Time To Give Up On Church or Time to Be The Church

There are lots of things that make people stop going to church. And there are other things that make people really not want to go at all. I bet you’ve had Sundays where you dread going to church. Like it was the furthest thing from what you wanted to do. Maybe it’s because you didn’t want to see someone or a group of people. Maybe you just had something else that you wanted to do. Whatever the case, you just dreaded going to church.

If you’ve had those days – if today is even one of those days, you aren’t alone. We’ve probably all been there at some point. And the statistics show that more and more people are not interested in church. A recent Barna Survey said church attendance has been declining nationwide over the past 20 years. The Barna and Gallup polls show a decline from 40 to 36% of Americans who attend church regularly—once every 4-6 weeks. One more sad statistic: In a 2002 survey of almost 1200 U.S. churches, Thom Rainer’s research team found that only 6 percent of the churches were growing. Stated inversely, 94% of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve. Thankfully, we are one of the 6%.

That might not be the worst of it. Of those that do come, I wonder how many are being dragged to church. How many are coming because a spouse guilts them into it? How many are coming because it’s tradition or habit, but who really would rather just stay home? I fear it is a large percentage. Lots of reasons could be given for this decline and this apathetic attitude. We could blame everything from busyness to technology to secular world views to churches just not keeping up with the culture. And while those things may be contributing, we also need to take a look at ourselves.

One of the greatest lies of our time is that one can church alone. I constantly hear the idea of being church or of being a Christian without actually being part of a church. I’m not buying the idea that anybody is doing this or can actually do this well. For if you are actually a Christian without a church, you will naturally start a church. A church is the natural result of radically following Jesus. If you are following Jesus and living out the Jesus life in your neighborhood and workplace, you will start mentoring others. You will start teaching them. You will start praying with them. You will find ways to serve alongside them. This is the result of following Jesus. You may not sing songs together because that isn’t essential to church.

Church, at its essence, is just a disciple-making machine, an example of the kingdom – God’s people living the way they were designed to live together. So if you just use the excuse of being a church wherever you are without actually being the church – if you use that as an excuse to just be an isolated, selfish Christian, you aren’t being a Christian at all, let alone being the church. For if you are actually being a Christian without church, you will naturally start a church. But that isn’t going to stop people using the “I’m a Christian without church” saying as an excuse to just be selfish, maybe nationalistic, individualistic, possibly new agey, follower of yourself disguised as God.

I get it. Church is hard. And we would much rather do what will make us more money, give us more pleasure, or entertain us. There are struggles, sacrifices, and difficulties in having the relationship were are called to have.

Each one of us has been made for community. It’s in our DNA. God created life to be lived in community. There have been scientific studies that have shown the importance of human touch. We write books about friendships and companionship. Popular TV shows show us the community we long for. But we don’t experience it because we don’t make decisions in life by considering what will make our community better. Instead, we just ask what do I want. All through the bible you have examples of people in community with each other. Life wasn’t meant to be lived isolated from others. I’m reminded of the quote from Into The Wild: Happiness is only real when shared.”

If you have ever used charcoal on a grill you see a very vivid picture of this concept. Coals need to be near one another, to feed off each other. If you move one coal over to the side, eventually it starts to die out and cool off. But when you put that dying coal back into the rest of the coals and stir it up, it begins to get hot again and glow. That’s us. We function better when we are part of a community.

The beautiful thing is that God established the church to be that place of community. That place where people wanted to go to and be a part of because they were accepted, loved, made to feel like they had worth. In our world, true community is hard to come by and the church is to be a place where people who have different interests, hobbies, and are from different walks of life can still have community with each other because we share the same Lord and Savior. Gluten lovers and Gluten free people can be brothers and sisters. Vegetarians and carnivores. Ford drivers and GM drivers. iPhone users and Android users. Democrats and Republicans can worship together as fellow citizens in the kingdom. 

Listen to what Paul wrote the church in Corinth:

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,  that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:24b-27 (ESV)

Paul says that we are all part of the same body. There’s no division. There’s no classes or castes. One group—one community—that is concerned for each other. Who are there to laugh with one another. To cry with one another. To celebrate with one another. To do life with one another. See, the goal of a healthy church is to provide the opportunity to be part of a healthy community to everyone, regardless of wealth, social status, or biological family. Blut we have to be that healthy community to have people join it.

In order for that to happen we must cultivate an atmosphere of being focused on one another, not just on Sundays but all through the week. Because if the church becomes all about me, and what I like, and what I prefer, and what I want to see happen, then true community does not happen. If I neglect coming regularly, it becomes about me and not what I can do for others. And we see the effects of that attitude. People leave churches all the time because either their preferences aren’t being met.

See the church is not supposed to be a place where everyone looks alike, acts alike, or even agrees about every single thing. But it must be a place devoid of selfishness and full of putting one another first.

Peter wrote:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.  Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.  As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:  whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:8-11 (ESV)

Peter makes it clear the sort of qualities that epitomize healthy churches—love, hospitality, service.

As a church, we need to love one another. Peter draws on Proverbs 10:12 to affirm the power of Christian love.

Early Christianity regarded love as the foundational ethic for the community of believers. In other words, the easiest way to tell if someone was a believer was to see how they loved. Because their world was like our world—full of selfish, unloving people. But as redeemed, forgiven people we are called to be different. And love has profound effects. It can result in forgiveness and reconciliation when people have been harmed or wronged. In this way, love overcomes sin. So even though someone commits an offense against you, love bears it.

Peter mentions hospitality also. Hospitality without grumbling. But this is more than taking someone’s coat or setting out a platter of crackers and cheese. In the ancient world, hospitality was one of the most important things one could do. Basically hospitality is the generous and gracious treatment of guests. Hospitality should be part of our life day in and day out.

Love. Hospitality. Serving one another. Peter ends with serving. We all have gifts from God. Some are spiritual. Some are just tangible, material things. And healthy, attractive churches that are functioning properly are full of people who are serving each other. Are you putting what you are good at to use for the betterment of the church? Being different parts of the body, we all bring different gifts and abilities to the church. I love the way Peter describes service—good stewards of God’s grace. In other words, God has poured out grace on us and now God expects us to share that same grace. We serve with the abilities God has provided us without any expectation in return.

Love, hospitality, and serving one another—churches that do these things are growing. Churches that are doing these things are attractional as we live missional lives. But the reality is that we won’t do these things when we are livings selfishly.  Living this sort of life—a life of love, hospitality, and service to one another is radicial in today’s culture. Cultivating this sort of environment at church—is costly. It’s not easy, by any means. It requires us to give of selves in significant ways. It requires sacrificing of what we want and what is easy for a harder, but more satisfying option.

In his book, Dissident Discipleship, David Augsburger tells this parable about cost and sacrifice:

Long ago in a distant land, a prince dreamed of creating more than a geographical or political kingdom. He dreamed of establishing a community in which all persons were committed to each other in loyalty and equality, where every person sought the welfare of the neighbor even at a cost to the self. So the prince called a great meeting of all the heads of clans, all the wise and trusted people of the land, and dared to tell his dream. Each chieftain and his clan were invited to join in the foundation of a new society. As part of the community's inauguration, each was requested to search his cellar for the best wine produced from his ancestral vines. These treasured bottles would be uncorked, poured into a great communal vat, and blended, as the true community it represented, into a common vintage.

"How can I mix my exquisite wine with that of my neighbors?" asked one of the winegrowers invited to this covenanting. "I would sacrifice the unique variety of grape, the special climate of the year, the sweetness of a late harvest, the indefinable magic of bouquet, and I would violate my art as a winemaker. Impossible! Give up my distinct variety? Lose my separate self? I will not be adulterated in such a common cup."

So he corked a bottle of tap water, affixed his most beautiful label to the bottle, and at the time of the ritual poured the water ceremoniously into the vat, thinking that nobody would notice one bottle of water mixed in with all the other bottles of wine. When the covenanting was solemnized, all filled their glasses for the communal draft, the toast that would seal commitment to community. As the cups touched their lips, all knew the truth. It was not wine. It was water. No one had been willing to pay the cost of community.

I fear we have been pouring water into our church rather than our treasure. Pouring only that which is no sacrifice. Jesus is Lord and we seek his kingdom only when it’s convenient.

Good, loving, serving, irresistible communities don’t just happen. It requires work. It requires sacrifice. It requires paying the cost. Because from what I see as I read the New Testament, I see that Christianity is many things. But one thing it is not: a weekend option between all the things we could fill our time with. If you are serious about building a community in this church, then you need to invest in the people and ministries of this church. Not just showing up sporadically on Sunday mornings. Not just giving a cursory greeting to people as you pass by. But investing in them.

Church is not just about gathering together at a certain time on Sunday morning. Irresistible churches are more than that. Love, hospitality, and serving one another. And it starts with us—how we view ourselves. How we view others. How we steward the grace we have been given. How we sacrifice and invest in one another. That’s how communities are built and are sustained. That’s how churches go from an optional weekend activity to the most irresistible force in the world.

King David wrote:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. Psalm 133:1-3 (ESV)

It is pleasant to live together in unity. Unity is like oil that heals rifts. It is a symbol of God’s presence. It is the cure for what ails our world. So may we be the balm that this world and our churches desperately need. I know we are called to much more than we’re currently experiencing, but we have to change to get that. May we pray, and love, and show hospitality and serve one another and become a place where no one must be dragged to. But that we all eagerly join and invest in. Whether you’re young or old, you have a place in this church. A role to play. An important piece of our puzzle. Loving, showing hospitality, and serving one another begins with you.

co-written with Sam Long.