Where have all the burnt stones gone…

…long time passing?

I was useless at mathematics when I was at school, but by the time I attended Business School I had warmed to statistics, graphs, and equations.  We all know the statement that “there are lies, then wopping lies, then statistics”.  There is some truth to that, yet statistics do alert us to trends and significant anomalies.

Here are some interesting statistics concerning the church:
  • George Barna estimated that in the United States 28% of the population is unchurched, and that 61% of these people described themselves as Christians.
  • Of these 18% stated that they are ‘born again’ and that their faith is of daily importance to them. To a reasonable extent the South African church statistics traditionally mirror those of the USA.
  • This means that there are roughly 8,000,000 people in South Africa who regard themselves as Christians yet do not attend church of any sort. Perhaps the majority of these folk are Christians by family history only. However, if the statistics are in any way reflective of reality, there are about 1,500,000 ‘born again’ believers who do not attend church.

I am not sure who first coined the term ‘burnt stones’ to describe these folk, but I think it was Ern Baxter.  Nehemiah describes how Sanballat ridiculed the Jews who were attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He sneered, “Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble – burned as they are?” (Neh 4:1-2) Very few people become disciples of Jesus Christ and do not initially attend church.

So, the one and a half million believers who do not attend must have dropped out for some reason or another. The most common reason given is “we were burned”.

By this, they mean that they were hurt, disappointed, disillusioned, financially milked, or over-worked by the church they were attending. There are other reasons cited but they are no more flattering to the perception of ‘church’ – boring, irrelevant, legalistic, manipulative, unfriendly, money-grabbing… the list goes on.

I am one of those who believe in the church. I see her as a precious body of believers, the apple of God’s eye. As a pastor, I know that church leadership often gets things wrong. Sometimes they try to structure the church as a business and as a result tend to produce spiritually bankrupt adherents to the Christian Faith. Sometimes they structure the church as an army and leave many wounded souls lying in their wake as they march on to ‘victory’. But the fault doesn’t lie solely with church leadership.

In essence, the church is the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).  It is a family (1 Peter 4:17),  yet so many of its members do not seem to appreciate that they are part of a real spiritual family. From time to time I learn that someone who has been attending for years has suddenly left and joined another local church or are not attending church anywhere. No reasons given; no goodbye and God bless you; just … gone. Of course, we follow up and usually find out that someone in the church ticked them off, or their children’s friends attend another church, or whatever. The question remains, ‘why did they just up and leave their spiritual family?’ In truth, the answer probably is that either they don’t regard the church as a family, or they have a warped view of what a family is and how it functions.

For too long now, too many churches have been setting themselves up as spiritual entertainment centres, colleges, clubs, or hospitals.

If the church presents itself as a supplier then it is hardly surprising if its ‘members’ behave as typical consumers. If a consumer doesn’t get what it feels it needs then it goes somewhere else. If the other church ‘suppliers’ don’t meet the need then the consumer becomes an unchurched ‘burnt stone’. A consumer says, “What can I get from this church?” whilst a family member says, “How can I contribute to this church family?”

Alternatively, so many people come from dysfunctional families that they think it normal to behave as though the church too is a dysfunctional family, even when it isn’t. Fathers walk out on their children, children rebel and leave home, so why not just leave church for whatever reason seems good at the time?

One and a half million ‘burnt stones’ – just think of that! What can be done? Well, if you are one of these, then I appeal to you to consider again just how important the family of God is. Acts 20:28-29 describes the local church as ‘the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.’  Now that makes the church important and valuable!

You have a place within the church, as a living stone, not a burnt one.

If you know folk who are ‘burned’ then why not try to lovingly explain what church really is and then invite them to connect with it again.

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