A pastor friend of mine emailed the other day with a sad story. His large church had suffered a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said only 40 percent of his church attenders had returned to their in-person gatherings. Another 25 percent, he figured, were engaging with the church online.
“And 35 percent are AWOL,” he wrote. That means they are missing, and no one really knows where they are.
My friend was rightfully disappointed about this. As far as anyone knows, 35 percent of his church are no longer hearing the gospel each week. They are no longer going to small groups and Sunday School classes. They are no longer singing the songs of the faith. They no longer are joining with their brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer.
Thirty-five percent of the body of Christ – maybe a leg and an arm – is gone. Those who are gone will suffer. And so will those who remain. That’s 35 percent less spiritual encouragement, material support, and evangelistic influence.
I do not want to say all those “AWOL” church members have lost their faith and no longer are Christians. We don’t know that. But when when one stops attending church gatherings, he or she automatically begins to move in that direction. The Christian life grows more vibrant the more one engages with his or her church family, and the Christian life begins to weaken when one cuts himself or herself off from that family.
And so we rightfully should be concerned for those who have forsaken their church families, even in this time of pandemic.
We also ought to be aware of our natural proclivity to fall back into our old habits and to desire the things of our old way of life. “We sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full.”
The Christian walk demands something of us. We are saved by grace alone, certainly. But spiritual growth takes discipline. It doesn’t just happen by some magical formula. We don’t rise out of the baptismal waters looking and sounding like Saint Augustine or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham.
No, we move from milk to solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). And if we don’t take either, we will starve.
And so we have to be intentional in our pursuit of these things – of the wisdom and the Word of God. If we aren’t intentional, we will fall back into our old ways, whether we like those old ways (as the Israelites seemed to) or not.
So what does it mean to be intentional? Certainly, it means attending church gatherings (Hebrews 10:24-25). It also means reading God’s Word each day and maintaining an active prayer life. Other practices could be added to that list.
The main thing, though, is that we continue forward in the faith. The apostle Paul said, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way …” (Philippians 3:13-15).
I love this passage. Notice that the mark of maturity to Paul was not spiritual perfection. Rather, it is an understanding that the “one thing” we always need to do is to strive forward in our walk with Christ. The spiritually mature Christian simply keeps doing this no matter what. It’s not complicated, and it’s not difficult.
The Hebrew people weren’t doing this in Exodus 16 as they grumbled and longed for Egypt. The 35 percent of AWOL church members aren’t doing this now.
But we can. Just keep moving forward in the faith. Pursue practices that help you to do this. Never give up. Understand that sometimes our walk with Christ will be a long slow slog in a desolate wilderness. The mature among us will keep going even still.
Today is Sunday, so I hope you can spend some additional time in God’s Word today. As you consider Exodus 16, be sure also to read John 6. These two passages are interconnected. Think about the concepts of bread and manna and leftovers and food that perishes and food that endures to eternal life. Think also about what it means in both passages to grumble and turn back.