“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:24-25)
If you have attended church services for any length of time, without a doubt you have noticed that we are living in a time when an alarming number of Christians are no longer congregating with those of like faith, and the few who still do often attend megachurches where there is little or no body-life or one-on-one interaction.
I had a life-transforming encounter with the Lord in 1969 during what became known as the Jesus Movement Revival. At that time, local churches were usually small but well attended by vibrant believers with a passion for the Lord, their first love. For most of us, just two services on Sundays with a midweek Bible study and Friday night prayer meeting wasn’t enough. When we came together, the presence of the Lord was so real and tangible that we didn’t want to leave and we couldn’t wait for the next meeting.
Sadly, if you were to visit those same churches today, what you would often discover is that, if the church hasn’t already closed its doors, the attendance is minimal, often only meeting once a week on Sundays. Currently there are many more local churches that are closing their doors, than there are new churches being planted. Why this great exodus from the local churches?
Obviously, the root problem is a heart condition. When Christ is the center of our affection and devotion, His life is manifested in our midst and He is able to draw others to Himself through us. But all too often, little by little, He ceases to be the center of our affection, and the next thing we know, we have left our first love (Rev 2:1-7). We may still be attending church and carrying out the same activities – in fact many intensify them, but it is done out of a sense of duty rather than pure devotion. We may still pray, but without the intimate communion we once enjoyed.
When the Church holds fast to Christ, her Head, it grows with a growth that God gives (Col 2:19). While the Church in Acts simply continued steadfastly in communion, the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved and the number of disciples multiplied greatly (Acts 2:46-47; 6:7). The only way that the enemy can stop the growth that God gives is to seduce us away from our simplicity of devotion to Christ, our Head, resulting in His life no longer being manifested in our midst. That was Paul’s primary concern with the believers at Corinth. He said:
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (2 Cor 11:3 NIV)
Christ is the source of life for us individually, and also collectively as His body, the Church. If we remove Christ from the center of our lives and church-life for whatever reason, the fountain of life that causes us to flourish spiritually, dries up. As Jesus said, “separate from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). No amount of religious activity, however correct and biblical it may be, can produce life. No amount of organizational structure, or lack thereof, can produce the increase that only He can give.
A pastor friend of mine here in Colombia sought to plant a church using a popular church growth strategy which has produced megachurches here in Colombia and throughout Latin America. He related how that one night he couldn’t get to sleep because he kept calculating in his mind how many members he could have in his congregation in six months or in a year using this strategy. After several hours, he still couldn’t shut off his mind and go to sleep. When he asked the Lord to help him go to sleep, he felt the Lord say to him: “Don’t seek numbers. Seek my face and I will take care of the numbers.” From that moment on, he abandoned the church-growth strategy and instead began to focus on developing intimacy with the Lord. Shortly afterwards, the presence of God descended upon their small congregation, and within a few months he couldn’t find buildings big enough to contain the multitudes that came to drink of the water of life.
Sadly, when this multiplication led to a great inflow of money, little by little I saw his focus shift from Christ to material prosperity. The awe of Christ’s presence, which was what initially produced such vibrant growth, began to diminish in the measure that the focus shifted from Christ to personal wealth. In a desperate attempt to compensate for the lack of His manifest presence, they began to use light shows and special effects, with him even once coming on stage on a stunt motorcycle like Evel Knievel with fireworks and all. However, there is absolutely nothing, including special effects, that can bring life and vitality to a congregation apart from simple devotion to Christ.
Paul’s concern was that we not be seduced away from our sincere and pure devotion to Christ. What are some of the things that can seduce us away from Christ as our first love?
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)
I believe that perhaps the primary reason why believers have lost their first love, resulting in the decline in church attendance, especially in America, is materialism. Materialism is defined as “placing more value on material possessions than spiritual values.” It is the pursuit of things, rather than God, and is a form of idolatry (Col 3:5). Jesus said:
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13 NIV)
The problem is not with one having an abundance of material possessions, but rather material-ism, or the love of things at the expense of our love and full devotion to God. Many of us who were saved during the Jesus Movement were formerly drug addicts or hippies, having come to the Lord with practically nothing but the clothes on our back. Our main focus and passion was our relationship with the Lord. However, I began to note that, as many of us began to prosper, buying houses, cars and boats, for many, their relationship with the Lord subtly began to take a backseat to their preoccupation with their material possessions. Many either skipped Sunday services to go boating or cruising on their motorcycles, whereas others went out of a sense of duty, but wished they were somewhere else.
Gradually, I saw materialism become an obsession in society and even within the churches. In the 1960s and 70s all the stores were closed on Sundays. The streets were empty on Sunday mornings and the churches were full. However, little by little that shifted, until today in most cities the shopping centers are now full on Sundays while the churches are empty. The church in America has become like the Laodiceans who said that they were rich and in need of nothing, without realizing that, as to their spiritual condition, they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:14-22). It is well and good to possess material things, but they should never possess us. If we discover that we would rather be with our things than to congregate where the Lord is in the midst of His people, we need to return to our first love.
“And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matt 24:12)
Another major cause of the decrease in church attendance within the last few years is the increase of lawlessness. The Apostle John equates lawlessness with sin (1Jn 3:4). Sin (ἁμαρτία) is a missing of the mark, whereas lawlessness (ἀνομία) is a refusal to submit to a law or moral standard. Therefore, taken together, lawlessness in Scripture is a willful missing the mark of God’s moral standard.
Jesus said that towards the end, just prior to His return, the rejection of God’s moral restraints will result in the love of many growing cold. As long as Jesus is our first love, we will keep His commandments (Jn 14:15). Conversely, as long as we keep His commandments we abide in His love. Jesus said: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love” (Jn 15:10).
However, beginning with the moral revolution of the 70s, with their slogan, “If it feels good, do it,” society as a whole began to reject God’s moral standards, and little by little, through entertainment, media and the educational system, the conscience of many within the churches began to be desensitized to the point where today the love of many within the churches has grown cold. They often talk about the unconditional love of God for them but then show their lack of any real love for Him by their disobedience.
Today many Christians actually call good what God calls evil, and evil what God calls good. They have made God in their own image to the point where some think that the grace of God frees us to live as we choose without any consequences, and even accuse those who truly love God and endeavor to keep His commandments of being modern-day Pharisees.
Jesus Christ is grace personified. Therefore, Christ/Grace in us will produce His obedience in us as we simply abide in His love, Just as He obeyed His Father, abiding in the Father’s love (Jn 15:10). John said that we know we are in Him by the fact that we walk just as He walked (1Jn 2:5-6). He also said: “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1Jn 3:7).
Sadly, the reason why many no longer congregate is because they are practicing sin and want to remain in darkness lest their sinful conduct should be exposed by the light. The Apostle John said: “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1:5-7). As Jesus said, the unrepentant do not want to come to the light lest their sinful deeds be exposed. In contrast, the repentant want to congregate with others in the light of His presence so that any sin that remains in their lives can be brought to the light and removed (Jn 3:19-21; Psa 139:23-24).
When we are closely connected with other believers in the context of a local church, we receive the daily exposure to the word and the fellowship which helps us to remain spiritually focused upon Christ. Only those who are connected to a local assembly can put into practice the scriptural injunction which says, “exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).
Another major reason for the great exodus from the churches which we are witnessing in our day is that many are being drawn away from the faith by false teachers. Paul said that in the last days many would depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1Tim 4:1). He referred to them as savage wolves who would come in among us, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29-31).
Peter likewise said that the time would come when there would be false teachers among us who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who purchased us with His own blood (2Peter 2:1). Today, it is not uncommon to hear teachers denying the deity of Christ or making light of His substitutionary atonement by which He redeemed us to the Father, shedding His own blood. Often today, the churches in the community are empty, while the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah Witnesses is filled with former church members who no longer believe in the deity of Christ or salvation by grace apart from works.
This is one of the main reasons why we are commanded to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, especially now, seeing that the day of His appearing approaches. God has appointed elders in the local churches as overseers to shepherd or pastor the flock and protect believers from false teachers that, as savage wolves, prey on the Lord’s flock. Paul said to the elders:
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds (pastors) of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:28-31)
False teachers do not usually outright deny truth. Rather, in order to prey on the sheep who are not yet firmly rooted and grounded in the truth of God’s Word, they dress in sheep’s clothing, subtly distorting the truth in order to deceive and thereby draw the disciples away from the faith. Paul said that they deceitfully scheme by trickery and craftiness through philosophy and empty deceit according to the wisdom of the world, and not according to Christ (Eph 4:14-16; Col 2:8-10). Their arguments often have the appearance of wisdom, and they use such convoluted and lofty logic that even the most intellectual scholars have difficulty following their logic, let alone a Christian with little real knowledge of the Scriptures.
There is a God-ordained structure within each local church for the equipping of the saints which is essential for the preservation and growth of the body of Christ. Simply attending a megachurch or connecting through the internet to Zoom meetings and Facebook groups can never substitute for the essential body-life within a local church. As the writer of Hebrews said, if there ever was a time when God’s people needed to be under the ministry of the local churches it is now as that day draws near.
One problem with this generation is that many have become self-willed and independent and unwilling to subject themselves to the leadership of a local church. Christ has appointed pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry but, all too often, Christians today are not willing to submit to the God-ordained authority within a local assembly. The author of Hebrews, recognizing this human tendency, admonishes believers, saying:
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb 13:17)
“Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” (Heb 13:7)
A Christian who is not a part of a local assembly and in submission to those given the oversight is depriving himself or herself of the God-ordained structure necessary for our protection and proper development within the body of Christ. At the same time, Peter, recognizing the possibility of those in authority abusing their office as overseers says:
“Shepherd (pastor) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1 Peter 5:2-4)
So, while the members of a local church are commanded to submit to those in authority over them, he also tells those in authority not to abuse it by lording over the flock but to lead by being an example. When each member of the body is in their God-ordained position within the local church, each member within the body of Christ grows with the increase that God supplies. Paul sets this forth in Ephesians 4. He said of Christ and His Church:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph 4:11-16)
I have heard many say that they no longer attend a church because they were offended or mistreated by a pastor or other church members. However, learning to bear with one another and forgiving one another, even as Christ forgave us, is essential in order to grow in agape love. One will never increase in love by rejecting those who reject, hurt, or offend us. As members of His body, we must determine to arm ourselves with the mind of Christ. Paul says:
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” (Col 3:12-13)
As those who believe in the final salvation of all, it is inevitable that we will experience a certain amount of rejection in spite of every effort on our part to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3-5). However, in most cases one can find a church in their area that will receive us once they see that we agree on all the essentials of the faith, as long as we don’t cause division.
The unity of the Spirit doesn’t require agreement upon every point of doctrine. To the contrary, it actually requires unity in spite of disagreement on some non-essentials, since none of us see eye-to-eye on everything. However, even if we are not able to find a local church of like faith in our area, neglecting the assembling of ourselves together with other believers should never be considered an option as members of the body of Christ. If we cannot find a church in our area, we should pray about starting a home-group and inviting friends and neighbors. That is how many churches began.
In conclusion, I will cite the same admonition I presented at the beginning:
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:24-25)