Sometimes the Bible speaks loudest in a very few words. In this case, four little ones .
Before we get to the words, consider the growing trend among Christian believers in the United States, that of either giving up church altogether or of not participating regularly in worship while still retaining some relationship to a local congregation. This didn't start yesterday, but the pandemic has kicked it to another level. I'm talking broadly here, not just about the church I serve, but about churches spanning a wide spectrum of denominational affiliation, congregational size, worship style, etc. It's something I've seen, something I've heard personally from other pastors, and something about which I've read in the secular and religious media.
Now, a quick disclaimer. It's very hard to ascertain how many have left one church for another or how many may still be participating regularly online but not coming to in-person, gathered worship. It'll take a while to decipher all of that and those numbers are likely substantial, huge even. Rest assured, though, there are bunches who have stopped coming altogether.
Reasons given for quitting are aplenty and, honestly, many people probably cite several. Some have lost interest. Many have gotten busy with other things. Some are out of the habit. Some have truly walked away, citing everything from hypocrisy on the part of Christians in churches to disappointment at stances congregations have taken (or not taken). A common complaint is that the church is only interested in money or that congregations only look out for themselves. Some feel forgotten, others don't like the music, and a good number have been slighted, hurt, or abused. Still others contend the Church is irrelevant and out of touch.
The response of many congregations to the pandemic is a specific factor. Many strongly disagreed with decisions to halt in-person services, gatherings, and ministries or to change them in myriad ways, i.e., limiting or ceasing singing, requiring social distancing, limiting the number of participants, requiring masks, or the like. Some felt that policies should have been eased more quickly. My guess is there are many who feel churches have not been careful enough. Others are bothered by the process their congregations used to make decisions and implement guidelines.
My point is not to debate any decision or action taken, but to acknowledge and recognize the factors that have influenced people. The question is not what was done, or should have been done, or what shouldn't have been done. The question is What Now?
Can I share a specific factor for my United Methodist tribe? We're in the midst of a decades-long controversy over human sexuality, specifically over the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry and over the blessing of same sex marriages. Many United Methodists are extremely frustrated that it hasn't been solved yet, that the debate has drug on this long.
But we've discovered that it's an extremely difficult issue to settle, given our connectional structure. You see,The United Methodist Church is a global entity, one with roughly 11 million members the worldwide, about 6 million of which live in the United States. We have a Book of Discipline that stipulates how such decisions are to be made and it gives that authority to a single entity, the General Conference. That group is a collection of delegates from the world over and only meets every four years. You guessed it; COVID-19 prevented the meeting in 2020 and again in 2021, when it was rescheduled. Only a General Conference can make the decisions necessary to somehow bring about peace and, as we have seen from years of discussion and debate, that is easier said than done.
So, I personally know people who are tired of waiting and are staying home. (Many have left for other congregations, but they're not the group I'm thinking of because they've found a church home, albeit a different one). Some attend Sunday School, but won't go to worship. Some, I'm certain, are doing neither. They're done, at least until the dust settles.
A whole lot of believers, it seems, are finished with church, and for a whole lot of reasons. That's the situation in 2021. And, many, maybe all, of their criticisms and complaints are valid.
What about 2000 years ago when Jesus Christ was walking the earth? How were things then?
Reading the Gospels -Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John- we see that much of Jesus's criticism was leveled at the religious leaders of His day and at "organized religion." He slammed many of the most religious for their hypocrisy, and He took issue with their emphasis on extracting money from the poor and hoarding it for themselves. He considered much done in the name of God to be corrupt, even immoral. He had to be frustrated that it had taken thousands of years to get to the point at which they found themselves and that they'd done little or nothing to get things right. His harshest words were for those in power within the religious community.
I am certain of this - Jesus was more outraged by the corruption, selfishness, incompetence, and dissension in the organized religion manifested in His time than any person currently alive could be of today's Church. Further, He would be more critical of today's Church than would any of us. Of that I am convinced.
Now, after that long and winding trip, here are the four words. They're found in Luke 4:16 - "He went up to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read . . "
Did you catch them?
As was His custom.
When the Sabbath, the day of worship rolled around, you knew you could find Jesus shoulder to shoulder with the immoral, listening to hypocrites preaching and teaching, dropping money in the collection. Even though they hadn't solved their problems, even though He disagreed with their decisions, and He ultimately would even be convicted by them based on a sham of any legitimate process, there He was in worship, Sabbath after Sabbath.
I have a sneaking suspicion that, if Jesus were alive today, I know where He'd be on a Sunday morning. Certainly not agreeing with everything, but . . .
As was His custom.