"Your walk with God is a community project. The isolated, separated, loner, Jesus-and-me religion that often marks modern church culture is not the religion that is described in the New Testament."
Paul David Tripp
Paul writes a rather scathing remark to the Corinthian church in the opening verses of chapter 3. He says, "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh." [1 Cor. 3:1-3] The Hebrew writer also writes a similar statement to the Hebrew Christians who were toeing the line of apostasy. "About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child." [Heb. 5:11-13] These verses have much in common: 1) "Milk" is basic teaching typically for those in Christian infancy; 2) "Solid food" is heavier teaching for the mature; 3) Growth is the expectation; 4) These believers weren't ready for solid food. The truth is, we are likely long past the time when we could assume that everyone in the church - even dedicated believers in Christ - understand why they should bother with the church, particularly in this "post-covid" era. The church is still necessary, and attendance is still essential. No pandemic will change the essentiality of the gathering of believers. The church may take on a different vision. But the church will never be "non-essential." The church will never lose its importance! So, it must be that church people have cooled in their affections for the church.
Solomon writes, "what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun." [Ecc. 1:9] It's nothing new. Israel's affection for the things of God often grew cold. Perhaps we are seeing the same in our time - at least in the Western part of the world. Let's be honest, church attendance over the last fifty years [according to Gallup research] has already been in a state of decline. It's not like the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have suddenly convinced Christians that they do not need the church, or at least can settle for "online" interaction. According to Gallup, "membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the time in Gallup's eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999." [U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time (gallup.com)] So, though COVID did not start the trend, it did, in my opinion, "press the pillow to the face" of the trend. It was like a bullet train to an already downward trend. Good and healthy habits, pertaining to church attendance, were hard to cultivate and maintain during the pandemic. Some habits were broken by the shutdowns, and it seems that nearly every church [at least according to the pastors I've talked to] are scrambling to hold things together. I have not heard of a single church that has been able to recapture their pre-covid weekly involvement. While some give testimony to a drastic decline in weekly involvement, others give testimony to weekly involvement that, were it recorded on a line graph, would resemble that of an EKG.
And this, if you'll permit me to be open and candid, is a much greater challenge. This is what has me in a tizzy. Because I wonder, how can the church be that "city on the hill" [Matt. 5:14-17] when the citizen(s) are here one week and gone the next two? Or three? Years ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman who had become rather sporadic in his attendance. I voiced my concern with him and his wife, to which he responded, "Well, I just don't believe you need to go to church to be a Christian." And I said, "I don't either." I think they were shocked by that. Then I said, "Neither do I believe I have to come home to be married, but it helps. What kind of relationship do you think I'll have with my wife if I come home only twice a month?" He said, "probably not a good one." His wife said, "she would probably leave." To make a long story short, in spite of my pleading with them, they did end up leaving the church entirely. Hebrews 3 warns us, "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God." [Heb. 3:12] This unbelief that causes one to fall away starts subtly. It is not a drastic fall, as we would think. Eve didn't just suddenly fall into sin when she ate the apple. Her sin began when she reasoned in her mind that the "fruit was good for food, and that it was delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise." [Gen. 3:6]
Likewise, any sin begins when we reason within our own minds - "I want to sleep in a little bit." "I've got so many things to do today. I'll watch it online later." "I really don't feel like going this morning." "I still go on Sunday morning, so I can miss the other services." "After all, it's no big deal." Or my favorite, "I've been faithful all these years, I deserve a little break." Falling away from God and falling into sin is a steady decline and it's often so steady that you do not even notice you're heading downward. These very common rationalizations are also the breeding ground for the condition that Jesus describes in Revelation 3 - "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!" [Rev. 3:15] There's nothing like an ice-cold glass of water after a long day of hard labor. There is nothing more refreshing than ice-cold water on a hot day. We spent some time in Florida over the summer, because we thought it was a good idea. The "feels like" temperature was routinely in the 100s. One morning, we woke up and went to a place called Weeki Wachee Springs which is a freshwater spring with water that stays at 74 degrees year-round. The first step into that water nearly took my breath away. But dipping into that water after standing in 100-degree heat was so refreshing. How wonderful is a cup of hot cocoa, hot tea, or hot cider, on a cold winter's day? It warms. It soothes. A hot cup of tea with a splash of honey soothes a sore throat. Hot and cold has purpose and usefulness.
But is anything refreshing about lukewarm water? Lukewarm milk? Lukewarm coffee? Lukewarm coffee is perhaps the most disgusting thing there is. I can drink iced coffee. I can drink hot coffee. But lukewarm turns my stomach. And the last thing I want after working in the yard all day is a tall glass of room temperature water. Cold is beneficial. Hot is beneficial. Lukewarm has no benefit. Francis Chan once said, "A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there is no such thing. To put it plainly, church goers who are "lukewarm" are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven." "So," says Jesus, "because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." [Rev. 3:15-16] In other words, "I don't want any part of that." We might even say that such a one does not have fellowship with Him. And I would argue this to be a correct assertion. Those in Christ can't help but be refreshed and warmed by His presence, thus being refreshing and warm to others. Lukewarmness is a risk for all believers. Any one of us can slip into a state of spiritual stagnation, and perhaps COVID has given birth to this in our hearts. So, what should we do? Continuing in Hebrews 3, "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." [Heb. 3:13]
Do you know why I, yes me, even me, need the daily encouragement and intervention of the body of Christ? Because, routinely, I get discouraged. In years past I would go through seasons of discouragement. It might last a few weeks, but it was quickly gone. But discouragement is far more routine now. I need the church because I live in this world broken world same as you. I need the body of Christ because I am a blind man being led by the same Spirit that leads you. You need the body of Christ because you are a blind person being led by the same Spirit that leads me. Skye Jethani writes, "Sometimes our circumstances make us blind to God and we become vulnerable to doubts and fears. In such times we need our friends, we need our community, we need the church. When our world is hidden in darkness and we can no longer see the goodness of God, that is when we must borrow the eyes of another. That is what it means for the church to gather and encourage one another." I read that and immediately I said, "yes! That's me!" Dark times often leave our eyes covered in a haze, in a fog, in darkness, all that we can see is the haze, the fog, and the dark; like a storm cloud that follows us around. I need daily encouragement from a brother or a sister in Christ because I am bombarded daily with discouragement. When I can't see the light, I need someone who can. Inevitably and always exactly at the point of my deepest need, I find those eyes in the body of Christ.
The Bible is clear - we need each other. Attendance, particularly right now, is not a suggestion. It's a directive [Hebrews 10:25]. We gather and should want to gather so we can worship God with other believers and be taught His Word, which is for our spiritual growth [Eph. 4:1-16]. In Acts 2, the early church "devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers." [Acts 2:42] Oh, that we should show such devotion! And they did this "day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts." [Acts 2:46] Did you get that? Read it again. Do you find anything curious? Boy, how their gathering differs from ours! They went together to the temple, every single day. They went into each other's homes, every single day. They broke bread together, every single day. And they did all these things with "glad and generous hearts." Oh, that we should be as devoted! Now, we might shy away at the thought of gathering every day. We just may not have the time for daily gatherings. The point, I think, is not how many times they gathered during the week, but when they did gather it was with a "glad and generous heart." They were happy about it! They looked forward to the gathering! They probably weren't dragging themselves to the temple. I would imagine they were praising God on their way to temple - like the lame man whom Peter and John healed [Acts 3:1-11]. God gives us 168 hours in a week and yet we grumble about spending 2-3 hours in worship, 2-3 hours in fellowship with His people.
I can't help but believe that the excitement in the early church greatly impacted their growth. I can't help but believe that the excitement, the giving, the praise, the worship, the fellowship that they shared, which they were all happy about, was infectious to the people around them. You see, I believe that wherever, and whenever, the meeting takes place, believers thrive on fellowship, on the teaching of God's Word, and prayer. I can't help but believe that such devotion greatly moved the heart of God who added to their numbers every single day [Acts 2:47]. But even in the early church, believers would fall into the habit of not meeting together. The writer of Hebrews stresses that this is not the way to go. We need the daily encouragement of the church. The COVID pandemic, the civil unrest, the political unrest, and the cultural frustration of our times, have led many to believe that these are the end of days, and that Jesus is coming soon. Though I would argue such things are merely the evidence that we are in the "last days" and have been for quite some time [Matt. 24]. But I would think that the approaching "end" should prompt us to be even more devoted, not less devoted [unless God is "weeding out" the church]. We gather and should want to so we can encourage growth and fight off spiritual stagnation. As I've already mentioned, spiritual stagnation is a great danger. God's desire and will for us all is that we grow "to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children...." [Eph. 4:13-14] And a necessary element to that growth is the teaching and preaching of God's Word. I've said many times that the aim of the devil is wrestle our faith away. And if he can't wrestle our faith away, he will attempt to stunt our growth. A Christian that is in a state of spiritual stagnation is perhaps more destructive to a church than one who has walked away. A Christian that is in a state of stunted growth does more harm to the message of the Gospel than does one who abandons it entirely.
Billy Graham once said, "God doesn't want us to stand still in our faith. Instead, God's will is for us to grow stronger in our faith - and one of the most important ways this happens is through our fellowship with other believers." Although faith is personal for each one, that doesn't mean it is private. Though we may read in Scripture, that each is to "work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling" [Phil. 2:12], this does not mean in isolation or separation. Spiritual growth happens within the context of the community. Paul David Tripp writes, "Your walk with God is a community project." Though your walk with God is most certainly your walk with God, God has given you a wonderful [although imperfect] provision to encourage you, to walk with you, and to lift you up. Relationships are the laboratory. The body of Christ is your spiritual workshop. Individualism is an idol that has no place in the life of the church as God has always intended for us to grow up in a family. You and I will never attain to the degree, or the standard, of spiritual maturity that the Bible consistently maintains we should attain to, apart from the body of Christ. A Christian without the church, without the fellowship of the church, is a Christian that is in trouble.
So, my friend, be present. Show up early. Participate; don't just sit there. "But the music doesn't fit my style. The pastor is boring. He/she preaches too long." Who cares! You are a part of the body of Christ and not the body of your particular church. Christ saved you not to join you to the body of the pastor, but to join you to His own body. You belong to Christ! Serve Him! Show up early because of Christ! Participate because of Christ! Give because of Christ! Share because of Christ! Fellowship because of Christ! And do it with a glad and generous spirit and heart because Christ gladly endured the cross for you. It is a great encouragement to your pastor to see the congregation engaged in and devoted to such things. And trust me, your pastor needs encouragement now more than ever! More importantly, God is pleased to see His children engaged and active in the King's business. Paul writes, "He [Christ] makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, [read that again], it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love." [Eph. 4:16]