The early Church began as a small group of Disciples and Followers who pledged loyalty to the Lordship of Christ, their Savior and Lord. It had no public face but the face of each Disciple as he or she lived their faith out day by day. The Church grew exponentially because these followers of the Nazarene didn’t just talk about being Christians, they lived like they were. Converts by the millions joined the movement and the ranks of the Church swelled until it filled Europe and North Africa.
The something terrible happened. As the historian Adolf von Harnack puts it so eloquently- ‘the Church was meant to go into the world, and instead, the world came into the Church’. The Church became filled with hangers-on and spiritual opportunists who had neither interest in nor loyalty to the Lord Christ.
That trend has continued down to the present. The Church, as institution, is filled with persons whose discipleship to Christ is not only questionable, but imaginary. But whilst our ancestors in Europe and North Africa and later the Americas viewed membership in the Church as an important ‘insurance policy’ against the torments of hell, modern Europeans and Americans no longer believe hell is real. Or, if they do, they believe the heretical and nonsensical idea that everyone goes to heaven anyway, regardless of either what they believe or how they act.
Consequently, the Church has become and is becoming ever less important not only to the world (which sees ‘Christians’ as behaving no differently than the worldlings themselves) but to the nominal (in name only) people who call themselves Disciples of the glorious Risen Lord but who have neither time for nor interest in his Lordship or their own Discipleship.
Whilst the world has no use for the Church, which is naturally to be expected, what is rather shocking, from a Biblical perspective, is the lack of interest those calling themselves Christians have in it as well. Across North America Churches are empty on Sunday evening and Wednesday evening as they have never been empty before. Few can be bothered with attending regularly (3 or 4 times a month) on Sunday morning much less any other time (if churches even offer other services of Worship and Bible Study at all).
The youthful generation which will, within a decade or two, assume the reins of local Churches, scarcely appear to be interested in any Church function at all which doesn’t involve some sort of food or entertainment. It’s not too hard to imagine that their interest in maintaining Sunday evening worship or Midweek Prayer Meeting will be nil.
Eventually, then, the Church will shrink from public view. All of those generations of saints who invested their time and resources into Church buildings and structures and programs and literature and musical resources and all the rest of the material things it takes to make a Church run will see their work turn to dust. Not because the Devil and his minions have prevailed against it, but because its own inhabitants will let it.
Real Christians will continue to live their faith and express that faith in prayer and scripture reading and study and communal worship and ministry. But they will be only a tiny fraction of the population, unable as such to assemble the resources to construct actual structures for worship.
The church will survive because it is the Body of Christ and he can never die. But it will be comprised of only those who really believe. The rest will have long since gone their way, adopting some other system of belief. The authentic Christians will not be of the world. They will be in it. But they will not be of it as so many are today.