Church attendance seems to be on the decline. What once was a vibrant church culture in the Bible belt has shifted to a culture of church avoidance. I must admit as a pastor this used to bother me. I was worried that the church was failing. But my thoughts on this matter of decline have changed. Perhaps the church is seeing a time of restructuring and God himself is the renovator.
The root of the problems seen in contemporary evangelical churches lies in what has been taught about salvation in Christ. What one understands about salvation shapes the understanding of the Church. Without proper knowledge of salvation, there will be no proper opinions about the Church.
The Apostle Paul states to the Church in Ephesus,
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 | ESV]
This passage of scripture lies at the foundation of Protestant Evangelical doctrine and rightly so. Salvation is by grace through faith. The foundation of the gospel message in Christianity is that humanity is sinful and lost, apart from God who created us all. The only path back to the graces of God is through the sacrificial death of His son, Jesus Christ.
Yet this passage of scripture has been taught incorrectly for a very long time. Sometime in the past decades American churches began to teach that salvation is between an individual and God alone. That this gift of God was all for me and no one else has any part in the process.
But historically this passage of scripture was understood in a different way. The role of the Church was always assumed and never questioned in the role of saving grace. Regular Church attendance was never questioned and rarely neglected.
God never intended to redeem sinful people one at a time to live out their lives peacefully without interference. The personal relationship that one has with Jesus is wonderful and properly so. But this relationship with Christ is not a private affair that we keep secret, nor do we live out in isolation.
Paul intended in his letter to the Ephesians to encourage them as a Church. He did not encourage individual Christians to seek out their own private journey to Heaven. Rather, to be ‘saved by grace’ means for ‘we’ to be saved by grace. The ‘I’ is not intended in this passage at all.
This is evidenced in the context of the passage as well as the context of the letter as a whole. When Paul states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” He does not say that “my faith saved me” but rather that ‘all of you’ are saved by grace through ‘your’ faith as a plural.
A great way for most of us to understand this language is to translate the passage as, “For by grace, y’all have been saved through faith.” The text implies a plurality of ‘you’s’ not individual ‘ME’s.’
We can see further evidence in understanding the role of salvation as Paul states in verses nineteen to twenty.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. [Ephesians 2:19-20 | ESV]
It is easy to see in this context that Paul intended to teach the church of Ephesus that salvation is not a lonely endeavor. Instead Christ saves the sinner to be part of a great group of people. His Church is not to be forgotten in the role of salvation. The body of Christ is not intended to be a lone individual. Rather the body of Christ is made up of many individuals as part of a greater whole. The Church is the gathered people of God who welcome all who are lonely.
Perhaps what the Church is witnessing in this season of decline is actually a purging of misled Christians. The result of misled salvation is dissatisfaction with the Church. Church does not meet ‘my’ needs when a false understanding of grace is that grace is given to ‘me.’ Rather, grace is given to ‘us.’
Falsely held belief is rejection of the truth no matter the intention. I am sad to admit that I am glad of the purging happening in the Church. Church bank accounts may be on the decline, and church pews are empty, but those who are returning to the Church are seeking an authenticity which was lost.
I see hope for the Church and I am glad to see the faithful remnant restored by God himself.
The healthy Church is that gathering of Christians who support one another and care for one another just as Christ cares for all. But this healthy gathering of Christians does not include those who are nominal in faith in Christ. Nominal Christians are those who mistakenly think sins are forgiven. Only through the gift of God can one’s sins be forgiven. But once that cleansing of the spirit occurs, the Christian is not alone. Inclusion in the Church is automatic, but to be part of a Church requires physical presence.
Are you sitting at home alone?
Do you assume that ‘your’ faith is no one’s business?
Christ thinks otherwise. He has built a Church for all of His faithful. Are you included in this family called the Church? Or are you frustrated that Church has nothing for you? Perhaps the frustration is not the Church. Perhaps the frustration is you.