This week are going to look at what happens when the Church becomes a barriers to our faith.
Let me give you a few statistics:
- In 1990, 20.4% of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend. In 2000, that percentage dropped to 18.7% and to 17.7% by 2004.
- Thom Rainer, in study of churches in the United States, says, “94% of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve.”
- One study shows that “while church attendance numbers have stayed about the same from 1990 to 2004, the U.S. population has grown by more than 48 million people. “So even though the number of attendees is the same, our churches are not keeping up with population growth.”
- Another article states, “So what is the future of the American Church? Does declining attendance mean declining influence? If present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 is estimated to be at almost half of 1990’s attendance—a drop from 20.4% to 11.7%.”
These can be difficult statistics to hear because we see people are leaving the church in droves. When people are asked, “Why they don’t go to church? or Why they left the church? It can be even harder to listen.
If you ask just a few people you will get a number of answers: The church is exclusivist, hypocritical, judgmental, unloving, and closed-minded. It is so boring. They only want my money. They don’t care about me.
One online commenter said, “I have given up on God because of Christians who let me down.” Another one said, “I left the church for many of the same reasons but I gave up on the church; not God.”
And it isn’t just those outside the church. Many inside America’s churches have expressed concern. It is easy to be sucked into the arena church hating, or at the least snarling up our noses at the idea of church. Because we understand their feelings, don’t we? Many of us have been hurt or wounded by someone in the church.
I remember the woman who told my wife “I can’t wish you Happy Mother’s Day because your not a mother.” ...as we struggled to have a child. I remember the hurts and pains and things people in the church have said to me as I sat my job evaluation as a young youth pastor...the way I have been treated by “good church people.” Often worse than I have been treated by people outside the church.
Some of You have some serious hurts from your past church experiences. You remember how you were treated when you didn’t quite live up to someone's standards. That condescending look you received. That hateful comment made about you. Your spiritual life may still struggle as you attempt to shake the whisper of legalism from the back of you thoughts. You wrestle with issues of guilt because of something wrongly laid on you. You struggle to really understand God because of the baggage you received at the hands of some church people.
We live in a culture where the Church is seen more as a barrier for people in their faith journey than a help. And whether what they say about the church is true or not, they certainly believe it to be true. So more and more people are leaving the church, but not necessarily leaving God.
And yet there is something about the Church we cannot get away from. No matter how hard we try, we recognize its value, even the necessity of this thing we call the church.
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, said, “The local church is the hope of the world.” He isn’t disregarding or belittling the role of Jesus. He is simply reminding us that through the local church Jesus brings hope to our world. While there are many fine organizations in the world...The Red Cross feeds and shelters thousands of people each year. The Bill Gates Foundation gives millions of dollars each year to AIDS research...no other organization can lead people in transforming a heart.
The author of Show Me The Way puts it this way,
“[We live] at a time and in a country where the church is frequently seen more as an ‘obstacle’ in the way rather than as the ‘way’ to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m profoundly convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the Church. The Church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus, there can be no Church; and without the Church, we cannot stay united with Jesus. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the Church.”So we seem to be stuck. On the one hand we recognize the Church has not always lived up to this grand ideal. We have problems and there have been times when we were the problem. And yet, Jesus believed in the power of the church, and the Bible leaves us no option but to be part of a church. Jesus invested everything in the church...literally.
In Matthew 28:16-20, it says,
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”Jesus takes this ragtag band of disciples and commissions them to go and make disciples of all nations. Then through baptism and teaching form a community of people who “obey everything I have commanded you.” He doesn’t hang around to make sure everything goes well. He leaves, and leaves the fate of all his work in the hands of these men and women.
Throughout the New Testament the writers use the word ekklesia to describe this ever growing group of disciples. It came from two Greek words. The first means “to call out.” And the second means an assembly. So it was an assembly or gathering of the called out ones.
In classical Greek the word “ekklesia” meant “an assembly of citizens summoned by the crier” for a city meeting. But in the hands of New Testament writers, the idea of the Church was way more than just a gathering. It was the gathering of people called out of the world, out of sin, out of their selfishness, and assembled as a group of people committed to live obediently to Jesus, and to live this life as a witness to others that Jesus’ Kingdom had come.
So let’s break this thing down a bit this morning and look at some of the pieces in order to help us better understand the church and what it is all about.
The church is first and foremost the people.
The Church is not a place where we go. That is one of the things that I like about being a church plant. It makes it really hard for us to talk about going to church. We meet in a sweat-filled aerobic room, and this throws people all the time. Some have felt uncomfortable here because it just doesn’t “feel” like church. But the church is not now and never has been about the place. People have met in homes, in restaurants, taverns and bars, in church buildings of all shapes and sizes, and in cemeteries and burial caves.
The Church is also not a power structure. Anyone who has lived in the real world knows there must be a form of organization and structure to keep things running smoothly. We need someone to take leadership to get things done and stay on track. The organization, the institution, is only a means to an end. It is is not the dominant idea behind “Church”!
When we begin to see the church as a place or a power structure, that is when things begin to go awry. The Church is the people. The Church is you and I. Church happens whenever and wherever God’s people gather. People called out and assembled together under the name of Jesus.
There is something about the assembling of His people that God promises to bless above all others. Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
God blesses the gathering of His people in a way that is not available when you and I sit alone in our rooms to pray and worship and read God’s Word. Not that we can do away with our private times. But our times of private worship enables and inspires our times of worship as a community, and times of community worship inspires and enables out times of worship as individuals.
Since the Church is about the people, we know that people can be a problem. People are flawed and broken. People mess things up. They say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They do the wrong thing. They make mistakes. People allow their personal hurts and prejudices to get in the way. So when you bring people together with all kinds of backgrounds and sin and baggage, all their presuppositions and attitudes, you can have a mess on your hands.
If we simply look at the people Jesus chose as his disciples...we see very quickly that relationships are messy. James and John were constantly jockeying for position. Peter was always opening his mouth. Simon, known as the zealot, was the modern equivalent of a terrorist...so I am sure he added some interesting things into the mix. Especially if you add in Matthew who was considered a traitor by his people because he worked with the occupying Roman government.
So much of the New Testament is written to tell Jesus’ followers how to treat others in the church because relationships are messy. Jesus talks of loving our neighbors, forgiving those who hurt us, praying for those who persecute us. James talks about controlling out tongues, and watching out for our anger. Paul tells how to deal with dissension and spiritual gifts gone awry. These are relational issues because the church is about the people.
The irony of all this is that we can only learn to be obedient to God’s command in community. We cannot learn to love...all by ourselves. We cannot learn to forgive when we are completely alone. We cannot care for each other and pray for each other the way the Bible calls us to do if we are not meeting together regularly as a church.
Someone will inevitably say the wrong thing and offend you. Someone else will do something stupid and hurt your feelings. There will be someone who takes a position you don’t agree with. We will have prejudices and presume things that are completely wrong and will cause us to misunderstand a situation. There will be times of miscommunication. But the power of the Gospel is found in the fact that we become obedient to Christ because of those things.
So, first the church is about the people.
But it is about a People called to experience the Kingdom.
The church is not just a gathering of people. We can gather anywhere else in the world. A country club is a gathering of people. A dinner out is a gathering of people. A night at the bar is a gathering of people. The church is not just a gathering. The church is a gathering of people who have been called out of the world, and into a relationship with God.
2 Corinthians 6 tells believers to not be unevenly bound together with unbelievers because there are two different goals and two different motivations as work, and then in verse 17 it says, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
So often we want all the good things of God without any of the responsibility. We want to get into heaven without ever turning our backs on our sin. We want a deep relationship with God without ever carving time from our schedules to be with Him. We want to live life as we have always lived it without significant connection to other people.
But as the ekklesia, we are call out of the world to gather as a people who have experienced the deep presence of God, and turned our backs on the way things are “normally done” in the world around us.
Acts 2:1-4 tells us that true “church” didn’t start to take place until the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”The disciples went from cowering in fear to preaching Christ in the streets. The presence of the Holy Spirit changed them.
So often we attempt to make things happen through our own strength. We try to do what is right through guilt, through better education, through programs. We think more Sunday attendance, more outreaches, more stuff will do what needs to be done. That somehow we will do what we are supposed to do...when what we really need is the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.
I love the vision of the church presented in Acts 2:41-47. It says,
“41 Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”Acts 2 gives us a vision that seems impossible. 3,000 people coming to faith in a single day, and more added daily! The followers gathered to learn from the Apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to break bread as part of communion and in homes, signs and wonders were performed. Believers shared their money and food and goods with those who needed them. They regularly praised God and were viewed favorably by everyone around them.
What a powerful vision of what the church can and should be...But the only way it was possible was through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. The only way for us to live as Christ would have us live...the only way for us to be the church God desires us to be...is to have the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
The church assembles to grow, learn, commune, worship, as Acts 2 tells us, but it can never end there.
Because we are a People sent on a mission.
The founder of the "home church" movement in England, Canon Ernest Southcott, said,
"The holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people—strengthened by preaching and sacrament—go out of the church door into the world to be the church. We don’t go to church; we are the church."The action of the church is two-fold. First, the church gathers to learn and grow and worship, but then the church scatters to witness, love, minister, and extend the Kingdom of God. Matthew 28, which we looked at earlier, is called the Great Commission. In it Jesus tells his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations...” We are called to go because we are bearers of God to the world around us.
The Apostle Paul says it this way:
2 Corinthians 5:20,
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”Ephesians 3:10 says,
“[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”Dan Kimball in "The Emerging Church" describes the church "as a body of people sent on a mission who gather in community for worship, encouragement, and teaching from the Word that supplements what they are feeding themselves throughout the week."
We are only part of the way through when we gather on Sunday morning...it isn’t until we go into our world and live out the mission of Jesus in our everyday lives that the true force of the church is fully experienced.
There is so much more we could discuss. We could spend a couple of weeks just fleshing out what it means to be the church. The Body of Christ. The Bride of Christ. The People of God. There are so many ways used to describe it. But the church becomes a barrier to faith when it becomes more than it is meant to be or less than it is meant to be.
When we become program driven and meeting driven and focused only on what happen on Sunday then we miss all that God has for us. When we settle for quick greetings as a replacement for true friendship. When our understanding of church revolves around a place or a power structure we are settling for far less than what God has in mind for His church. We truly become the Church when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit everyday of the week...and extend God’s Kingdom in our homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and families!
God is not finished working in and through the Church.