Is Church for the Churched or Unchurched?

I’ve been reading sections of Andy Stanley’s new book Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. It’s important to realize that Stanley wants to be sensitive to the unchurched. This does not mean you water down the message. Indeed, he says “As a preacher, it’s my responsibility to offend people with the gospel.” But knowing that he says they “work hard not to offend them in the parking lot, the hallway, at check-in, or in the early portions of the service. We want people to come back the following week for another round of offending!” (222) Because of this he notes that in the “pre-service experience, comfortable takes precedence over theological.” (210) They choose all their pre-service music “with a first time, unchurched person in mind. We include a mixture of familiar secular and not-so-familiar worship tunes as people enter the worship center.” (211) They are fully aware that these “songs don’t ‘glorify God’ [and] Yes, the artists who sing some of those songs are pagans. But none of that bothers us. Our goal isn’t to create an environment that is ‘set apart from the world.’ We are up to something way more significant than that. We want to change the world.” (213, Emphasis mine.) Other elements of this “template” substituting the word “singing” for “worship.” He asks,

“As a Christian, if you were attending a weekend gathering at a mosque, and the person upfront invited everyone to worship, what would you think? I know what I would think: Uh-oh! Can I do this? Am I betraying my faith? Putting unbelievers or different kinds of believers in situations where they feel forced to worship is incredibly unfair. It’s offensive. It’s bait and switch. It’s insulting. But what are they going to do? Remain seated? Leave? Their only other option is to stand and pretend to be going along with something they don’t understand or believer. Now we’ve made hypocrites out of them! Never thought about that, did you? Know why? Because our natural inclination is to create churches for churched people.” (215)

I have to stop here and ask what did the unbeliever think he was going to do at church, fly kites? He had to know he was coming to a place where Christians worship and by entering the building he was going to participate. If I go to a mosque I know I’m going to a place of worship. To avoid being in an awkward situation I simply don’t go. But if I do go and try my best to participate I don’t think it would be fair to claim my efforts would be hypocritical. And I certainly don’t see this as an example of bait and switch. Bait and switch would only exist if they unchurched person thought he was going to get one thing and instead was given another. But I have to come back to my original question: what did this person think he was going to do in a church?

Now I want to contrast this with something I read some years ago in Mark Galli’s book Beyond Smells and Bells. Galli speaks of the wonders and, yes, the relevance of liturgy.

“authentic worship of this God must, at some level, remain incomprehensible. Worship that enables us to encounter the living God should leave worshipers a bit stupefied” (49).


The liturgy begins . . . as a real separation from the world’ writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to ‘make Christianity understandable to this mythical ‘modern’ man on the street.’ We have forgotten this necessary separation. Precisely at this point the liturgy takes people out of their worlds and ushers them into a strange new world, to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they’ve come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day.” (56-57 Emphasis mine.)

Still more,

“Our culture is the transitory thing, an apparition that will someday have to pass away, just as childhood has to pass away. The liturgy greets us as we enter, ‘You’re in the culture of God and his kingdom now. Things will be different from now on.’” (60)

What do you think? Is the church for the churched or unchurched?  Admittedly, the question does bifurcate the issue. Perhaps the better question is who is the church primarily intended for: the churched or unchurched?

Deep and Wide



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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6 Responses to Is Church for the Churched or Unchurched?

  1. Pat Hamilton says:

    Well, Louis, I really like that you sent this out. But, I want to forward it and can’t figure out how. And I wish it were on FB so I could just post it for discussion. As for my own opinion, well, I had no idea I would so strongly disagree with Stanley, but I do. Not even sure I should. Just know I do. I see your points much more clearly. So, that’s my personal comment. I will try to have some young friend or even my hubby explain to me how to forward it or get it on FB. Thanks for all your challenging and thought provoking emails. I don’t get to every one, but try to keep up since some really help me sort things out. Pat


  2. Clay Knick says:

    I’m with Galli.


  3. Michael Daykin says:

    I think where Andy is coming from is that most un-churched have no idea what to expect when they come to church. For those of us in a non-liturgical tradition we have greater latitude for how our church services are structured. I understand the significance of the liturgy and have the greatest respect for it, but I don’t come from that stream. I am also in the Pacific Northwest where the un-churched are much more un-churched than Michigan. No offence to Michigan, you are keeping all my in-laws and for that I’m grateful 😉

    In the context of the book as a whole, his view of how a church service should be welcoming to the unbeliever is valid. He does make the point that we are NOT to water down the Gospel, in fact he talks about how the Gospel is and *should* be offensive because we are offended when our sin is pointed out. The section you quote needs to be read in light of his statements, which you quoted first, about how we should do all we can to not offend people or put them off, between the parking lot and the pew. One must also remember that Sunday morning at North Point (and churches of a similar model) Sunday morning is but one part of a larger discipleship and equipping program. Sunday morning is when you are going to get the broadest cross-section of people and where you’re most likely to get the un-churched to come to church. They have many resources to help people grow in their walk with faith and are very intentional to help people continue to move forward.

    That said, I do believe that we also need to create sacred space and incorporate it into our regular routine. As evangelicals we have a tendency to not engage in silence, reflection or mourning and sorrow. We reflect on the happy and joyful. One thing I appreciate about liturgical traditions as well as the lectionary is the intentional journey through the whole of scripture.

    What I very much appreciated about the book was the section where he breaks down service planning and talks about how sparingly they use things like video and dramas. Much prayerful consideration goes into how they plan their service. Often we only see the “over the top” stuff on YouTube and such come out of megachurches. It was refreshing to see that substance and fit with the message trumps splash.


  4. Chuck Wiese says:

    Good article. It would also seem that if you start playing secular music at the beginning of the service you’re going to encounter a variety of tastes and end up offending somebody who simply doesn’t like the style of music you’re playing. Many Gen-Xers and younger are very aware when they are being marketed to and don’t like it very much. One of the things I really like about the historic liturgy is its timeless quality. It doesn’t sound dated the same way a revival hymn or praise and worship song eventually does. And if your goal is to deliver the Gospel to these people the liturgy does a great job. There seems to be a real lack of confidence in God’s Word to do its work in Stanley’s book.


  5. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Interesting post to say the least.

    I think this whole issue comes down to what worship IS and IS NOT.

    First, Stanley is correct that one does not offend the unchurched in the parking lot, etc.

    Second, Stanley is correct that one does not water down the gospel. Preaching the whole Word of God is going to offend people especially when Jesus is the “only way” NOT one of many ways. Christianity is exclusive. This is really no surprise since even the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Temple in Jerusalem, etc. had only ONE entrance. A person came to God on God’s terms NOT his/her own terms. God set the standard; we are to meet it. But, since we cannot meet it, God sent His Son to meet it and give access to Him.

    Third, I am reminded that Deuteronomy was the series of sermons by Moses containing God’s standards to remind the nation of Israel that they were not to be like the people of the Land of Canaan that they were going to displace, for God gave the land to them (as promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). The nation was to be different and distinctive. Thus, by way of application, The Church is to be distinctive and different from the world.

    This distinctiveness or difference that separates the Church from the world means that the unchurched are not going to be comfortable to begin with. This means that members of the congregation, not just the pastor, deacons, church staff, etc., but the congregation needs to meet the new person and HELP, AID, ASSIST the new person to acclimate that person to what is going on. This takes WORK. It will not be easy. It is God taking us out of our comfort zone and allowing the Spirit of God to work in our lives as well as the unbeliever to draw that unbeliever to Himself (John 6:44).

    This also means that should the unbeliever attend a church service and cannot distinguish between the secular and the sacred, then the church has failed. The use of secular inside the church must be carefully monitored. The use of liturgy must be carefully monitored. Too much formality is just as evil as too much informality (cf. John 4:23-24). Love requires that the truth be spoken in love even if that means that an answer, “No,” is given. Even Jesus confronted that person’s sin (John 4:16-18) in the process of giving the truth about God and Himself (4:26).


  6. Dean says:

    Good old Louis–insightful as always.

    I have to admit, Stanley’s method might be the one guilty of the “bait and switch,” that is, one goes to a house of worship expecting to see something different, speaking as if from another world, and is then presented with something that appears all too familiar, all too worldly. Perhaps getting comfortable here, in the familiarity of the world, the unbeliever is then confronted with a radically Other perspective, which had been masquerading as something not so different all along.

    Great thoughts, brother.


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