starting a new series today. And you can see behind me what that is all about.
Let's have a word of prayer together. Father, it is so good to be together, sitting next to each other, hearing what has gone on in our week, what concerns we have, sharing what we share with this family. Thank you Lord for being the center of it all, the one who holds our lives together. We pray Father that you would speak and we pray that we would hear. We think of that young boy Samuel and we echo his request, "Speak Lord your servant's here." In Jesus name. Amen.
You know we belong to the greatest company on earth. First of all we have a product that works universally, it's the gospel. And it doesn't matter if you are from Rio de Janeiro or Rio Rancho, if you're from India or Indio, China or Chula Vista; it doesn't matter. It works in every life that's receptive. So our product works universally. Something else about our company that makes it really cool: We have a great benefits package. We have forgiveness from the past, we have meaning and purpose for the present, we have peace of mind for your future. Something else about our company: We have offices worldwide. You can go anywhere on the face of the earth and even in the most persecuted of countries you will find some form of church, some group of God's people that meet, everywhere on earth. And finally, we have the best retirement package going on. Because after it's all over with, we have face-to-face fellowship with God, eternal rewards that don't quit. It's the best company in the world. The church.
I have spent a couple weeks traveling to three different countries and principally I was with different churches, different expressions of the church; some of them very alive. In other countries, a bit more static. And in some places the church is all but dead. In each of these places and for that matter in all places around the world, each church is its own expression, marked by cultural differences or traditional variations, but they're all unique and different. For example, in India, when you go into most churches in that country, it is customary that you take your shoes off before entering the building. It's just a sign of respect, which I was all over that, I love that, I got to preach barefoot. It was so cool. That's just part of the cultural differences of that country. In Europe, they've got their own traditions and styles. And in America, we have so many different variations and expressions.
I was given this some time back. It says, "You know that your church is a redneck church if..." Are you ready? "If people ask, when they learn that Jesus fed the five thousand, whether the two fish were bass or catfish, and what bait was used to catch them. You know that your church is a redneck church when the pastor says, 'I'd like to ask Bubba to help take up the offering and five guys and two women stand up. You know that your church is a redneck church if opening day of deer season is recognized as an official church holiday. You know that your church is a redneck church if a member of the church requests to be buried in his four-wheel-drive truck because it ain't never been in a hole it couldn't get out of.' (I've known people like that.) You know your church is a redneck church if the congregation of 500 members, there are only seven last names in the church directory. You know your church is a redneck church if the baptismal font is a #2 galvanized wash tub. And you know your church is a redneck church if the choir robes were donated by and embroidered with the logo from Billy Bob's Barbecue. And you know your church is a redneck church if the collection plates are really hubcaps from a '55 Chevy."
Well, all of that is probably fine for that group of people. But by and large, that would no doubt turn a lot of people off. Moreover I've discovered that most outsiders would evaluate most churches and think, "We're a lot like that, they, we lack that kind of sophistication, we're that backward, we're that awkward." That's how they would think about us. I found something very fascinating this last week, that for every one person who is raised without God, who eventually came into the church; there are three people raised in the church who will leave it. Every one coming in, there are three going out. One observer said, "In the United States we are closing sixty churches a week." What are they saying? They're saying this, "Who needs it? Why should I join that? Why should I belong to it?" Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago did a survey, their own survey, door-to-door survey. They knocked on doors and they just asked people this question: "If you don't go to church, what are the reasons for it? There are five reasons. Reason number one, 'It's boring.' Reason number two people said, church is irrelevant. Reason number three they said, 'they're always asking for money.' Reason number four people said, 'I'm too busy already.' And reason number five is 'I feel awkward when I come to church.' So, what is this outfit, this company, what is it supposed to look like? What's it supposed to be like? What are its defining characteristics? So that anyone would need it, why would nay person join it? How relevant is the church in modern or should we say the post-modern era?
I've asked you to turn to Acts chapter 1 because I want to begin with this question that is our series question: The Church, Who Needs It? And I simply today want to as an introduction look at the question and the answer to that in part; just as a kickoff, just as an introductory. It is a good question, it is a recurring question. It's a question that has been asked a long time ago, it's a question that is still asked today. It was asked from the very beginning of the church in book of Acts by the onlooking world. In Acts chapter 1, we see how it all started, verse 12, "They returned to Jerusalem (they being the disciples) from the mount called Olivet (They had just watched the takeoff, Jesus ascended into heaven) which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Phillip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers. And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, altogether the number of names is about a hundred and twenty." So that's the first church, a group of us, one hundred and twenty in some building somewhere in Jerusalem meeting.
Chapter 2, verse 1, it says, "When the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." And you know what happened, they were filled with the Spirit, they spoken in dialects. People who were in Jerusalem visiting saw and heard this and here's their reaction, verse 7, "They were all amazed and marveled saying to one another, 'Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?' Now the text doesn't reveal the subtlety of that statement, but Galileans were considered the redneck church. They were the hicks, the unsophisticated, especially to those high-class Jerusalemites. "'Listen to these Galileans, they know more than one language. How is it that we hear each in our own language which we were born? Partheons, Medes, Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea, Capodociea, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya, adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome; both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs; we hear them speaking in our own language (or tongues) the wonderful works of God.' So they were all amazed and perplexed saying to one another, 'Whatever could this mean? Others mocked and said, 'They're drunk.' (or they're full of new wine, they got the good stuff). So here essentially is a group of outsiders observing the church saying, "Who needs this? These people are crazy." Now that is the very beginning of this question and this idea. And it continues as the pages of the book of Acts are turned, we'll find the same sentiment occurring with one Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the apostle, but while he was Saul of Tarsus, in chapter 9 verse 1 and 2, "Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus so that if he found any who were of The Way (notice that is the description of the first church, they were called The Way, not First Baptist, not Calvary, not Methodist, just The Way) whether men or women, he might bring them down to Jerusalem." Why? Because he was saying, "Who needs the church? We don't. They've upset our religion. We don't want them."
In Acts chapter 12 verse 1, the reigning political leader agreed, Herod the Great, or Herod the king at that time. Verse 1, "Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church." Who needs the church? We don't we don't have room in our political agenda for those crazy right-wing believers. And that is the story throughout the book of Acts as it spreads through Galatia and Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium, the same sentiment by unbelievers, by outsiders, by religious people toward the church. This is chapter 14 verse 2, "They stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren." This is what I want you to see: The Jewish religious world reacted to the church by ostracism. The Roman political world reacted to the church by persecution. And the Greek philosophical world responded to the church by arrogance and indifference. We didn't read Acts 17 but when Paul goes to Athens they call him a babbler. They call him a babbler and they start mocking him and his message. So, what I'm driving at is this: All of the various voices of the world joined in unison to say, "The church, who needs it?" It's always been the case, we are far from the moral majority, we are the minority and that is typically what people ask.
Now let's fast forward from ancient times to the modern era, this culture, this country, our world, especially those of us who live in the West. There is a dramatic disinterest today in all things church. And I've got to confess something to you, for years I used to quote different pollsters who would say Americans are very religious, they all believe in God, ninety-six percent say they believe in God, eighty-some percent say they're very spiritual; and I have come to find out that that is not quite as accurate as I wanted to believe, that it's very skewed in their statistical reporting and inaccurate and far from being an increasing majority, the church in this country is a quickly declining minority. I read a book on my way to India, you know when you're on a plane for 16.5 hours from Chicago to New Delhi you've got time. So I was reading a book, it was written by Dean Merrill, the vice president of the International Bible Society. And the name of his book, it's really a clever title Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church is the name of the book. And he said, "On any given weekend about thirty-seven percent of Americans show up in church. The other sixty-three percent are reading the paper, drinking coffee, sleeping in, playing golf, or engaging in some other form of recreation." Now I will grant you that church attendance is not the most accurate gauge of a person's heart. But it's a good place to start. Instead of looking at the pollsters who are saying, "Eighty-seven percent," or "Ninety-six percent of Americans are very spiritual and believe in God," says Dean Merrill the same author, "If they can't be bothered even to attend church, their spiritual sentiments must not run very deep." Here's my point: If thirty-seven percent of Americans are showing up at church, that means sixty-three percent of Americans are saying every Sunday, "Who needs it?" Who needs it? Why should I do that? Now let me ask you a question: Of that thirty-seven percent of people that regularly attend church in any given weekend in the United States of America, how many of that thirty-seven percent would you say are extremely devoted to the cause of Christ? Well you can't answer that, it's impossible to judge that. I suppose if we were to simply take the parable that Jesus gave of the sower and the seed, the percentages of people who are bearing fruit who are exposed to the same truths, it's only twenty-five percent in that parable. We don't know. I can't predict, I can't say. But it does make sense that people would attend for a variety of motivations, right? Some people no doubt attend church out of guilt. Some people attend church out of their background, you know their cultural expectation, "I grew up going to church, thus I go to church." Other people we could say go to church because they're pressured into it by a spouse or by a parent or by a child, they want to please them. And it's probably safe to say that some want to go to church to be a good example to their children. They weren't attending church before but now they have children and they say, "They need something, a moral underpinning, though I would never do it on my own, now that I'm part of a family unit, let's go to church." That's possible. Others may attend to church to cull business contacts, after all they might rationalize that it's better to do business with honest people that you would typically find at church than dishonest people. Still others might attend church for a potential date, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend. I don't know. I will quote this to you though, George Gallup, one of those pollsters, wrote a book called Saints Among Us, he said, "Though many Americans are religious in a loose sense, the core population," says Gallup, "living deeply spiritual lives is thirteen percent." That's after all of his polling. Those living deeply spiritual lives in our country, not eighty-six, not ninety-four, not ninety-six percent; thirteen percent. Now we are basically following where Europe and England has preceded us. And last estimates since 1980, since 1974, every year in England, eighty-five churches shut their door, they close. It's a eighty-five a year. It's a big business over in England to sell off church furnishings. Get this, christening fonts or baptismal fonts look really cool in your garden. And people are taking the old furnishings and selling them. And people are making them birdbaths in their gardens. Or buying pews and they become seats in one's garden. Big business in that part of the world. Now I will confess, I'm only painting so far a picture of the West. This is the picture of what's going on in Western culture, in our country and in developed countries like Europe and England. Elsewhere you ought to know this is not cause in other parts of the world, it's exactly the opposite. In countries like China and India, church growth is out of control, it's exponentially gone bonkers, it's hard to keep track of it, it's so much. In sub-Saharan Africa, church growth is estimated at 20,000 conversions a day. In Latin America, the conversion rate is ten thousand people per day. What I want you to keep in mind, these are parts of the world were persecution is the highest, parts of the world where political affiliations and political agendas are far from Christian. And in a place where disease is rampant and the highest incidences of the AIDS virus is out of control. And yet the church is flourishing in that part of the world.
Leif Anderson, an author from Minneapolis on societal change writes this, "We read the book of Acts and we celebrate the fact that on the day of Pentecost three thousand people came to Christ. But today, if you combine mainland China, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, there's nearly a Pentecost every hour. Meanwhile in the United States we are closing sixty churches a week."
So here we are, we live in this culture. Let's answer the question to kick off this series: If you have the recurring question Who Needs the Church? What's the answer, what's the biblical answer? Well the real answer is I do, you do, we all do. I want to share something that's a deep conviction of mine, I sincerely believe this with all my heart. I believe the best days for the church are not behind us. I believe they're ahead of us. I do, I believe that, for a number of reasons. I believe we're on the cup of, an opportunity because of what's happening in culture for the church to become so needed and so relevant. Let me give you four reasons why I need it, you need it, and we all need it. Number one, because we need God's people. We need God's people. You see, every human being has some need to belong to a family, a group, where they say, "I belong here." We yearn for community. And the good old Bible word, fellowship, more modern term is community. We need that, we long for that, it's a basic human need. Sociologically people gravitate toward the group, the group that reflects their hobby or value system or culture or ethnicity, people gather in groups; whether it's Boy Scouts or the Girl's Club, or the Elk's Lodge or Alcoholics Anonymous, people gravitate toward the group. It's a basic need that we have. And here's why: God created us with the need to have relationship, to have community. And this is precisely where the church can and should excel. Psalm 68 verse 6, it says, "God sets the solitary in families." Mark that, "God sets the solitary in families." In other words, God's cure for isolation is to put people with his people. We need his people. This is the place where when you weep, somebody will sit next to you and weep with you. This is the place when you're down and discouraged and you need help that you'll find the right kind of help. There's no other place, there's no other organization that can duplicate the kind of accountable community that you find in the church. It's true. It's true for me. Listen, when I struggle with an issue, I don't feel the freedom to go down to City Hall and pour out my heart, or down to the Elk's Lodge, or down to the local Laundromat and just share it with anybody. But I will pour out my heart with God's family, because it works. And I'll do it because of I Corinthians 12:26, you know it, "If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. If one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." You think that happens at school? At work? In the civic group? When you get promoted, everybody rejoices? Hardly, it's so competitive. That's why I say the best days are ahead of us. You know why? We live in a complex very busy world. It's a world in which technology is exponentially growing, moving so fast, and people are feeling less connected. You wouldn't think that because of the modes of communication we have with the internet. But people are sensing the lack of human touch. What people are crying for is that. That's what the church can provide. We want more than an e-mail or a text message, or Facebook. We want face-to-face, eye-to-eye touch, real community. According to Leadership magazine, ninety percent of new church members will stay in the church if number one they can learn to articulate their faith, number two they belong to subgroups within the church, like choir, Bible study group, Sunday School class; and number three, if they have four to eight close friendships within the church."
Now let me just say, with all of our shortcomings, all of our problems, as people; with all of the baggage that we all bring to the table, this is still a pretty good place to be. I can't imagine raising my family anywhere else but the church. I can't imagine getting good solid truthful accountable counsel from anywhere but the church. I can't imagine getting real encouragement from anywhere else. So, because we need God's people we need the church.
There's a second reason: because we need God's principle. We need God's principles. We need steady doses of truth that we are exposed to at least once, hopefully twice a week, if not more. And if there's one place where truth ought to be very distinctly and unambiguously heard, it's the church. This is the place.
I Timothy chapter 3 verse 1, it's the church. This is the place.
I Timothy chapter 3 verse 15, "Paul said, 'The church of the living God is the pillar and ground of the truth.'" In other words, in a world cluttered with voices, cluttered with opinions on how should live, what you should value, how you should plan your life; in the midst of all of those voices and all of those opinions, we need to hear that clarion call that cuts through it all and says, "Thus sayeth the Lord," we need God's principles. No wonder, in Acts chapter 2, the very chapter we're reading it says that the early apostles and disciples gave themselves to the apostle's doctrine" because they knew they needed God's truth. A couple of authors who observed and wrote about churches said, this, "Churches want to hear nice optimistic messages free of the mention of sin or a call for repentance. Churches want nice lean programs directed at nice clean families leading to growth without sacrifice. They want their organization to become bigger and bigger even as their God becomes smaller and smaller." The best way I know to fight that tendency is truth, steady doses of truth. God's principles week in and week out.
Now those first two reasons why we need the church, because we need God's people and God's principles. Those are two factors, two characteristics, of every living organism. Every living organism has cells, is comprised of cells. And cells need a couple of things. They need other cells around them to relate with, interact with; and they need food. And when you give cells that, they naturally reproduce. They naturally reproduce. Same in the body of Christ. We need God's people, we need God's principles, number three we need God's purpose. That's why we need the church, because we need God's purpose.
I think without fail every human being I have ever met longs to know the purpose and the meaning of life. Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Every person I've ever met wants those deep questions answered. We would love to know that we're a part of some great cause bigger than ourselves. You are. That is what the church is. This is the greatest cause in all of the world. Listen, if you're looking for some cause to get behind, you'll find no greater cause than the forgiveness cause, the salvation cause, in getting out the gospel cause. This cause is greater than any philanthropic cause, greater than any political cause, greater than any societal cause; to know you're a part of God's stuff, what I like to call the family business. Paul wrote to the Philippians in chapter 1 of that book, verse 3 and he said, "I always thank God for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." Think of this as a family partnership. God has a business, it's about getting people to know him, getting people to heaven. You become one of his children and now he enlists you in the cause, in the purpose, in the meaning, you're a part of the family business. That's what motivated Jesus. From a young child, he said to his mother, "Don't you know that I must be about my Father's business?" And that family business motivated him all the way through his life. And that's our purpose, that our purpose, that's our meaning, that's our cause, the cause of God, the cause of Christ, the cause of the gospel. Our purpose is not to become the moral majority where we picket every social cause you can think of. That is not our purpose. The purpose of God's church on earth is to change one life at a time through preaching the gospel. Listen, if you get one person as a Christian and another person and another person and another person and another person, and a hundred, soon the whole society's going to change because their hearts change. That's our purpose, that's our business.
Here's a fourth reason we need the church: Because we need God's presence. We need God's presence. You say, "Well I already have God's presence and I can have it alone." True. But there is a special promise to those who gather together, who meet together, who worship together as the body of Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 18 verse 20, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my Name I am there in their midst." We need that. We need what happens when we gather together like this and we hear each other's stories and we watch each other as we worship and we're a part of it together. There's a special sense of God's presence and that's why when we gather together, we want to make it about Him and not us, not about you know this special pastor or speaker or band but it's all about Him principally. A. W. Tozer wrote, "It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored with him for they must be wooed to a meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games, and refreshments." See this I very crucial, though the church is a social gathering where we need God's people. It's more than a social gathering. And though the church is a place where we discover our purpose, it's more than a social gathering where we discover purpose. It's a place where we corporately worship God. We need that, you and I were created with a need to worship him. We find fulfillment when we worship him. Revelation 4 verse 11 says, "For your pleasure we exist and were created."
Now, in closing, let me ask you this: Can't we do any of these things on our own? I mean can't we sense God's presence on our own? Can't we discover purpose on our own? Well, yeah but not very well. We can't do it very well. You cannot do it very well alone apart from the group. You know why? Because you're not the body of Christ personally, I'm not the body of Christ personally; together we are the body of Christ, corporately. No one person has it, we need each other. Have you ever heard somebody say (I know you have) "Well, I don't need to go to church because (here it is) I'm not into organized religion." Have you heard that? That's like the cool thing to say now. And I can only, I always want to respond, "Oh, so you're into disorganized religion." Because all that is is a copout saying, "I don't want to be around people that tell me what I need to do, I don't want to be accountable to anyone, I want to live my life as I see fit without the group accountability that exists within the church." So can you do these things and be a Christian without going to church? Well yes. But you know what that's like? It's like being a tuba player, alone. What could be more boring than that? No offense if you play the tuba, but you will admit if you do, you need the rest of the orchestra to help out. You have a certain place in that musical expression, you need the balance. If you think you're going to play a tuba solo concert and have a lot of people attend, it ain't going to happen. Or it's like being a football player without a team. What are you going to do? Go out and throw a ball in the air and catch it, kick it, run after it (pants), sweat, throw it again, run after it? Wow, well that's fun. You need a team. Or like being an army man or somebody in the navy without the company. If you're a soldier you need the army. Or, it's like being a bee without the hive, you need the group.
Now in Acts chapter 1 and 2 we read a phrase twice, "They were together in one accord." It doesn't' mean they were driving a Honda, it means they were on the same page spiritually. They were together with unity of purpose and mind, together in one accord.
I love God's church. I love his universal truth. I love traveling to India or other places and being with God's people. But I want you to know I love the local church, I love this church. I've raised my family here and I can't imagine being anywhere else. I've raised Nathan here and I can't wait to raise my grandchildren here (no pressure), can't wait for that. I've lived my best years of my life and I mean that, the best of my life have been here. And the best years I believe are ahead, I believe that.
"So let's not forsake the assembly of ourselves together," the write or Hebrews says, "as is the manner of some. But do it all the more as you see the day approaching."
Heavenly Father, you are the architect of this group called the church. It was your idea, it was your plan, it's what Jesus came to do, after atoning his purpose was to "build the church upon this rock," he said, "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." So we understand honestly that you don't do any work in this world apart from the church. This is how you work, you work through your people. We're your hands, we're your feet, we're your mouthpiece, we're the expression of God upon the earth. We need it, we need each other, we need your people. We need your truth that we hear as we gather. We need to discover meaning and purpose for our lives. The greatest cause in the world is the cause of the gospel. Fat her, we need a sense of your presence that comes when we gather like this and we're encouraged to do it regularly. Thank you Lord for this church, this local expression, it's so satisfying to be a part. What a great family and we pray you continue to have your hand on us and protect us. In Jesus' name. Amen.