They say us boomers became church dropouts because of a drug problem in childhood and adolescence. We were “drug” to church three plus times every week. Fifty years later this tribe is returning to church. The diversions we imagined would bring us peace and happiness were just pipe dreams—therapy, the marriage-go-round, the sexual revolution, peace movements, long hair, pharmaceutical delights, alcohol, and the rest. So, we’re easing back to church. And, we’re bringing some baggage with us. One is the lower bar of commitment. Boastfully we announce, “this isn’t your grandmother’s church!” There won’t be any “drug” problems here. We’re the sleek new model loaded with options.
Stereotypes have led us here. It’s the same escape hatch many congregations sought when dropping denominational tags from their church names. Words usually translate stored up preferences, profiles in our new world. Marketers say the word “Baptist” translates to no drinking, smoking, dancing, playing cards, or hanging with wild women, a list straight out of the old west. In many circles the word “church” pictures similar negatives—narrow, legalistic, judgmental, hypocritical do-gooders with little affinity for those outside. As a result, lower expectations in church are the norm. Let’s defy those biases that keep people away, especially the younger cohorts.
Luke’s precision in recording the earliest church history always impresses me. For two millennia Bible teachers have identified Luke 2:42 as the basic organizational grid for pursuing mission. He wrote—
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, ESV)
Teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer were accepted as the foundational activities of a New Testament church. Of course, worship, evangelism, and other disciple making functions discovered in the further chapters of Acts and the Epistles were linked to the first four as basic to church life. How notable that Luke mentioned their devotion to them.
Few of us will argue the centrality of these ministry links. But, let me quibble. Their devotion wasn’t to “fellowship”. Sure, they enjoyed meals together, shared the joyous celebration of communion around the tables, and established the ministry of the casserole dish for future generations to follow. Fellowship was and is a profound spiritual virtue developed in the community of faith. Yet, again, Dr. Luke’s precision as a writer moves us beyond our preferences for mealtime at church. He vividly and specifically wrote that they were devoted to “the fellowship”, using the definite article to identify something greater than their shared meal. Now, I’m no scholar and may lose a debate on this interpretation, but my opinion is that Luke was referencing their devotion to the group life they shared. He wouldn’t use the word “church” until Acts 5:11, when “fear come upon the whole church…”. But, their devotion – in addition to the Apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers – was to their life in community, the church.
It’s an amazing trend, the way church membership and attendance, and what is expected of church members, have slipped to the edges of our disciple making these days. In our efforts to downplay the tendencies of “your grandmother’s church” and appeal to groups alienated by those ideals we’ve made the church, membership, giving, discipline, and even Bible study lower echelon priorities in our mission and outreach.
The latest Pew Research data on church involvement emphasizes the wide disparity between those Americans who claim Christian faith and their corresponding participation in a local church. A majority of our population indicates Christian commitment, estimated by the 2014 Pew Study of Religion in America at 71%. Yet, only 30% of those identify as highly involved with a local church, while an additional 58% signify some involvement. When the Pew team asked why the participation rates were so low, most indicated clashing personal priorities, scheduling and work problems, health issues, transportation challenges, a distasteful church experience from the past, and the belief that neither attendance nor participation are necessary in the practices of their faith. Devotion to “the fellowship” seems to have been lost in this growing secular environment.
As you might expect, many church analysts are providing solutions to this growing divergence from Scriptural instruction about church. They include:
(1) Required new member training for those associating with a local congregation.
(2) Church studies about the meaning of church membership. Thom Rainer’s I am A Church Member (Nashville: B and H Publishing Group, 2013) is one excellent resource, packaged and priced for teaching in a small group setting.
(3) Affirmation of church covenants and other commitment oriented governing documents.
(4) Emphasis about the role of small groups in the life and ministry of local churches.
(5) Growth of missional communities that engage church members in the extended mission of the church.
And, of course, there are many others.
Church membership and involvement in mission are not sidebars of church life but are central to our commission to make disciples of all nations. We are Christ’s physical body in this world. What is more, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). We must re-establish devotion to “the fellowship” as a priority to our mission.
Now, meet my young neighbors. They’re twenty somethings, recently married, planning a family, and settling into life together. They’ve never been involved in church in their lives. Some friends invited them to church and they’ve been attending a congregation for more than a year. They’ve never been asked about church membership, baptism, or small group participation. No one has taught them about tithing, their personal witness, or the essentials of living the Christian life. They believe that faith must be vital in raising a family. One day they told me that they were getting a lot of sizzle, but little meat. They want to learn about devotion.
Perhaps learning devotion to “the fellowship” would be a good primer in that educational process.