Recent polls have revealed that church attendance in America is going down drastically. It is reported that an estimated 4,000 churches close their doors every year, and that about 3,500 people are leaving the church every day!
What does this say about our triumphant Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Is He failing to build His Church – the one that He declared that the very gates of hell could not withstand?
Or are we really looking at the same church He spoke of, the one depicted in the New Testament?
First let’s look at the word “church.” In our English translations of the New Testament, this word is translated from the Greek word, “ekklessia.” In the First Century it was used to describe an assembly of people that was called together for various occasions. In one example from Acts 19:32 we see the word used to describe an angry mob. Then in verse 39 the crowd is told to return later to meet in a lawful, “ekklessia” or assembly.
In time then, we see how this word ekklessia came to be the common word used to describe gatherings of the people of God in different cities or locations. These are local expressions of the one Church which Jesus calls His own, that Universal Church which encompasses all locations and periods of time! When we read the various passages, it is important that we discern from the context if they refer to the Universal Church, or to specific local churches.
What constitutes a church? In Acts we see a brief portrait of the early days of the Church at Jerusalem in Acts 2:41-47:
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Churches in other locations are described in Acts 14:21-23:
“After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
So, in a very practical sense, New Testament churches are gatherings of believers, who are in fact a community within the society where ever they happen to live. Because they were all saved by the same faith in Christ, they cared for one another, strengthened one another in the faith, and simply wanted to be together because of Him!
But don’t let the simplicity of this picture mislead you! These simple gatherings of humble believers in Christ are God’s means of transforming the world! Within the first 3 centuries after the appearing of Christ, the Roman Empire was largely converted to Christianity, or at the least greatly influenced by the values of Christ.
Today we have orphanages, hospitals, and a greater sense of equality among people mainly because of the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ!
Some of us even need a greater revelation of Jesus and His purpose for His people in the earth….Ephesians 1:15-23:
“For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,”
There might be several reasons that so many today are abandoning the churches they attend. This passage challenges me, however, to wonder how many both in and out of these churches actually have a revelation of the riches of the glory of His inheritance IN THE SAINTS.
Continuing in verse 19:
“and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
Paul states boldly, confidently, that the community of believers together are a body, a physical representation of Christ in this earth, revealing His fullness as the Head of that body! To be clear, the church is the body of Christ, whose hands, feet, arms legs, eyes and ears are actually His redeemed, born-again, Spirit-filled individual people who are connected together in Him.
Then he explains how the Church is ultimately coming to fulfill this ideal that God has in mind.
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
Unity as we often understand it seems to be totally unattainable for the Church of Jesus Christ. However the all-powerful King of the Universe is not bound to our limitations!
“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God has a plan for the ages, and a time ordained for His manifold wisdom to be revealed through His Church. That time is now, and is continuing to unfold, if our eyes only could be open to see it!
So, how important is the Church to Jesus? He loved her as a man loves his bride, and gave Himself for Her. He has also prepared us to be His army, battling against the gates of hell, proving the wisdom of God to the evil authorities in high places.
God is calling us to a fresh look at our heritage as His people, and a greater sense of value in one another. Our motivation must be that of His, His love for His people and for the world which he came to save. Only that fiery, passionate love can motivate us to fulfill our heavenly calling in Christ.
What is the result of not understanding the value that Christ holds for His Church? Well, in the book of Haggai we have a good example of that situation. After 70 years in Babylon, the people of Judah were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple and the city. They started out with great enthusiasm, but when difficulties arose, their enthusiasm waned. Even after conditions improved, they assumed that perhaps the need for the Temple was not so urgent. Instead they focused on their own material needs.
“In the second year of Darius the king, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, saying,
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘This people says, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the LORD to be rebuilt.”‘” Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, saying, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! “You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.”
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! “Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. “Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. “I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.”
Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people showed reverence for the LORD.”
Have you ever been in this place where little, if anything results from your efforts? I know I have. Jesus put it this way, He said when we seek to save our lives, we will lose them. It is only when we seek first to lose them for Him that we find the life that we were intended to live.
Many years ago I came upon Matthew 6:33. At the time, the harder I had been trying to fix my problems, the worse they became. Upon reading this passage, the Holy Spirit inspired and enabled me to act on what Jesus said, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. I was given the faith to believe that the things I really needed would then be added to me by God’s grace. God proved this to be true, and I have lived by that principle ever since.
Where do we find the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? We find it in the Gospel, which is continually and practically lived out in the church of Jesus Christ. Maybe thousands of people are finding out that their churches were not truly Gospel-centered churches. Maybe they are right to leave organizations that do not present or even believe the Truth of Jesus and His life.
However, among gatherings of true believers in Jesus, there is the danger that we can become distracted away from his priorities. It is also easy to take the reality of the true riches that we have together in Christ for granted. Like the inhabitants of Jerusalem, we begin to think our private interests are more important than who we are together as the New Covenant Temple of the Holy Spirit!
The greater reality is that our investment in the Kingdom of God returns to us in a multitude of ways. Beyond the fact that our material needs are provided for, the riches in Christ we enjoy are eternal and imperishable riches in love and friendship, peace and joy, satisfaction and purpose, and most of all a relationship with Jesus himself!
To seek first the Kingdom of God means more than setting aside a few hours on Sunday morning. But for me 40 years ago, that was a start. From there Christ began filling up my life day by day with more of His wonderful presence. The things I worried about most before became less and less significant. His work in the world and among His people has become a wonderful adventure, an adventure which would make even Indiana Jones jealous!
Lord Jesus, may the Holy Spirit reveal Your purpose to all of us, that the eyes of our understanding will be opened, that we may see and become consumed with Your desire for Your Church, Your Bride, that we might freely pour our lives, our resources, even our finances into her, for the betterment of our families, our communities and our nations and for your glory.
In Your precious Name, Amen!