So You Think You Don't Need Church?

I hear it all the time in all sorts of places when people find out I am a pastor. “Oh, I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church.” “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, I worship God in nature.” You know the kind of thing … Do you think you don’t need the church? Do you consider yourself a lone wolf?

You might want to think again.

At last census 52% of Australians identified as Christians. But Church attendance in Australia is declining. The recent National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data shows that over the last four decades the proportion of Australians attending church at least once per month has more than halved from 36% (1972) to 15% currently – not even a third of those professing to be Christians actually attend worship. However, this is still a significant proportion of the Australian multi-cultural population and indeed twice as many Australians attend church at least once per month (3.495m) as attend all AFL, NRL, A League and Super Rugby games combined per month (1.684m) during the football season.

When you look at younger people in particular, the news is even more depressing.  Along with an ageing national population, the NCLS data shows the church going population is also ageing with an average age of adult church attenders being 53. While the 70 plus age group is strongly represented in church (comprising 12% of the population but 25% of all church attendees), the age groups under 50 are under-represented. This divide is increasingly evident with the younger generations, for example the 20-39 year olds make up 34% of the population but just 21% of church attenders. There are plenty of reasons why millennials are leaving the church and the one key reason is the feeling that the church isn’t needed anymore. If they want to hear messages that convict or encourage them there are literally thousands available on YouTube and via podcasts that they can listen to while sitting on the couch in their trackie dacks. But those recorded sermons can’t replace the community that is needed when difficult times come. In the wild, wolves need a pack to take down larger animals in the winter when smaller prey are in hibernation and not available.  A lone wolf is no match for an elk. Without the help of others, the lone wolf will starve and die.

Using winter as a metaphor for the struggles in life that visit everyone at some point, like health problems or the loss of a job, the church might be likened to a wolf pack – we need each other. Fellow Christians will help you survive the tough times.

Here are four important reasons Christians need church.

  1. We need other Christians. If you want to know what you believe, listen to what your friends say. The more time we spend around people who ridicule God, the more we allow their attitudes to affect our thoughts and attitudes … The psalmist notes in 1:1-2 “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.”The more time we spend with God’s people and in his presence, the more like Jesus we become. That’s why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews encouraged Christians at that time not to give up meeting together. If we want to hold unswervingly to our faith, we need to surround ourselves with people who will encourage us to follow Jesus even when it’s hard, to have faith when everything seems hopeless, and to rely on Jesus even when we think we can do everything on our own (See Heb. 10:23-25).

  2. We need opportunities to discover our spiritual gifts. Every one of us has a spiritual skill and capacity that God wants to use to help others know him and follow him. The Bible calls these skills spiritual gifts (See 1 Cor. 12), and we discover our spiritual gifts the same way we discover any other kind of special talent. Kobe Bryant realised he was great at basketball when he started playing basketball. Guy Sebastian discovered he could sing when he started singing. We will never uncover what God has equipped and called us to do if we don’t get involved.

  3. We need authority. We don’t have to believe anything anyonetells us about God. He appointed men and women in the church to lead us and to teach us (See Heb. 13:17). God gave us the Bible and the church so we can know what’s from him – and what isn’t. Through the church’s authority structure, we can test and see what’s of God and what isn’t when we can’t tell on our own. When we’ve prayed, read the Bible and still aren’t sure what to do, the church is where we go for advice.

  4. We never stop needing grace. Church people are not perfect people. We are forgiven, but we are still sinners trying to do better. No matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, we are going to mess up at some point, or fall short and sin. And when we do, we need a place where we can come to be healed, restored and renewed. That place is the church. The sunroof in my little red Mini Cooper S has ruined me. I can’t imagine owning a car without a sunroof ever again. The same is true when it comes to church. As I made friends, joined a group and started serving, God changed me. I woke up one day and realised I couldn’t imagine not being involved in a church. Church is no longer just nice; it’s necessary. And I am so grateful I am part of this one.

Why not use this editorial as Bible study this week?

You are loved.

Ps Milton

Spiritual Danger?

“Spiritual danger?”

One of my all-time favourite movies is “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. There are so many enduring quotes that came out of that movie which are now part of our vernacular. Here’s one exchange between Col. Jessop (Jack Nicholson’s character) and Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise’s character) that replayed itself in my mind the other day just when I was speaking with someone about spiritual danger …

Col. Jessop: “I felt his life (Private Santiago) might be in danger once word of the letter got out.”

Kaffee: “Grave danger?”

Col. Jessop: (sarcastically) “Is there another kind?

Are you in spiritual danger? If you were, how would you know? There’s no spiritual danger, and “grave” spiritual danger, by the way. One key sign of spiritual danger, I think, is losing your joy. We cannot afford to just skip past what Paul says at the end of Philippians 3:1: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” Paul reminds them to rejoice - because it is safe. Joy is one of the vital gauges on the dashboard of the Christian life. When the needle dips—when you lose your joy—you should take note. To stay safe, you need to pay attention to your joy. How does that work? Here’s an illustration.

Coal miners know that extremely dangerous gases can gather silently and secretly in the tunnels. Carbon monoxide will asphyxiate them. Methane explodes. A methane explosion took the lives of 12 men in the 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, U.S.A. In 1906, almost 1,100 miners were killed in Courrières, France, in one massive chain of explosions in an underground mine complex. But in the early days of coal mining, they found an effective, low-tech solution: They brought canaries into the mines. A canary’s metabolism is very, very sensitive to air quality. As long as the bright yellow birds chirp and sing, miners know the air is safe. If gas levels rise, the canaries stop singing, wobble on their perch and eventually fall to the floor of the cage.

Christian joy is like that singing, yellow bird. One of the first effects of sin or doctrinal error is that we lose our joy in Christ. When your heart stops singing, that is a serious warning to watch your life and doctrine closely.

Jesus himself connected our daily spiritual life with joy. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. … These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:10–11). If your soul is satisfied in Christ, you will rejoice in Christ. Take your eyes off Christ, and you’ll lose your joy. Christian joy is the thermostat of your spiritual life – not the thermometer. A thermostat regulates conditions whereas a thermometer merely responds to heat in the moment. A thermostat controls from within, whereas a responds to the external. So, when your joy starts to fade (the thermostat is not doing its job properly) you need to act.

Don’t confuse this unique joy with other upbeat feelings. Genuine Christian joy is not the power of positive thinking. Joy is not a bubbly, optimistic personality. Joy is not being happy because life is going my way. Joy is not walking through life with a naïve, glass-half-full attitude. The joy we have in Jesus cannot be extinguished by the circumstances of life.

Jesus says it is “my joy … in you”. And the apostle Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord”. Joy is the emotion of salvation. It is the joy of seeing, knowing, loving and trusting Jesus Christ. We cannot generate this true joy ourselves—it is the product of the Holy Spirit in us (Galatians 5:22). Joy is a glorious gladness and deep delight in the person of Jesus Christ, no matter the circumstances. Such joy cannot be extinguished by the circumstances of life. It is a God-given joy greater and stronger than any trouble that comes into my life. As the prophet Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)

As a spiritual thermostat, joy is not a slave to circumstances. The light of Jesus’ face shines in the darkest night. Jesus said, “No one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22). And he meant that.

The other two things about joy I want to share with you is this: First, joy keeps you safe as you serve. If you lose your joy, that could be a sign that your work for the Lord is no longer worship. Joy protects you from serving God for the wrong reasons. George Müller was an evangelist and orphanage director in Bristol, England. He is famous for his tremendous faith and amazingly effective ministry—he cared for over 10,000 orphans over the course of his life. And joy was Müller’s first priority each day: “Joy protects you from serving God for the wrong reasons. I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how the inner life might be nourished.”

Working hard for Jesus—even caring for thousands of orphans—is a cold and empty duty if we have lost the warmth of our love for Christ. Joy keeps you safe from serving as a religious duty. Second, joy keeps you safe from temptation. Theologian Matthew Henry once said, “Joy in the Lord will guard you from the empty pleasures the tempter uses to bait his hooks.” Joy protects you because joy in Christ comes from being satisfied in Christ – note that one folks! Your joy comes from being satisfied in Christ. I also like what the great Jonathan Edwards said: “The enjoyment of (God) is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows, but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.”

When I get up from the table after Sunday lunch, or Christmas dinner, the last thing I want is more food. You can’t tempt me with another bite. In the same way, it’s hard for Satan to tempt a joyful believer with the empty pleasures of this world. Dear friends, listen up to that! A joyful believer is already more than satisfied in Christ—what more could he or she possibly want? Make it a point to be satisfied in Christ so that you rejoice in the Lord, and you will find safety and strength in your fight against sin. The coal miner knows that if the canary is not singing, there is trouble on the way. The believer knows that when their spirit is not singing, they are in spiritual danger – and there is only one kind of danger. How is you joy meter looking as you read this?

Rejoice in the Lord! I say it again; rejoice in the Lord. 

Ps. Milton