When we think about the state of the church today, the negatives often come to mind. While there is much to be grieved about and much change that needs to take place, there is much to be encouraged by when you look at how God is working through local churches around the world. Listen as Alasdair Groves considers some of the reasons not to give up on the church.
Well, it’s been a bit of a rough stretch for the church, hasn’t it, these last few years? The pandemic, the polarization, the divisions, politics. It’s just been a challenging time. I think people are more weary, more frazzled, more disillusioned, more at odds, more discouraged, certainly than any other time I can remember in my life, in terms of looking at the church in general. So I thought it might be interesting and maybe especially timely to sound a note that we don’t hear much, which is this. The church is doing great. Let me say that again. The church is doing great. The church is doing better than we think.
Now, before I go any further, I need to immediately clarify a few things that I’m not saying when I say the church is doing better than we think and that the church is doing great. I’m not saying they’re not severe and terrible things that are happening in churches. If you are someone who’s experienced abuse or any just kind of terrible sin, selfishness, blindness, just the ugliness that can happen when Christians use the Bible against each other, especially when those with authority use the Bible against those that they’re called to care for. I mean, scripture is just full of holding of false shepherds to account. So I’m not trying to say that isn’t happening. I’m not trying to say that’s not a huge, severe, real problem, just as it always has been, and I’m thankful that there are many ways in which things that have happened quietly in the dark have been exposed and have been clearly spoken of and shown to be the things that they are.
What I am trying to say is that the reality of the problems and the bad does not erase the reality of the good, and especially as I watch things being exposed and places where things are being held accountable in good and right ways, it is possible to lose sight of the wonderful realities of what God’s church is and is doing. So not every church all the time is only doing wonderful things, but so many more wonderful things are happening than we realize.
I’ll start by taking actually a little bit more time to acknowledge the heart of what has been difficult in this season for the church. I can only imagine that most of you guys have heard all the numbers about churches closing, pastors leaving the ministry. Certainly my own experience as I talk to pastors is that so many of them feel a sense of weariness that … I mean, it’s not like they were bouncing out of bed most mornings before, they already had a taxing job. But the number of pastors who just speak in the language of dying on the vine, the number of pastors who are indeed stepping away from ministry, the number of pastors we watch having some sort of moral failure. It’s a significant wave of pastors being in a more depleted, run down, discouraged place, more weary, more stretched thin than, again, I can recall any time in recent memory or recent history.
Secondly, for people who show up at church, congregants of a church, there’s been more division, more sense of being at war with each other, more complaining about what’s going on in the church, both from leadership and from other church members. Anyone on church leadership can certainly tell you that the level of voiced dissatisfaction with leaders in particular has grown enormously. But it certainly isn’t just leadership. There’s a sense I think for most members of most churches of things have just become more polarized, more conversations, more topics feel more awkward or more off limits, or more heated. People feel more frustrated with others in the church and how they’ve handled it, or how they’ve handled their feelings, and how they’ve polarized things against you, and so on and so forth. So people, I think just feeling more beset, more threatened, more shut down, more full of heated opinions. And even when you’re trying to really handle that in a godly, kindly, compassionate, appropriate way, feeling like there’s a lot of people around me who are not handling this in a godly, kindly, compassionate way.
And then maybe the third segment I would look at is people leaving. For a lot of people, COVID in particular was an excuse, so a lot of places closed their doors at least for a brief stretch and went to some sort of online, or remote, or hybrid, or something, where it wasn’t meeting in person. And then some people would come back, and then there’s questions of masks and vaccines and meeting together. And obviously, that stretched out over a different level of chunk of time, depending on where you were in the country. And some places never closed down altogether. But even so, there were some who didn’t come. Long story short, for a lot of people, oh, this COVID thing is out there became a reason not just to stay away initially, but then to stay away long-term. For many, there’s just a, you got out of a life rhythm and you sort of realized this wasn’t that important to me in the first place. There was something good. I was going to church for some reason. Maybe I was interested and curious. Maybe I had some friends there. Maybe I felt like this is what a good person should do. Or I want to expose my kids, but a month or a year of sleeping in on Sunday morning, or watching church from the couch in a bathrobe, or whatever, kind of got to be a habit and got to be nice. And there wasn’t a huge draw to go back. It wasn’t like church was filling some significant sense of need that I felt in my life. Perhaps even just your life went a different direction. The stresses of COVID, the temptations you faced, you realized you weren’t living according to anything that the church was teaching, and you didn’t want to go back. And you were afraid of the guilt trip, or how you would feel your life was no longer aligned with what you know it would mean to show up at a church and live for Christ, and to have a faith. And so you pulled away from the people, as you pulled away from the theology.
Long story short, it’s been hard for all the different groups that are any kind of a part of a church. And I think that’s why it’s so especially important to see the massive good that is happening in the church, that is happening in the church right now. And I want to be clear, I’m not talking about some kind of silver lining. I’m not saying I know the church is in a really rough spot, but hey, there are at least a couple things that are still kind of going okay. I don’t mean it … We tell that story. There are plenty of places where the church is doing worse than it was five years ago. But I’m talking about the good that God is accomplishing in his church. And here are a few ways I personally have observed and felt this.
Number one, I know, I mean literally beyond my ability to count, number of friendships where there is real faithfulness, real honesty, real mutual concern, vulnerable conversations, mutual encouragement, willingness to speak, even if it’s awkward, and even if you don’t do it perfectly, to say, “Hey, I’m concerned for you in this area. And this doesn’t seem like the best way for you to handle your life.” And these are friendships that are allowed and empowered because of the grace of the gospel. These are people who are intentionally choosing to lean into friendships in the way they do because God has called them to be people who can confess sin. God has called them to be people who pursue each other. They go to church together, and so they say, “Well, the Lord has put us in life together and we’re going to enjoy each other, and we’re going to spend time together. We’re going to have fellowship that is more than simply a skipping across the surface of life.” I have watched this again, and again, and again. Now those things are things we can easily take for granted, but let’s not take them for granted. Let’s recognize the church, the people of God, gathering together, living together, doing life together in the same region, sometimes on the same block, on the same Sunday mornings, on the same Wednesday afternoons, on the same text threads. There is this ability to live into each other’s lives in ways that go deep because the gospel says, “You are forgiven, so you don’t have to put on a face.” The gospel says, “You are beloved and you have the opportunity to love others as Christ has loved you,” as a way of saying thank you to Him. That makes a massive difference in so many lives. And even if you’re someone who doesn’t have any friendships, and you’re hearing me say that, any friendships like that, and you’re saying, “Wow, I wish I had the very thing I hear you talking about, Alasdair, but I don’t. And I don’t know how to get it. I’ve yearned for it, or maybe even, I’ve not even really thought about it. It sounds nice though.” Even you are being impacted by the friendships that are strong and solid in your churches around you. And it is right and appropriate for you to pray, “Lord, would you help me to engage? Would you help me to become a friend who can move into a relationship like that? Will you send me people in my life? Will you open my eyes to where those people are already there, and I can go deeper?”
Secondly, let’s think about how relationships happen across so many different kinds of natural divides, social divides, ethnic divides, economic divides, generational divides. There are so many places where churches are bringing you in contact if you’re there with people not like you, people you would never have an interaction with, people you would never sing with, you would never sit and listen to a talk with, people you would never treat as somebody in your family, on your team, someone who is engaged in following the same purpose as you. And even if you may be in a church of 10,000 people, and there’s tons and tons of people you’ve never met, or a church of 400 people, and there’s people you’ve seen, but don’t really know at all. But there’s a sense even then as you gather, in which you are reinforcing to each other, hey, this thing that we believe, it’s not crazy. I’m not the only one. There’s a way in which we have this huge impact on each other simply by walking together. And then the more you do know people, the more you are interacting, the more you’re part of a community group, or a Bible study, or even just serving in the nursery together, or whatever it might be. You’re being pressed into connections that you wouldn’t otherwise have. I know the church often gets tagged as a place of divides. And my goodness, is it easy to have cliques that form around people the same age group, or life stage, or whatever? And certainly, we have ethnic tensions within our churches, and places where we’d say the old classic quote, “11:00 AM on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour, at least in American life.” Unfortunately, there’s lots of truths that have been true, and I’m sure in many places are true right now today. However, I think what that misses is that there are so many places where that is not true, where there is real intersection across the lines that naturally divide people from each other because the love of Christ is more powerful than things that would pull us apart.
I mentioned community groups a moment ago. Not every church does community groups, although most churches that I know at least have something like that, someplace where there’s some kind of connection outside of Sunday mornings, with some sort of intentional purpose. And the sheer power of that happening in your life, and then even if you’re an atheist and you’ve never wanted to go to church, you don’t even realize how much your community right now is being impacted by the fact that your church in your area has community groups and people who are meeting together to encourage and to pray, and to start a text thread where they update each other and connect to each other. This is not a trivial thing, even if it can feel mundane, or it can feel small. My own community group, I have had the Lord just laying on my heart more and more, how much it is a sweet thing to get to do this. And the group that gathers in our home every other week on a Thursday is not a group that would assemble for any other reason other than an awareness of our mutual need. We need to come together. We need to be reminded of what it is that we’re in Christ together. We need the encouragement. We need the prayer of being together and saying, “Hey, you know what, here’s a way where I’m wrestling. Here’s where you could pray for me.” I’ve watched us be really honest and really vulnerable and really heartfelt, and just this sense of connection that has come around that. That’s not every community group. That’s not everyone’s experience. I’m delighting in the season we’re in right now. It may not always be our season. But my love for this is that God is teaching us in little things, in just sitting together for an hour and talking. There’s this way in which that reorients who we are. It reorients us back towards the very center of life.
So what am I doing here? I’m just trying to take all of the things that we take for granted, that we look at and say, “That’s just church, but let’s focus on the problems.” And it’s right to spend time focusing on problems. Right? Any healthy family, or group, or organization, rightly looks at the things that are not going well and says, “Hey, what can we do to make this better?” To be self-critical and self-aware, and willing to work on problems, that’s right, good and healthy. We just can’t miss that millions of people are gathering in the name of Christ every week. Millions of people are being shaped by hearing the Bible explained, by singing together words of praise to God, and confession and mutual encouragement, by connecting after church at a coffee hour for five minutes, by reciting creeds together, hearing scripture read together, by bowing our heads in prayer for one another and for this world, by reaching out to our neighbors and just seeking to be a blessing in whatever little or big ways we can, sometimes even having entire church programs that help facilitate that, by being encouraged in how we handle our emotions and our hardships and our trials by people who come with us and say, “Yes, the Lord calls us to compassion for each other,” by knowing we’re not alone. And this is not even to mention the way the church is exploding in places like Iran and places like China, places where the church is actively being persecuted, in Nigeria and many other places we could name, where the church is on the move precisely because it offers a hope that the troubles of this world cannot quench.
Now I said at the beginning, this is CCEF, we’re a counseling organization. Why am I talking about all of this? Well, let me just give you two quick things. Number one, every club, every community center, every team out there in this whole world is a good and right, but insufficient attempt to capture the need that we all feel for church. Church is built into human nature. We were made to be part of church. That’s part of what full humanity is, is to be in church together, loving each other and loving God, caring for each other, celebrating each other, walking with one another, and doing all of it with a joy that God is with us, even in the midst of the trials of this fallen world.
And as I counsel people, and as I experience the hardships in my own life, I see how much we need people to walk with. And I see how much we need to contribute to walking with others. Every person I’ve ever counseled has had things, had things on their heart and gifts they bring to the table, passions, interests, and hopes, that would be a blessing to their community. And it would be a blessing to them to get to use those gifts. And they’ve had needs, places where it would really help to have a brother, or a sister, or a group of people around them who would hear them out, who would pray with them, who would encourage them. We need the church, and there’s nothing like sitting in a counseling room to at top volume, shout to all of your senses, the church is where hope is to be found.
So don’t walk away from the church. Pastor, don’t walk away. Even if you do change vocations, and you no longer serve as the pastor, don’t walk away. Just because your church’s doors might close, don’t walk away. You get to grieve, but you get to be part of the church, however well it’s going, however poorly it’s going, Jesus will not stop pouring out his love on his people, and that includes you. That includes you, whether you preach until you’re 98 or whether you never preach again, his love for you as a part of his people, part of his flock, however messed up we may be, is never going to change.
Person in the pew, like me, don’t walk away. The church has been through a thousand seasons where it’s torn itself apart over the ages. But grace is always the center. God’s love is always the center that draws his people back together. So let your words and let your actions be more about seeking to mutually build up than to mutually tear down. Let your eyes look for the ways where truth and hope and love and kindness and fellowship are gifts to you through your brothers and sisters, from Jesus himself.
And to those of you who have already walked away, come back. Come back. And I don’t say that as a desperate plea. I’m not saying the church is going to fold if you don’t come. I’m saying you’re missing out. I’m sad for you. The church is a stock that literally cannot possibly fold. It’s going to pay off for all eternity with better dividends that you can imagine. Why would you trade in something like that for a little more sleep on a Sunday morning, or for not wanting to feel awkward, or even for some great preacher you can watch online without getting pulled into the dance, pulled into the party, to the adventure, to the family that is the church in this world?
So I’ll close with just two questions for you. Number one, where could you slow down, splash some cold water on your face, and wake up to some way, some wonderful aspect of what the church is doing in your life, somewhere where the church is good, and really celebrate and rejoice in that, right now today? And question number two, where could you be one of the gifts of kindness and encouragement that God would give to someone in your church? Or if you’ve bailed on church, where could you be a gift of kindness and encouragement as you take one step toward the church, and come one step closer to coming back?
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).