The Church that “Once Was”

My son and daughter-in-law attend a church in one of the more hipster sections of Indianapolis called Broad Ripple. As millennials, and new parents of my wonderful grandson, they make it to church quite regularly. It’s not every Sunday because they are often out of town, but when they are in town, they are usually at church during a weekend service. I’ve been to their church. It’s pretty cool. There are no fancy lights and the sound was not necessarily state of the art. They have a band some times, and other times just an acoustic guitar and some other alternative instrument. The pastor came out in a pair of destroyed jeans, flip flops, and a cool button down. People actually verbally interacted with the pastor as he welcomed the congregation. It was a very, what I would call, loose environment. Relaxed, comfortable, and undignified in the sense that there was no pretense. And yet it was very spiritual and I sensed a warm feeling of community. “Come as you are and be a part of us” would have been the general attitude among the people in attendance. I found it quite refreshing. The pastor’s message was theologically sound and very relevant, applying truth to real life. Their worship center was in an old converted church–you know the ones that had the long and narrow sanctuary with pews. There are no pews in this church today–just chairs, and yet the shell of what “once was” was still very visible.

I wondered about the history of the church that was once there. Why is it not still there? Where did it go?

I then began to appreciate the new and refreshing experience of the people of God inside this “once was.”  I wondered if they were somehow different than the people that used to gather in this space. I got the feeling that they were not in attendance because they felt like they should, out of a sense of guilt, or due to the fact that it was Sunday morning at the appropriate time. I sensed that their church attendance was almost a type of by-product of what was happening in their lives in spite of the fact that it was Sunday morning.

I found out that there is a high percentage of the people in attendance that are a part of, what they called, “house churches.” Another name for home groups, small groups, life groups–you name it–these house churches are smaller communities within the greater church that practice first century style Christian faith. They gather once a week for a meal together, share the teaching from the Bible, pray, serve together, and generally do life together. They are a “close-knit” family. When they get large because of the new growth in their house church, they start another house church. Kinda reminds me of Acts 2 doesn’t it?

The lesson for me today is this … in our culture, a culture that is currently set in what is known as a post-Christian society, church attendance is not the true measure of a church, but “engagement” is. Carey Nieuwhof, teaching pastor of Connexus Church outside of Toronto, says that it used to be that if people would come, they would eventually get engaged with the life of the church. He said that notion worked when people were flocking to church. But today, they are not. There are a lot of reasons believers are not attending church every Sunday like “once was.” From traveling sports teams to literally being a more affluent society, people’s regular church attendance seems to hover around the 1.7 times per month level.

The goal for us today as leaders and as church people is to get ourselves and others engaged with the mission of Christ and His church. Attendance will follow … not as the most important measuring tool in the church’s arsenal of statistics, but as an indicator of the number of people who are serving, committed to discipleship, in a small group, inviting their friends, and being that peculiar culture of folks who are on mission and who are about changing the world.

Nieuwhof says, “In the future church, the engaged will attend because only the engaged will remain.” Are you engaged? Have you embraced the mission of your local church? Are you living it out in your everyday life? Are you inviting your friends to be a part of that mission … asking them to get engaged? It’s not enough to attend church. Don’t miss out on being the church. Get engaged! Let us not become the church that once was.” Let’s be a part of something greater than “what’s in it for me.”  Let’s be a part of that movement that will change the world one life, one family, and one opportunity at a time.


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