This program aired on KIUN 1400 AM in Pecos, TX on January 18, 2017.
From time to time we hear or read someone’s lament over the decline of the church. Christians who grew up in the mid-20th century recall church buildings filled to overflowing and great evangelistic campaigns that resulted in hundreds of conversions to Christ. Since that time, however, researchers have documented a steady downward trend in the numbers of Christians. In some places where the church was once strong, there are today few, if any, congregations and those that exist are small and struggling.
In response to this phenomenon an entire field of religious study, called church growth, has evolved over the last half century. Church growth experts have offered many theories on why church attendance has declined in recent years. They have also offered many ideas on how to reverse this trend. The result of these efforts is the current consumer-driven approach to Christianity that is so popular in many places.
While the merits and biblical basis for most church-growth theories may, and should be, seriously debated, there is one thing that is missing in them. It is the question of commitment. Most theories focus primarily on the superficial elements of church attendance. Is the worship place comfortable and inviting? Is the service itself appealing? Is the preacher dynamic, and his messages encouraging and uplifting? All these things are factors that may draw or repel attendees, but they do not address the heart.
A little story helps us to see the real issues at play. A pig and a chicken were walking down the street together. As they walked along they decided that they would have breakfast. The pig asked the chicken what she would like to eat. The chicken answered, “Ham and eggs.” To this the pig replied, “That won’t do, because for you eggs are a contribution, but for me, ham is total commitment.”
This is the issue in a nutshell. Too many professed believers are like the chicken. They want to make a contribution, but they are not willing to give total commitment to their professed faith. There may be many reasons why this is the case, but the greater point is that the decline of the church is directly attributable to this factor. We have contented ourselves with the idea that placing money in the collection plate each Lord’s Day fulfills our duty as Christians. As a result we have become virtual spectators in kingdom work.
It was not this way in the earliest days of the church. In Acts 8:4, when Christians fled Jerusalem because of persecution, Luke says that they went everywhere preaching the word. These early Christians understood that faith in Christ required them to personally participate in the spread of the gospel. They were not just adherents to Christianity, they were fully committed to it.
This is the often overlooked secret to the explosive growth of the church in the mid-20th century. More Christians were personally committed to teaching the gospel to their friends and neighbors. However imperfectly they may have done so, they were at least willing to do what they could. Too often today we leave this work to the preacher, or to the paid personal worker.
While it is true that our monetary contributions each week make us participants in the work of the kingdom (cf. Phil. 1:5), it is also true that each of us has a personal responsibility in kingdom work. The Great Commission is for all Christians, not just for preachers. We need to stop being content to be chickens in the Lord’s work. We need to become pigs. When we are totally committed to faith in Christ, the church will once again begin to grow.
A story is told of a European nobleman a few centuries ago who wanted to leave a legacy in his tiny mountain village. He finally decided that he would build a church building for his village. He kept the plans for this church building secret and no one was allowed on the site until the construction was completed. At the unveiling of the building someone noticed that there were no lamps in it. When he asked the nobleman about this, he pointed to brackets on the walls lining the interior of the building. He then explained that he was giving a lamp to each family in the village. Each time that family attended worship the area where they sat would be illuminated. If they did not attend, that area would be dark.
This little story reflects a truth that the Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount. In Mt. 5:14-16 He said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
We generally apply this teaching to our activities among unbelievers. We speak of “letting our light shine” by living righteously before them. We correctly understand that our righteous conduct is instrumental in leading the lost to salvation in Jesus Christ. The light of our Savior shining in us will draw the lost to Him. However, there is another sense in which this teaching may be applied to our daily living.
Like the church building in that mountain village, we illuminate the body of Christ every time we come together as God’s people for worship or Bible study. Each one of God’s people who is present in the assembly contributes the light of his or her presence to that assembly. The cumulative effect of God’s people being assembled together is a light that warms our souls and encourages our spirits in our journey to eternity. We often speak of there being strength in numbers, and this is especially true in terms of our light. A single light in a dark room is helpful and comforting, but if everyone in a dark room shines his or her light, the darkness will be completely eradicated.
Conversely, a room that is brightly lit by many lights becomes darker as each light is removed or extinguished. As more lights are removed the darkness deepens until it becomes the predominant feature of that room. Our absence from the assemblies of the church makes those assemblies a little less bright than they would otherwise be. Our absence dims the collective influence of the body of Christ because we are not letting our light shine. Our brothers and sisters can tell the difference, and so can the unbelievers.
A Christian who is willfully absent from the assemblies of the church is hiding his light by doing so. He is contributing to the darkness that characterizes the world. He is robbing his fellow Christians of the support and encouragement they need, and his example tells unbelievers that the light of Christ is not as important as other things in life.
Each Christian is a lamp. We are to let our light shine so that our Father in heaven will be glorified, and so that the body of Christ will be illuminated. Part of how we do this is by our godly example each and every day. Another part of how we do this is by our faithful attendance in the assemblies of the church. Each Christian’s light is important in God’s eternal purpose. With this in mind, where will your lamp be this Lord’s Day?
One of the failings of many professed believers is that they depend completely upon their spiritual leaders for their awareness of what is right and wrong in the practice of their faith. They do not personally know the details of scripture, and are unable on their own to state the biblical basis for the things they believe and practice. This is commonly demonstrated when they are asked about some passage of scripture, or about some essential doctrine of faith, and their reply is, “I’ll have to ask my pastor.” It is commendable that they are concerned enough to ask for guidance, but the expectation of scripture is that each Christian should know God’s word well enough to be able to tell the difference between what is acceptable to God and what is not.
This truth was expressed by the writer of Hebrews when he chastised his readers because they were still subsisting on the milk of the word. In Heb. 5:11-14 he said, “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
It is clear, of course, that spiritual leaders are required to proclaim the truth and nothing but the truth with regard to God’s word. This is what Paul did when he preached in Ephesus (Acts 20:27), and it is what he required of his protege Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-5). However, spiritual leaders must also teach the flock to be able to discern truth from error on their own. This began with the priests who served in the tabernacle and later in the temple (cf. Lev. 10:9-11; Ezk. 44:23), and it continues through the Christian age. One of Paul’s final instructions to Timothy was to teach the word to faithful men, who would be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). This certainly implies that each individual must be able to discern right from wrong based upon his personal understanding of scripture.
This is why the writer of Hebrews was so dissatisfied with the people to whom he wrote. They had been taught the truth, and should have by that time grown and matured in the faith to the point that they were teaching others. The fact that they were not able to do this tells us that they had not fulfilled their responsibility as individual believers. In v. 14 the scripture says that it is by practice that one’s senses are trained to discern good and evil. Obviously these Hebrew Christians had not been exercising themselves in the use of God’s word, and they were chastised because of this failure.
The best example of how to exercise one’s senses in the use of God’s word comes from people who were not yet Christians at the time. In Acts 17:11 Luke tells us that the Bereans received the word with eagerness and examined the scriptures daily to see whether the things they were being taught were so. This, then, is the model for us to follow. We must exercise our minds in God’s word in order to become knowledgeable and capable in its use. Part of this exercise is the systematic study of scripture, as Paul exhorted in 2 Tim. 2:15. He said, “Be diligent to present yourself approved of God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” When we do as Paul commanded, we will know God’s word, just as He intended us to know it, and we will train our senses to discern good and evil. If our senses are so trained, we will not stumble or be led astray.
There is an old adage which says, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Most of us have heard this all of our lives, and we understand that it reflects an attitude that is common among us. To one degree or another nearly everyone is inclined to think that something someone else possesses is better or more desirable than the thing we have, no matter how equal the two things may be.
Even animals reflect this attitude in their behavior. We have all seen horses and cows straining to push their heads through a fence line to get at grass on the other side, while standing in a pasture full of perfectly good grass! A dog will drop its bone and go after the bone that another dog has, even though there is no appreciable difference between the two. The grass is always greener, isn’t it?
It may seem a little comical to see a cow or horse exhibiting this kind of behavior. It may seem absolutely nonsensical for a dog to drop one bone to go fight for another. But they’re just dumb animals, aren’t they? None of us would ever be so silly, would we?
The “grass is greener” attitude is the source of much of the discontent, and at least some of the evil, that characterizes our world. The “grass is greener” attitude will lead a man with a good job to endlessly move from company to company, searching for that perfect position, but never finding it. The “grass is greener” is why a man or woman may desire or pursue another person, even though they have a perfectly good wife or husband at home. The “grass is greener” is why one steals from another, even though he is not personally in want. The “grass is greener” is why some end up in financial ruin trying to fill their homes with all the gadgets and trinkets that others possess, just to “keep up with the Joneses.” It is no wonder, then, that so many in the world are unhappy and dissatisfied.
The simple truth is that none of us will ever find true happiness until we realize where the green grass actually is. Some time ago a Christian writer put the “grass is greener” philosophy into perfect perspective. He said, “I think I’ve finally located the greener grass. It is in Psalm 23:2!” Psalm 23:2 says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.” This imagery is powerful because nutritionists tell us that a pasture animal that is lying down is a truly content creature.
Here is the solution to the “grass is greener” problem. There is only one place where the green grass is, and that is in God’s pasture. The shepherd’s psalm so perfectly declares this truth for us. It is utterly futile for us to spend our resources, and to spend our lives, in the pursuit of “something better” when the best is right before us in the care of our Father in heaven.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the people to not be anxious about their daily needs (Mt. 6:25-34). Food, drink, clothing, and the like, are not the end-all of life. They are important, of course, but God has more than demonstrated His ability and His willingness to provide these things for us. His care of the birds of the air, and of the flowers of the field, which are far less important than we, proves this.
If we do as Jesus said and, “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33), God Himself will lead us to the green grass. He will provide for all our needs here in life, and more importantly, He will give us a home in heaven at the end of time. Where is the green grass? It is in God’s pasture. Only there will we find true contentment, and the happiness that so often escapes us in life. Only there will we find the pathway that leads to eternal life.