A school teacher told her students to bring an item that represented their religious faith. The little Jewish boy brought a menorah. The little Catholic boy brought a crucifix. The little Baptist boy brought a casserole.
Speaking as a Baptist pastor, I have to admit that this joke hits way too close to home. Actually, it could be a true story! We Baptists do like our fellowship meals. As another joke says, “What do you call a Baptist preacher’s belt? A fence around a chicken graveyard.”
I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with fellowship meals. The early churches held them each Sunday in conjunction with their observance of The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Jude v.12). Likewise, the Old Testament provides the record of many different times of feasting, and in the New Testament we read about Christ’s last supper, not to mention the prodigal son’s father killing the fatted calf.
But what we must guard against is making fellowship meals our main reason for attending church. We mustn’t let our churches become community clubs or social clubs that have little more than a religious undercurrent running through them. Our primary feasting at church should always be on the living Word (Jesus) and the written word (the Bible), not the fried chicken.
What each church-goer should ask himself or herself is, “What is my motivation for going to church?” If the answer is something that can be just as easily gotten at a ball game, a concert, the local school, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Kiwanis club, the Ruritan club, the Optimist club, the Lions club, or the Rotary club, then something is very wrong with the motivation. And unfortunately this seems to be the case with far too many church-goers.
Studies are now consistently showing that church attendance is declining here in the United States. The theorized reasons for the decline are numerous: the country as a whole is shifting away from its Christian roots, today’s young people are a different breed who have little interest in attending church, the local church is no longer the focal point of community life, etc. While I certainly wouldn’t dismiss any of these reasons (or some others we could name), I would like to suggest one that I’ve never seen cited on a list. Maybe the reason why church attendance numbers are dwindling is the fact that we have gotten so far away from what church is supposed to be.
Imagine an oven that a housewife has begun using as a clothes dryer. As soon as she gets a load of clothes out of the washing machine, she opens the oven door, puts the clothes in the oven, sets the temperature for 350 degrees, and dries the clothes. She does this day after day, load after load. Then one day her husband buys a dryer and tells her to start using it to dry the clothes. The housewife does so and after just a few loads exclaims, “This dryer is so much better for drying clothes. I’ll never use that oven again. I don’t even need it anymore.” Would you say that housewife was being fair to her oven? Of course not. She wasn’t using it for what it was actually made to do.
The same can be said of our churches. If we don’t use them for what they are made to do, we shouldn’t be surprised when attendance declines. The hard, cold truth is that the world can do everything better than the church except those things for which the church is the specialist. This means that the church is never going to be able to outperform the world when it comes to meals, entertainment, community service, sports leagues, Christmas productions, Easter dramas, Independence Day celebrations, and a vast assortment of other activities, No matter how hard we try and how much time, effort, and money we spend, the world’s versions will always be more appealing (at least to average person).
That’s why we are crazy to try to stop the decline in church attendance by making our churches more like the world. What we need to do instead is make our churches less like the world and more like the church ideal that is described in the New Testament. Of course this isn’t something the so-called “church growth” movement cares to hear, but the numbers are beginning to prove that what that movement has pushed for decades as the way to grow a church doesn’t actually work in the long run. How could it when it is so shallow and superficial? And besides, even if it does draw a crowd, just having a crowd doesn’t automatically mean that you are having church, right?