The Most Important Statistic Never Kept In Church
Oct 17, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 10 Comments
"’You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.” (John 6:67 NIV)
How many people died as believers in your church last year? Many churches scrupulously keep track of weekly attendance, the number of people who trust in Christ, get baptized, or become church members. But who keeps track of how many people leave their church each year, how many stop going to church altogether or how many repudiate their faith? It’d be a lot harder to do that and it’d be very depressing if we did, so we make no such efforts. On the other hand, if we made every effort to conduct “exit interviews,” we’d probably keep some people from exiting and we’d have a much better handle on what we could be doing to prevent as many from considering exiting in the first place.
From not long after A.D. 30 until the mid-twentieth-century, Christians identified with a particular local congregation for two main reasons—it was their denomination (or theological tradition) and it was their parish (the church of that tradition closest to them geographically). Then the proliferation of the automobile changed all that. People could drive an extra distance to go to church, so they could drive right past the church of their denominational preference nearest to them to attend one they liked better. Then the proliferation of nondemoninational and interdenominational churches (including denominational churches that no longer functioned very much as if they belonged to a denomination) allowed them to go to still other churches that they liked better without having to sacrifice cherished denominational distinctives (if indeed they had any).
Since all these changes have taken place, only a few people are ever able or ever care to track what happens to fellow church members who leave and go elsewhere. How would we ever know if such people died in belief or in unbelief?
Jesus’ teaching becomes more pointed and more focused on suffering and identification with his death, the more his public ministry progresses. After his “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6, he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood (v. 56)—of so identifying with his upcoming death for the sins of humanity that it is as if one were consuming Christ himself. Not surprisingly, John writes that this teaching was hard to accept and offensive (vv. 60-61), A few verses later he adds, “From this time many of the disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v. 66). Verse 67 makes it clear that these were from the wider circle of his followers than the Twelve. Yet none of this catches Jesus by surprise, for John has already indicated that he knew that some didn’t really believe and that only those whom God empowered could truly come to him (vv. 65-66).
A generation ago, one might have a debate on “eternal security,” better labeled, with the Reformers, as the perseverance of the saints, and never have actually met someone who was a professing believer, active in church and ministry, and who subsequently chucked it all and spent the rest of their life fighting against Christian beliefs and behaviors. Today, tragically, it’s hard not to know several, to say nothing of those who seem to be on their way to that fate, though they are still alive. It’s tempting to give up on the doctrine of perseverance altogether. And yet right in the same context in which Jesus experiences the greatest number of defections ever from those in his close, regular company, we also learn that these people by definition demonstrate in so doing that they never were truly his. After receiving the potentially reassuring response from Peter that the twelve aren’t similarly defecting (vv. 68-69), Jesus discloses that he knows already that even one of them is a “devil” who will betray him (vv. 70-71).
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, rightly understood, promises that those who truly believe will persevere to the end. With twenty-twenty hindsight we may call these people “elect.” But the only way we know who the elect are is to see who perseveres to the end. Shouldn’t that make us far more serious about walking with people all the way to the end of their lives and not putting so much emphasis on people apparently crossing the initial threshold of faith and then leaving them largely to fend for themselves when the crises of life emerge?
The Baby Boomers are defined as those born between 1946 and 64. The first “class” of boomers to retire (at 65) have done so this year. Millions will soon follow suit— from the largest defined “generation” in world history. In the U.S., a substantial majority of boomers have had church experience at some point in their lives; most identify, however nominally, with some form of Christian faith; most have at least a rudimentary understanding of the gospel. (There is no subsequent generation for which any of these statements holds true.) How much Christian ministry over the coming decades will be expended on helping boomers die in the faith? If they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how much energy and resources we’ve expended on them earlier in their lives!