Time and again, we are being told about the statistics of decreasing church membership. This is being drilled into us seminarians at Concordia Seminary, especially in our practical theology classes. I just listened to a homily today in chapel (September 3, 2020) that once again brought up these statistics.
Recent research shows that those who identified as “none” regarding their religious affiliation is drastically increasing. “None” is becoming the new religion (which, truthfully, consists of a variety of self-made religions such as moralistic therapeutic deism and “Jesus is whomever I want Him to be”).
Beyond these statistics, many books and articles (journals and blogs alike) have been written about the reasons for this decline and other books and articles on how we can reverse this sad condition of the Church. Small congregations are fighting the struggle to survive rather than focusing on areas of strength in their ministry. Churches everywhere pour vast amounts of resources and money into programmes that end up failing.
But I want to suggest a challenging and uncomfortable thought: What if the appearance of our triviality in the world is the lot of the Church? What if the perpetual antagonism toward the Church and mass exoduses from the Church is our shared burden? What if I told you that the Church being the smallest of minorities is the lot we hold in a world that despises the Church and He whom we confess to be Lord and King of all persons and all things (John 15:18-25)? What if I told you we are the remnant the Prophets prophesied about (Zephaniah 3:13; Zechariah 8:11; Romans 11)?
A remnant is no large thing; it is a small thing. Therefore, we should not be surprised by the infinitesimal state of the Church.
I am by no means suggesting we should just accept our “fate” of dying out or that we should give up trying to proselytise and evangelise. But, I ask, why do you want the Church to grow? What is your motivation? Is it simply to have numbers so your church can have more bodies in the pews and, therefore, more money? To be on the number 1 list of world religions? Or is your motivation coming from a place of concern for the salvation of souls and the proclamation of the Gospel?
Neither do I want to suggest we grow complacent in our decline or accept the coming normalcy of our unpopularity. What I want to say is this: Do not be surprised by the unpopularity of the Gospel.
The Unpopularity of the Gospel
Church history attests to the unpopularity of not only the Gospel, but also the Church. The Church has gone through various periods of persecution, such as that from Emperors Nero and Diocletian, even to this day in eastern countries like Liberia.
Why is the Gospel unpopular? After all, the Gospel proclaims the free forgiveness of sins and salvation for all people of all nations. That’s literally Good News (εὐαγγέλιον, euangelion)! So, why is the Gospel so unpopular and unlikeable by many? Two reasons come to mind.
The first, I believe—not by order of importance—has to do with the Gospel’s interrelation with the Law. There can be no Gospel without the Law, and there can be no Law without the Gospel. The Gospel implies the Law.
The Gospel proclaims the forgiveness of sins and salvation. Forgiveness for what? Your sins. Salvation from what? Sin, death, and the Devil. Not only forgiveness for and salvation from these morbid things, but also that you are culpable for your sins in thought, word, and deed, both done and undone. Nobody wants to be told they’re a sinner—that is, that their way of thinking, behaving, and living are wrong.
Because the Gospel implies the Law, it also implies you’re a sinner—a bad person—who needs forgiveness for your badness and salvation from your badness. For this reason, the Gospel is unpopular. “I don’t need salvation from myself and forgiveness for just being me,” we think. “I’m a good person!” Conversely, the entirety of Scripture—Law and Gospel—proclaims the exact opposite.
The second reason the Gospel is unpopular, I believe, is its exclusivity. Not exclusivity of persons, but exclusivity of religions, which is highly offensive in our pluralistic society. Jesus said clearly, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Believing in Jesus is literally the only way to salvation. Christianity, therefore, is the one true religion. I don’t think I have to explain why this bold claim is unpopular. Liberals label it “intolerant,” never mind their hypocritical intolerance of Christianity and anything else remotely conservative.
So, for these reasons, and perhaps more, the Gospel is highly unpopular, which by extension of this makes the Church unlikeable. For these reasons and others—such as Jesus’ warning of the inevitable and increasing antagonism toward His Church—the Church is, always has been, and always will be unpopular.
Under this reality, I think it is rather silly of us to be shocked at the increasing hostility toward the Church and mass exoduses, especially in our postmodern age that elevates cultural and moral relativism. If anything, we should’ve seen this coming.
The Good News
I’m getting tired of hearing about the statistics of how our congregations are “dying.” Yes, yes, we know. I hear the many statistics and practical propositions on how to address this problem as we endeavour toward making disciples, but I don’t hear much about the hope we have in Christ. Is there hope in spite of these stats that no doubt makes the Devil smile?
Absolutely. There is good news, and it comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). What is this “rock”? The rock is Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (v. 16).
Think about that for a moment…
The gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. The Devil himself and all his demonic forces cannot prevail against Christ’s Church. Why? Because the Christ—the Messiah, the Anointed One—the Son of God is the head of His Church. He rules over her and for her. If not even the gates of Hell, therefore, can prevail against His Church, what can a mere age of faithlessness do? Or a pandemic? Or liberalism? Or apathy? Centuries of murdering Christians has not been enough to destroy the Church. Therefore, what can anything else do? (See Romans 8:18-39.)
The message of Scripture is clear: The Church will prevail. Not because of anything she might do, but because of Christ, for it is Christ’s Church, not ours. This does not mean He doesn’t use us to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples, but He is ultimately in control.
As we return to Zephaniah 3, God says:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Yahweh has taken away the judgements against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
“Yahweh your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.
“I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
“Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says Yahweh.vv. 14-20
Not only has this prophecy been fulfilled in Jesus in His ministry on earth, but it also points proleptically forward to the eschatological reality of God’s salvation.
The Church, although her children are forsaking her, is not “dying,” for she will never die. The decrease in church attendance and membership is not an incurable cancer that will inevitably kill the Church; it is more like an annoying cough and runny nose that will soon meet its end.
The Church, rather, will see the promise of Life Eternal in Christ Jesus. The gates of Hell cannot prevent it, and neither can the gates of wicked men.
Amen. Thanks be to God.