A survey from Barna shows a large percentage of churchgoers have “stopped engaging.” One leader here in Manchester told me some in his church were saying “I’m all Zoomed out – I’m fed up – I can’t be bothered.” He’s talking about Christians. He even admitted, “I’m starting to feel the same way.”
Immediately I thought, How do we keep people engaged online? What do we do to get people coming back to church?
Then I had another thought. Something else that I could say, to that person who says they love Jesus, but can’t be bothered.
Have you ever seen people in China when they get a Bible? I’ve seen these videos where they get a few Bibles delivered, between 20 or 30 people in the underground church. How thrilled they are—tears running down their faces, how desperate they are to grow in God.
I thought about various travels and connections I have with brothers and sisters in the persecuted church, in Iran, the fastest growing church in the world right now. People I’ve met with in these places and nothing stops them from finding a way to feed on the Word, grow in the Spirit, and connect in fellowship. How anaemic we are.
I said to that leader in Manchester, “Yes I know about screen fatigue, but how much would the Apostle Paul have loved to be able to help people in the churches he was leading at a distance as they met in homes scattered everywhere – how much would he have preferred Zoom rather than a room under house arrest or a prison he had to smuggle a letter out from?!”
So in as pastoral a voice as I can say this, if you’re watching this online, thank God for that. If you’re here in the building, thank God for that. If you say “I’m just fed up”: What are you talk about? You’re fed up? What with? Why are we not even more hungry for God these days? With all that’s going on in the world right now, the emptier this world is being shown to be I’m getting hungrier right now for more of him.
What Are You Devoted to?
In the Book of Acts, at Pentecost, after the Apostle Peter preached one sermon there were suddenly thousands of believers all over the city and it said they “devoted” themselves to three things. They devoted themselves to the Word, to Worship, and to One Another (Acts 2:42).
Point to the person who is responsible for how devoted to God you are. Don’t point at me. Only I can point at me. I can’t devote you. I can only devote me. You choose, every day, every hour, one choice at a time, what you devote yourself to. Some of the same people saying they’re too screened out for church are in the middle of their next Netflix box set right now.
What matters most? There is such temptation in these days toward self-focus but, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Word, Worship, One Another.
What happened? It says, “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed ….” That church changed the world. Even though the days were dark, they shone!
The Enemy will do anything and everything to distract, divert, and derail you from being devoted to each of those three things. Because without one of them you’re wide open.
I want to home in on “one another,” because it’s the least obvious.
Over the years I have talked to so many people who would say they used to be sold out for God and now they’re nowhere. They lost their first love. It went cold. I want to learn from people like that because I don’t ever want to have it happen to me.
People say, “I don’t feel close to God anymore,” and like a doctor I’ll ask diagnostic questions. It’s always at least one of these three things but actually they run together.
I’ll ask, “Have you been reading your Bible? Have you been praying? Have you been connecting with church?” Er… Nope.
I didn’t just hear the problem. I also outlined also the cure. The Word, Worship, One Another. Take three of them, and call me in the morning.
I had something else planned and prepared but as I was getting ready for today I sensed a growing urgency to make this very personal. I believe if this lands you’ll know it, the Lord told me to warn you: Don’t fall away.
Some of you will fall away. That’s my urgency. I can’t rest as your pastor unless and until I do what I can to tell you, this is so urgent in these days. Because I believe this is the biggest attack on the church in these days, and it’s going to continue. As an undershepherd, who loves this flock, I have a duty to warn you: Don’t fall away!
Keep Meeting Together
Acts 2:46 says they kept meeting together. When and where? Any way and anywhere they could.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Miracles happened, when they met together.
It says in the NIV “they continued to meet together,” in the original language, that word is actually the same one as earlier: Devoted. You could have put, “They devoted to meeting together.” The only reason they don’t say that is it’s a bit samey. Because it’s the same word.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, and to fellowship, and prayer ....”
Then, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together.” It’s so important to stay connected. How? Any and every way.
They met any way they could. Because that’s what the devoted do. They were devoted to the Lord and to one another. So, in big gatherings like the Temple, and in each other homes. They devoted themselves to meeting together.
I had the honour some years ago of meeting a mighty woman of God from North Korea. Her husband became a Christian and was arrested, he died six months later in a prison camp but because she’d seen the light in him she escaped and went to China where she met the Lord herself. But the secret police found her and she was brought back to a camp where the dead would be left for days to rot.
Every day was torture for Christians, but she decided to start a secret church there. The only place she could worship the Lord, every Sunday, and at Christmas, was the latrines. The place so putrid the guards would not go near. They met in the toilets and she shared Bible verses she’d memorized with other prisoners. They sang almost inaudibly so the guards would not hear in a place where if they were caught, they would have been killed.
Why? Because they were devoted.
The Bible says clearly in Hebrews 10:25 “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together.” You know what it’s like when you had a good habit, maybe you used to exercise but the gym closed and now you’ve stopped. In the end, that will show. It doesn’t happen in a day. It doesn’t happen all at once, it’s not so obvious.
God wants to meet with you and me, but the devil wants to stop us meeting together. I’m not being melodramatic. Jesus told Simon Peter, “Satan wants to sift you like wheat.” That’s what the shaking can do. It’s a sifting time right now.
“They devoted themselves to meeting together,” because they had people like Peter in their number who heard those warnings from the Lord. Those first apostles, they knew, when we stop meeting together, we start to fall apart.
Don’t fall away.
Why not devote yourself to the Word now, open your Bible or the App now to Matthew 26:1. Jesus says he’s going to be handed over to be crucified. He could not be clearer. He knows exactly what’s going to happen.
Then it’s the Last supper: he says, “One of you is going to betray me.” They’re all like, not me, no way. He identifies Judas, but not in a way that’s obvious to everyone.
He goes with them to the Mount of Olives. He says in verse 31, “This very night you will allfall away….” Now if you’re a Bible underliner, highlight that. The word there, “fall away,” it’s the same word in the parable of the sower, where Jesus says some of the plants have no root. What happens to them? They spring up until hard times come. Then, when it’s not so easy, they fall away (Matt 13:21).
I’m often like Peter. We all like him because we can identify. He says, “Even if everyone else falls away, I won’t!” Jesus probably smiles to himself as he says, “Okay let’s pray.” He’s praying. Desperate, heart rending, blood coming out of his pores prayers at times, loud cries. They all fall asleep. He keeps having to wake them up. He tells Peter, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Hands up if you know that’s true? True of you too?
Judas arrives, I don’t think we’re like him. We wouldn’t openly betray Jesus, would we? No. In fact, I bet if you were pushed like this, when opposition’s obvious, some of us would be like Peter, he takes up arms, pulls out a sword, lops off an ear.
If you were put to the wall and they said, “Renounce Jesus, stop following him or die.”
I think we’d say, “I can’t disown him!” By the grace of God, I hope I’d make a stand in the moment like Peter did. Even in my own strength.
But falling away is way more subtle than that. Gradual. That’s why it works. You get lukewarm as you start to cool off, slowly. I read on through the passage and I can see what happened, as the disciples drift off and then run away in the garden.
Verse 58 says Peter started “to follow – at a distance.” Now, he’s not with the other believers. They’re scattered. He’s falling away. He’s still following Jesus. Oh yes. At a distance. Until he finds himself out in the cold. Warming himself by a fire, part of another crowd.
It’s hard to warm yourself. Ecclesiastes 4:11 says “how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Don’t fall away. If you want to not fall away or fall apart, don’t stop meeting together.
Don’t Go It Alone
Charles Spurgeon was famously visited by a man who said he was still a Christian but didn’t need to be part of church anymore. Spurgeon didn’t say a word, he just took the tongs from the fireplace and removed one coal, then set in the corner of the fireplace away from the others. What happened?
Now I’m not saying everyone needs to be part of this church. I’ve searched my heart all week over this and I’m not saying this to try to keep anyone who should leave and be part of another fellowship one day longer than they should be here. We’ve had lots of people join and others have gone over the years, some to go to be part of other churches or to plant new ones. If the Lord calls you elsewhere then please don’t delay obedience. Go and get plugged in.
But don’t ever try to go it alone. To do so shows incredible immaturity and naivety about the battle we’re in.
Our brothers and sisters in many places around the world have always known this. In one nation I visited, we had visited a site where believers had been bombed in worship and many had died. It was a memorial site, and on the way back I asked our driver what it was like to be a Christ follower in that hostile place where the majority Muslim community make life very hard every day but he said Sunday is hardest.
He said sometimes you go to the church and the police are outside and they say, “It’s closed today, security reasons.” You have to go home. Another time, he takes his elderly mother but they say you can’t park within a km of the building, he has to carry her.
Then some months ago, the rumours were coming: they were going to bomb his church one Sunday. Everyone in the church was worried of course, the driver told me, “I have a wife and a young son. I was scared for them. I thought, maybe we just miss it tomorrow. It’s okay, we want to stay safe. But I couldn’t sleep too well that night. I was struggling, and praying. In the morning I said to my wife, I will go alone. She said, ‘Let’s all go to the early service.’” I agreed, “We should worship the Lord, we will go – even if we are the only ones there.” On the way there, we nearly turned back a few times, but we said, “We will go and worship, even if we are the only ones there. And when we got there, there were not enough seats. Everyone was there.”
Don’t fall away. It can happen to anyone. 1 Corinthians 10:12 says “… if you think you are standing firm, be careful you don’t fall!”
“I’m screened out. I think I’ll miss home group tonight, watch that box set we like.”
“I think now we can go out Sundays to the park let’s take the kids, let’s not bother with Ivy church online.”
‘I’ll wait until one day when I feel safe inside the building or it’s all somehow back like it used to be.”
You could be waiting a looonnnng time! What will the church in you be like, by then? It doesn’t always take long. In one night Peter went from being full on eating and drinking with the other disciples, all in for Jesus, “I’ll never fall away!” From pulling out a sword to “defend his faith.” To going it alone, following at a distance. To lukewarm. Warming himself. With another crowd. Where three times, he denies Jesus.
That’s how you fall away. Don’t Fall Away!
How Falling Away Starts
Falling away starts in our thoughts. Next it becomes actions, or inaction. Maybe you got offended because someone else wasn’t perfect or you disagreed with their politics. Maybe church didn’t do “it” the way you wanted.
You didn’t even know it. You fell away. You just couldn’t be bothered this week. Then you’re just not that bothered these days. Oh still a Christian; a follower—at a distance. Sometimes you reminisce back to how it used to be, maybe how you used to be. How fired up you were, back then in the crowd with everyone else singing. But now, you’re not. You think, “It’s church’s fault.”
Here’s my answer to that. Repent. Change your mind. Be transformed. Before it’s too late.
It’s not too late. Don’t harden your heart.
Devote yourself. The Holy Spirit is there with you. Whether you’re with us in the church or in what Acts would call the church that meets at your house, we can be joined together by the same Spirit.
What’s going to happen to you? To your faith in Jesus? Unless you learn to devote yourself. My job is to equip you. I love doing it. But I can’t do anything to you.
How will you not fall away? Not just end up at the same temperature as your surroundings? It can happen to anyone. It happens when you go it alone.
That coal coming out of fire. Can it warm itself up? It must get in the fire, to remain on fire. Be transformed. Renewed. Say, “Lord, I ask you to do whatever you need to do in me.”
Pray: Forgive my pride, my independence. I’m nothing and nobody without your love. I can’t make this alone and others need my help to. So, I devote myself now to your Word, to Worship, and we devote ourselves again tonight to One Another.
Is there someone you need to forgive before you can come to worship? Jesus says do it. Ask the Lord to forgive you, if you’ve been falling away. Following at a distance. Forgive me, as I forgive, so I can worship you, who forgave all my sins. I don’t want to give up meeting together.