1.6. That’s the latest statistic I’ve heard about what average church attendance is in America. 1.6 times per month. That equates to 19.2 times per year. 19.2 out of 52. If that were a grade, it would be 36%. A “D” is 60%, so, um, yeah, we’re not doing so well.
What do we do with that? The author urges us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
How can you spur someone on to love and good deeds that you never see? How can you encourage someone you’re never around? And the author says we should be doing these things “all the more” as we see the day approaching. This letter was written about 1,950 years ago. If the day was approaching then, it’s even more so now. According to him, we should all probably be meeting every hour of the day.
But things are trending in the opposite direction. Just a few years ago, the average was 2 times. A few decades before then, the average was 3.2 times per month. What do we do with that? What does it mean?
I’m sure there are a lot of things it can mean, but there are two dominant points I want to contrast. It either means that God doesn’t care about the church and the reason for the decline in attendance is because God stopped loving the bride of Christ. Or we don’t value church anymore. Okay, those may be ridiculous extremes, but hear me out.
Does God care about the church? Well this is what Jesus said about the church to Peter Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Ephesians 5:25 commands husbands to love their wives the same way Christ loved the church, by sacrificing his very life for it. Revelation 1 talks about God loving us and making us a kingdom for himself. So, I don’t think God has stopped caring for the church.
“But what about all the churches who are doing things for the wrong motives?” I know, I’ve talked badly about them as well over the years. But, it didn’t seem to bother the Apostle Paul. In Phil 1:15-18, Paul says that it doesn’t matter what motivations are driving the preacher. All that matters is that Christ is being preached. So, as much as we may love railing against the churches we think are preaching the wrong theology and as popular as it may be to take public stands behind the safety of Facebook rants, what matters most is that Christ is being preached. And where Christ is preached, Christ will draw people to himself. The power of the pull of Christ on someone’s life is not restricted by the motive of a preacher. Christ is much more powerful than that.
So, yes, God cares about the church. Hear that, God cares about the church. God does not want the church to fail. I would argue that God doesn’t want churches to close down when they get old. What a waste that is. All those people who have walked with God for decades and no one to pass their wisdom on to. Why? Because we’ve made church a commodity to be consumed. We’re a bunch of consumers. We can’t get over ourselves long enough to learn from someone who’s been walking with Christ for longer than we’ve been alive because we think our musical preferences are more important than the wisdom of an older generation. And vice versa. The worship wars in churches would have never happened if the older generation had the future of the church in mind more than what they had grown accustomed to.
The truth is, we have made church a commodity. And when that happens, it immediately loses its value. It’s what our culture has done with pretty much everything. We take special things, turn them into a product, good or service to be sold for a profit and we devalue it. We’ve done that with Christmas, which more and more people resent every year. We’ve done that with entertainment and the arts. A movie used to be something you enjoyed here and there, now we consume 11 hours of media content per day. And I’m just as guilty as anyone. In fact, I was leading the charge for church relevance and bringing more modern elements into worship services when I was serving as a worship pastor. I have had to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for the role I played in creating division in the church over things as petty as preferences.
But, when you take something of eternal value and turn it into a commodity, you instantly devalue it. We as church leaders bear much of the responsibility for what has happened in the church today. But, we do not carry all the blame. As church leaders, we allowed the ambitional pursuit of becoming the next megachurch to become the motive that was guiding our decision making. Instead of focusing on the long, hard work of making disciples and equipping people for ministry, we traded relationships for revenue, the renovation of the heart for the renovation of facilities and gauged success on attendance instead of on transformed lives. We screwed up, and now it’s on us to fix it.
Like, I said, the blame doesn’t fall solely on the church leaders. Because church members fought for preferences, pressured, demanded and even gave ultimatums for the leaders to comply with the demands or they would find another church that offered what they wanted. And they did. I’ve been in that situation multiple times as a pastor. It’s impossible. People left churches in droves to find a church that offered the programs and services they deemed were most important. And now people critique, evaluate and decide whether they will attend a church based on impossible to know criteria. Churches get rejected for some of the silliest of reasons. Including how the pastor dresses.
So, I think it’s safe to say, we have all played a role in devaluing church. We have turned God’s precious community of believers into a commodity that we consume. And just like everything else in our modern time, we use it until we don’t like it anymore, then we throw it away.
We “give up meeting together” for reasons like “I need some me time”, “I don’t get anything out of it”, “I’m kind of sick/I need a mental health day”, “I don’t fit in”, “I don’t like going by myself”, “I’m tired, didn’t sleep well and was running late”, “it’s just full of hypocrites anyway”, “I have family commitments”, “I’m afraid I’ll run into that person I don’t like and I don’t want to have a confrontation”, “I’m an introvert and don’t like shaking people’s hands”, “I just don’t feel like I belong” or “I’m just too messed up to go to a church/I’m afraid I’ll get struck by lightning when I come back.”
Those are just some of the excuses I have heard over the years. There are more, including some that I feel if I mention them I will make people mad and they will leave the church. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. In every single one of those statements is a value judgement. We are saying there is something more important to us than going to church. Look, I know this is a strong teaching today, but it’s true and someone has to start saying it. The reason we don’t go to church is because we don’t value church.
Oh, we say we value church, but when we say that, we’re being like Jesus said about the religious people of His day. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matt 15:8) We say with our lips that Jesus is the most important thing and that we value church. But our actions follow the things we truly value in our hearts, and we attend church 1.6 times per month, 19.2 times per year. Saying you value something doesn’t mean you value it. That way you live reveals what you believe. Your time goes to what you really value the most. Sadly for many today, we value Netflix, video games, sleeping in and brunch much more than we value church.
Getting back to the text to wrap up. The author starts talking about sin. He says “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.” It’s a hard teaching we will deal with more on Sunday. But, in short, the primary sin the author has been dealing with in this letter is the sin of apostasy, denying Christ. And remember our verse yesterday was about holding fast to the right heading.
If we deliberately keep putting our hope and focus on things other than Christ, things the apostle John would call the antichrist, then we’re putting ourselves and our final, ultimate salvation in real and actual jeopardy. Remember, that whole pray a magic prayer and you’re good for eternity thing is a myth. Once saved, always saved only applies to people who hold fast to their hope. It does not apply to people who’s hope is in anything and everything but Christ.
I think we need to carefully evaluate what we really value with our actions and lives. As the apostle John has said: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:18). Let’s stop being the hypocrites we say are the reason we won’t go to church. Let’s stop saying that church is important to us, when in reality it falls really low on the priority list. Let’s stop saying that fellowship and community with believers outside of Sunday is important when in reality watching a couple of reruns of our favorite show is what’s really important to us.
Let’s be the kind of people who’s speech lines up with their actions. That’s called integrity and honor. And that’s what Jesus was like. His actions always supported his words and vice versa. If we’re going to be like Christ, that’s what’s expected of us to.
And do you know where you find the strength and encouragement and power to live that kind of life? In the presence of other believers who are on the same journey and have the same resurrection power of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts.
It’s almost as if God knew what He was doing all along.