The Good Soil
Suddenly we're a hyper-spiritual culture that is down on church. The nominals like to point out the hypocrisy they see in the religious nuts and the fringe people are in a constant state of movement, always in search of the church that is a good fit. Almost every day I meet someone who is too spiritually advanced for their church. They aren't being fed and are therefore looking for a place of spiritual meat.
My response to the spirtually hungry folks usually makes them mark me off their list. It's always just one single question: is their teacher or preacher faithfully presenting Bible lessons or messages? If the answer is "yes", which it mostly is, I take them on a short exposition of the Parable of the Soils, or what is most commonly known as the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23; Luke Mark 4:1-20; or Luke 8:1-15). You see, if their pastor or Bible study leader is teaching Scripture then their problem is a soil problem. Obviously they haven't prepared the soil of their hearts to receive the seed of God's Word. Ouch. Off another list. They'd rather blame those spiritual infants for their intense hunger.
You already know there's some tongue and cheek happening here. While America's spiritual landscape architects are deducting design sense from the bi-polar data this pretense of spirituality plays some tricks. Church attendance numbers are surely down while the population boasts a more spiritual depth. Affiliated Christians attend church less and must explain this new wrinkle with holy sounding words that shifts the blame to someone else. Not being fed is a usual suspect. But, we all know there's more to this dilemma than poor spiritual nourishment in the nations 350,000+ Protestant congregations. What is driving this decline? Well, there are many variables and any number of church watchers speculating about the times. But, I follow a blogger and church analyst that I have found compelling and offer his assessment as one I prefer. He is Carey Nieuwhof and you can read his thoughts by clicking here.
1. Americans are more affluent and therefore have more options.
2. Children's activities dominate family time more now.
3. Travel takes many Americans away from home more often.
4. Blended and single parent families are torn in weekend responsibilities.
5. On-line options give people the opportunity to worship wherever they are.
6. There is a cultural disappearance of guilt.
7. Hyper-spiritual people can conduct self-directed worship and study.
8. Many Americans cannot balance the investment-benefit equation.
9. The new spirituality overplays engagement and downplays attendance.
10. The massive shift in culture.
The above items seem like cheap substitutes the nones and nominals employ to maintain some measure of spiritual involvement. These ten produce little more than a placebo affect in the people with little spiritual discipline. Of course, latest Pew Research indicates a strengthening of attendance, prayer, Bible study, giving, and service among the convictional Christians identified in their 2014 study. This trend may actually validate the lesson of the Parable of the Soils, not that it needs proving. It is the eternal Word of God, by the way. But, this convictional cohort, though perhaps smaller, proves why church attendance, personal devotion, prayer, stewardship, and several other indicators keep these faithful believers attached to their local churches and their practices of personal piety. They are perhaps the 58% who attend church every week.
A disappointing sidebar is that many Americans, church people included, have discounted church attendance as evidence of Christian faith. I'm no theologian and my Christology is a one liner---Jesus is Lord! But, I cannot picture a valid, growing believer living outside the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ. Most of what we know about living the Christian life is mined from the Pauline Epistles and they were addressed to churches and individuals who were parts of those early spiritual bodies. This means that the promises, expectations, commandments, and instruction was given in the context of a local congregation. They are binding on believers who must live in that context as well. Church membership and regular attendance is evidence of our belonging to Christ. We must recover that belief in our culture.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth penned a short phrase that guides me often in this regard. He wrote, "For in the first place, when you come together as a church..." (1 Corinthians 11:18). It's not a long sentence and doesn't include any great instruction in those brief words. But, it does communicate the expectation that they meet regularly. That's enough for me.
See you Sunday.