53 of us worshiped together Sunday. About 100 members were absent (there are roughly 150 people officially listed as members right now if you include the “non-active” membership). Though there are roughly 100 reasons for this, due to unique situations in all of our lives, it does make me ponder generally how church works. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you.
Believing the Gospel
Jesus Christ died to pay for our sins and rose again to be our Lord. Those who put their trust in him as their Lord and Savior are rescued from their sins and reconciled to God. This is the good news—the gospel–and and it is the foundation for everything ‘church.’
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). It is what awakens our dead hearts to life in Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-10). It is the singular source for spiritual life.
Believing the gospel means entrusting ourselves to it, like sinking into a hammock. It’s resting in it fully for salvation from sin, but also for security, meaning and identity. We’re secure because we’ve been adopted by the heavenly Father (2 Corinthians 6:18). Our lives are meaningful because we’ve been regenerated and named ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Our identity is rooted “in Christ”—a phrase you’ll find sprinkled all through the New Testament—rather than hobbies, appearances, family, careers, the past or anything else.
As individuals and as the church, we grow vibrant and fruitful when we believe the gospel (Psalm 1). When we forsake the gospel, we shrivel and die (Revelation 3:1).
Believing the gospel includes following Jesus (Matthew 16:24-28; John 14:15, 21). Following Jesus means listening to and obeying his words while following his example (Luke 6:46 and 1 Peter 2:21).
Loving God and people by making disciples
Though there are many facets to following Jesus’ words and example, it can be summarized by the Great Commandments and the Great Commission.
First, we are to love God and people (Matthew 22:36-40). Loving God means worshipping him; loving people means serving them. If we are believing the gospel and following Jesus, these two loves will grow in our hearts.
Love for God and people finds its ultimate expression in making disciples. We make disciples by encouraging people to believe the gospel and follow Jesus (Matthew 28:16-24).
Devoting Ourselves to Being the Church
As we grow in love for God and people, engaging increasingly in the great task of making disciples, we will naturally devote ourselves to being the church. Acts 2:42 is a sketch of what this looks like: devotion to the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
When we’re healthy, rooted in the gospel and following Jesus, we love our Bibles, Bible studies, sermons and good scripture-soaked books, podcasts and conversations. We love spending time together, encouraging one another, sharing resources and swapping war stories as we making disciples through the week. We love sharing meals and partaking of the Lord’s Supper together. We love praying with and for one another. After all, we’re gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do all these things in a supernaturally effective way (1 Corinthians 12).
When we’re healthy, all of this vibrant activity springs naturally from our hearts, which are full of love for God and people and a desire to make disciples.
To summarize all of this, think of the church as a tree.
The gospel is the soil. Belief is our root system, which stretches into the gospel for life-giving nutrients. Following Jesus forms the trunk. It grows up from the roots of belief, taller and wider over time. Our love for God and people form two big branches that grow from the trunk. Our mission to make disciples grows from these two branches in a thousand smaller branches, finding its way into every aspect of our lives. And finally, our devotion to being the church grows like leaves. This devotion to the teaching, fellowship, etc. is the most visible part of our church.
This is basically how the church works.
Generally, if our devotion to being the church falls away, it is because our love for God and people and our passion for making disciples has weakened. Of course there many situations in which this isn’t the case. Our shut-ins are unable to be with us physically due to illness or injury, but who remain a vital part of our church. Several others are in unique situations with work or family responsibilities that require them to temporarily remove some of their energy from the church. But more often than we might like to admit, lack of devotion to being the church indicates serious heart problems among the people.
If our love for God and people and our passion for making disciples has weakened, it is because we’ve broken off from following Christ. We’re no longer obeying his words nor following his example. If we’re no longer following Jesus, it is because we’re no longer entrusting ourselves to the gospel. We’ve stretched our roots into other soils for security, meaning, identity, etc.
So what can we do?
I suggest we turn to Hebrews for advice. Hebrews was written to a church in which many were turning away from belief in the gospel. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes in his commentary on Hebrews that it was written “to arouse [people] from the lethargic state of compromise and complacency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to persevere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict…”
Five Suggestions for Strengthening the Tree
12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.(Hebrews 3:12-14)
19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
From now on, when you see an empty pew on Sunday, let it trigger these five activities in your life on Monday.
1. Draw near to God. Start by drawing near to God. Meditate on his word and pray. Yes, there is still a place for daily devotional time!
2. Hold fast to the gospel. Strengthen your grip on “the confession of our hope.” Write the gospel in your own words on a sticky note and put it someplace you’ll see daily. Prayerfully stretch the roots of your belief deeper into it. Your daily devotions will help with this. Good books can help too. For example, Meredith has been reading Found in Him by Elyse Fitzpatrick and sharing what she’s learning with me. Fitzpatrick’s scriptural insights have strengthened our grip on the gospel.
3. Consider how to stir one another. Do some serious thinking. Consider your brothers and sisters in Christ. Consider how you might irritate (that’s what the word means in Greek!) them to re-engage with the gospel, with Jesus, with worship, with service, with discipleship—with being the church. There is nothing wrong with expecting “love and good works” from each other. There’s nothing wrong with communicating those expectations either. If we call ourselves Christians and members of the church, we’re asking for it.
4. Meet together. Make the effort to spend more time with your brothers and sisters. Yes, start with Sunday mornings, House to House and other formal opportunities. But also look for informal opportunities to spend time together. Invite people over for meals. Go to movies together. Take your kids to the park together. Spend more time together and invite those who have been missing to join you.
5. Encourage one another daily. This means to be in daily contact with one another for the purpose of encouraging belief in the gospel. Use texting, phone calls, Facebook and cards. Invite one another over for meals. Drop by one another’s homes. Communicate with one another frequently and consistently, looking for opportunities to encourage each other to believe the gospel and follow Jesus.
Rejoicing and Longing
God is at work among us. I’m more encouraged and hopeful now than I have been at any point in my ministry as your pastor. Many of us are believing more deeply in the gospel. Many of us are following Jesus more seriously. Many of us are growing in genuine love for God and people. Many of us are actively making disciples using the unique gifts God has given each of us. Many of us are devoting ourselves to the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. I rejoice in this! But I long for the missing 100 to join us.
Believing the gospel with you,