There is a question—the asking of which—has been growing in frequency over the past few years and is deserving of serious consideration. Many sincere believers are in increasing measure pondering the relevancy and legitimacy of the church. The dropout rate of most denominations today is or should be sobering. Among evangelical and mainline churches today we are seeing a 70% dropout rate of young people. Consider the following survey result as reported by USA Today:
Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.
I realize that one survey doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the considerations in this instance is the attendance or membership behavior of those dropping out. Obviously many of those who leave also return to the church sometime later so for them this would constitute more of a hiatus from the church rather than a true dropout. A term popularized by Mark Twain—among others—categorizes how many of us respond when offered statistical evidence for an argument—“There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Although we may differ in what we believe concerning the exact numbers, few church-going believers today would argue against the fact that there is definitely a breach in the dam with respect to church attendance and membership. That the preponderance of this leak is among our young people is also almost universally agreed to. If the future of the church is in the younger generation, the church’s future is certainly looking somewhat bleak.
Another interesting aspect of the church’s numerical loss is the fact that it represents more of a rejection of the institutional nature of the church itself rather than a rejection of the Christian faith. Most of those leaving the church still believe in God and confess Christ as their savior. The tragedy here is in so many failing to recognize the imperativeness of the church for a believer’s attainment of the full stature life in Christ. Salvation isn’t about avoiding hell and gaining heaven. It is all about being conformed to the image of Christ. Jesus didn’t die—taking upon himself the penalty of our sin—just to ensure our entrance to heaven. He died that we might come into eternally the same relationship with the Father that he has always enjoyed. Jesus died that the Father might have what he has from eternity past always desired—many sons and daughters just like Jesus.
The fact that so many believers today fail to comprehend God’s ultimate intention through Christ is an indictment of the church’s enormous failure to proclaim the full gospel. When the church presents the salvation experience as an end rather than as one’s commencement of a journey leading to the full stature life in Christ, it is proclaiming a false gospel. As a result we see many sincere followers of Christ falling away from the church with a false sense of security believing they can continue in a legitimate relationship with God sans the church. The fact is God created us in a manner that our spiritual maturation absolutely depends on our righteous relationship with the body of Christ. If we believe that we are going to fulfill God’s eternal design for us without the church, we are woefully deceived. Even as I write these words I am painfully aware that much of what passes for church today is far from God’s intentions for it. That fact notwithstanding, we are not relieved of our responsibility to become part of the company of the committed.
We are not going to be able to stand before God in that Day of Judgment and excuse our failure to live out the transformational life in Christ through the body. If you are part of a fellowship which fails to proclaim a full gospel and teach the true biblical realities of the body of Christ, then find one that does. If you can’t find an authentic New Testament church then join with others of like mind and become the church. For additional help in understanding the true nature of the church please see my articles at www.http://hispresenceonline.org entitled “How Do You Spell Chruch?” To gain a greater perspective on becoming the church you should read The Last Church Standing: Becoming the Church Jesus is Coming For, also available from the above listed site.
Becoming the church doesn’t take a building, an ordained seminary trained pastor, a denominational connection, or a large group of people. Jesus defined the church as “two or more gathered in his name…” Becoming the church simply requires two or more dying-to-self, surrendered, accountable and committed followers of Jesus who are willing to walk out the transformational life in Christ allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them.
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ (Eph 4:11-13 NLT).
This passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is pregnant with understanding of the church. God has provided specific ministry designed to equip all believers for their principal work in the church. That work is unmistakably a mutual ministry of edification, of building up one another toward the end that all believers would come into the full stature life in Christ. This is what satisfies God’s eternal desire to have a family of mature sons and daughters just like Jesus. God called the church into existence for this very reason. Additionally, as this process is in progress the church itself becomes a testimony to a lost world of God’s greatness and glory.
Only in committed, accountable, transparent and serving relationships will persons experience the transforming life of Christ. The principle of the cross is wonderfully worked out through these voluntary relationships. I say voluntary because it is not a matter of law or doctrine. We give ourselves willingly to our heavenly Father to become his workmanship in Christ Jesus. Hopefully we do this that God might have the mature family he desires for himself. The church is not some antiseptic environment where everything is peaches and cream. It is populated with persons with all the typical hang-ups, problems and sins found in any other grouping of people. The distinguishing characteristic of the church that differentiates it from all other social groupings is the commitment of the believers to exercise repentance, forgiveness and unconditional love while pursuing the full stature life in Christ. An authentic church has no back door. When strife or problems arise, the commitment is always to find God’s redemptive way through them unto building one another up in Christ. The authentic church comprehends and practices the priesthood of all believers. True followers of Christ responsibly accept their active role as ministers within the body of Christ.
Community has always been God’s’ modus operandi for implementing his purpose. From the inception of the nation Israel with the calling of Abraham, it was always God’s intention to create a community of the faithful who would reflect his life to a fallen world. When Israel miserably failed in their faith and obedience on the threshold of the Promised Land, God threatened to wipe them out. However, in the same breathe he also committed to start all over again rebuilding a community through whom he would express himself to a fallen world.
I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are! (Num 14:12 NLT).
The Old Testament nation of Israel serves as a prophetic type of the church we have been called to be today. We see in Israel’s history—their deliverance from Egypt, their Red Sea baptism and their entering of the Promised Land—the major stages of a believer’s transformational walk in Christ. Reflected in these events are the spiritual types and shadows of salvation, Holy Spirit baptism and the full stature life. God made it clear to Israel that their deliverance from Egyptian bondage was for the purpose of entering Canaan. God said, “I brought you out to take you in.” The goal here was never simply deliverance from bondage but rather the acquisition of Canaan. This is why their rebellion at the border of the Promised Land was so egregious. These stages are also clearly reflected in the major feasts of Israel—Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
The church is God’s milieu for perfecting his saints. No one is going to achieve conformity to the image of Christ apart from a righteous integration in the body of Christ. Growing up into the full stature of Christ is our Promised Land. Embracing salvation through Christ while eschewing conformity to his image is tantamount to denying God his eternal purpose with man. It is a self-centered, self-aggrandizing soteriology. It’s the classic “Field of Dreams” mindset, “What’s in it for me?” The decision many followers today should be considering is not what church to join but how to become the church Jesus is coming for.
Dr. F. Stoner Clark
Dr. F. Stoner Clark