In 2011 the largest denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced the results of a survey showing a significant decline in baptisms and church membership. Ed Stetzer, a missioligist and researcher with Lifeway Research, commented at the time: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”
In the very same year, across the Atlantic, a report on the Church of England highlighted the challenges it was facing: aging congregations, faltering clergy recruitment and waning attendance. While church leaders used words like “crisis” and “time bomb,” the report predicted the church would likely be extinct within 20 years.
More recently, the Pew Research Center released a study on the state of religion in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study brings into focus the increasing growth rate of those who do not identify with any religion at all. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. adult population—and one-third of those under the age of 30—identify in this way; an increase from 15 percent just 5 years earlier.
For many people, these are signs that the church is, if not already dead, steadily moving toward the grave. And many have been calling for followers of Jesus to return to the original vision for our faith.
I have lived within the inner workings of the church for the past 15 years, and I will be one the first to agree with many who point out that the Church is full of brokenness.
When you stand on the inside of the church, you see the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been disheartened by the hypocrisy within the leadership of churches. I have experienced disillusionment when it seems like the church is more about ‘nickels and noses’ then it is about real life transformation. To be even more honest, I have seen my own failings and weaknesses as a supposed leader and wondered if this thing called church is truly real or worth it. There are times when I have wanted to give up on the church and ministry altogether.
But I’m not ready to sound the death toll for the Church. Here’s a story to tell you why.
When Lazarus was dead in the tomb and his sisters were surrounded by mourners, it seemed like everything was at an end. But Jesus made the days-journey to come, saying, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). In the face of all the mourners’ wailing, Jesus shouts a powerful command to Lazarus that sends revivifying power into his cold, lifeless form: “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43).
Like Jesus’ call to Lazarus, I believe Jesus wants to speak a powerful word of resurrection into the Church today. I believe Jesus is calling the Church to awaken and come out of the death that entraps it. I believe that Jesus has not given up on the Church, and neither should we.
I can think of at least three reasons we should not give up on the Church.
Jesus loves the Church
From all the recent discouraging commentary on the Church, you might wonder if Jesus actually hates today’s Church. A cursory look at the Scripture will bring us back to our senses. In one of Paul’s most moving passages about husband and wife relationships, he intertwines a description of the relationship between Christ and the church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Paul highlights the great love that Christ has for His church, which is marked by purposeful self-sacrifice, seen ultimately at the Cross. As he writes, Paul apparently becomes so caught up in his reflections on Christ’s love for the church that he veers off course from his discussion of the topic at hand: marriage.
Paul’s captivated words on the love that Christ has for His church overflow from Paul’s understanding of what a tremendously powerful love it is. That love, Paul says to husbands and wives, serves as an example for how we are to love one another. It is a love full of selfless passion and zealous fire. Woe to the person who gets between the lover and the beloved! Jesus loves the Church.
Jesus is building the Church
In Matthew, Peter makes a bold declaration of Jesus’ identity: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus responds to Peter’s declaration with a very surprising statement: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (16:18).
Regardless of our understanding of the “rock” in this setting, there is one thing that is sure: Jesus will build His church. He will build it with such strength that hell’s gates will not stand in the way of this living church. And we are part of this as well. Later in his life, Peter writes about this reality: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5).
Not only does Jesus love the church, but we also see that He is personally involved in building His church. Like a construction foreman, Jesus stands in the midst of an ongoing work project called the Church. It is His house built from the living stones of His followers. Undoubtedly, the church is imperfect. Yet, at the very same time, Jesus Himself is making a masterpiece out of this imperfect assemblage in which He dwells by His Spirit.
Jesus will come for the Church
Whatever our understanding of eschatology, the New Testament is clear that Jesus will one day bring all the Church together with Him at the consummation of human history (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). In this great gathering, the Lord Jesus Himself will call out both the dead and the living in Christ.
John, in his apocalyptic work that concludes the Bible, describes this gathering through the metaphor of marriage. In the midst of a new heaven and new earth, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).
This bride is the ingathered people of God we call the Church. We can accurately say that, whatever else may go along with it, the consummation of human history in spiritual terms has a lot to do with the Church being prepared and restored for eternity with Jesus Christ.
Since that is part of God’s cosmic aim for all the cosmos, we may want to stop and reconsider how we think about the Church. Jesus loves His church. He is building His church. And one day, He will come again for it. So in the meantime, let us join His good work of building His Church.