Dear Church Family
Greetings in the Name of the Good Shepherd, who knows, seeks, calls, and keeps His Sheep.
A few weeks ago a poll was undertaken by Barna, in the United States of America. It’s purpose was to determine how the lockdown had affected Christian commitment to the local church. Importantly, it was a poll taken not among nominal Christians with a weak profession of faith….but rather specifically among those who – pre-COVID-19 – had a commitment to a local congregation. And though the results would doubtless vary from church to church (some churches have a stronger community and theological grounding than others), the overall picture was somewhat concerning. Presumably rounding off the percentages, the results were as follows: Only 35% of those polled were still either attending or livestreaming through their local congregation; retaining the association as far as circumstances allowed. A further 32% had switched churches (14%) or started church-hopping (18%) – Sunday by Sunday tuning into whichever online event appealed to them. And most concerning of all, 32% of previously ‘church going Christians’ had stopped altogether; with zero engagement with what was previously their church, or any church for that matter.
Let those figures wash over you for a moment – without being too concerned about margins of error, or into which theological camps the weights of each category might fall. Just consider the overall picture. One third of Christians…who previously bore some sort of regular commitment to a local church…had completely dissociated with it. Overnight, Sundays became just another day; and they had ceased to make any attempt whatsosever….to worship in concert with God’s people. Another third of those who previously identified with a local church…..suddenly had so little regard for it that they broke contact, and now jump Sunday-by-Sunday from one option to the next; much like someone choosing their favourite TV show from the living-room couch (or rather…exactly like that). Only a remnant of one third kept live-streaming or attending at their own local congregation. And take note that all this did not come about through fiery persecution, over a long period of time, in a third-world country, without accessible digital infrastructure. It happened in the USA, with the poll ending in early May – before the worst of the pandemic even arrived. This is tragic; and all the more so if it is not seen to be so.
A question, perhaps, is “Why is there such sudden, wide-scale disinterest either in worship, or in the local church?” Of course, a small part of the answer would lie in accessibility to the internet – at least, in our own country where many cannot afford the added expense of fibre, or the ludicrous costs of data. The personal circumstances of such dear Christians cannot be coldly disregarded by the outcome of a poll. What’s more, some churches will simply not be able to meet or livestream, thus forcing sincere congregants to look for another option for the duration of the lockdown. Let us remember those poorer churches, for whom the lockdown has proved a trial far exceeding our own. We have been blessed to have the facilities, and the expertise, to hold a service, one way or the other.
But having acknowledged those who are simply unable to participate online, or in person….we must also face the hard truth that there will be those who are simply unwilling. The same poll also noted that those who have ceased attending/watching service are not predominantly the older generation (who may be less technically capable), but are overwhelmingly the younger, tech-savvy generations, most of whom live on the internet anyway. So the question remains. “Allowing for variants and legitimate obstacles, what accounts for the huge numbers of professing Christians ceasing to behave like Christians?” The Lord knows the hearts of all. But He has equipped us with Scripture and sense, to ascertain spiritual health by the fruit that is born out of it. At best, the above falling away represents an obvious spiritual immaturity, and betrays the self-reliance of a generation that does not understand what it means (and why it is vitally necessary) to belong to a local church. At worst, this falling away could be revealing how widespread unregenerate church membership has become; that so many, once in the church, can simply cease to worship or care. This is a sad truth – but one borne out by Scripture, which warns time and again of the need to persevere; the implication being, some will not. The pandemic, like every other trial that comes upon the church, will have a purifying purpose in the sovereignty of God. While some professors will leave and wander afar, others will endure and long for and pray towards the day when full assembly is possible. Our focus as individuals is to be guarding our hearts, lest we drift from Christ, or His people; to not treat enforced absence as ‘a holiday’, but to treat it as ‘an exile’ – until such day that the object of our longing will be realised, and we can worship together in the assembly once more. So yes, let’s examine ourselves. Yet, our focus is also to be guarding one another’s hearts – to be “our brother’s keeper”. And it is to that last concern that we now turn.
As elders of Goodwood Baptist Church, we have every confidence that the 1/3rd breakdown of that poll is not a reflection of our own church. There is an obvious interest in, and commitment to, the live streamed services. And our interactions with members – largely by phone during the lockdown – have revealed many ongoing associations; with prayer, fellowship, charitable efforts etc, all overflowing as the love of Christ works through the congregation. We could not begin to give percentages – nor would we want to – but we know that body life, though frustrated, is not dead. And we know about and sympathize greatly with those who are unable to join the services (physically, or via livestream). Your unchosen isolation is a trial for which you have our sincere prayers – may God give you all grace to endure faithfully. However, we must with sadness acknowledge that as a church we are not entirely exempt from those statistical categories. And we would be less than faithful shepherds if we did not also call to those who are falling away, without realising it. Some of our conversations have revealed a spiritual distancing (instead of a social distancing); members who are ready to undertake any number of social activities, in any virtually any forum, with any number of people, and yet who seem to have no interest in the church; members who have had every opportunity to pursue fellowship in some or other form, but who choose to ‘spiritually distance’, for what reason we cannot imagine. Perhaps, as in the parable of the sower (Mark 4) there is a choking of faith, brought on by ‘the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things’. Whatever the reason, in the elders’ capacity as under-shepherds…with love, and wishing we could put our arm around your shoulder as we say it…we urge those who are so entangled by such cares to look once again at the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We also ask that all members, in a spirit of gentleness, looking first to yourselves, and with grace, seek to reach to those who have gravitated to the fringes of the faith…and call them back. Many of you will be in a better position to know of such drifting, as your relationships will be closer than our own. Above all, let us continue in a spirit of prayer, and love one towards another, as we worship our Lord and God.
May the Great Shepherd of the Sheep be with you all,
Martin, Shane, Andrew, & Winton