September 23, 2018
The numbers are all over the place, depending on where you get the stats. The Gallup polls suggest U.S. church attendance has remained about the same for decades – close to 40% of Americans say they attend church about once a week.
There are others, however, who suggest church attendance – however that is defined – is less than half that – less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church. In raw numbers, Gallup says 132 million Americans attend church weekly, while others suggest the number is more like 52 million. These researchers cite what is called the Halo Effect – the difference between what those surveyed say they do and what they do. That is, when surveyed, people tend to inflate desirable activities like church attendance and under-report undesirable activities like drinking.
The numbers, whatever they actually are, are startling. Southern Baptist researcher Thom Rainer says 8-10,000 churches in the U.S. will close this year. Of course, others will open, but the growth of churches is not keeping up with population growth. Here’s another startling number – every year, 3 million people go from “church-goer” to “religiously-unaffiliated.” Clearly, the church is facing decline in some quarters – largely mainline Protestant churches – like Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc. In fact, in the last three decades, there has not been one year of growth in mainline Protestant churches.
But, researchers love to cite that Evangelical churches are either growing, or at least maintaining. I suppose we fall in that category. So those are all mind-numbing statistics. Suffice it to say in the U.S., church participation is largely on the decline.
Here’s a more important question – why? Why are people attending church less, why are they abandoning the church of Jesus Christ? Well, we can all think of the regular reasons: the church if full of hypocrites, the church is so judgmental, the church didn’t accept me as I am, and my personal favorite – the growing number of people who say, I’m spiritual, but not religious. In other words, I have a private faith – whatever that is – but I’m not interested in a public faith – gathering with people of like faith.
For example, let’s look at a couple of articles, the first from CNN – that bastion of conservatism. They published survey results of the top nine reasons people are going to church less:
- They practice their faith in “other ways.” (37%) In other words, I’m spiritual, not religious.
- They are not believers. (28%) At least that one’s honest.
- No reason is “very important.” (26%)
- They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%) – Remember that one – we’ll come back to it. As if worship is about me.
- They don’t like the sermons. (18%) – What?
- They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
- They don’t have the time. (12%)
- Poor health or mobility. (9%)
- No house of worship in their area. (7%)
Another article by blogger, researcher, and evangelical pastor Carey Niewhof suggests the following ten reasons even committed believers are attending church less:
- Greater Affluence – money gives people options.
- Higher Focus on Kid’s Activities – a growing number of kids are in sports which require weekend travel. And to quote him, “Parents are choosing sports over church.”
- More Travel
- Blended and Single Parent Families – what does this have to do with attendance? In shared custody arrangements, most kids are in your church at most 26 times a year.
- Online Options – who needs the church when I can get the experience online?
- The Cultural Disappearance of Guilt – In other words, guilt of missing church used to drive people to church – not so, anymore.
- Self-directed Spirituality – that one keeps appearing – I’m spiritual, not religious.
- Failure to See Direct Benefit – In other words, in our consumer-driven culture – church is for me – and there better be a personal benefit. We’ll come back to that one, too.
- Valuing Attendance over Engagement – this was also interesting. The author suggests if people only attend to attend, and not be involved, their attendance will eventually wane.
- And finally, A Massive Culture Shift – that seems obvious enough.
So let me make it personal – why do you come to church – better, why do you come to this gathered assembly we often call church? And, why do you miss? Listen, we don’t keep personal attendance records – we don’t pass a tablet down the rows for you to sign, we don’t have facial recognition software. But when you miss, why do you miss?
In our ongoing study of Hebrews, the author addresses this issue head on – but a perhaps a little differently than we might expect. I’m not sure his writing addresses many of our current attendance patterns. In fact, he might actually have something different to say to us. And yet, maybe, his words apply to us after all. Read the familiar text with me, Hebrews 10:19-25.
Last week, we finished the author’s central doctrinal section – stretching from chapter 7 to chapter 10. He has clearly made his case – Jesus and the New Covenant He brought through the Gospel – that is, through His death, burial and resurrection – are superior to the Old Covenant. In fact, we’ve clearly seen the Old Covenant was type – a picture pointing us forward to Jesus. As such, the type – the Old Covenant comprised of the Law of Moses, the Levitical priests, the Old Testament sacrifices, the blood of bulls and goats, and the earthly tabernacle could never take away sins forever. Far from cleansing us of sin and perfecting our consciences and removing our guilt – the OT system was constant reminder of our sin and need of a Savior. That Savior was Jesus Christ – who sacrificed Himself since we were guilty of sin and there was nothing we could do about our broken condition. This is incredibly good news. We are saved, sins forever removed, conscience forever cleansed of guilt and perfect. So now what? How should we then live as a consequence of our new relationship to God? The author tells us. Notice how he begins with the word, therefore. Therefore, in light of all that he has said in the letter to this point, therefore, live this way. And he spends the rest of the letter focusing on application. He has started with doctrine and moves to duty, from creed to conduct, education to instruction. He laid a doctrinal foundation before moving to practical and lifestyle implications. Here’s the outline of the text:
- (A Summary of) The Doctrine (19-21)
- The Duty (22-25). Three times the author says, in light of these great truths, let us: let us draw near, let us hold fast, and let us help others do the same. (4:14-16)
Let’s look at the great doctrinal summary he gives in those first three verses. He basically says, because of our access and because of our advocate, let us.
First, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus. He’s made a big deal about this. We know exactly what he means by now. Under the Old Covenant, worshipers could not enter the holy place. Only one could, once per year. And frankly, he did his work quickly – there was not a lot of confidence. You may remember Nadab and Abihu, sons of the Aaron, the high priest, who went into the tabernacle and gave an offering that was not according to prescription – and fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed them. That did not engender confidence.
Only the high priest could enter the holy place once per year, in the prescribed manner. But under the New Covenant, our high priest has made it possible, in the prescribed manner, by His own blood, for us to enter the very presence of God. And we can do that confidently – boldly even. Not flippantly nor arrogant swagger, but with confidence in the access that our God and Father will accept us – because He has accepted the blood of His Son.
Further, we can enter by a new and living way. It’s new in that it was paved by our forerunner Jesus. It’s new in that it was through His own blood and was not the blood of bulls and goats. But what does he mean by a new and living way? Well, certainly because the new way provides eternal life to its followers. But also because, when the blood of bulls and goats was offered – those animals were dead and stayed dead. The high priests kept dying, too. But under the New Covenant, the offering was sacrificed, but the sacrifice did not stay dead. He was resurrected, and now sits at the Father’s right hand, making eternal intercession for us.
So Jesus made confident access to the Father a perpetual reality. Notice, by the way, through a new and living way. Most point out, it is in fact, the only way. We remember the words of Jesus, I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father – comes into His presence – draws near – except by Me. It’s the prescribed way, you see.
Now, notice He opened the way, He inaugurated the way through the veil – undoubtedly that is a reference to the thick veil that separated the Holy Place for the Most Holy Place that housed the Ark of the Covenant and the presence of God. He opened the way through the veil, that is, His flesh. That’s interesting. What does that mean? Lots of discussion, but most agree the author is connecting the veil and body of Christ symbolically, poetically. Consider:
In Matthew 27:50-51, the crucifixion account, we read, “50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.”
So, the moment Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, signifying open access – the way into the very presence of God made possible. So, the poetic license, if you will, the author takes is this: when Jesus’ flesh, His body, was broken, so also the veil of the temple was rent in two. We enter through the broken body.
So first, since we have confidence because of the work of Christ, we can draw near – enter into the very presence of God. Second, verse 21 since we have an advocate, a great priest over the house of God. Since we have a new high priest – not according to the old order – the Levitical order – but rather after the order of Melchizedek who is over the house of God. Remember, the author made that point back in chapter 3. He was proving the superiority of Jesus to Moses – that’s a big deal. Moses was the hero of the OT. But our author said this:
1 Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;
2 He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house.
3 For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house.
4 For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.
5 Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later;
6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house– whose house we are, if we hold fast…
We see that Jesus is the high priest over the house. Moses was in the house, Jesus is over the house. Moses was a servant in the house, Jesus is a Son over His house. And what is the house? The people of God – whose house we are if we hold fast. So since we have Jesus as our great priest over us, since He opened the way into the presence of God by the sacrifice of Himself, since we can actually approach God with confidence, therefore, let us do three things, point two. And again, he encourages – perhaps stronger, he commands us to do the following three things:
First, let us draw near to God, but how? Verse 22, with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Now, that’s a lot of Christian words, and if we’re not careful, we can zone out. Don’t do that – let’s break it down. Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. What does that mean? In Scripture, the heart is the center of your being – the real you. The word sincere is literally true. Let us draw near with a true heart – the real you. In other words, no masks, no facades, no faking it, genuine, with complete trust and devotion.
With a sincere, true heart – faithfully committed in full assurance. That’s related to the confidence with which we draw near. We actually believe we draw near to the God of the universe. You see, in chapter 11, he’s going to say, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Do you see – we come into His presence with confidence, with sincere, true heart – not doubting but believing, with full assurance of faith.
And why can we do that – actually approach the God of the universe with confident assurance? Because of who we are? Not exactly – because of who we are in Christ. You see, our hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. This has been a main point for him. We need not slink into his presence with heads bowed in shame and embarrassment – our sin has been taken away – guilt removed – conscience cleansed by the blood of Christ.
And further, our bodies have been washed with pure water. Notice, we are cleansed inside and out. This is perhaps a reference to washing of regeneration by the Holy Spirit – symbolized by water baptism. The water is not special, blessed, pure water – we get it right out of the spicket in the locker room. But it symbolizes the washing of regeneration – being made alive in Christ – by the work of Christ through the application of the Holy Spirit – sins removed. Hearts cleansed, bodies washed – inside and out. So we can actually draw near. They could not do that under the Old Covenant.
Second command, therefore, verse 23, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. He’s told us a couple times the eternal importance of holding fast our confidence or our assurance firm to the end. Look at these verses in chapter 3:
6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house– whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,
There, we saw by holding fast our confidence, our hope, our assurance firm to the end, we prove the reality of our faith. Remember, looking at those verses closely, we see if we don’t hold fast our confidence and hope firm to the end, it means we are not His house. If we don’t hold fast our assurance firm to the end, it means we have not become partakers of Christ. So here, he says, hold fast our confession – our hope without wavering – hold to the end, proving the reality of faith.
I would say a couple things. First, remember, these were Jewish believers who were facing persecution and considering returning to Judaism. So our author says, don’t do that – hold onto your hope till the end without wavering. We’ve got a great high priest over us – whose opened the way to the presence of God. We can approach His throne to find grace to help and mercy in our time of need. So don’t quit. Hold on without wavering. When the church father Chrysostom was brought before the Roman emperor, the emperor threatened him with banishment if he did not recant his Christian faith. Chrysostom replied:
“You cannot banish me for this world is my Father’s house.” “But I will slay you,” said the Emperor. “No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.” “I will take away your treasures.” “No, but you cannot for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.” “But I will drive you away from man and you shall have no friend left.” “No, you cannot, for I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to hurt me.”
A second thing I would note is he says hold fast the confession of our faith. In church history, a confession of our faith was considered most important. And so they developed creeds by which they confessed their faith – which they said aloud together. They developed catechisms – that is, questions and answers by which they could teach their children theology and doctrine – the orthodox truths of the Christian faith. And the truth is, they would die for those truths. Today, we are quick to jettison truth if it causes someone heartburn – if we feel it unnecessarily divides us. And yet here, the author says, hold fast our confession of faith. Jude will say it like this:
3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
And so I say to you, by beloved brothers and sister – hold fast to your confession. Don’t let the orthodox truths of the Christian faith, no matter how difficult and divisive – don’t let them go. Hold onto them. Defend them. Fight for them. Die for them. How can we do that? By reminding each other and ourselves we serve a God who promised – and He cannot lie – He is faithful. The challenges in the end will be worth it. Hold on.
Finally, the last command is found in those familiar words, starting in verse 24. Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. So, let us draw near, let us hold fast, and let’s mutually encourage one another to do the same.
This is the only one another in Hebrews, but it’s a common word in the NT. It reminds us of something very important – namely, that we are not alone. (Series – Alone) Our faith is not private – it is meant to be experienced publicly – in community. Here, we are to give careful thought, consider how to stimulate. That word is only used one other time in the NT, where Paul and Barnabas argued over taking John Mark with them on their second missionary journey – there arose a sharp disagreement – provocation – between them. So sharp they separated. It’s a very strong word, typically a negative word. It means to stimulate – yes, but more – it means to provoke. There is a sense in which we are to strongly stimulate, provoke one another.
It reminds me of a ministry in Colorado Springs called The Fellowship of Christian Cowboys. Their verse? Hebrews 10:24 – and let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds. Corny. But a spur against a horse’s side is not particularly pleasant – but it spurs them, it provokes them to action. That’s the idea.
We are to stimulate each other to love – the word is agape. It’s the strongest form of love used in the NT – it speaks of a self-sacrificing love. Let’s consider how we can encourage each other to have a self-sacrificing love for one another. You see, it seems to me if you make your faith private – it’s just you and Jesus – there’s not necessarily any love for others. You’re spiritual, not religious. Think of it this way – you can draw near, you can hold fast – I suppose, by yourself – not well, but you can. You cannot however, love, you cannot stimulate one another to good deeds alone. We’ve got to be religious – that is, in religious relationship and fellowship in order to love one another. Further, we stimulate each other to good deeds – to be expressed toward one another. Again, if your faith is private – if you’re spiritual but not religious – there is no necessity of good deeds.
But we are to encourage each other to love and good deeds – toward each other. And he says in order to do that – we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some. We’ve got to spend time together – corporately, in smaller groups, as individuals with each other. There is really no such thing as a purely private faith. If you think you don’t need the church, you are mistaken. In the next passage, he’s actually going to say that leaving the church spells disaster – apostasy.
Now let’s stop right there a moment. I have a couple very important thoughts. First, let’s remember the context of Hebrews. Why were some forsaking the corporate gatherings – assembling with other believers? Quite simply, it was fear. Fear of reprisal. Fear of persecution. What are the reasons professing believers are abandoning the church today? Largely selfish, self-centered, consumer-driven reasons. I don’t like the sermons, I don’t like the worship, I don’t like the people, they don’t like me, they don’t accept me. I’ve got better things to do. All self-focused reasons. Don’t do that. Don’t focus on you – it’s not about you.
Which leads to the second thing. I could say you need church – the gathered assembly – relationships with other Christians – because you do. Because you need other Christians to hold you accountable, to encourage you, to strengthen your faith and hope, to teach you, to serve you, to love you, etc. And all that would be true. But consider it this way. Remember, he said to consider how we can stimulate one another to love and good deeds.
Meaning, the church needs you. The church needs you and your gifts to serve her. We need what you have. When you’re not here – the church suffers. Part of the body is missing. I’m not just talking about Sunday morning worship – the church is much more than that. But it includes that. We need you for encouragement, for love, for good deeds – as much as you need us. The fact is, it is not about you. It is about Christ. It is about us. We need each other.
And last we need to encourage each other all the more as we see the Day drawing near. What day is that? The day of Christ’s return. Oh, you say, but it’s been 2000 years. That’s right – which means at the very least we are 2000 years closer to His return. We are to live as if we expect He is coming back, because He is. So let’s help each other in the journey. Don’t give up. Draw near. Hold fast. And let’s help each other to do the same.