Excerpt from Gathered Together
This is the introduction from Karl Deenick's book Gathered Together on the beauty of living as God's church.
Some years ago, a couple of people I know were travelling in a car together when the car started to make a strange sound. One of them suggested they pull into a service station as soon as possible to see if a mechanic could solve the problem. The other person suggested they turn up the radio so they couldn’t hear the noise! Thankfully, they chose the former option and had the car looked at. It turned out that another mechanic who had recently worked on the car had made a mistake reassembling the brakes. The results of continuing without fixing the problem could have been disastrous.
The thing about warning signs is that you need to pay attention to them. And for a while now, there have been some warning signs around church life.
Perhaps the biggest warning sign has been the declining number of Christians who go to a church each week. I’m not talking about church attendance across the whole population (although that’s a huge issue in itself ); I’m talking about people who call themselves Christians and think of themselves as belonging to a church, but simply don’t show up from week to week. For example, the numbers in Australia (in a survey taken before COVID) suggest that only 60 to 70 percent of church members attend on any given Sunday.1 As some have noted, whereas the regulars used to come twice a Sunday, now they come twice a month.2 Other Christians seem stuck on a merry-go-round of looking for a church, staying at one church for a few years before moving on to another. Similarly, there are a growing number of people who are ‘post-church’—they still claim to be Christians, but they’ve abandoned commitment to any kind of regular gathering with other Christians.
The reasons for this lack of commitment are many: dissatisfaction with what’s offered on Sundays; lack of relational connection and meaningful friendships; past hurts from other Christians or churches; busyness that squeezes out the time for church; embarrassment about Christianity’s declining social status and fear of what friends and neighbours might think; or disappointment over the church’s lack of evangelistic or social impact.
Whatever the reason, it’s a major warning sign.
Another warning sign is exhaustion. While many have noted that pastors seem to be burning out more frequently than in generations past, the problem is far broader. Everyone seems to be exhausted. Sometimes people are exhausted because of church commitments, but often they’re simply exhausted from life. Even more problematic is that many feel that church life doesn’t seem to help with their exhaustion, but instead makes it worse.
Those warning signs, and the questions they have raised, have become even more prominent during the COVID pandemic and the closure of many churches during the lockdowns. As churches have reopened, many have struggled to coax their members back. Some people have simply dropped off the radar. A recurring theme during COVID was the rest that people found, not just from the busyness of life but also from the busyness of church. In fact, while stopping our public meetings should have been a source of great sadness, for many it was a delightful experience.
Even for me as a pastor, the start of COVID was a kind of little haven. It was in lockdown that I rediscovered the idea of ‘personal worship’—an old idea that Christians in past centuries knew. It’s not that I’d never spent time in personal devotions. But trapped alone in my house on Sundays, I would spend a couple of hours on my own in Bible reading, personal prayer, singing and lifting my heart up to God. It was such a rich discovery. But why, I wondered, did I not leave our public church gatherings feeling the same way? It almost felt as though it was easier to enjoy God alone at home than it was at church.
Others have rediscovered the joy of meeting with fellow believers in homes, not just to eat and talk about the week, but to sing, read the Bible, hear the Bible taught and pray. They could do that across age groups, with families and with those living on their own. Again, those have been rich experiences. But they’ve raised questions about things that seem to be missing from our church life.
More than any other question about church, COVID has raised the question of why we gather as Christians at all. Staying at home and watching the sermon online is so convenient. It’s easier for the kids. It takes less time. And not only that, but I can also stream the best preachers on the planet right into my lounge room.
This is not to say that good things have not been happening. God has continued to be faithful. But the warning signs have been there for some time. And those warning signs and experiences have raised questions about what church is and what it does. What does it mean to be a church? And by that I mean not “What do we think the church is or should be?” but “What does God think the church is? What does God think the church should be?”
These are important questions not just for a post-COVID world; they’re important any time. And they’re important not only for pastors, but for every church member. The success and maturity of the church requires far more than church leaders who understand these things. It requires the whole church—every single member—knowing and understanding these things. It is pointless and fruitless for one or two people in a church to understand how God means for his church to live and function if the rest of the church doesn’t share this understanding. Because, in the end, it will be the members of the church in whose lives the church will operate.
But the aim of this book is not simply to help you understand the church; the aim is to help you love it.
Despite all the challenges and warnings, I love the church. But that hasn’t always been the case. Like any love, it has taken time to grow and mature. And like any love, it’s also been tested and tried many times. But by God’s grace, over time, I’ve come to see what a precious thing the church is. I’ve been blessed by it, and so have many, many others around me. I’ve written this book because I love the church, and because I want you to love the church. In fact, one of the greatest joys in my life is to see others growing in their love for the church.
Maybe you’ve never really loved the church. If not, I pray that this book will help you to love it for the first time. I pray you’ll come to love it as much as Jesus—the one who gave his life for the church—loves it. Or maybe you already love the church, but you’ve noticed the warning signs, and you don’t know what to do about them. If so, I pray that this book will help you to know how you can keep persevering in loving and strengthening God’s church.
This book, then, is a little primer on the church—what it is, what it does, and how it does it. But its perspective is from the pew. It’s not a book on how to run a church—there are plenty of those. This is a book to help you live in the church as a faithful member, or, better still, as a faithful partner and co-worker.
1. M Lean, ‘The creeping trend of church absenteeism’, The Gospel Coalition Australia, 26 April 2017, accessed 1 February 2022; see also A Barraclough, ‘When did you last go to Church? The spiritual battle it seems like we are losing’, Sydney Anglicans, 18 September 2019, accessed 1 February 2022.↩
2. A Barraclough and D Steele, ‘How do you encourage the sheep that God has given you to care for to come to church to hear his word? With Antony Barraclough’, The Pastor’s Heart, 28 August 2018, accessed 1 February 2022.↩