Many people have given up on the church. Declining membership and decreased attendance (both less people and less frequently) in many churches and denominations in America and the Western world as a whole reveals and reinforces this trend. These lower numbers indicate that many people believe other things are more important than the church and/or no longer believe in the message and teachings of the church. Some have had bad experiences, including but not limited to, being hurt by the church; that is a leading reason many people no longer attend church or associate with one. This decline in participation leads people to declare that this institution has become irrelevant in our world and will continue to decline until it eventually ceases to exist.
While many people no longer believe in the church, I still do. I believe the church will not fade away but will endure. I believe the church continues to have great relevance in this age and in the ages to come. This belief is not rooted in some sort of optimistic temperament (as those who know me would probably not describe me as an optimist!). Nor does it stem from a naivety concerning churches, as through the years I have seen and experienced people being hurt and disappointed by the church – both church members being hurt by church leaders, but also church leaders being wounded by the words and actions of church members. The basis for my belief comes from the promise of Jesus and from the power that is at work in the church.
The Promise of Jesus
After Peter confesses his belief that Jesus of Nazareth is “The Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus spoke these words: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV). While Catholics and Protestants have argued a bit over the years about how to interpret the words “the rock,” there has been a clear consensus on the meaning of the rest of the phrase: Jesus is building his church and nothing can kill it (the “gates of hell” or “gates of Hades” is a metaphor for death). Jesus makes a promise that the church will never die – it will endure until his return. This means that individual churches (and denominations) may grow or decline. However, the e church (as a whole) may be small, but it will not cease to exist on this earth. When we look at the course of history, there have been many attempts to eliminate the church, but these have always failed….in fact, these attempts often lead to the church seeing renewal, revival, and growth.
Therefore, conceptually, it is true that the church is always one generation away from extinction, (each generation must come to believe in Jesus), but this will not happen. Just as God promises never to flood the whole earth again after the flood in Noah’s time, so God has promised that there will never be a time in which there is no church. Seeing a decline in church involvement is discouraging and not something we want to see, but it also is not something that should cause panic or cause one to give up on the church. Jesus promised to be at work in the church, that this church will never die. Jesus also said that he would be put to death and then come back to life….and then he did it! He predicted that he would do the impossible, and he did! In light of that, I think it is wiser to trust His words and predictions than all the “experts” of this world!
The Power at Work in the Church
I also still believe in the church because of the great power that is found in the church. When a church is healthy and well, it is a beautiful, amazing thing, unlike any other thing on earth. People grow in their knowledge of God and in their love for Him and for all He has made, including, but not limited to, other people. People find true community and shelter in the midst of this lonely and often hostile world. People find help and hope as they walk through the challenges of this life. The love that the church members have for each other does not stay confined within their membership, but reaches out to welcome the stranger and to bless neighbors, both those in the community and those around the world. If you have been in such a community, you recognize that these words fail to do it full justice. There is life-giving power at work in the church, a unique life-giving power.
Like most things with tremendous power, when directed towards good, this power is amazing, but when it is not directed in that way, it can cause damage. When a local church is not healthy and well, it can be a horrific thing that not only leaves deep wounds in the people of the church but also brings the name of Jesus Christ into disrepute in the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians. Many people reject the faith or leave the church because they have seen hypocrisy, hurt, and hatred in the church among its members. One can see the depth of this pain when we put that alongside other negative experiences we might have. I’ve heard of people who have a bad experience at a store or a restaurant and say they will never step foot in that particular location/chain ever again, but I’ve never heard a person vow off all of fast-food for one bad experience at (name whichever chain you wish!). An imperfect church should not cause one to forget the power that is at work in churches.
It should be noted that at the same time many people are walking away from the church because of bad experiences, people continue to become part of the church and have deep, amazing life changes. This is true of churches in America, but also around the world. In fact, many Christians in America talk about the decline of the church, but this is really only true in America and Europe, as if you go to the Global South (places like South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia), the church is growing in leaps and bounds because of the power at work in the church to change lives – the power that comes from the Holy Spirit who abides in the church.
Do You Still Believe?
When we base our evaluation of the church upon the people of the church, it is easy to see why people would not have much confidence in it, why people may give up on it and write it off. However, when we look at the promise of Jesus concerning it and the power of God that is at work within it, one can truly believe in it. And when one believes in it, one does not criticize it from a distance or abandon it when they are challenged. If anything, one draws deeper into it because then we see the church from God’s perspective rather than the human perspective.
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