What Do Unbelievers Really Need To Hear When They First Enter Your Church?

It’s Sunday morning. You’re standing near the front doors, greeting people as they arrive. Then you notice a new couple walking in, a single child in tow. It’s obvious this is their first time. They don’t greet anyone by name. They stand out of the flow of traffic, hesitantly, with a touch of awkwardness, unsure what to do next.

A great chance to welcome a new family, you think. So you go up, introduce yourself, and ask how they found out about your church. “We read about your parenting class on your website,” they tell you. “We could use some parenting help! We don’t believe in traditional marriage, but ever since we decided to live together four years ago we’ve committed to be the best parents we can be for our son.”

They smile. You cringe. What do you say? “We do believe in traditional marriages,” or, “You need to speak with our pastor,”? Or maybe the time-honored, “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom?”

We could rewind this little visitor introduction scenario and substitute a whole host of first-conversation-bombshells. The guy who needs four swear words including the Lord’s name to introduce himself.

The person who still reeks of alcohol and smoke from the cigarette and the shot they just downed outside the door. The gay couple.

Maybe the conversation doesn’t happen at church, but in your neighborhood or your college dorm. You’re a believer. They’re not. Their lifestyle choices are glaringly non-Christian, and they’re right there in front of you. What does that person need to hear from you?

Here’s the short answer. They need to hear the same thing you need to hear, day after day: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But let’s press that a little deeper. They don’t need to hear – not yet, at least – that cohabitation, swearing, drinking, or homosexuality are prohibited in Scripture. Why? Because those external lifestyle choices – and yes, those are sinful in God’s sight – are not the deepest place that the message of the gospel will confront them.

When the live-together couple or the profane swearer first enters your church or your life, you don’t know them well enough to know where Jesus wants to ultimately confront them. Getting to that point is going to take genuine love and good listening, over a period of time.

The man who swears probably doesn’t even know his language is offensive. It’s all he’s ever known. Confront him over that and you risk portraying Jesus as a bar-of-soap-toting savior whose sole concern is, like your grandmother, to make sure our language is G-rated.

But underneath those surface sins you’ll find a deeper issue, the ruling idol of the man’s heart. It might be an absolute sense of self-sufficiency and independence, or slavery to material possessions, or a craving for the approval of others.

It’s the thing the man can’t live without (think Gollum with the ring: “My precioussss…). That is the point where the gospel first confronts the man and calls for repentance. When that idol of the heart is toppled and King Jesus rules in its place, the surface sins will begin to change.

Some of them will even disappear overnight. But in most cases, those sins, whether swearing or immorality or substance abuse, were not the thing keeping this person from submitting to Jesus. That issue lies deeper, hidden beneath the surface, probably unknown even to the person.

So when you’re confronted with that person whose lifestyle screams “sin” to you, slow down. Don’t rush in with a Bible verse in hand. Take your time. Listen. Ask questions. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom so that, through you, the risen Jesus can confront this person with the message they must hear, at the point they must hear it.

That’s what they need to hear from you.

My wife Anna, son Elliot, and I live in the little town of Franklin, WV. I'm a pastor. I have a degree in wildlife biology, which is useful for pastoring (actually, no). I like books, nature photography, working out, and being with my family. In a previous life I was William Wallace.