes,
This is what he conferred upon us by loving us — that we would be bound together among ourselves by mutual love, and that by so sweet a bond and the reciprocity of its members that we would be the body of so great a head. (Homilies on the Gospel of John, 65.2)
This love cooks a meal for a tired and suffering family. It opens its home with the arms of welcome. It happily lingers after a worship service has ended, looking for burdens to bear and hearts to encourage. It prays in secret places, lifting others to God. It plans (and budgets) for the needs, expected and unexpected, that will come.
Ordinary Christian one-anothering is revelatory. When believers bear the fruit of love in how we relate to one another, it reveals that we are true children of God (1 John 3:10). It reveals who this God is and what he’s like. This means our mission doesn’t start when we scatter from our Sunday morning or midweek gatherings to our various homes and workplaces. When we gather and when we scatter, the church is on mission to display God’s love.