When Miami Beach declared a state of emergency recently due to spring break partyers who overwhelmed the city, Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church was providing about fifteen hundred meals on Friday night for people in their neighborhood who might not have enough to eat. The story was so significant that it was reported in the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, Transformation Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is back in the news. Last December, they raised millions of dollars to help churches, charity groups, and individuals, including giving one needy family a car and money to buy a house. This was part of their “culture code of generosity” by which they set aside ten percent of their income to help those in need. Now they have donated more than two hundred MacBook laptops to high school seniors and staff at a school in their area.
And a church in West Virginia has responded to the escalating drug abuse crisis of our day by opening an addiction recovery house. David Stauffer, lead pastor of Gateway Christian Church in Saint Albans, was called to serve on a grand jury a few years ago. He recalled that around forty-eight of the fifty cases presented in just a few days were drug related. “I was convicted in that courtroom,” he told the Christian Post. His church’s recovery house is one response.
American church membership falls below 50 percent
According to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue, or mosque has fallen below 50 percent for the first time since Gallup first asked the question in 1937. At that time, church membership was 73 percent.
Here’s the other side of the story: as author Glenn T. Stanton notes, church attendance is at an all-time high, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark reports that the percentage of Americans who attend a local church has grown from 17 percent in 1776 to 69 percent today. And Baylor scholar Byron Johnson adds that “theologically conservative denominations (evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, and especially non-denominational churches) are not in decline but are alive and well.”
Dr. Johnson’s point is especially relevant to today’s Daily Article. Many of the churches and denominations that are in decline track and prioritize membership; many that are experiencing growth measure success in other ways. Many do not keep membership rolls, and they are reaching people in nontraditional ways such as weekday services, outreach events, and community ministries.
We can define success by numbers on membership rolls or by members engaged in spiritual growth and cultural transformation. The two are not exclusive, of course. But if we must choose, we should choose the latter.
Why Jesus wanted a silent Wednesday
Jesus illustrated our point powerfully on this day of Holy Week. The gospels record no activities on this Wednesday. As best we can tell, he spent the day with his disciples at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, a village two miles east of Jerusalem.
Solitude with his Father was Jesus’ consistent pattern, from early in the morning (Mark 1:35) to evening (Matthew 14:23) and through the night (Luke 6:12). Writing on this subject, I noted that “Jesus knew he needed what only his Father could supply.” If he needed his Father to guide and empower him, how much more do we?
Here’s an observation I would add today: Jesus not only needed intimacy with his Father, he wanted intimacy with his Father.
He spent time with his Father because he wanted to speak with him, listen to him, and commune with him. His spiritual life was driven not just by what he needed from his Father but by who he knew his Father to be—a God of infinite love (1 John 4:8), power (Psalm 147:5), wisdom (Romans 11:33), mercy (Ephesians 2:4), and unconditional grace (Romans 5:8).
We need to spend time with people for transactional reasons—we need their help, support, forgiveness, or guidance. We want to spend time with people for transformational reasons—we want to be with them and to become more like them.
“He it is that bears much fruit”
A transformational relationship with our Father empowers us to feed the hungry, meet the needs of students, and minister to drug addicts. It drives us to measure success by spiritual growth and cultural transformation more than by membership rolls in institutional churches.
On this Silent Wednesday, let’s accept Jesus’ invitation to “abide” in him (John 15:4) by spending time alone with him in his word, worship, and world. Let’s claim his promise that “whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (v. 5a). Let’s remember his warning that “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5b).
John Donne testified: “I count all that part of my life lost which I spent not in communion with God or in doing good.” As we have learned today, the first leads inevitably to the second.
When was the last time you prayed, read God’s word, and spent time in worship because you needed something from God—his forgiveness, guidance, or help?
When was the last time you prayed, read God’s word, and spent time in worship because you wanted simply to be with your Father?
Why not today?