Years ago there was an illustration making the rounds that still has a point to make today. A preacher was visiting a new family. In the course of the visit the subject of reading the Bible came up. The mother asked her eight-year old son to go into the living room and bring “the book” they were always reading. The boy returned with the Sears Catalog. We smile at this little illustration but sadly, it contains a major reality relative to the status of Bible reading today.
In a recent article circulated by Christianity Today (6/5/2015) it was stated that in a United Kingdom survey it was revealed that one in three British children don’t know the Nativity story is part of the Bible. However, 27% think Superman is in the Bible. In this same article it was stated that 88% of American homes have a Bible, many have four Bibles. Less than 40% of Americans read the Bible regularly.
If we aren’t careful those of us who write and teach may leave the impression that our messages are being believed and practiced perfectly by our congregations. In my case it isn’t so and I know it isn’t so in the ministries of others. This article is one of those cases. As I write the question, whatever happened to church attendance? I do so with the realization that on any given Sunday morning an average of 20 to 25 percent of the members are not in attendance. We track attendance through our CARE groups, thus I know it is an accurate percentage.
I am fully aware that some are absent because of sickness, others are out of town, a few have to work, and many other reasons. My point is not to sit in judgment on those who miss the Sunday morning assemblies, but to ask whatever happened to church attendance. I know I am not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. As I look at congregations around my geographical area, as well as travel over the USA, the situation is the same. Sunday morning attendance has fallen on hard times. (Notice I am not even addressing Sunday and Wednesday nights).
There are numerous things impacting the decline in Sunday morning church attendance. Many are obvious and some are more subtle. We must take seriously the question: Whatever happened to church attendance?
In over 50 years of preaching I have documented over 35 special, sure-fire, can’t fail programs and methods that were said to be the cure for declining church growth and the solution for getting inactive members involved. These have all faded into history. Today there is a new bundle of phenomenon’s being offered under marketing labels such as: purpose driven, missional driven, disciple making churches, cell groups, mega or meta-churches, and new ways of doing church. These are being bought into by “mainstream Christianity” as fast as people purchase new electronic gadgets. The latest model has to be better.
The cry of change, almost for change sake, is the new mantra, as leaders and members become agents on a new mission to change the church; not just traditions but doctrine as well In an effort to draw people in, which is not a command in the Scriptures. The felt needs, desires, and wishes of outsiders must be known and met (As well as members too). Wall Street marketing techniques are used to lure the prospects. They are “evangelized” through the methods of business, such as entertainment, use of management styles, and make them feel good at all costs. This is growing a church that becomes more and more like the world.
From the beginning of her existence the church has been planted, grown and survived in culture. However, to the degree she has abstained from becoming like the culture, her purity has survived. This is relevant to the issue of Sunday church attendance. The command to assemble has not been cancelled or adjusted to fit cultural norms. Hebrews 10:24, 25 still reads as follows: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
There is a lot of speculating, guessing, and polls being taken trying to find out why church attendance is going down like the Titanic. Only a person who has become lax or stopped attending church services can tell us why. My research has revealed that a major reasons dropout is occurring is because spiritual needs aren’t being met with God’s word. A Christian works all week, Monday through Friday and maybe on Saturday, experiencing every form of media pressure and usage imaginable and then attends worship on Sunday and what does he find more of the same. He is being exposed to a “Christianized” form of marketing ploys, jokes, stories, and management techniques. The question in the heart of the attendee is, “Is there any word from God about my life challenges?” The high-tech church, while trying to compete with the media model, makes it difficult to connect with the unseen Creator of the universe. What does it mean to “walk by faith”? Preachers are using laptops, IPads, live texting, and power point, replacing the open Bible, to present a 20 to 25 minute sermonette.
Years ago a well-known editor said “the church assembly is an emergency room where the hurting, sick, confused, lost, hungry, and dying come to be treated to a dose of God’s healing word. We dare not try to heal by placing a Band-Aid on cancers.” Who would want to go to an “emergency room” where you wouldn’t receive proper treatment? Likewise, how about attending a service where the emphasis is not on the Bible text and it properly interpreted and applied? I know someone will say a Christians should be there regardless. That may be true but reality says it’s not happening.
A careful study of the Book of Acts and the Epistles doesn’t reveal that the purpose of the Sunday assembly was to meet the needs of unbelievers, but to edify the saints and equip them for going out into the world with the gospel. Preaching is not designed by God to put an acceptable spin on the message of the cross, nor tickle the funny bone of the luck-warm and occasional visitors. It is a time to warn about the dangers of sin in time and eternity. The preaching event is a time to present the amazing grace of God as the only hope for missing the flames of hell.
There isn’t anything wrong with creating a comfortable and convenient physical environment for people to congregate. However, when fire flows from the pulpit, heat will be felt in the pews. When ice emits from the pulpit a chill will prevail over the assembly. This is why in God’s plan for the church nothing is more powerful to save people than the gospel (cf. Romans 1:14-16). This is why we should want to attend the assembly to hear the word preached with power, enthusiasm and convictions (2 Timothy 4:1-7). We attend so we can be aided in our study of God’s word and be ready to give reasons to others why we follow Christ (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15; Jude 3). We attend the assembly because it is one of the places we can fulfill the 50-plus “one another passages” related to our obligations to each other in the body of Christ.
The Sunday assembly is where we share the Lord’s Super with fellow-covenant members and soldiers of Christ. We have not assembled to hear a watered-down message or self-help hype. The only way we can “feel good”, is not by half-truths and entertainment, but by the surgical work of the words of God on our hearts (Hebrews 4:12; Acts 2:37), and obeying it as God intends (cf. Matthew 4:1-6).
In my mind as I reflect on the reasons for attending the assembly, it is not only because God commanded it and I benefit from it; it is also because of how God feels about it and how precious and beautiful it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. These are principles found in Psalm 133:1-3; cf. Ephesians 4:1-7)).
Whatever happened to church attendance? Let’s continue the study of this question and how we can prevent the downward spiral of dropouts.
They had been selected, mentored and trained for three years to carry out a worldwide mission to change the world. Their preparation had been the best because the world’s greatest Leader had prepared them. But something was wrong; we find them—the disciples—hiding behind closed doors. Why? The apostle John tells us why: “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for FEAR of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).
Jesus had been illegally arrested, tried and sentenced to death on a cross. They may have thought, as followers and trained leaders, they would be next to experience the same fate. At this moment hiding behind closed doors the odds of them changing the world were zero. But wait a minute! Jesus shows up and everything changes. He is not dead. He is alive and courage now flows in their veins. The fearful now become fearless. Jesus makes a difference.
Moving forward to the Day of Pentecost and thereafter as recorded in the Book of Acts and the Epistles, we see leaders who are sold on being bold. Luke documents how these leaders were viewed: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). These leaders didn’t have a diploma or degree in philosophy, science, religion and other disciplines as the source of their boldness. The source of their boldness was Jesus Christ. They had been with Jesus.
Isn’t it amazing how Christ took a ragtag group of “uneducated” men from the fishing boats, tax tables, and other nominal professions of the day and train they into bold world changers? Boldness was one of the hallmarks of first century Christians; especially the leaders. I find it interesting that of all the things we say we need to restore that was characteristic of the first century church, boldness is not on that list. Why?
Whatever happened to boldness? King Solomon affirmed that “the righteous are as bold as lions” (Proverbs 28:1). Jesus “spoke boldly” (John 7:26).Even after Paul and his preaching team had been abused and rejected, he wrote to the Thessalonians, “… as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In Philemon Paul wrote this: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting” (Philemon 1:8).
Whatever happened to boldness? Returning to the Book of Acts we see a thread of boldness running though the behavior of first century leaders and Christians. They prayed for boldness: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word…And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the world of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29, 31). When was the last time you prayed for boldness or heard a prayer for boldness in the assembly?
In Acts 5:25-33 we read the account of the disciples being commanded not to preach Christ and the gospel. Here is how Peter and the Apostles responded in boldness: “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29; cf. 5:34-42). A reading of Acts 6:8 through 7:60 shows the amazing boldness of Stephen. A boldness that cost him his life.
After Paul was converted to Christ, having been a bold persecutor of Christians, he turned his boldness into preaching the gospel boldly: “And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him” (Acts 9:29). Paul was committed the rest of his life to being sold on being bold.
As we continue to follow the thread of boldness in the Book of Acts, we read this about Paul and Barnabas: “Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). As Paul and Barnabas continued to preach, they did so with boldness: “Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3).
The Book of Acts closes as it started—exemplifying boldness. “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all CONFIDENCE, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).
Whatever happened to boldness? One answer is that it has been replaced by fear. A lack of courage has removed boldness for the hearts of many soldiers of Christ. Fear is an enemy of boldness and does not come from God: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Fear is created by our thoughts as we evaluate what we perceive as a threat: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).
Another enemy of boldness, which is a stronger statement of fear, is cowardice. In Revelation 21:8 we find a list of things which God views as worthy of hell: “But the cowardly, unbelievers, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” It is interesting that cowardly is the first sin mentioned. Why? It may be because it is a major contributor to the sins that follow.
As the church faces a hostile world and a declining membership, she must restore the spirit of boldness. Boldness is not ugliness, harshness, brow-beating, or any behavior that is not spoke or demonstrated in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15). It is obvious from a study of boldness in the Book of Acts that we need to restore boldness in preaching and sharing the gospel with the lost. Boldness will eliminate the fear of losing friends, being misunderstood, or being thought of as a fanatic. It is a restoring the “we ought to obey God rather than man” attitude and behavior.
Boldness is based on “knowing in whom we have believed.” It is based on the power of God’s inspired word (cf. Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). It is based on “walking by faith and not by sight.” Boldness is based on believing “that we can do all things in Christ.” When we believe in eternal life and heaven, we will be sold on being bold.
We can restore boldness by praying for boldness, by studying and applying God’s word boldly, and by daring to be bold regardless of the circumstances. We must stop hiding behind the closed doors of our church buildings, behind excuses, and waiting for boldness to occur at some magical time in the future. Every member of the Body of Christ must first be sold on being bold and then practice what is believed.
Whatever happened to boldness in your life? In your congregation?