In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) – Acts 1:15 (ESV)
It started with a Jewish carpenter from a dusty town called Nazareth. His life, death, and resurrection proved that he was exactly who he claimed to be – God in the flesh. From 120 to over 2 billion professing believers today. It’s not logical. It’s not because of marketing. It’s not because the becoming a Christian made life easy. It’s because Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Through the Spirit, the early church withstood every opposition brought against it. The church multiplied and spread throughout the world. And now, almost 2,000 years later, here we are.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is the first part of Ephesians 2. It’s a succinct description of our life before Christ (verses 1-3), God’s miraculous intervention to change us (verses 4-7), and the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (verses 8-9). The section ends (verse 10) by noting that we have all been uniquely created by God to carry out the good works that he has planned for us. From there, Paul moves into a discussion about the one new family of God brought about through the work of Christ. I think his transition to talking about the church is particularly interesting in light of what he has just said in verse 10.
Although the good works God has planned for us impact every area of our lives, they are especially important in the context of the local church. It’s there that we can use our gifts to encourage and push one another into greater love for God and greater love for one another. It’s there that we tear down the walls of hostility toward those who are different. It’s there that our good works come together and enable us to grow into the fullness of what God has for us.
We live in a metric driven society. The better you are at meeting your stated goals, the more successful you are considered. This way of thinking has crept into the American church during the last century and it’s wreaked havoc on many churches. The truth is, someone is always doing it better. Someone always has more. Someone always he higher numbers. And so on we go as leaders pushing and trying to make things happen all the while missing the fact that our responsibility is not to secure results.
Our role is to faithfully share the message that Peter proclaimed about Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Mt 16:16 ESV). It’s in response to this statement that Jesus promises, “I will build my church and the gate of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18 ESV). We will not give an account for what we did in relation to others. But we will give an account of how faithful we were to God’s unique calling for us. When it comes to defining success in ministry, faithfulness is success.
It seems like every few months someone is writing an article about the decline in regular church attendance and involvement. A disturbing part of that trend is the number of families who are missing out on church due to their children’s activities. Many of these activities take them out of town several times a month or require them to give up their Sundays. Without realizing it, these parents are setting themselves up for disaster.
Parents who prioritize their children’s activities over regular attendance and involvement in the local church should not be surprised if their children walk away from the faith. That sounds extreme but our hearts tend to follow where we spend our time. And our hearts can easily be deceived to what is really happening. I hate to break it to you mom and dad: your kids are not going pro. Their college success does not depend on being involved in every extracurricular activity you can imagine. Even if those dreams were to become a reality, is it worth sacrificing the value of the faith community for that? Let them participate in activities. But make sure you lead the way in prioritizing involvement in the local church.
“I love Jesus but not the church.” I get the sentiment behind this statement. The church can be a messy, frustrating, graceless, and judgmental place. Leaders can abuse power and exert unhealthy levels of control over people under their care. So it’s easy to to say you love Jesus but not his bride. But first century Christians would have been thoroughly confused by this statement. So too would Christians in most parts of the world today. The notion that you can love Jesus and not the church is a product of the over-individualized way Western Christians approach their faith.
We tend to read the Bible with individual lenses rather than corporate ones. But the New Testament speaks of individuals as members of the believing community. The whole is emphasized far more than the individual. In fact, the individual only find meaning and fulfillment as a part of the whole. Yes, church life is messy but it’s a chance to practice forgiveness. Yes, leaders abuse power but they will one day be held accountable. The church matters and is not an optional part of the Christian life. Jesus died for her. That’s why loving Jesus requires loving the church.
Recently it was announced that more and more people in America are identifying themselves as non-religious. Many of these people formerly identified themselves as Christians. This is fantastic news for churches and for Christianity as a whole. Not only do we have a more accurate picture of who is actually a believer, we have a better opportunity to reach these people than we did before.
The hardest people to reach are the religious and nominally committed. They think birth, upbringing, or religious activity count for something before God. Perhaps their willingness to move away from that mindset will actually be the thing that enables them to see their need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Everywhere Jesus went, he drew a crowd. The Gospel writers mention it numerous times. It’s also apparent that not everyone in those crowds was there for the right reasons. Some were genuinely interested while others were there for personal gain. That reality should comfort, convict, and challenge leaders in the church.
It should comfort those who have experienced the the frustration of people who refuse to wholeheartedly commit. It should convict those who think the crowds are indisputable evidence of success. It should challenge everyone to to call for the kind of commitment that Jesus demands.