The last census revealed what we all knew without the numbers being officially collected.
The numbers in church are declining.
We didn’t need to see what people responded in the census we just needed to look around us and see the numbers that used to be here just aren’t here anymore.
There are a variety of reasons.
Busyness – relevancy – disagreement with doctrines – failing to get anything out of coming to worship;
Or it could simply be people moving away or being called home by God.
Some that I’ve spoken to who have lapsed say things like:
I can find just as much inspiration by watching Songs of Praise or Mass for you at home on TV.
I can find God everywhere I go so why do I have to come to church?
What we need to be clear about is that this is not a new problem facing the church.
The book of Hebrews was written about 30 years after the death of Christ and therefore during the infancy of the church.
In that time we read in the book of Acts about thousands of conversions during the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But here, just one generation on, we are already hearing of concerns about those drifting away from the church.
We often hear of warnings that the church is just one generation away from extinction because of people leaving but, as we see, God has different plans.
He has kept the church going for around 2000 years and promises that not even the gates of hell will overcome it.
That doesn’t mean the church hasn’t been without its challenges but its future existence is in God’s hands.
We don’t know who wrote this book but the author writes:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
So already, not long after huge conversions, we see there is a concern about the numbers dwindling away – people neglecting to meet together.
But what was the writer concerned about regarding people neglecting to meet together?
How to balance the budget?
How to pay off the loan for the extensions?
How to ensure we keep the congregation open so we don’t lose our pastor or have to join with another congregation?
But that’s often what our motivation is in mission.
The writer is concerned with the Day approaching.
It is the day that the Bible often refers to as the Day of Judgment;
A day that Jesus speaks about a separation of sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good fish and bad fish – with the separation meaning some missing out on eternal salvation.
That is what our mission must be motivated by.
A mission that is at the heart of God who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
The day that Jesus warns about saying that people will be led astray and away from God.
Jesus, like the writer of Hebrews, is worried about the eternal future of the person rather than the earthly future of the institution.
In fact Jesus went outside of the institution of his day and drew people back to God – back to the Gospel when he ate with sinners and tax collectors – healed the Samaritan leper – forgave the adulterous woman – healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter – and a multitude of other examples.
Jesus wants his disciples to be aware that there will be influences to take them away from following him.
And he’s worried because the ones that are trying to lure them away don’t have their best interests at heart but try to mimic the comfort Jesus offers.
They might seem enticing but once trouble strikes they are nowhere to be found.
When Jesus speaks about himself being our Good Shepherd he also describes the character of the False Shepherd:
The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.
How many have put faith in their careers only to lose their job in times of downturn.
How many have put their faith in their superannuation or other investments to see them wiped out in a market crash.
In Jesus’ time it was the temptation to put their faith in the magnificent temple that had been built.
And as magnificent as those buildings looked, Jesus said that there was no security in them at all:
One of the disciples said to Jesus:
Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus turned their faith in the human made temple to the true temple when he said: Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
We hear people leave the church because it is no longer relevant to them;
If that’s the case then there is a problem with either the message or what they are hearing as it is always relevant.
The church’s message is the Gospel – that God welcomes us into his Kingdom.
If that’s not the message we are preaching or that is not being heard then there’s a problem because the world can offer much more than we can if that’s the case.
And that’s what the writer to the Hebrews says:
This is the covenant that I will make with them, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Therefore, my friends, we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.
What Jesus is concerned about is that his disciples, including today’s church, are not led astray by a message that does not lead us to the comfort that Jesus brings by his forgiveness won on the cross.
And that’s what the writer to the Hebrews says too:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
What can we do to help others find this confession of hope?
The writer of Hebrews says: Encourage them.
Encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Our motivation for mission should always be so others can experience what we experience in a relationship with God.
An experience that can be mimicked by the world but cannot replace what God offers.
It might seem appealing to look at the large stones and large buildings but they will crumble in time whether it’s wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; or earthquakes in various places.
But God’s word is forever.
And it’s by God’s word that we have confidence to enter the Kingdom of Heaven;
A kingdom that was once shut by our sinfulness but now the curtain has been torn in two by the blood of Jesus Christ as God will remember our sins and our lawless deeds no more.
That’s what we and God wants everyone to experience which only a relationship with Jesus Christ can offer.
Yes God can be found in many places but only as we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ can we encourage one another in our faith and have confidence that our sins are forgiven and entry into heaven assured.