Is going to church encouraging for you? In a recent survey, Barna Group found that most American Christians are encouraged when they attend church, even if they only go once or twice a year.
But my question is this: Why is going to church encouraging for you? My point is, being encouraged is one thing. Being encouraged for the right reasons might be something else entirely. Yes, the reasons really do matter.
Saying the right words is nice. Doing the right things is nice. All sorts of things are nice. But these days, nice is a word that doesn’t mean much. In fact, lots of times it’s a word we use when we don’t really have anything good to say.
It’s like when someone asks you, “What did you think of ________?” And you really didn’t like it, but you don’t want to offend anyone. So you say, “It was nice”.
Is going to church encouraging? What does encouraging mean?
Before we can talk about whether going to church is encouraging, we must agree on what encouraging actually means. Here’s what dictionary.com says:
- to inspire with courage, spirit, or confidence
His coach encouraged him throughout the marathon race to keep on running.
- to stimulate by assistance, approval, etc.:
One of the chief duties of a teacher is to encourage students.
- to promote, advance, or foster:
Poverty often encourages crime.
That’s a nice sanitary list, isn’t it? A bit ordinary. Common. Everyday kind of stuff. Does it really apply to going to church? It really shouldn’t. And if it does, maybe that’s part of the problem that comes out of this survey.
Just look at something C. S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock.
The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects – Hatred – Terror – Adoration. ration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval. 1C. S. Lewis. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (p. 158). Kindle Edition.
Let’s look at some of that in more detail.
We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher.
Jesus wasn’t seen as a moral teacher. Unfortunately, that’s a common view today. Even more unfortunate, it’s a view help by too many Christians. If we go to church expecting to get tidbits of great moral teaching, we really should be disappointed! Why? Because if all we get is some moral teaching, we’re not getting God’s word! We’re not getting what Jesus was teaching. We are merely scratching the surface, without getting to the real meat of the matter.
In that regard, the “meat”/solid food of Christianity, remember what the author of Hebrews wrote:
6:4-6 Ref—Heb 10:26-31
Heb 5:11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Heb 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.
Heb 6:4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Heb 6:7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
Heb 6:9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
What does the Hebrews passage milk and solid food mean?
There are various ways to view the passage above.
One is to view the “milk” as scratching the surface. In our case, that’s looking at Jesus as a moral teacher. Even looking at Jesus as a great moral teacher misses the point! Jesus is God! Jesus came to teach us how to save our souls!
There was no trace of people expressing mild approval
If Jesus was a teacher of morals, mild approval is a reasonable response. But Jesus was so much more. Mild approval isn’t called for. People throughout the years since Jesus walked the earth have died for what they believe. Dies because of what Jesus taught. That’s so far beyond even approval, let alone mild approval.
In that light, can encouraging even be an appropriate response to going to church? I don’t think so. I remember the times when I was encouraged – or discouraged – by a sermon. I even used to be annoyed when sermon after sermon used to be about the huge debt in the church and the need for us to give more, more, more.
But if we look at what Jesus really taught, what Jesus really came to earth for, encouragement doesn’t really fit. Going back to the Hebrews passage again:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
Maybe we are too easily satisfied? Receiving encouragement is nice. It’s easy too. But maybe we should be giving encouragement? The interesting this is that by teaching, giving encouragement, we actually receive a lot as well. That’s where we really find out what we believe. That we actually do believe what we claim to believe. Or else, if necessary, we find out we’ve got some things wrong and make corrections. And certainly, we grow as Christians. For more on that thought, I invite you to check out Grown-again Christian.
Is going to church encouraging for you?
In light of that, is going to church encouraging to you? How encouraging? Is it encouraging enough to fit in with the image at the top of the page? The one from 1 Thessalonians?
The one verse is: 1 Th 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
However, lest we be too easily satisfied again, let’s look at the entire passage to get the full context. Not only that, let’s also add a bit of explanation. And ask some questions. Because that verse about encouraging one another comes at the very end. And it’s about the stuff that comes before it. Encouraging one another is not talking about sports, what you’re doing after service, or even how the kids are doing in school. It’s about being ready for the Coming of the Lord. It’s about Jesus. And our souls.
1Th 4:13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
Falling asleep, grieving like others, having no hope. Right away we find out Paul is telling us about the possibility of spiritual death! And notice – it’s addressed to “Brothers”. This is to people “attending church”, going to the meetings in those days, who are in danger of not being saved!
That sounds a lot like people who today who think they’re Christians, but settle for far too little. Who are encouraged by scratching the surface and maybe learning a bit now and then. Not someone who actually follows what Jesus taught. For a deeper look into this, please check out Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God?
14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.
This part is about the Second Coming of Jesus. The End Times.
I have to say though, whether Jesus returns before we die, or we die before Jesus returns, this passage has something important to say to us today. Notice that the first verse said those who fall asleep, and the context pointed to non-believers. On the other hand, the second portion is about those who have fallen asleep in him. In other words, believers.
The first group has no hope. Is destined for an eternity in Hell. The second will spend eternity with Jesus in Heaven. Now, tell me, is that something to merely approve of? To be merely encouraged by? Or is that something to be excited about?
When you speak to others, which is really more exciting to you? How your favorite sports team is doing? or whether you’re going to Heaven or Hell? What if you just got out of church? Then which does encouraging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ get more exciting? Does it offer a bit of encouragement? Or a whole lot of encouragement?
1Th 5:1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
As I mentioned, this passage assumes the “day of the Lord” is coming in the very near future. And as the passage says, it can come at any time. But, we just don’t know when. The other thing we don’t know is when we’ll die. Our death can also come at any moment. Therefore, the warnings in here are equally applicable to either the day of the Lord or to our death.
1Th 5:4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
Here, Paul has more warnings and things to watch out for. Things like being self-controlled. Keeping our faith and our hope of salvation. And again, he points out the alternatives – wrath or salvation. Heaven or Hell.
I feel like we just assume that since we’re baptized, all is well and we’ve got our ticket to Heaven. Nothing else to do but wait for the train. But really, that’s not the message of the Bible. The real message should be of great interest to us. Once again, not just encouraging. More like mind-blowing when we realize that for all we’ve done wrong, God actually paid the price to redeem us.
11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
So Paul closes with another reminder to not only encourage one another, but also to build each other up. He closes with, just as in fact you are doing. But I wonder, are we really doing that. And if we are, is it to the extent where we’re really building each other up as much as we can? Are we giving it our all? Or just what’s left over after everything else we want to do?
What does the survey say? – Is going to church encouraging for you?
With all that in mind, here’s the response to the survey.
Practicing Christians are people who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Churchgoers/Churched Adults are people who attended a church service at least once every six months, on average, in the past year.
As I said, going to church twice a year isn’t really that much. How much can anyone really know about Christianity from Christmas and Easter services? Yes, you do get some very important basics. But that’s all. Is that enough? Only God knows.
Even for practicing Christians, once in the past month is probably misleading. We really don’t know how many are regular attendees at services. Given the importance of what’s at stake, if faith truly is important, the level of commitment and the desire to follow is something each of us must examine for ourselves.
Encouraged every time versus encouraged most of the time
It sounds good to say most American Christians are encouraged when they attend church. And I really hope it’s true. However, we cannot lose sight of something Jesus said to the ten lepers who were healed.
Lk 17:11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Lk 17:14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
Lk 17:15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Lk 17:17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus healed ten lepers. But only one gave praise to God. Only one was made well. Only one was saved. Think about that. Now we must think about how committed we are to Jesus. Including, how committed are we to going to church? How committed are we to actually following Jesus, as opposed to giving Him lip service?
Now, look at the chart again. Barna gets to the “most Christians” by lumping together the “every time” and “most of the time” responses. Also consider, we don’t know how often “most of the time” is. It may very well be 51% of the time. Not a high bar.
But we’re talking about spiritual life and death here. I think I’ve made the point that we should be more than just encouraged. We should be incredibly interested and excited about what Jesus did for us. And we should feel that way nearly every time we go to church, shouldn’t we?
If we’re not, some examination is in order. Is the lack of excitement within us? Does it come from the church itself? The leadership in the church? The people we hang out with in the church? There are examples of all these things, and more, in the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation. We saw one of them above.
I’m working on a series for the seven letters at Seven Letters to Seven Churches. It’s still a work in progress, and does need some reformatting. I’m using it in a class right now so the final edits won’t be complete until after that. But still, I urge you to check it out. It looks at these kinds of issues from the early church days, and brings them into the present world we live in now.
Conclusion – Is going to church encouraging for you?
Consider this. As Christians, we are children of God. Paul wrote a bit about what that means.
Gal 3:26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Gal 4:1 What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
Did you know that? Do you believe it? And do you realize what it means? If nothing else got your attention, maybe this does?
Being encouraged by going to church is far better than being discouraged. But given what “church” is really about for Christians, it should be a whole lot more than just encouraging. Going to church should be things like exciting, uplifting, energizing, and the like. It should encourage us to build each other up. And it should lead us to want, more than anything, to be more Christ-like. More loving. More forgiving. More alive!
So what do you think? Which of those words describe your church-going experience?
- 1C. S. Lewis. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (p. 158). Kindle Edition.