Last week I came across a slideshow of creepy abandoned churches across the United States. The pictures seem to be a metaphor for denominationalism across the United States, which is slowly crumbling like the inner-city cathedrals whose congregations left long ago. With alarming regularity another report or survey comes out that reveals a disturbing number of churches closing every week, worship attendance not keeping pace with population growth, and the head of the average church member graying with age. Not long ago, I was scanning readers’ comments on a story about an emotionally-charged social issue. A secularist, debating a Christian, finally slapped down his trump card: “Enjoy the twilight of your influence on society.”
It’s enough to make a churchman squirm in his oaken pew.
But wait…if the church is the Body of Christ (Col 1:18) and Christ is eternal (Jn 1:1-3), can the Church truly die? I am not talking about Methodism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism or any other “-ism” here, but the Church of true believers, scattered across all eras and continents. Famed Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, who died on May 8, was asked in a 2010 Leadership Journal interview if he was discouraged by the fact that so few churches seem to be committed to discipleship. Williard replied, “I am not discouraged because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.”
The Church is neither dead nor dying. Yes, some congregations are perishing and sectarianism is ailing, but the Body of Christ cannot die. I say this boldly for several reasons:
PEOPLE NEED TO WORSHIP, AND THE CHURCH EXISTS TO WORSHIP GOD
Anthropologists dub it the “religious instinct,” the pre-wiring of humans to worship–a so-called “God chip.” As Durham University educator Frank Byron Jevons wrote in Comparative Religions, “As every anthropologist knows…all agree that there are no races, however crude, which are destitute of all idea of religion.”
As a kid, I would’ve wondered about the sanity of anyone who insisted I had a need to worship. On Sunday mornings, I had a need to play outside, but my parents were always dragging me to church, telling me it was important. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what was so important about wearing a shirt that choked me around the collar and trying to sit still for an hour while some guy in a fancy black dress droned behind a wooden box.
In my late 20s, after playing in the sandbox of the world for a while, I was tired. I had worshipped education, money, self and nightlife, but none of these proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle of my existence. I realized I needed something transcendent, so I returned to church. I knew that church buildings had offices and meeting rooms and fellowship halls and Sunday school classes, but I also knew that the sanctuary was the most important space of all. And there in that sacred place with pulpit and pews, I became a child again–but this time I came with a hungry heart. I belted out the ancient hymns of faith and reverently whispered the Lord’s Prayer; I received the Word with gladness and took the sacrament with joy; my heart reached out to the people gathered around me, who, like me, came to do nothing more than to worship the One who had spread out the star-spangled heavens and coded the human cell. I finally understood the words of the Psalmist: “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs…Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name…” (Ps 100:2, 4 NIV)
PEOPLE NEED TO BE SERVED, AND THE CHURCH EXISTS TO SERVE
Yes, there are churches that are more self-focused than other-focused. Some seem to pour more money into buildings than people. But most churches take seriously the scriptural admonition to “serve one another humbly in love” (Gal 5:13). I know churches that give backpacks to needy children before the start of school; churches that take regular mission trips to build wheelchair ramps at home and dig water wells abroad; churches that dedicate massive resources to the “least and lost” such as single parents, divorced people, the homeless, the hungry, the mentally challenged. Churches grow community gardens, knit sweaters and layettes, visit the sick, teach children, ship out care packages to students and soldiers, rebuild neighborhoods, fund hospitals, counsel the grieving. After the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas on April 17, Rev. Brad Brittain of Central United Methodist Church in Waco offered the gym as an emergency shelter for effected families. The church also provided shelter after Hurricane Katrina. “We will have plenty of people who will donate to make this work,” he said of the relief efforts.
Individual congregations were not the only ones who assisted. Church-based organizations such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Samaritan’s Purse and Texas Baptist Men rushed in to help in a multitude of ways.
As long as there are people in need, the church will be needed.
PEOPLE HUNGER TO BE HOLY, AND THE CHURCH EXISTS TO FOSTER HOLINESS
“But you…are a holy nation,” Peter wrote the church in the first century AD (I Pet 2:9). Most people view holiness in opposite extremes, as either super sainthood or holier-than-thou piety. It is neither. The Bible word for holiness means to be set apart, dedicated, consecrated, committed or devoted. When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. Every blue moon, I’d get a really cool card like a Mickey Mantle or Sandy Koufax. Did I clip those cards on my bicycle spokes like the others? Heck, no! I put them in a special place—my back pocket. If I had known what they would have been worth today, I would have put them in a safe deposit box.
When we say “yes” to God, He slips us into his back pocket for a distinctive purpose. We are reserved for holy work, set aside for sacred use, commissioned to spread the aroma of God’s love in a world reeking of sin, death and despair. Think about the things in the Bible that are “holy,” set apart for God:
†A tithe is 10% of your income, set apart for God’s work.
†Prayer is time set apart to converse with Jesus.
†Ordinary bread and wine and water are set apart to become sacraments, signs of God’s grace.
†The Sabbath is one day in the week set apart to rest and worship.
The goal of the Christian life is to set apart all for God. When the prophet Isaiah beheld the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, he cried, “Woe to me!” (Is 6:5). He was sure that a sinful man living among imperfect people deserved a nuking by the Holy One. Instead, an angel touched his lips with a live coal from the sacred altar and declared him to be clean.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Is 6:8)
“I” and “me” are inclusive words, aren’t they? They take in body, soul and mind; include one’s thoughts, attitudes and choices; the words incorporate a person’s time and things; they take in skills, talents and abilities.
“Here I am! Have all of me, Lord. I set apart me for You.”
†Not just the religious me.
†Not only the “Sunday” me.
†Not merely the me that others see, but the secret me….the inner me….the me that only God knows deep down inside, with all its fears, joys, dreams and failures. The real me.
When people get sick of sin–when they grow weary of what the world offers, as I did as a young adult–they will go searching. Many will end up in church because the church offers an alternative to selfish living and worldly ways. Holiness is a journey, one that the church has always guided pilgrims on.
So don’t write the obituary for the church just yet. Remember, this is the institution that should have died in its infancy. It was handed over to a dozen motley men by a carpenter who was crucified. The charter membership did not include a “Who’s Who” of the empire; in fact, the prevailing government did everything it could to stamp out the movement. The primary spokesman of the church, a Jewish tentmaker named Paul, had to contend with intellectual opponents, pagan idol worshippers and apostates within his own ranks.
Yet the church grew.
It’s still growing.
Daniel Meyer of Chicago’s Christ Church of Oak Brook notes astonishing statistics in his work, Witness Essentials. At the end of the 19th century, southern Africa was only 3% Christian. Today, over 60% of the population is Christian, while membership in African churches is burgeoning by 34,000 people per day. In Indonesia, the Christians population is now so high (around 15 percent) that the Muslim government has stopped printing statistics. In China, there are now more self-confessed disciples of Jesus than members of the Communist Party. Even the most conservative estimates indicate that China will soon have more Christians than any nation on earth. The church is also growing by leaps and bounds in South Korea, India and Latin America.
Meyer concludes, “The irony is that, except for the Middle East (where Christianity was born) and Europe and America (to whose civilization it gave birth), Christianity is expanding everywhere today.”
The Church isn’t dead.
Not by a long shot.
And it never will be. After all, it was founded by One whom not even the grave could conquer.
Black-and-white photo of church courtesy of jaz1111 via stock.xchng