Once in a while I like to read The Message paraphrase of the Bible. These verses jumped out at me:
“It is God’s will that by doing good, you might cure the ignorance of the fools who think you’re a danger to society. Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules. Treat everyone you meet with dignity. Love your spiritual family. Revere God. Respect the government” (1 Peter 2:15-17).
Some of the actions we’ve seen this year make me wonder how many so-called Christians have actually read the Bible and know that there are verses like this in there. But then I saw Christianity Today’s article that there’s been a 5% drop in daily Bible reading among Americans in recent months. They speculate on lack of time and lack of in-person connection with the church during the pandemic. While that may be true in some cases, I think there is a more fundamental problem—a lot of people who call themselves Christians have no real interest in God or the Bible. If they are only reading the Bible or attending church out of guilt, peer pressure, or habit, the pandemic has not really changed their hearts but revealed them.
Many churches witnessed a temporary increase in engagement when we all went online at the start of the pandemic. Now the numbers are lower in many cases. And if you don’t count the people who are watching multiple church services online every Sunday, I suspect that most churches have seen an overall decrease in participation. The faithful Christians have remained faithful while many of the nominal Christians have dropped off the radar. I’ve never understood how a church can report more members than active members, and the gap between the two numbers is getting wider.
Although we may bemoan the statistics when this season is past, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. Jesus recognized that there would be weeds growing among the wheat up until the harvest time (Matthew 13:24-30). He warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21 ESV). It may take a pandemic to reveal which church members are actually followers of Jesus Christ and which ones are simply along for the ride. Pastors and leaders need to be able to see who are the true disciples of Christ and who are the ones still in need of salvation.
And church members themselves need to realize if they are among those whose hearts are not engaged with God. Some may be thinking, “You know, I really don’t believe this stuff and I don’t care about it,” and in their departure we need to be praying for God to change their hearts. Others may be realizing they’ve drifted away from their first love but they want to return, and so we welcome them back and pray for God’s continued work.
Jesus said, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:18-20). All too often, it seems like we’ve accepted participation in church activities as the only evidence needed of good fruit, even if it has only been artificial fruit. And now that church activities are curtailed, we’re seeing that some people have never actually borne any fruit because they are not connected to Jesus Christ in a life-giving way.
So, to return to where I started, are we bearing the fruit of good works that point to God as our source of life and hope, and silences the ignorant talk of unbelievers? Are we truly living as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9-10)? If not, we need to check our hearts.
“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? …Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:1-19).
© 2020 Dawn Rutan. Image copyright free from pixabay.com. The opinions stated do not necessarily reflect the views of my church or employer.