Some Christians have a high view of church fellowship, in which people must put their faith in Jesus and agree with a doctrinal statement before they are allowed full entry into the Christian community.
On the other hand, there are churches that allow not-yet-Christians to be full participants in Christian fellowship before they believe or make any faith statements.
Which is right, and which is best?
Excluding new people can bring safety and comfort to a community, but that doesn’t outweigh the benefits of letting people belong before they believe. There are five reasons I believe it’s better to let people fully belong and participate in Christian community even before they put their faith in Jesus and believe in the right doctrines.
1) Jesus did it. He invited Peter to be a “fisher of men” with Him long before Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus, also invited a “sinner,” a tax collector, to be in community with Him. And amazingly, Jesus invited his betrayer, Judas, who would never become a believer, to be in community with Him.
2) It lets people see the work of the Holy Spirit in Christians and the difference the gospel makes in people’s lives. Why not let them see evidence of the gospel we’re asking them to believe? Why not let them “taste and see” that the Lord is good?
3) It gives people the optimum setting to ask questions, gather answers, and discover Jesus. Should we expect them to do this in isolation? No. When people belong in Christian community, they’re more likely begin the process of discovering Jesus. We should not expect them to discover Jesus on their own before they’re allowed to belong.
4) It is kind. Warmth, acceptance, and love speak to the hearts of our culture. I can’t think of a faster way to shut down their discovery process than to say, “You can’t serve here, and your voice will not be heard.”
5) It keeps us focused outward. It’s hard for us to resist the urge to become a club with events and programs which bring benefits mostly to insiders. Jesus’ ministry was life-giving, healing, and redemptive for others. He invited his twelve disciples not to form a self-serving club, but to apprentice Him in order to do outward-focused ministry like Him. Today, I believe churches shouldn’t exist for their own perfection, but for the sake of others.
We Christians certainly can do anything we want. We can exclude seekers from small groups. We can exclude unbelieving spouses from serving. We can simply do programs and events that we know only believers will come to. But we can do better. We can do better by inviting people to belong Christian community as a way for them to find faith in Jesus, rather than as a reward for having done so.