In 1 Corinthians 14:21-25, Paul gives another reason why Christians should be careful not to speak in tongues when addressing people publicly in a church gathering. Paul puts it this way in verse 23:
1 Corinthians 14:23 (NIV)
23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
In other words, Paul is concerned that if people are allowed to speak in tongues at any point during a church gathering, unbelievers who attend the meeting will be turned off, thinking, "These people are nuts." It's a valid point. For this reason Paul would rather that the people in the church speak prophetically (that is, use a language that everyone in the meeting understands to communicate how God sees the people and how God feels about them). At least by prophesying, there is a much higher chance that people will be convicted of their sin, be touched by the Spirit of God, and be brought to faith in Christ saying, "God is really among you!". (v24)
So if Paul thinks that speaking prophetically is more helpful to unbelievers than speaking in tongues, what does Paul mean when he says,
1 Corinthians 14:22 (NIV)
22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.
Does he have it mixed up? Doesn't Paul really mean the opposite: that tongues are a sign for believers but prophecy is a sign for unbelievers? Is this a typo? No. Most likely what Paul means is that speaking in tongues is a sign that causes unbelievers to remain in a state of unbelief, whereas prophecy helps unbelievers to move from unbelief to faith. Or, to use a traffic sign analogy, speaking in tongues publicly on stage is like a stop sign that keeps unbelievers from moving forward in faith, whereas speaking prophetically is like a green light that encourages the unbeliever to move forward in faith.
What can we learn from all this? Here's a very important lesson: Whenever we gather as a church (whether in a large service or in small groups) we want to speak in a language that unbelievers can understand. That of course includes not going crazy with speaking in tongues. But it also includes other things like:
- speak in a way that unchurched people can relate to
- go out of our way to let people who are new feel welcome, loved, and included (That's why at THRIVE I urge you that at the end of each meeting, before you do anything else spend the first chunk of time reaching out to those who are new. You always have time to talk with old friends later or to meet with teammates after. Don't be a reason why an unchurched person thinks, "This church is not that friendly or welcoming." Be a great host every time.)
- use language that unchurched people can understand. Avoid speaking too much "Christian"-ese that might confuse an unbeliever.
- when you share about God's Word, try to communicate the Word of God in a way where unchurched people can experience its power. We want unchurched people who hear every message at Thrive to say, "Wow! I can relate to what that person is talking about. And what he or she is saying is actually really helpful." We want unchurched people who meet with us to eventually get to the point where they feel like "God is really among you, and He's speaking to me through you."
Of course we can't do any of this without the help of the Holy Spirit, but it's about doing our best with what is in our control and trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
Is this watering down the gospel, or dumbing down church? No. It's all about removing any unnecessary barriers in our church service that would otherwise keep unchurched people from coming to Jesus Christ.
After all, the church is not a cruise ship built for our own comfort and entertainment. It's not a submarine where we're supposed to disengage from the world and be our own secret, exclusive club. It's not a military warship where we're all about attacking things that we think God is against. No. The church is a fishing boat and we want to bring as many people as possible into Christ's kingdom. Let's be a great fishing boat for Jesus Christ together!