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Why You Should Stop Inviting Your Non-Christian Friends to Church

invite-envelopeA new movement was started entitled National Back to Church Sunday (NBCS). In September 2013, more than 21,200 churches participated in the event. The massive outreach attempt has continued to grow each year. It’s based on Thom Rainer’s research that “82 percent of the unchurched are likely to attend church if invited by a trusted friend or relative,” while “only 2 percent of church-going people invite someone to church in a given year.”

I’m lukewarm about efforts like this. This might surprise you coming from a former pastor. During my tenure as a staff pastor, I would applaud ANY effort to get visitors through the doors of our church. But now, from the other side of the pulpit, I see it differently. Here’s why.

Most Christians equate evangelistic outreach with inviting their friends to church. I think this is a mistake. No, I’m not suggesting that we should stop inviting people to church or that inviting them cannot be part of evangelistic outreach. My idea is this:

Sharing the gospel / making disciples, and inviting people to church, are two very different things.


For one thing, in many (if not most) cases, it’s an issue of inviting people BACK to church, as the NBCS campaign suggests. In other words, these are people with previous experience in a church. Perhaps they are backslidden. Maybe they never professed faith. Whatever the case, this potentially ignores two important groups of people with two potentially different spiritual conditions:

  1. Those who have no or little understanding of church, Christian culture, or the Gospel
  2. Those who aren’t in church because of objections to the church or faith issues, or emotional hurt from organized religion

My suggestion is that people in both of these groups require more than just an invitation to a church. Which brings me to my main concern about campaigns like this.

Inviting someone to church has become our default evangelistic approach. Rather than take time to cultivate a long-term personal witness, grow in articulating what we believe, learn to answer objections to the faith, and impart real-time grassroots discipleship, we simply hand off the faith baton to a pastor or someone more knowledgeable. In other words, inviting people to church can be a way to let myself off the hook.

Yes. In many cases, inviting someone to church can be used in conjunction with personal outreach and evangelism. It becomes a springboard for continued witness. But for many church-goers, I fear that inviting friends to church simplifies pacifies a sense of guilt and reinforces our own spiritual limitations. face it: the reason many Christians invite seekers to church is because they can’t sustain a good, persuasive argument for following Christ.

In the case of the non-Christian who is agnostic or antithetical toward the Christian faith, the better approach is not to invite them to church, but to befriend them, listen to their questions or objections, and over time, seek to answer them. This could take years.

In the case of the person who has previous experience in church but was wounded or disillusioned, the best approach is not to hope your church “isn’t like that,” but to find out what those objections and/or emotional roadblocks are and to listen, grapple with the pain, and gently offer answers or corrections to the dissent.

One more thing: Inviting people to church can potentially equate being a Christian with going to church. Don’t misunderstand me here. The Bible’s clear that following Christ entails fellowship with His people. Christians should attend a local church. But I don’t go to church to become a Christian, but because I am one. Inviting people to church — especially when church is mistakenly viewed as the place where people go to be / become more Christian — can subtly convey dangerous assumptions.

Bottom line: Evangelism should go on in the world, not the church. Most unchurched people do not need to be in a church first and foremost; they need to come in contact with real Christians in the marketplace; they need to experience a genuine sense of their own sin and moral failures, understand the reasons (historically and philosophically) how the Christian message addresses those issues, and they need to make a move toward Christ.

Going to a church may be a part of that. And it may not.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • StuartB April 10, 2014, 8:37 AM

    Agreement all around.

    This line too – “face it: the reason many Christians invite seekers to church is because they can’t sustain a good, persuasive argument for following Christ.”

    A friend of mine, who is a rather militant atheist, asked me a few years back just what is Christianity and why I was a Christian. Think I just stared at him for a minute before realizing I couldn’t articulate either well enough on the spot and told him I’d get back to him. It’s now 2014, and he reminds me I owe him answers sometimes, lol.

    That last half is increasingly tough for me to answer. At least honestly without resorting to sound bites from decades of church and Christianity. And I’ll be honest: for unsaved people, or even brand new believers, I don’t have a good answer. For long term believers…perseverance of saints? Where else would we go? It’s all we have left? I honestly don’t know. I know it’s more than fire insurance. I know it’s more than socio-political gain (but not much more in most evangelical circles). I know it’s more than some guilt “he died for us so we OWE him”. I’m still working on an honest answer for this instead of the right answer.

  • StuartB April 10, 2014, 8:39 AM

    “In the case of the non-Christian who is agnostic or antithetical toward the Christian faith, the better approach is not to invite them to church, but to befriend them, listen to their questions or objections, and over time, seek to answer them. This could take years.”

    This works best when the goal is NOT to convert them. I’ve seen too many believers immediately lose their friends and turn their back on them when they realize this person ain’t converting despite their efforts. We don’t support missionary dating, why do we support missionary friendships?

  • Sarah April 10, 2014, 9:53 AM

    I agree… now, if someone seems open to the worship-type experience, it’s good to choose a church that would possibly ‘fit’ or ‘be comfortable’, right? Like, if someone is young and outgoing etc., they might enjoy a large church with a ‘contemporary’ style of music, etc. If they are more conservative and introspective, a more traditional church might be good… If music is important to them, consider that before choosing a church to visit together…
    I am reading a book called COFFEE SHOP CONVERSATIONS: MAKING THE MOST OF SPIRITUAL SMALL TALK by Dale Fincher, and it is a great resource for this challenge of living out our faith in a sincere, loving way…

  • Lyn Perry April 10, 2014, 10:40 AM

    Understand your general point. But church services are by their very nature evangelistic. 1 Cor 14.24-25

  • Melissa Ortega April 10, 2014, 10:43 AM

    Agree so much!! I also feel that this trend has led to general Biblical ignorance in the church because pastors tend to speak to the un-churched in the crowd who could potentially be evangelized rather than to the believer who really really needs to move on to some meat. That in turn leads to the creation of additional programs to subsidize the lack and Christians are encouraged to attend those for substantial teaching. That sounds really nice, but personal experience with this has been that two things happen – 1. the same mentality bleeds into those programs and they become more like social clubs than real engagement with Bible teachings and 2. the subsidy programs just domino until the entire Christian experience is to be sucked up into the programs of the church and beyond the workplace (whose structure is very limiting), there is no real engagement with anyone outside the church at all. The encouraged engagement? Well, ask them to come to all this stuff with you.

    It just doesn’t work – and in fact just seems to be folding in on itself. And now, it is downright frightening to me how a large percentage of people I talk to outside the church have more Biblical knowledge than those inside. That’s just upside down!!

  • Jason Joyner April 10, 2014, 1:32 PM

    My theory is simple: instead of inviting them to come to a church, go and be a church to them. Minister to them. Show them His love and be authentically their friend. Pray for the times to share, but don’t blow them off if they don’t listen/accept right away.

  • Jason Haenning April 11, 2014, 6:45 AM

    An apt subject with great comments. When becoming embedded in religious culture, it is easy to forget that we are called to go into the world, not call the world to come to us.

    It would also help if believers more thoroughly understood basic biblical truths that corporate worship is not church, and the primary purpose of our gathering is not evangelizing non-believers. We are the Church, and our primary purpose of gathering is to worship God and encourage one another. By incorrectly associating church with a building, place or even an event and forgetting our identity and purpose, we present a skewed version of the gospel to non-believers.

    It is true that we should always call God’s people back to community when they have walked away from it. But in many cases, the prevalent methods of persuasion put the cart before the horse. If we are sharing God’s grace and truth, genuinely loving people where they are like Jesus did, the urge and opportunity to gather will come far more naturally.

  • Jason Haenning April 11, 2014, 7:07 AM

    StuartB – In reference to your comments about “missionary dating” – I have seen a disturbing trend of what I call Triple D – “Date ’em, Dunk ’em and Ditch ’em.” These underhanded, falsely founded relationships can cause such horrible damage. On the flip side, one could argue that all of our friendships are to be “missionary friendships” in some aspect, where we point them to God just as Jesus did because He is what is absolutely best for them. This of course assumes the relationship is formed out of integrity and genuine love for the person, not a personal agenda.

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