When the Church Counts

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There is a great deal of angsting going on right now in the evangelical church. You can see it in our social media bubble, read it in our blog posts, and hear it in our Sunday morning conversations. This angst seems to have its genesis from several factors:

In case you haven’t heard, there’s an election going on in the USA. And it’s not pretty.

There’s also an increasing devaluation of Christian values in the public square.

Oh, and millennials are leaving the church in droves apparently.

Our consternation seems driven by the numbers in each instance. Politically, we are counting Supreme Court Justices and votes. Socially, we are counting lawsuits and editorials that go against us. Ecclesiastically, we are counting worship attendance and seeing a lot more gray hair. In each area, the numbers frighten us. But they shouldn’t.

We need to remember that the church counts best when it doesn’t.

Politically, we need to remember that God is not unaware of what is going on. We need to remember that while, as citizens of a democratic nation, we can and should vote our conscience in the election. But fear, hand-wringing, and anger leading up to, during, and after the voting should have no place amongst us. Whoever is elected president gets four years, maybe eight. Supreme Court justices get a little longer, with the average tenure being about twenty years.

The church has survived centuries. It has survived brutal persecution. It can handle anything this country or any other throws against it.  The next four, eight, twenty, or even one hundred years are not going to be the stone that sinks the ship of the church.

Let’s not try to count votes, or justices, or anything else politically as essential to the future of the church. Instead, let’s rejoice in the surety of Jesus’ faithfulness to fulfill his promise…

“…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Matthew 16:18, ESV

Socially, the proverbial handwriting is on the wall. Christian morality, formerly an assumption for many, has been rejected. This reality has led some to propose that the church exercise “The Benedict Option“, which means to concede the public square and focus on creating communities of faith similar to monastic orders. Others have doubled down against the decline of influence with a pugilistic defiance. Still others seem paralyzed by the reality of a secular culture supplanting the “Christian” one they grew up with. Whether this is due to the church’s frustratingly inconsistent practice of biblical ethics or to the rise of the cult of the self doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it will be increasingly clear where the church stops and culture starts.

And that’s only ever a good thing for the people of God. And not in a throwaway, making the best of a bad situation, kind of way: consider Jesus’ words in Luke 6…

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets…Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

Luke 6:22-26, ESV

We get it backward when, as the people of God, we count societal approval as blessing and persecution as woe. Jesus says strike that, reverse it. Now live it.

Ecclesiastically, we tally up the numbers of people attending our worship services each week and compare that to demographics data and we freak out. Young people are not coming, or if they did, they’re not coming back again is the common narrative. The church’s situation seems remarkably like that of Elijah:

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

1 Kings 19:9-10, ESV

Many in the church, particularly the older generations, feel like they have nothing left to do but to crawl back into their stone edifices and glower out at the pagan youth.

God comes and asks, “What are you doing here, Church?”

“Lord, we have been so faithful. We have studied your Word in Sunday School, we have made sure we maintained our buildings, we have dressed respectfully, we have kept our music wholesome, and even more! But Lord, this new generation doesn’t seem interested. They don’t want to meet in our fluorescent cubicles to study the quarterly, they don’t seem to care about preserving our buildings that get used twice a week, they come to church dressed just like they are every other day, and they don’t even know the words to ‘In the Garden’. We are all that you have left.”

Perhaps God’s response is similar to the one he gave Elijah:

“Go, return on your way…I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

1 Kings 19:15-18 ESV

In other words, “Church, go back to the beginning. Go back to what I actually told you to do: love me, love people, and make disciples. You’ve confused how you do church with being the church. The methods have to change in order for the message to be received. And don’t worry about the numbers: I’ve got more millennials to save than you can shake a stick at.”

We’ve gotten so concerned with counting heads that we’ve forgotten about reaching hearts.

I believe that if we will stop counting politically, socially, and ecclesiastically we may just start counting where it matters: in obedience, in faithfulness, in Christ-likeness.

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