I was talking to a Pastor colleague recently about his ministry in a local Congregation and the prevailing feeling in the time we spoke was one of discouragement as he reflected on the diminishing numbers of people who are committing to Church in recent times. I know he is not alone and the resignation of Pastors across most denominations has reached a pretty alarming level across our nation. Shrinking or inconsistent attendance can certainly short-circuit our plans, frustrate our expectations and reduce our ministry impact. It is also very discouraging.
This conversation reminded me of the problem we have in with way we look at this issue. God reminded me of a truth so basic and so foundational that we often overlook it – to our peril. Perhaps every Pastor and Church leader needs to print this statement and stick it to their fridge door to read every day:
We are not called to get people to commit to the Church – we are called to help people commit to Jesus.
Yes, I know those two things go hand in hand. I have always stressed the foundational importance of the local Church its relationship to spiritual well-being and the fulfilment of the mission of Christ. However, committing to Jesus and committing to the Church, while interlinked, are not the same thing.
As Church leaders our emphasis has to be on helping people embrace Jesus and His mission. Involvement in the local Church is only of value when it serves that cause. So yes, we should keep inviting people to Church. Gathering with other believers is a central aspect of spiritual growth. But we should never leave anyone with the impression that Church commitment is our focus and end goal. Following Jesus must be our end goal and the focus of all our Church activities.
While we should always pay attention to attendance patterns (and, even more importantly, to the actual people who we miss when they don’t show up), it doesn’t necessarily mean they lack commitment to the Church or to Jesus. If that drop becomes a habit, then we have a concern. But even then, the concern shouldn’t be how committed they are to the Church, but how committed they are to Jesus. I trust the Holy Spirit in people more than I trust the people themselves and if they are really committed to Jesus then He will draw them back into fellowship with their brothers and sisters.
When we complain about Church attendance as though it’s our primary concern, we put the emphasis in the wrong place and make people think that attending Church, while important, is the most important thing. Church attendance is never the end goal. It is always a means to an end – which is a strengthening relationship with Jesus. Gathering with other believers in a healthy Church environment helps us do that, but just being in the same room guarantees nothing if Jesus is not present in our midst and people are not engaging with Him personally. We are there to worship Jesus, fellowship with other believers and learn to become better disciples. If we invite people to do that, then create an environment where it can truly happen, then everything else will fall into place.
Church growth is the natural outcome of a healthy Church and that health flows from our relationship with Jesus. At the end of Acts chapter 2 we have a snapshot of a healthy Church as they devoted themselves to worship, good teaching, the breaking of bread and prayer. It was the Lord Who added to their number daily those who were being saved. It was the disciples’ personal encounter with Jesus, through the Holy Spirit which produced a healthy Church and God will always bless a healthy Church with growth. So go ahead and invite people to Church – but make sure they know that you are really inviting them to meet Jesus – and He is always present among His gathered people.
Now you need to decide whether this is all just semantics or whether God is telling us why the visible Church is in decline in our nation.