Because as Christians we love to share the good news of Jesus Christ and pray for conversions, we rejoice when non-believers come to church. We want them to hear the Word proclaimed so they will repent of their sins and believe the gospel. Sometimes, though, non-Christians come to appreciate the church—its music, community, social concern, etc.—before they appreciate the Savior. They might ask to participate, even in public roles, perhaps as musicians. As church leaders, how should we respond to these requests? Bob Kauflin has explained his concern for maintaining the purity of the church, while Tim Keller has written about Redeemer’s practice of welcoming non-Christians to perform in ensembles. He argues for this view by appealing to the Reformed doctrine of common grace.

Seeking further discussion on this issue, TGC asked four other pastors, “Do you invite non-believers to participate in corporate gatherings of the church by playing instruments or assisting in other public roles?  Why or why not?”

Scotty Smith, pastor for preaching, teaching, and worship at Christ Community Church, Franklin, Tennessee:

Living and ministering in “Music City” certainly affords us tremendous opportunities to steward the arts and to engage with all kinds of artists. At one point in our 25-year history, nearly 50 percent of our membership was involved in some form of vocational calling related to the arts.

Our director of worship and the arts, David Hampton, is a respected artist and tremendous servant and friend to artists of many genres. As a church, we have enjoyed utilizing the gifts of multiple artists at many different stages in their spiritual journey. We don’t have a written policy limiting “stage presence” only to believers, any more than we limit paintings hung in our worship center only to those created by followers of Jesus. We are, however, careful not to put non-believers in the role of either leading or participating in our services of worship in ways that would compromise God’s worship or their conscience.

For instance, it would be unloving for us to have a non-believer sing songs or recite creeds about things they simply do not believe. But we do enjoy having non-believing instrumentalists offer their gifts in ways that greatly enhance the worship of God in our community. Examples would be professional string or brass sections from the Nashville Orchestra, along with various players serving in different configurations of worship teams. Many of these relationships have built bridges for conversations about the gospel, and in many cases, have led to individuals becoming Christians, or being renewed in the faith and reconnected to a local church.

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky:

We don’t invite non-believers to lead through singing, speaking, or playing any instruments. There are a few reasons for that.

First,  when the church gathers and worships, they are joining a cosmic worship service that Jesus himself leads in the heavens (Heb. 8:1-2).  It’s a visible invasion of an invisible, divine reality. The divine reality is perpetual—Jesus is always worshiping, always making intercession for us, and in him, our lives are continual sacrifices of praise (Rom. 12:1). So the visible is a glimpse and foretaste of the invisible. But unbelievers who are present aren’t experiencing the invisible reality. They aren’t actually participating in Jesus’ cosmic worship service, because they don’t trust his work to be accepted on their behalf. In other words, they’re doing something that is deeply and profoundly different—with some potentially dangerous ramifications for them if they’re “playing the part” of a worshiper.

Second, I think it betrays the purpose of the gathering. In the New Testament, the church gathers for mutual encouragement. Each person brings what he or she has—a song, a word, an encouragement—and gathers together to celebrate what the Lord is doing in each other’s life. We often think of the gathered church as the congregation, distinct from those on the platform. But really, those on the platform are participating in that mutual encouragement as much as those in the pews (or folding chairs). One who isn’t journeying with Jesus isn’t actually participating in that communal act.

Third, 1 Corinthians 14 shows an unbeliever being cut to the heart in the church gathering. By the power of the Spirit, unbelievers see that this visible thing (the gathered church) is a signpost of the invisible (the singing Savior, as Reggie Kidd calls Jesus), and they’re transformed. My concern for unbelievers leading in a gathering is that they receive a false assurance, mistaking the visible thing for the ultimate thing,  never seeing beyond it.

One final thought: Many churches that allow unbelievers to serve, do so in the name of excellence. I thoroughly believe that excellence must be a primary value in the gathered church, and is a crucial ingredient for a successful mission. But I wouldn’t accept it as a value that trumps the deep reality of the church as a gathered body of Christians who meet together to mutually encourage and spur one another. Unbelievers are present, and we should act as though they are present, but we should never confuse their presence with their full participation.

Zach Nielsen, pastor, The Vine Church, Madison, Wisconsin:

Participation in the community is not the same as leadership in that community. I think it is important to make this distinction clear, and if this distinction is clear, and the unbeliever is connected in relationship with a trusted believer, then I would certainly affirm a person’s participation in the life of the church on a case-by-case basis.

Some churches hire non-Christians professional musicians to play in the band so that the music can be top-notch. I would not be in favor of this. In this scenario, the goal seems to be music first. I would rather have an unbeliever participate in music if discipleship is the goal. For instance, I have invited unbelievers to play in my bands in the past simply as a way to get to know them and for them to get to know our church. I don’t offer them a consistent role in the musical life of the church but just a chance to come play and get to know us once or twice. It can be a means to building trust, and for some, it would be the only way they would ever think about coming through the doors of a church. I have seen this “work” quite well in the past as long as there is a close relationship with someone from the church who is committed to discipleship and evangelism. Relationships are the key here.

Obviously, we are not going to have anyone who is an unbeliever giving announcements, leading us vocally in song, or teaching a children’s class anytime soon. But there are probably other creative ways (like playing drums, parking cars, or helping set up) that could serve the church and the unbeliever in significant ways. I would also caution that the more public the role, the more careful we should be in allowing an unbeliever to participate, and again stress the need to take these on a case-by-case basis with much discernment.

Jonathan Leeman, elder, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and director of communications, 9Marks:

Churches should warmly welcome and even address non-believers in their public gatherings (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:22-24). But Capitol Hill Baptist does not offer them roles for public service, especially in leading worship,

  • for the sake of obedience2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 teaches that Christians must refuse “fellowship,” “accord,” “harmony,” or “agreement” with non-believers in matters of individual and corporate identity, which allowing a non-believer to assist leading worship would certainly seem to be. It blurs a line which Paul wants exactingly clear;
  • for the sake of gospel clarity and truth:  Non-believers cannot “worship,” because worship is born of Spirit-given repentance, which a non-believer, by definition, does not have. To argue that this approach permits a non-Christian an opportunity to “experience” worship both conveys a misunderstanding of worship and teaches a church this wrong conception (e.g. it’s something that can be attained by music and emotion);
  • for the sake of evangelizing non-believers:  The context of 2 Corinthians 6:14ff reveals Paul as deeply concerned with evangelism (e.g. 5:20; 6:3). But verses 14ff suggest that he sees the real power of a church’s evangelism not occurring through “belonging before believing,” but through “coming out and being separate” (v.  17)—through being a distinct, marked-off society.
  • for the sake of weaker Christians:  Giving public leadership to non-Christians can potentially confuse weaker sheep about God’s call to holiness, especially among a church’s visible leaders.
  • for the sake of Christ’s reputation:  Jesus granted Christians (in local churches) the authority to represent him on earth (e.g. Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; 28:18-20), not non-Christians.

Got a question you’d like TGC to ask? Send me ideas at [email protected] And let me know if there’s someone, in particular, you’d like to hear from.