“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
I read a wonderful book a few years ago entitled “Not a Fan” by Kyle Idleman (Zondervan, 2011) where he talked about the many Christians that attend churches who are more like fans of Jesus than followers of Jesus. He shared a story of a man who came up to him after a speaking engagement and made a comment about his prodigal daughter that left the church when she graduated from college. The man said, “We raised her in church, but we didn’t raise her in Christ.” I had to ask myself the same question. Did we raise our children in the church or in Christ? It is a question every Christian parent should be asking themselves. But it’s also a question every church should be asking of itself. The reality is that not everyone who attends a church is seeking to follow Jesus.
There has been a steady movement in our culture towards a secular society and away from Christianity and church attendance over the past 50 years. So, it is obvious to me that as a nation we have raised more church attenders than Christ followers. We now live in a secular society and when surveys show that 75% of Americans say they are Christian, it only confirms that this is true. When I grew up in the 1960’s it seemed everyone (who was not Jewish) went to a church. It was part of the fabric of our culture. But that is not true anymore. Both Gallup polls and Barna Research confirm that Church attendance has declined dramatically in America since then. Their reports show that there are more people today who attend church only once or twice a year, identify as atheists, or have no religion at all.
So, how did this happen? Why are so many people leaving the church, and why has the culture become more secular? It would seem to me that it is because we raised a generation of church attenders who were going to church but not really following Jesus or living according to Biblical teaching. It was in many ways self-inflicted. The culture is not responsible for teaching others to follow Christ. That is the Church’s job. And apparently it did not do as well as we thought it did even though churches were full on Sundays. Today it is clear that the secular culture has more influence over our nation than the Church does. Whether that’s due to poor discipleship, deviation from Scriptural authority, or other factors, it is the reality today in America.
But I also believe that the Church is much stronger today because the true followers of Christ are the ones who have stuck around and strive to be the church and do the ministry Christ has called them to. The followers of Christ are the ones who hold to the truths of the Bible, obey Jesus’ teaching and seek God’s will in what they do. Following Jesus is not easy and there is a cost to doing so. Jesus said in Luke 14:27 that, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and also in Luke 14:33 that, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” These are very difficult teachings for many people to accept. The Bible also says in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Those who follow the culture (world) can therefore not be followers of Christ. Consequently, those who have left the church were merely attenders and not really Christ followers. When given a choice to follow Jesus or follow the culture, they made their choice to follow the culture. The challenge for the Church today is how to get them back in order to disciple them!
Pastors and church leaders, therefore, need to put greater focus on helping people coming to church to engage in its ministry. They need to put their efforts into discipleship and ministry participation. It will not be easy, but it is necessary if the Church is to be the Church and not merely a building where people gather once a week for an inspirational message and some singing.
So, which are you? Are you a church attender or Christ follower? Are you merely attending church because it is what you have done on Sunday morning your whole life? Or are you ‘being the church’ because you desire to follow Jesus, seek His will, serve God and serve others? This is the ultimate question we as Christians must all ask ourselves.
The Holy Spirit asked me that question when I was on my first mission trip in Kazakhstan in April of 1996, and it absolutely changed my life. My answer then is the same today. I desire to follow Jesus with my life each and every day. I am not perfect, I am a sinner, and I often fail to do what He wants me to do. But I put my life in His hands and look to Him for guidance, direction, provision and truth. And I have certainly been blessed by doing so. I don’t believe anyone can ever know the riches and blessings of God unless they submit to His leadership in their life and experience first-hand what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
I have experienced that fullness by following Jesus. You can too. But you won’t unless you stop attending church and instead become the Church!
Lord, help us to encourage other Christians to become followers of Christ and NOT just church attenders! Amen!