When Non-Christians Listen

Yesterday we pondered issues of sensitivity in light of the presence of children.  Here’s another area where we should always show sensitivity – how do we come across when non-Christians are listening?

Here are some areas to ponder –

1. How do we refer to them?  I imagine a non-christian listening in to our preaching might be easily turned off if we aren’t careful how we refer to them.  It seems like terminology such as pagan, heathen, outsiders, the spiritually dead and enemies of God might feel a bit harsh without some careful context setting.  I tend to prefer terms like those who are not sure they are in God’s family, or just looking in from the outside, or visitors, or guestsNonchristians seems safe enough, but not if it is misunderstood.  Understanding your context and your audience is vital here.  How do you refer to the lost in your congregation?

2. How do we refer to us?  Just as coming across with derogatory labels is not a good idea, nor is it wise to refer to believers in a way that might unnecessarily offend.  For instance, you know that we are righteous by the declaration of God based entirely on the person and atoning work of Christ.  But calling believers righteous, or saints, is more likely to insinuate that others present are evil and that we think we are better than them.  What I am saying is that we need to be careful since visitors will almost certainly misunderstand careless references.

3. How do we speak to Christians?  We tend to think in terms of how to target the unsaved with our preaching, but what about when a message, or part of a message, is really aimed at believers?  Probably not a good idea to tell the “outsiders” to stop listening.  I tend to say who I am addressing, and encourage visitors to listen in since we have nothing to hide.

How do you handle these things?

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7 thoughts on “When Non-Christians Listen

  1. I tend to say “those who haven’t trusted Christ as their Saviour.” It’s not great, because people may not understand it. But I think it is better than “non-Christians” because lots of people who aren’t Christians think they are, while relatively few people who haven’t trusted Christ think they have.

    I call believers “believers” in casual mention. I use “saints” when I have the time to explain it.

    When speaking to Christians, I’ll say something like, “This is primarily addressed to believers, but it will help everyone to understand what a Christian is supposed to be.”

    Those are my answers, for what it’s worth.

  2. Some good points. I would add, don’t just look at how your own congregation refers to outsiders, but look at how other churches do as well.

    Seemingly innocent sounding phrases may be used bash people by other churches. As one who has been bashed by multiple churches, when I hear those phrases again, I’m not gonna hang around enough to figure out the context.

  3. Are you advocating changing the message of God’s word? God calls us righteous and saints. God calls them wicked, evil, ungodly, His enemies and sinners. Unbelievers need to know the truth just as much as unbelievers. They may not like it, but they didn’t like the preaching of Jesus who called on sinners to repent or Paul, whom they stoned, cast into prison…because they called a saint a saint and a sinner a sinner.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rick. Am I advocating changing the message of God’s Word? No. I’d encourage you to look around the site and see how I view God’s Word. What I am advocating is not shutting down the communication channel before the gospel has had a chance to get through. God is the ultimate communicator, and I don’t see Him turning people off when His goal was for them to hear and respond. So, for example, Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4, didn’t offend her, or the villagers than came out to him, by blasting them with context-less “truth.” I think a more careful reading of the New Testament will show that the religious should-have-known-better leaders didn’t like Jesus’ preaching because he called them to repent, and because he was actually a friend of sinners! It was typically the upset Jewish religious folks that stoned Paul and cast him into prison several times, because he wasn’t treating the Gentiles with brutality, but with a message that captivated them. Let me reiterate what I wrote in the post, for clarity:

      It seems like terminology such as pagan, heathen, outsiders, the spiritually dead and enemies of God might feel a bit harsh without some careful context setting…. Understanding your context and your audience is vital here.

      I would advocate communicating the message of God’s Word far more accurately and carefully. I would advocate doing so with sensitivity so that people are able to hear the gospel (and if that offends, that is part of ministry). I wouldn’t want to stand before Christ and be held accountable for being offensive to even one person. Sadly, too many people have been put off Christianity, perhaps without ever hearing the actual gospel, because the messenger has had a grace-less manner or grace-less view of preaching. The truth the Bible teaches includes that people are not changed by simply hearing truth. They do need to hear the truth of where they stand before God, that their sin is offensive to God, etc., but surely we can do that with a captivating grace manner and content, rather than an unnecessarily offensive ministry?

      Please do follow up, Rick, I would be interested to hear more from you on this. Warmly, Peter.

      • Peter
        Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate and agree with your response. We need to demonstrate love as we proclaim the truth. When we are in the religious persecutors arena, we might get tougher, but in general, we should be kind, patient, gentle, having a good reputation even with those on the outside of the church.

  4. Peter, I can see why there might be some who don’t see where you’re headed with this post; your response to Rick is well said. As Mark Lowry often says, we can easily come off as appearing very inclusive, when in reality, God’s invitaion is to ALL. And that “all” inlcudes a big “pack of sinners,” saved only by God abounding grace. | Rejoicing in the Light, Terry & Pat

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