Sometimes when things are falling apart, they are actually falling into place.—Cynthia Occelli
I ended yesterday’s post on the church’s decline with the above quote, which I saw recently on Pinterest. Could it be that the decline of the church isn’t God’s plan falling apart but actually God’s plan coming together?
Cynthia explains the quote, which I found through Google, by looking at God’s processes in nature: “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth it would look like complete destruction.”
Could it be that in order for God to grow THE CHURCH, the body of Christ (His people, not buildings labeled “the church”), He must do what appears to the outside as destruction of the church?
Why do I believe this might be true? Because when Christ came to earth, He canceled the old covenant and put into place a new covenant. As Hebrews tells us: “[Christ] said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will.’ He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect” (Hebrews 10:9, NLT). In the old covenant, the temple (church building) was where God dwelled. In the new covenant, Christ made God accessible to everyone, and when an individual invited God in, He made His home within them.
Because of Christ’s atoning work, the cornerstone of God’s church was no longer physical bricks and mortar but spiritually God’s Son. As the psalmist reminds us: “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22, NLT).
Could it be that as Christians we have struggled to see the proverbial forest for the trees? That our focus has too long been on the forest—the church building as representing the body of Christ—versus the trees—the people representing the body of Christ. We have to stop doing church and start being the church. Our role is not to take our unsaved friends to church to get them saved but to be the church for them so that they will thirst for what we have: Christ our Savior.
Right now, a lot of people are leaving their churches. Yet perhaps people aren’t just leaving the church for the sake of leaving the church. Evidence suggests that people are leaving to go out into the world and live their faith there—spreading the Good News to those who would never enter the doors of a church building. In an article on ChurchLeaders.com titled “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,” Kelly Shattuck talks about this phenomenon. I found this quote from the article quite telling:
Ed Stetzer, missiologist and director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, has found similar evidence of spiritual behavior occurring outside church walls. He recently finished a study on alternative faith communities, and found that a growing number of people are finding Christian discipleship and community in places other than their local churches. The study found that 24.5 percent of Americans now say their primary form of spiritual nourishment is meeting with a small group of 20 or fewer people every week. “About 6 million people meet weekly with a small group and never or rarely go to church,” Stetzer says. “There is a significant movement happening.”
This movement sounds a lot like what Jesus was doing in His day, in which He poured into His disciples, and His disciples poured into new disciples, and on and on. These small groups met in homes throughout Jerusalem, Judah, Samaria, and beyond. It was a movement that rapidly grew the body of Christ. And amazingly, for the time period, included women leaders at every level (see, for instance, Acts 9 and 16). When the church leaders of the day recognized that THE CHURCH Christ was building was taking away from their power (the church), they had him crucified. (Matthew 20:18, Matthew 16:21)
Why would God desire to trade the “organized” church system of today for a more mobile, organic, seemingly-disorganized version? Let’s consider this simple example: One neighborhood has a single church. Perhaps it’s a church of 2,000 regular attenders. On any given week the pastor spends countless hours on his face before God seeking the message God has for his congregation. Now apply this to the trend of house churches. What if just 1 percent of that neighborhood church (200 people) felt they were being called to teach others? Perhaps they felt God impressing upon them to obey His teaching to put off the old self and put on their new identity in Christ as Paul stated in Colossians 3:16 NLT:
Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.
Now, instead of just the one neighborhood pastor, you have 200 people on their face before God seeking the message that He has for the people who will show up to their homes on Sunday morning. I can tell you from my own experience teaching a Sunday school class that there is no Bible reading or study at the level you go to when you are faced with teaching others. Especially in a small group where people can look you in the eye and hold you accountable. We approach Bible study for teaching with a greater reverence because we know others are counting on us and God Himself will hold us to a higher standard.
Could God be using this age where technology and the American culture are leaving people more disconnected than ever—even sitting in church on Sunday morning—as part of His plan to evangelize our neighbors, connect us together, get us digging into His Word, and grow us closer to Him?
While I still attend a neighborhood church and I believe that there are many churches that exist to share the love of Christ with the world, I am not discouraged by the fact that the church continues to decline. I’m actually encouraged by what God is showing me. So be encouraged, my friend, I don’t think God’s plan is falling apart. I believe God’s plan is starting to come together. THE CHURCH, men and women equally, using their talents and gifts to take the gospel to the world. Leading others to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that is in them not by any specific external anatomy. God is still doing great things—through THE CHURCH. And that CHURCH is most definitely not in decline.