Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Four Little Words

What is the likelihood you’ll be at church on Sunday? 50%? 75%?

Recently, I heard an experienced urban minister reflecting on the reality that in most urban contexts, among most young Christians — even reformed evangelicals — church attendance peaks at around 2-3 Sundays per month.

Before you judge, honestly evaluate your own attendance over the past little while. I say that because for most of these young people, if you were to ask them, they would indicate that they are very committed. In their own perception, they are more likely to be there than not, whether or not the facts bear that out. Many think they are more faithful than they are.

jesus

That’s been on my mind today because I’ve been studying about Jesus. Here’s what I read:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been raised, and he entered the synagogue as was his custom on the Sabbath day and he rose to read… (Luke 4.16)

Four little words stuck out to me. Did you catch them? ‘As was his custom.

If there are things we tend to not like as younger people, particularly younger evangelicals, it is commandments and customs. We don’t like to be told something is necessary. But if something is good, shouldn’t it be customary? If Jesus made it his custom to go and hear the reading and explanation of the law for the first 30 years of his life before beginning his ministry, shouldn’t that inform some of our customs?

I was further rebuked by this statement from Josephus:

‘He [Moses] appointed the Law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining, not that it should be heard once for all or twice or on several occasions, but that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it, a practice which all other legislators seem to have neglected’ (Ag. Ap. 2.17 §175).

If unbelieving Josephus could see the wisdom in making it a custom for God’s people to gather to ‘every week’ at the expense of ‘desert[ing] their other occupations’ to ‘obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge’ the law of Moses, doesn’t it seem like all the more important for believing Christians to gather together to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of the gospel as the fulfillment of these scriptures?

Of course, the notion that the custom of going to hear the word of God happens in the context of a weekly church gathering presumes that the custom of that church is to read and exposit the word of God. If that’s not the custom of your church, you should probably find another place to customarily attend.

So if we were to look at your life, what would we see? Would your biographer be able to write this? ‘And that Sunday, as was his custom, he was in church to hear the reading and expositing of the Scriptures.’

Customs start with single acts. Good customs start with single acts of conscious obedience. So … where will you be this Sunday?

6 Comments

  1. Both church attendance and church absence are habit-forming (Hebrews 10:25).

  2. The "why are (members of a particular demographic group) not attending every Sunday morning church service?" blog theme is soon going to be trending like "missional" in 2008. Most of these posts have two things in common: 1) a brief anecdote attempting to argue that perfect attendance in Sunday morning worship services is in decline (usually ending with a statement designed to elicit a stunned "wow" effect on the part of the reader) and 2) no discussion of the real linkage between this attendance record and the loop where disciples are made who are then making disciples.

    Those of us who work 50-60 hours (or more) per week at our "secular" professions need to hear something more than an "ought to" message about why we should be doing something in the remaining 50-60 hours per week when we're not trying to get a decent night's sleep. And more importantly than hearing, we need to see a commitment to an execution of a life of disciple making, on the part of the professional ministry class, coupled with real evidence that such action is resulting in the making of disciples that can be counted.

    Life is not just about planning and talking about plans. Life is also about execution (Matthew 28:18-20 contains command to get certain things done not just think and talk about the things that need to get done).

    My working theory, as a pastor son (married to a pastor's daughter) with around 4 decades of experience in church ministry at various levels, is that we have become so enamored of the act of preaching that we're willing to do whatever we think it takes to convince ourselves that this act, and the worship ceremony that we've built around it, is THE beginning, center, and end of obedience to Christ.

    The thing is, that's only going to work as long we can convince hundreds/thousands of others to also suspend their own disbelief….if only for an hour or two…per week. Yet, the service always comes to an end…and then what?

    • Julian

      29 November, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Jonathan,

      Thanks for your comment, brother. I apologize if the post is similar to many other things you've read recently — I'm not as much of a blog reader as I should be for a supposed-blog-writer. It was honestly just something that struck me in my study yesterday.

      As to the rest of your post, believe me, I'm sympathetic with the push and pull of trying to balance all of life. I not only see it in my own life but in the lives of many around me. I know tough decisions need to be made. If preaching was presented as the beginning, centre, and end of Christian obedience, then I've made a grave error. It's not. But it is the driving force behind much of Christian growth and discipleship. The very text you cited (Matthew 28:18-20) indicates that.

      I think we need to be able to identify an error (i.e. sometimes preaching is wrongly made out to be the be all and end all or the general divorce of preaching from discipleship) and correct it without swinging the pendulum the other way. Here's what I mean: in some places preaching may have been taught at the expense of genuine discipleship, but that does not mean that church attendance is therefore to be minimized.

      At our church Sunday church attendance is an expectation we have for our members because many of our other discipleship efforts (one-to-one Bible reading, mentoring meetings, Bible memorization groups, small groups, prayer meetings, Bible studies, etc.) flow out of what we do on Sundays together. The other discipleship efforts lose their punch if you aren't there for Sundays on a regular basis.

      Sunday attendance isn't commanded in Scripture, but I wonder, if we're loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving his people in such a way that the world should know we're his disciples, then what is a good reason to not meet with him and his people more often than not? Surely there are good reasons to miss some Sundays, but reasons to miss, on balance, I think, are relatively few.

      • Julian, I am wholeheartedly in agreement with you that attendance at Sunday morning preaching services (and actively engaging the appropriate spiritual disciplines during: listening, note taking for the purpose of pondering the passage(s) and points later, etc…) and that reasons to miss, especially in our North American culture which still experiences a slight pause on Sunday mornings, are few.

        Where my concern on this topic is, and I apologize for a lack of clarity in my earlier response, is that all things that a church does must be evaluated in terms of the disciple making purpose that we received in the Great Commission. In 40 years of local church memory, I've never been a member of a church that specifically evaluated its events, programs, etc…with regard to the number of disciple making disciples made (that's a mouthful :) ).

        What I tend to see is that churches set up worship services with the preaching as the focus and as long as the Text is faithfully handled and the Gospel proclaimed, the event is considered goes in the "win" column. Having organized, led and taught small groups for just under 30 years, it is my experience that a single event can thrill the listener but fade from memory before Monday morning. I commend your church for flowing people out from the worship service into smaller groups that hold members accountable for training to godliness (1 Tim 4:7). If your church does evaluate these efforts by the number of disciple makers produced, I doubly commend your efforts…and it would be a rare church indeed.

        Ringing the bell on church attendance must relate to this effort. In my experience, even in medium to large churches, when the preaching event is presented outside of this intentional flow toward discipleship, there is a noticeable drop off in participation from worship service attendance to small group attendance to the meaningful accountability relationships that add to the number of disciple makers.

        Josephus's comment that the reason for the regular attendance was for those in attendance to "obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge" of the Law. If you attended seminary (or any institution of higher learning) you know that just attending, listening, and taking notes is a necessary start but completely insufficient to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of the subject. That comes from intense personal and group study and is check via a rigorous examination process (and, in professional training also involves a practicum/mentoring requirement so that the student can learn on the job). This is something that is rarely done in local churches and the lack advance of the Kingdom on our continent, IMO, bears the brunt on this.

        I'm passionate about preaching…but in the context of disciple making. If disciples are not being made, it may be that we need to evaluate how intentional we are. Starting with Sunday morning might be the best place to being this evaluation.

  3. We (my wife and I) believe in the value of the local church. The main problem we have faced over the past 2.5 years is that we live in an area with no gospel-teaching church. We go, because we feel the need to be a part of the community. But we don't get much at all out of it. We rely on on-line teaching, and occasionally going out of town to other, more solid churches that we know. (The closest church that is Bible teaching is 90 minutes away.)

  4. Evangelist Vanessa

    30 November, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Excellent blog Julian. I believe the Spirit of God gave you this. Bless you for your obedience in writing. Be encouraged!

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