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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Is the Church Dying?

Surveys show that church attendance is declining year after year.[1] The number of churches closing regularly exceeds the number of churches opening each year. And our laws continue to deviate further and further away from Christian morality.

On the surface, it would appear that the church, on the whole, is dying. And it seems that its cultural influence is dying with it. We know the church (as an institution) is dying, but is the church really dying? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is the Church?

What picture comes to mind when we think of the church? Do we picture a building? Do we picture an event on Sunday mornings? Do we picture an institution?

It’s common that one or more of these three pictures come to mind when we think of the church. But are these pictures really the church presented in the Bible? Were the writers of the New Testament referring to a building, an event, or an institution when they used the word “church,” or were they referring to something else?

Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, let’s take a brief look at the Greek word which is commonly translated “church” in English: ekklesia. In Greco-Roman culture, the word ekklesia was used to describe “a body of citizens ‘gathered’ to discuss the affairs of the state.”[2]

This definition doesn’t include a reference to a location, an event, or an institution, but is simply a group of people who assembled for a specific purpose. When the biblical writers chose to use this word, they must’ve seen a lot of parallels between a Greco-Roman ekklesia and a Christian ekklesia.

So what is the church? The conclusion of my research is that the church is: Jesus’s disciples gathered together to worship him. Let’s quickly break this definition down into three pieces in order to better understand it.

Who are Jesus’s disciples? They are God’s people.[3]

What is meant by a gathering? A gathering (or an assembly as the word ekklesia is commonly translated) implies that more than one person is present, meaning that an ekklesia consists of two or more of Jesus’s disciples.[4]

What is meant by worshiping Jesus? To worship means to bow down, adore, show respect, or submit to a person or thing, meaning that an ekklesia consists of two or more of Jesus’s disciples worshiping him.[5]

Is the Biblical Church Dying?

When Mao Tse-Tung became the Chairman of the Communist Party of China in 1949, he set out to purge China of all forms of religion. The church in China, which operated similarly to the Western church with institutions, buildings, and weekly events, was quickly shut down. All foreign missionaries were banished, all church property was nationalized, all senior leaders were killed and all secondary and tertiary leaders were either killed or imprisoned, all public meetings were banned, and one of the cruelest persecutions of Christians in all of history took place. At the time, there were an estimated 2 million Chinese Christians.[6]

In 1949, things weren’t looking so good for the Chinese church. For years, people wondered what became of the Chinese church. Did it die when the government took away its institutions, buildings, public gatherings, and ordained leaders?

In the early 1980s, the Chinese government began allowing some religious freedom, albeit it operated under strict supervision. As foreign missionaries began coming back into the country, what they found was absolutely astonishing. Instead of the church dying, they discovered that the church had flourished. As of 2004, there were an estimated 80 million Christians in China.[7] Let’s step back for a minute and evaluate how incredible this actually is.

Chinese Christians had no church buildings. They had no church institutions. They weren’t allowed to gather together for worship. They didn’t have ordained pastors, bishops, or any other formalized leadership. They didn’t have seminaries. They had minimal access to the Bible. And they were killed for professing belief in God or Jesus. Yet, the Chinese church, which had struggled to grow from the time missionaries stepped foot in China, absolutely exploded under persecution.

This is not just something that happened one time in history. It has been demonstrated over and over again throughout history that when Christians are persecuted, Christianity thrives. Why? Here’s my conclusion: When Jesus’s disciples can get back to the basics of simply gathering together to worship him without being distracted with institutions, buildings, events, clergy, and all the other superfluous time-intensive activities, they can really focus on obeying Jesus’s two most important commands–love God and love others.[8]

So is the biblical church dying? Since the biblical church isn’t measured by whether we are a part of an official recognized church institution, the number of people in attendance on Sunday mornings, the size of our buildings, the number of churches we plant every year, or the alignment of our nation’s laws with the Bible, we can’t rely on any of those metrics to determine whether the biblical church is dying.

Instead, we need to rely on a promise Jesus made to us in the Bible:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. – John 6:37-39
Jesus said that it’s God’s will for all of his people (the church) to be drawn to him. Does God get what he wants? Of course he does.[9] He’d be a pretty pathetic god if he didn’t. If God gets what he wants, then of course the biblical church isn’t dying. Maybe the number of institutional churches is decreasing. Maybe our church attendance is decreasing year over year. Maybe our nation’s laws are getting further and further away from Christian morality. But the biblical church isn’t dying.

Instead, if history is any indication of what’s to come, I believe that the more and more our churches move away from institutional forms of Christianity and our nation moves away from embodying Christian morals (including the persecution of Christians), the more and more the biblical church won’t die…but thrive.

What are your thoughts? Do you define the church the way the Bible does? Do you think the biblical church is dying?

[1] See Kelly Shattuck, “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,” Church Leaders, December 29, 2015, accessed October 29, 2017,
[2] “Assembly,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, accessed August 2, 2015,
[3] “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8:29-30
[4] The Bible does not specify a minimum number of people who need to be present in order to have an ekklesia.
[5] The English word “worship” is a translation of the Greek word proskuneo. As the definition above implies, worship is about so much more than singing God’s praises. The best tangible form of worship I can think of is obedience; we worship Jesus by obeying him.
[6] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 19.
[7] Philip Yancey, “Discreet and Dynamic: Why, with No Apparent Resources, Chinese Churches Thrive,” Christianity Today, July 2004, 72 in Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 19.
[8] “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depends all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 23:37-40.
[9] See these verses: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2) and “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it’” (emphasis mine, Isaiah 46:8-10).

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