Will the Church Survive?

Will the church survive?

I remember being in a forum a few years ago in New York City  where that question was posed to a very large group of pastors and ministry leaders from across Canada and the US.

The Barna Group presented statistics about the dwindling congregations in many traditional, mainline churches and exposed how large attractional churches have large revolving doors. It didn’t matter if your church was high liturgy or rivalled a Bruno Mars concert, across the board, the next generation seemed to be saying, “see ya”.

It’s been three years since that forum. As I reflect on that question today, I can’t help but wonder if the way forward is actually behind us.

While it’s true that not all local churches survive, the church will survive because it belongs to Christ and He said it would, so I’m with Him. [1] If the headlines are to be believed, Christian faith is in decline, but globally speaking, that simply isn’t true. To borrow from a recent article on the subject by Timothy Keller, “inherited faith is declining, chosen faith isn’t.” [1b]

Before we look to the ancient church, let’s take a quick medieval pitstop.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The reformers of 1517 asserted that when a church ‘reformed’, it meant that they had “begun again”. They said ‘ecclesia semper reformanda est‘ which is Latin for, ‘the church is reformed and always in need of reforming’. This, the 500th year of the reformation isn’t about denominational flag waving,  but it is an excellent invitation for reflection, repentance and perhaps renewal.

In reflecting on the reformation and then back further to the days of the early church, I can’t help but wonder if the way forward is a spiritual U turn. I’m not suggesting that we try to recapture a particular form of worship from a particular point in church history because that’s the structure we need for renewal in the church. I suggesting that we we humbly consider that there may be some ancient answers for us moderns who think we can find renewal in focus groups, better marketing or offering more services and events.

I am fascinated (convicted?) by the incredible formative power of early church worship. This fascination isn’t a nostalgic free pass on their many problems. For all their sins and shortcomings – I can’t deny the sustaining power of God’s grace in the early church.

Those early gatherings were undeniably simple and yet their commitment to the worship of Christ was incredibly powerful. They and their children preserved and spread the gospel under horrifying conditions.

What kept them?

The Scriptures say that the gospel is so eternally interesting, even the angels long to look at it. [2] The gospel, though profoundly simple, is also powerfully sustaining. One of the striking features in the early church was that their worship was formative.

To borrow from James K. Smith,

“Historic Christian worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show our devotion to God and give Him our praise; we are called into worship because in this encounter, God [re]makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.” [3]

The early churches constantly celebrated the grace of Christ, they approached God’s Word through the lens of that grace and they taught their children to live out the implications of that grace. That had enough formative power to keep their kids from saying, ‘see ya‘ in 303AD under the persecution of Diocletian.

I think that’s amazing. It warrants some pause.

The stakes had never been higher, and ‘church’ had never been simpler, and yet the next generation clung to their faith and preserved the gospel.

They catechized their kids, which is a Greek term meaning ‘to teach’, but discipleship is more than simply information acquisition. Had the grace of God not saturated the teaching and the Spirit of God not caused them to internalize the teaching, no young person would have taken on the risks of continuing in their faith under the constant threat of persecution. The church would have died in Rome.

Theologian Charles Hodge famously said that the gospel is so easy a child can understand it, yet so endlessly rich, the wisest theologians can never exhaust it’s depths.

I wonder if part of the modern dilemma is that our culture has shaped us so profoundly, that we approach Christian faith as connoisseurs rather than as worshippers. Instead of seeking to know how the gospel is endlessly rich, we look to our churches in the hopes that they will be endlessly interesting.

The problem with bearing the burden of being endlessly interesting is that you must also carry the impossible burden of being perpetually novel. No program, no event, no preacher can possibly bear the burden of being perpetually novel.

Good news: the grace of God being offered to you for what you are facing today is always novel. The gospel is the good news that doesn’t get old because none of us are grace graduates whose lives are such that we have no more use for Christ and His grace.

From both pulpits and dinner tables, we can rest in, enjoy and explore how the gospel comes to bear on every area of our lives. God’s grace saves, teaches and sustains. [4]

That’s where God’s power is, our rest is and our peace is. That’s where we learn to live in humble confidence and reliance on God. The Word of God and the Spirit of God work together to bring His grace to bear in our lives.

The early church learned over time that God’s grace was all they needed because it was all they had.

Be encouraged, church. If you examine the prayers that the apostles prayed for the church, and you consider what those prayers emphasized, you will discover a trend. They were constantly praying that the church would know the power of God’s love toward them and the power of His grace in them.

What the gospel is for us, what the gospel does in us and what the gospel propels through us is both incredibly simple and endlessly rich.

May God give us wisdom as preachers and parents to continually invite our churches and our children to look in wonder, like the angels, on this eternally interesting gospel. May the same grace that saved and rescued us, renew, reform and sustain us.

Press on,

Paul

[1] Matthew 16:18
[1b] “Inherited Faith is declining, chosen faith isn’t“, by Timothy Keller, TGC
[2] 1 Peter 1:12
[3] “You are What you Love” James K. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College
[4] Titus 2:11-14

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