The danger of drift

A few days Kevin de Young posted this excellent article on his blog:

It was an article that very much chimes with much of my recent thinking – that drift is one of the greatest issues the church in the West faces today. And yet the strange thing is, you won’t actually find that much said or written about drift. Like a slow-growing fungus, it spreads almost silently and imperceptibly until one day you wake up and discover the very health of the church is at stake. So in this post I want to expose drift for what it is, why it arises and why it poses such a threat.

So what is drift? It is quite simply the gradual distancing of a believer first of all from a church, and then, if unchecked, eventually even from the very moorings of the Christian faith. It is not something that happens intentionally. It is just a subtle and at first unrecognised loosening of ties, so that the faithful once a weeker becomes a twice a monther, a twice a monther become an every other monther, and the every other monther becomes a blue mooner.

And why does it happen? Let me suggest there are at least three reasons.

First, when someone becomes a Christian or returns joyfully to the faith, other parts of their lives at least temporarily are put on hold. They recognise there is nothing more important than loving and serving Jesus, so everything else becomes relatively less important. But eventually the demands of the job or the family or the sheer business of each week presses in again, and the real sacrifices made to attend church or small group become just too much. Something has to give, and regular attendance becomes the first casualty.

Secondly, despite the fact that those who come to faith are warmly welcomed by the rest of the church, in many cases they remain outsiders, at least at the very deepest level of fellowship. Existing church members may have formed deep relationships over the years, and being busy people themselves, may find it hard to fully include newcomers as much as they would want to. So when the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the cares of this world come in (Mark 4:19), they do not necessarily have the support structures in place to help them cope. We are simply not that good as churches in investing time and energy with newcomers as we ought to be.

Thirdly, as Kevin De Young points out, after a while we become used to the message of the Christian faith. It is not only that we are familiar with the message of Jesus dying and rising again for us. It’s also that in many cases we are not that good at helping folk see the links between the glorious truths of our faith and the issues that affect us every day. It’s one reason why in my preaching I often find myself challenged to apply my sermon to the lives people will face as they wake up on a Monday morning. I am not saying for a moment that our preaching should be governed by relevance, but unless we give people the tools to make connections with their everyday reality, the danger is, Jesus ends up in a box reserved for Sundays and special occasions called the church.

And why is drift such a threat?

At the most obvious level it weakens the faith of the individual Christian or makes it ineffective. I have already quoted from the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), and although we have often turned this into a pretty little story for children, it really does present a most perceptive analysis of the ways in which our faith fails to reach maturity. I would contend that we must find time in our busy lives to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Jesus’ teaching, so we recognise exactly how we can produce the kind of fruit Jesus wants us to yield.

But drift also weakens the life of the whole church. The vitality of any congregation comes from a stream of people coming to, and growing in their faith. It’s how new gifts and ministries are discovered, it’s how the faith is passed down from one generation to the next. But if we allow new believers simply to disappear off the scene, then the church will slowly begin to die. The existing believers who are serving so faithfully cannot go on forever, and there are times and seasons when they themselves need to receive more than to give. So the whole church needs to develop effective means of discipleship, of growing small groups, of developing support networks. If this means that some existing ministries need to go by the board, so be it. Investing in new believers has to be the top priority for everyone .

And also drift very subtly undermines the mission and outreach of the church. To put it this way: if someone who is thinking of  getting closer to the church and the Christian faith keeps meeting people who are drifting in the opposite direction, then they may well end up having second thoughts. When you see people becoming less regular and less committed in their worship, it is surely natural to ask whether all these claims made about following Jesus are that real, after all.

So to sum up: drift is the great unspoken and yet deadly threat to our churches today. It is all the harder to eradicate because it is never intentional. What is to be done? Well, I think that half the battle is to name it for what it is. The other half is to look at our church and see what we can do to stop the disease from taking hold. I recognise, of course, that in a sense, it is a symptom of a wider malaise in our society where so many factors militate against commitment.

Our challenge, then, is to see how we can become an authentic counter-culture which is so attractive that people not only want to join, but also to stay. How we do this I am not completely certain. But I do know that it requires a deep dependence on the Lord, and a willingness to take up our cross and follow Him – wherever that may lead.



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