There is a question I cannot get out of my mind. I have been thinking about it incessantly over the last several months because something I have never seen or heard about before has happened in these months. Here is that question:
Why did so many people check out of church in a time of crisis?
I am not talking about physical attendance because there have been good reasons for people to engage digitally in a time of pandemic. Even when taking into consideration the need for some people to remain physically distant, church attendance and engagement is down. Instead of a time of crisis leading people to seek God in more intentional ways, the reverse happened.
I was 18 when 9/11 happened, and even in our small suburb of Indianapolis, church attendance swelled in the weeks following the tragedy. Even teachers hostile to the gospel thanked my classmates and me for spending time in prayer during the day of 9/11. Throughout our history, that has been the norm. In times of crisis, people turn to God and His church.
But not this crisis. Why not?
I have pondered that question with many people, and have found it is easy for me (and others) to use this to justify conclusions we believe to be true See…this is proof I have been right all along! That’s not helpful.
I am not sure we are ready to understand why in a time of crisis people are no longer interested in turning to the church. In reality, this continues a long-standing trend in the United States of decreased church engagement. People who used to come to church every week now only come twice a month. People who used to come twice a month now don’t come anymore. Those trends were in place long before the pandemic, and it appears the pandemic has expedited those trends.
If you are a Christian, compelled by the reality that Jesus is King and He is the greatest gift to our world, what are we to do to reverse these trends?
That question we can answer. Read any book on renewal in the church, and there are many good ones (Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill, Dynamics of Spiritual Life Richard Lovelace, God Sized Vision by John Woodbridg), and they all say the same thing. They all say we have to start in the same place. A starting place summarized well by Mark Sayers in his book on renewal, Reappearing Church:
Renewal comes when we are sickened by our false gods and the broken promises of our impotent idols and ideologies. When we are shattered by our striving and pathetic attempts at saving ourselves, we fall into the arms of Christ to be remade without caveats and compromises.
In other words, renewal starts within the church when I get fed up with my attempts to save myself. When I finally become overwhelmed by the gospel and throw myself in front of Christ for Him to do whatever He wants with me. Renewal and revival starts within our church NOT with others, but with me.
Renewal starts with me.
That is why – despite pandemics, decreased church attendance, or whatever has driven people away from church in a time of crisis – I am not concerned. I am hopeful. Church, we still have every resource we need in order to see a fresh conversion to the gospel in our own times.
We have Jesus, and He is still in the remaking business, and always will be. He wants to remake us after Himself. Maybe the real question is – do I want that?
It is impossible to overstate the dramatic change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The typical Palm Sunday service is filled with kids waving palm branches, upbeat songs, and a vibe of joy. Good Friday, on the other hand, is a service in a dark room, marked by Scriptures read that describe brutal violence, ending in silence.
That is a stark change in just five days, like driving a car on a new spring day then suddenly slamming into a wall. What happened in those five days? What happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?
The presence of Jesus is what happened.
The original Palm Sunday was a day long in coming for the people of God. It was first spoken of in Genesis 3, it was hinted at by God when He promised David an eternal line of kings through his descendants, it was described in full by Zechariah, and now – at last – it was here. The Messiah was coming into Jerusalem to establish His reign. Everyone knew what that meant. Jesus was going to throw out the Roman oppressors and establish God’s world-wide reign of peace.
Then Jesus showed up and ruined everything.
He confronted the people of God, not the Roman oppressors. He said to them “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:46)
Now a decision had to be made. What to do with this confrontational Jesus?
This is where things turned tragic, how we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The religious leaders of the day determine they are not interested in what Jesus is offering, so they scheme, plan and devise a way to get rid of Him. Instead of instituting the reign of God from the hill of the Temple, Jesus was crucified on a hill called “place of the skull.” What a drastic, rapid fall.
It is easy to believe that we want Jesus, but we must confront the fact that it only took five days for an entire city to go from revering Jesus to rejecting Him. Five days is all it took for Jerusalem to move from cherishing Him to crucifying Him. That is the message of Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday reveals how fast my reverence for Jesus can turn to rejection.
In the presence of Jesus, I am confronted with where I am broken, where I am hostile to the Kingdom of God, where God’s purposes are at odds with what I want to do in the world. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:
In the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed….He is the light of the world. In his presence, people either fall down to worship him or do everything they can to extinguish his light.
Holy Week is an invitation for us to meditate on the ways in which our hearts move from welcoming the presence of Jesus to trying to extinguish His light. To let His integrity expose the false ways I live. To let His courage and constant commitment to others expose my selfishness. To let His love and devotion to the Father expose my own fickle commitment to the path God calls me to follow.
Meditate on those themes, and the weight is crushing. However, the irony of Holy Week is that while our pretenses are laid bare and exposed, Jesus’ commitment toward us is firm, resolute, and irreversible. The way we tried to extinguish His light became the very means by which He flooded this world with His light. Crucifixion. Death. Resurrection. The dramatic shift from Palm Sunday to Good Friday may reveal the darkness of our hearts but it also sheds light on the glory of Jesus.
My reverence for Jesus may quickly turn to rejection, but Jesus never responds that way to us. Whether we are waving palm branches, shouting for joy and worshiping Him as Messiah, or trying to go our own way, rejecting Him and blocking His light from our eyes, He continues on His way to the cross, committed to our salvation, our healing, our redemption.
Palm Sunday may reveal how quickly we turn on Him, but that is not the message of Palm Sunday. The message of Palm Sunday is that our heart toward Jesus will not affect His heart toward us. He is always working toward our healing, even while we are trying to snuff out His light.
I am restless. There is a question I cannot get out of my head despite my best efforts.
How did we end up with two billion Christians in the world?
Or, to ask more provocatively – how did the early church go from a small, persecuted, hated minority to the only diverse (in wealth, gender, and ethnicity) religious movement the world has ever seen?
I ask that question because as I write, the church in America is seeing the opposite. We are witnessing a massive decline in American Christianity. The statistics are everywhere so I won’t bore you with them (just Google “decline in American Christianity”).
I ask that question because I believe in the promises of God. His plan for the world is not a spattering of churches scattered throughout the world. God’s plan for this world in His Scriptures are bold, outrageous even. Habakkuk says, The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (2:14). Jesus Himself said, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18). These promises are just the tip of the iceberg, and God has plans for every square inch of His creation.
Why, then, the decline on our square inch of creation, the United States?
Like a good pragmatic American, my first response is to ask, What did the early church do that we are not doing? That question is instructive. One of the key texts of the early church’s “New Members Class,” a text the early Christian scholar Origen tells us Christians knew by heart, was Isaiah 2, with words of peace promised to a world of war:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Alan Kreider, in his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, says early Christians memorized this text because they were committed to loving their enemies. In that day, when a Roman citizen became a Christian, they almost certainly lost money (maybe even their job), lost relationships, lost reputation, faced insult, and at times even risked threats to their physical safety. So, the early church intentionally trained itself in love for enemies.
That is interesting, and memorizing Isaiah 2 might be a good idea for my own discipleship and growth in loving my enemies, but it doesn’t answer my question. What enabled the people of the early church to love their enemies?
Kreider points out that the early church had an almost irrational level of confidence, much like my nine pound miniature dachshund (think hot dog, like Oscar Mayer; also, if it’s not clear, this is my illustration, not Kreider’s). My dog has the confidence level of a military tank. If you walk onto our property, he will prepare himself for attack, not realizing he is actually an old dachshund that basically has no teeth.
Yes, in this analogy I am comparing my dog to the early church. While this level of confidence is just odd and misplaced for my dog, it was not for the early church.
The early church did not look at the surrounding world of Rome and fear their persecutors, or their enemies. Instead, Kreider writes:
During the early centuries the Christians gave the impression of being confidently powerful. Why? In part because they believed the struggles they were involved in were above all, spiritual. They saw themselves as fighting not primarily against humans or institutions but against spiritual forces that were hostile to them and that impeded human flourishing….The demons did have power – their role in engineering the crucifixion of Jesus was evidence of this. But the believers confessed that on the cross Jesus had exposed the true nature of the demonic powers and vanquished them. And not only that – he also, through the Holy Spirit, had unleashed unimagined spiritual power for good in the world. The Christians claimed they had access to that power.
I have my answer.
In the last year, we have processed a pandemic together, rioting, racial injustice, political upheaval, and violence. Christians have asked me to read, listen to, and watch a LOT of things. Social media posts. Articles. Podcasts. YouTube videos of someone “destroying” another argument.
But I can count on just one hand the number of times someone has told me what they have heard from God through prayer. Through Scripture. Through the Spirit of God.
Despite the decline in the American church, I am not worried. Unimagined spiritual power for good has been unleashed in the world through the resurrection of Jesus. We have access to that power.
Let’s access it.
At the start of this pandemic, I was convinced the quarantine was an amazing opportunity to change. While being stuck at home was not what anybody would want, fewer commitments meant more time and freedom. Those lingering house projects? Not anymore, I’d have time to become Chip Gaines! More time to spend with the family? Break out Candy Land! Those lingering bad habits? Plenty of freedom to break them!
I can change. That was my motto at the beginning of this pandemic, but now?
I’m tired…what’s on Netflix?
My desire to change, my plan to change, did not actually lead to change. Why not?
That is one of the questions Paul asks us to consider in Romans 12, which is the subject of our sermon series We Can Change. But even as we explore this question, there are two traps we must be careful to avoid.
One, we will NOT say, “Just give up…people never change.” We have all said this in exasperation of others whose mistakes run on repeat, frustrating us, or doing us harm. In exasperation of ourselves, why do I keep doing the things I know won’t bring me life? The Bible makes it clear that change is coming. My favorite verse? 1 John 3:2
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
We shall be like Jesus. We believe that.
Two, we will NOT attempt to become self-help motivators. There will be no Tony Robbins exercises in church. The self-help industry is a 13 billion dollar industry! But I promise you, this pastor will not attempt to join that industry.
So, how do we change? Why did I fail to change in this pandemic?
If I had known back in March what I know now, I would have been much more skeptical of my desire to change in a season of pandemic. Quarantine has meant isolation. Disruption to our schedules has meant less engagement with people. Our relational tanks are nearly empty and despite more free time, we are running on fumes. All of these things stand in the way of change. When we are relationally empty, it is nearly impossible to change.
How do we change?
I cannot completely answer that question in my final paragraphs but here are a few thoughts
First, one way we benefit from being part of a church community is to explore this question together. That is why you need to be in church (online, outdoors, indoors, however you do it!).
Next, recognize that change is not about effort. It is not about life hacks. Change is, in the words of Paul—the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). That is the challenge. Brain science (and the book of Romans) will tell you our failure to change is not a lack of willpower, lack of information, or desire on our part. Change will not come when you finally find the right podcast.
Finally, know that our inability to change comes from a lack of joy. A deficit in love. Relational wounds and breakdowns that lead us to the same sinful habits and patterns we so desperately want to break. Paul addresses this in Romans. In Christ there is joy, a relationship available to us—that means—we can change.
Check out our sermon series “We Can Change.”
I want to talk about something I never thought I would talk about as a pastor.
If even the mention of the word “masks” brings a roll of the eye, a huff, or whatever your preferred choice of exasperation, I understand. A few weeks ago I was frustrated by any demand to wear a mask. I was tired of political leaders who are using this pandemic to advance their own political aims and the inconsistent advice given. Don’t buy masks! They don’t work! Wait…Wear a mask! They work! I began to wonder if I would have to shave my lengthy beard because it does not work well with a mask. This was going too far. (That was a joke—can we laugh together about masks!?)
If masks, or the demands to wear one, are frustrating, I understand. And now, as our campuses prepare to gather together again in person, we are faced with what has become a controversial question in the church world—should churches require people to wear masks?
Until two weeks ago, I would have answered “no.” I did answer “no.” Then something happened, which is why I want to talk to you about masks.
I have four awesome kids—three boys, one girl. One of my sons has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which means if he were to get COVID19, it could be very dangerous for him. This pandemic has been hard for us and for him. Isaiah hasn’t been in public for several months. Our family has had to withdraw. We have not met with our Community Group, and I only meet with people outside at parks, socially distanced.
This has been brutal for my wife and me. My jokes about masks aside, these have been some of the most painful weeks of our lives. It was entirely possible that for the next several months, perhaps years, my son could not go to church. My son, who I baptized a year ago, who took four pages of notes on my last sermon (not a joke), who loves God, cannot go to church. My son, who already has been called to suffer in profoundly painful and unfair ways, now has church taken from him.
Then a couple of weeks ago, we met with his medical care team. We asked questions about masks, about how we are to care for our son during this pandemic. We learned—if everyone wears a mask to church, our son can go to church.
My opinion on masks changed.
I am willing to bet that even if you are the most ardent opponent of masks, even if you have burned a pile of masks because you are so tired of them—you can understand why this father really hopes his church will require masks, why I want to be able to look my son in the eyes and say, Buddy…we can go back to church together...and watch his eyes light up because he loves church.
Maybe your opinion hasn’t changed and won’t. That’s okay. Maybe you still question the efficacy of masks. Maybe the thought of trying to keep a mask on your child feels like punishment no one should endure (I’m with you on that!). Whatever your thoughts are on masks, medical professionals encourage their use during a pandemic because they protect the vulnerable.
So, as we re-gather as a church, we have to decide, do we require masks?
What makes the question of masks in church so difficult is not just that I am a father, but also a pastor, and a pastor that is ultimately responsible for making a decision about requiring a mask (or not) at my campus. I have to make the decision about whether or not my son can attend church.
I do not want to make a selfish decision (although let’s be honest parents, don’t we all want to do everything we can for our kids?). I knew I needed to wrestle with what Jesus would want from His church right now.
Would Jesus mask?
While I was wrestling through that question, I started working on my sermon for July 5. Luke 14:12-24. In that text Jesus says two things:
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:13-14).
Jesus told us that when we invite people into our homes, into our lives, we are to give special consideration for the vulnerable. We are to make a special place for them because society so easily discards them. When we make special consideration for the vulnerable, God says He will repay us in the new creation. That is how committed He is to make sure the vulnerable are included in His Kingdom.
The second thing Jesus says in that passage is that the poor and vulnerable are invited in special ways into His Kingdom. In the parable Jesus tells, the master of the feast says:
‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’
As a father to a vulnerable son, those words of Jesus are my only hope. Jesus says that people like my son have a special invitation to the kingdom of God, to feast with God.
Now, back to masks.
If we gather as a church without requiring masks, the vulnerable cannot come. They must stay home. Being vulnerable can already be a lonely, isolating experience, which is why Jesus calls His church to make special invitations to the vulnerable. We are to make sure that the vulnerable are in community with us, in our homes, in our lives, in our church.
What would Jesus have us do? Practice church in a way that excludes the vulnerable? The sick? The lame?
I will not pretend I am objective on the question of masks in church. I am not. I was a sick, vulnerable sinner and Jesus gave up His freedom, doing literally everything He could to offer me a seat at His table. His table is for the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, which means His table is for me.
Now, it’s time to regather as a church. Our world needs the church right now. We need to be on mission right now, so may we go out into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.
But remember, they can only come if we are wearing masks.