Filling Church Was Never the Point

Going to church has never been the point.

By Karl Vaters

Jesus didn’t tell us to “work really hard to gather people into large crowds to fill up your church buildings. Then I’ll know that you love me.” But when you look at how most pastors (including me) spend much of our time and energy, sometimes it feels like we think that.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of Facebook posts and blogs longing for the “good old days” when churches were full on Sabbath mornings, evenings and during the week. This expression is especially prevalent on sites where small church pastors tend to congregate.

I understand that longing. After all, I’ve experienced many a Sabbath with depressingly small church attendance. But I have three big problems with the “good old days” mindset.

First, the “good old days” weren’t so good. We have selective memory. If we were transported back there, we’d all want to catch the first DeLorean back to today as fast as we could.

Second, longing for the past is setting ourselves up for defeat. We can’t go back there! Time travel only works in one direction and at one speed. No church or pastor should ever want to go backward. Let’s honor the past but live in the now and plan for the future.

Third, I don’t want to hear about churches filling up as a sign of revival, renewal or spiritual awakening any more!

I want to hear about churches emptying out. Out into their community to minister, to serve and to share the good news. That’s a greater sign of revival than an increase in church attendance will ever be.

Our world doesn’t need bigger churches or filled-up small churches. We need transformed lives, families, cities and nations. That’s hard to do when all the Christians are cloistered inside church buildings.

Let’s Emphasize What Jesus Emphasized

Take a look at the Gospels. Did Jesus spend his time in church? Did he try to get people to go to church? Did the disciples?

No. Jesus and the disciples never emphasized going to church. They emphasized being the church and going into the world.

Jesus never told us to pray that church buildings would be filled. He told us to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (emphasis mine)

Church isn’t about filling a building. It’s about filling the neighborhood with the good news of the love of Jesus.

Yes, I know some readers are already warming up their keyboards to remind me that Jesus told us to go the highways and alleyways “that my house will be full.” But any honest reading of the entire context of Luke 14, or any other similar passage, shows us that Jesus’ emphasis was on us going out, not bringing them in. And even then, the “in” he was talking about had nothing to do with filling up church buildings. It was about filling up heaven at “the resurrection of the righteous.”

Church Is About Going Out, Not Just Gathering In

Of course it’s great when a church is filled with enthusiastic, worshiping believers and sincere seekers. But filling a church building should never be the goal.

A full church is a tool God wants to use to reach the world, not an end in itself.

There have been too many times in history when churches have been filled while the neighborhood around them has gone to hell—in both senses of that term.

Every truly great church experience should be aimed toward two things:

  1. Magnifying the risen Christ.
  2. Sending believers out better equipped to love, serve and share the good news in word and deed.

Maybe we should start measuring church health and spiritual renewal by how weempty our churches, not just how we fill them.

So what do you think? Have you struggled with emphasizing bringing people in over sending them out?


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