So what does yesterday’s post have to do with shrinking congregations? Well, not as much as my conservative friends might think, but it does matter a lot. Churches that forget to get around to teaching the boundaries of grace will soon have the problems the writer of Hebrews warned against.
Indeed, I think our preaching should mirror Hebrews, with powerful lessons on confidence and assurance interleaved between lessons against the dangers of falling away. We don’t need to make our members afraid so much as aware — we have confidence, yes, but a confidence that can be thrown away. And while I don’t believe we should build our theology on fear, fear has a place for the immature.
You see, if we don’t do this, in a generation or two, we’ll have lost our members — not to the Baptists and Methodists, but to Satan.
People my age remember the hellfire-and-brimstone sermons well. We heard too many, and they taught us a God looking for a chance to damn us, and so today we resist anything that even remotely reminds us of them. We still remember what happens if we fall away.
But our children may well have never heard about damnation and the deceitfulness of sin. And they don’t have our traditional upbringing and our deeplyembued fear of hell. They’ve just heard the sermons on grace and freedom. We wonder how God can be so gracious. They wonder how God could ever damn anyone. And so why go to church? What’s the big deal? What are we afraid of?
Reflect on the last 3 or so years of preaching in your progressive congregation. How many lessons have there been on falling away? On the necessity of faith? of penitence? on what it means to be lost?
Now imagine that you’re a teenager who’s been in class learning all about forgiveness and compassion and listening to the sermons for just the last two or three years. What do you know about falling away? Hell? The deceitfulness of sin?
I’m sure the answer varies a lot from church to church. I just want to suggest that we use Hebrews as a template for preaching — confidence, assurance, and don’t trifle with sin and here’s why — because If we don’t, our congregations will soon be empty.
(Heb 3:14) We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
(Heb 4:16) Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
(Heb 10:19-22) Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
(Heb 10:35) So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
Together with —
(Heb 3:12-13) See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
(Heb 6:4-6) 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 6:11-12) 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.
(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Again, fear of falling away should not be our motivation. We should be about God’s mission because of our love for God and our neighbors, and if we love as we should, fear doesn’t enter the picture.
But we all need reminders. Chapter 6 is aimed directly at the immature among us, and chapter 6 is filled with the sternest warnings in all of scripture. And if we are successful in bringing the lost to Jesus, we’ll always have the immature among us (and we all have our immature moments, I think).
To be clear: I don’t think this is the reason that some progressive churches are losing members today. But I do think it’s a danger that will impact us greatly down the road.