If current trends hold, church attendance may continue to decline. Which raises the question of how we see those who are not with us in church. Are they them, or are they us?
Perhaps more important, how does Jesus see them? What is Jesus’ attitude toward those who have turned their backs on the church?
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” says Jesus, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).
In other words, “You keep turning your backs on God. But I still love you, and I want you to know that. What do I have to do to help you see that?”
All of humanity had turned their backs on God. Then Jesus came down from his glorious position in the presence of God and became human, identifying with human wants and needs, participating in the struggles of human existence.
Sure enough, when people sensed that Jesus genuinely cared for them, that he did not come to judge them but to help them see God in a different light than what they had heard from their religious leaders, crowds began to gather.
And when Jesus was seen in the company of prostitutes and tax collectors, eating and drinking with those who had failed to meet the approval of the religious leaders and hanging out with those who did not usually attend services at the synagogue, Jesus further tarnished his reputation among the religious establishment.
On at least one such occasion, the crowd was so enthralled with Jesus that they lost track of time. When suppertime came, they were nowhere near any source of food. The disciples urged Jesus to send the people away to buy food in a nearby town.
But Jesus said to his disciples: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matt. 14:16).
What if we too found ways to come alongside those who have turned their backs on the church? To be present with them. Not judge them. Eat with them. And show them love and compassion. Recognize that they are us, and we are them. And serve them. Not send them away, but give them something to eat. What might that look like in 2017 and beyond?
What if, when Jesus said, “I will be with you always,” he meant “I, Jesus, embodied in my followers, will be with you, you crowds of aimless wanderers. Whether you follow me or turn your back on me, I will be with you always.”
Could it be?