Awhile back, we asked this question: what should the church look like to an unbeliever on a Sunday morning? Should it be a catering church—primarily for the unbeliever, or should it be a comprehensible—primarily for the believer, but understandable to the unbeliever?
Shortly after that I wrote about the catering church. One systematic theology paper, a ton of reading, and a T4G conference later we return to this topic. Today we sum this up by considering the comprehensible church.
I get this language from Tim Keller (see here), who gets this language from 1 Corinthians 14. The comprehensible church is also very passionate about reaching lost people; and even doing so through their local gathering on a Sunday morning. But there is a difference, the comprehensible church is primarily for the believer and the salvation of an unbeliever is a by-product.
There are some churches that overreact to the attractional model of church. They, in my opinion, rightly understand that a churches gathering is primarily for believers. But they wrongly, in my opinion, neglect to speak to unbelievers that may be in their midst. Some that overreact can give off a vibe that creates an “us versus them” mentality. Obviously, this is not making worship comprehensible.
To be a comprehensible church your primary concern is to feed the flock on a Sunday morning (obviously through being faithful to Christ in preaching and worship). Your language and actions would be understandable to an unbeliever but not geared towards them. The beauty of the gospel is that it is applicable to believers and unbelievers. There is a way of preaching that can both edify the saints and present Christ to the unbeliever.
What does a comprehensible church look like on Sunday morning?
The gospel is always presented clearly; but the sermon and worship service is not geared around the “time of decision” at the end of church.
During certain stages during the gathering of believes an explanation is offered. Example: “The reason why we have a time dedicated to giving of offerings is because we believe…” We do not assume that the unbeliever understands why we do what we do.
The preacher does not shy away from teaching on theology or using theological terms, but he is careful to clearly define them.
The songs selected are unashamedly centered around biblical truth. They are chosen for content (lyrics) not for instrumentation (how it sounds). Note: this does not mean that it’s lame and not well done. See Bob Kauflin for an example of leading worship comprehensibly.
Everything that you see present is there because it survived the question. By the question I mean, “What does God think”? Obviously, the answer is found in the way worship is prescribed through Scripture. Churches will answer this differently, some more faithful to the text than others. Regardless, the mark of a comprehensible church is that it is primarily concerned about what God thinks of the gathering. What you see on a Sunday morning is not there because, “this may draw an unbeliever”. It is there because it pleases God and it may be a means that GOD uses to draw an unbeliever.
Effects on the church as a whole
Evangelism is not centered around an event (Sunday morning) but is the lifestyle of the equipped people of God.
The gospel is applied deeply to believers lives. The gospel message is not simply presented at the end of the message to provoke a time of decision. Nor is the “gospel message” relegated to a 45 minute appeal to the unbeliever to convert. The gospel message is that the cataclysmic work of Christ impacts every area of our lives—believer and unbeliever—and the preacher spends however long he preaches fleshing out the impact of what Christ has done. Therefore, rather than hearing sermons on 5 steps to a healthy marriage the believer is given confidence that the gospel ought to, and in fact does, penetrate even the marriage.
Believers are less likely to be “tossed to and fro” because the teaching on Sunday morning is geared more towards their edification. Let’s face it, in most churches a small percentage of Christian people will be involved in small groups or other discipleship programs. In the comprehensible church believers will get a more steady diet instead of milk every week.
The Preacher’s Question:
If you are a preacher there are a few questions to make this practical.
- You have done all of the study work of understanding the passage. Now you are at the stage of determining how best to preach this passage. Do you think primarily of the unbeliever or the believer? Keep in mind your primary charge is to feed the sheep.
- As you scan through your sermon to the sheep, do you look for words that would need to be made plain to an unbeliever? Keep in mind you are called to be comprehensible.
- Do you have a point in the sermon where you make the gospel explicitly clear? Keep in mind you are called to proclaim the gospel.
Is it clear now the difference between the catering church and the comprehensible church?