For more than a decade now, studies reveal what we in the local congregation know — church attendance is shrinking.
Those studies reveal that for more and more young people Christianity represents a negative image with which they do not want to be associated. Researchers hear again and again that Christians have become famous for what we oppose rather than who we are for.
What happened to the church as a living expression of the love of Jesus?
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35).
Not only are we, the church, too often not good at loving those outside our circles (like the lawyer who challenged Jesus we demand to know “who IS my neighbor”), we are often not even particularly good at loving one another. The overt and repeated battles within the church and the church’s battles with the world contribute to an increasingly negative picture of the church.
In the meantime, we try to fix the problem of shrinking numbers by developing new programs and strategies. We want to know how to “market” our church so that people will come. We seem to be more concerned with pointing people to the church than pointing them to Jesus Christ. More than a century ago Emerson McKendree Bounds wrote, “We are constantly on a stretch, if not a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the church…” but the church does not need “more machinery or better, (it does not need) new organizations or more and novel methods…” What the church needs is to relearn what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus commands, “follow me.”
That is not a call to develop a new five year strategic plan for growing the church.
It is a call to “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t’ think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages … (but) set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave … he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless obedient death … a crucifixion” (Ph 2.5-8, MSG).
Following Jesus into the world is not a bid to find a seat at the power centers of this world. It is a bid to put our lives on the line for the sake of others. The closing lines of the poem “Mary’s Song” by Luci Shaw offer a haunting reminder:
“Brought to this birth
For me to be new-born,
And for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.”
The church, the local congregation, is called to be the visible presence of Christ in the neighborhood. Are we willing to be torn so that others might be mended? If not, can we honestly say that we are the church, the Body of Christ?