King of the Hill
To the one who conquers, I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. - Revelation 3:21,NRSV
Did you ever play king of the hill as a kid? I wasn't a large guy when I was little, but I think this is how I discovered my knack for wrestling, as well as some rather sneaky strategy skills. The basic premise of the game is simple. You get one person or a team atop a hill, and you have to knock them off. For the people on the hill, you hold the high ground and a lot of benefits. From the perspective of those on the bottom, you hold only two possible advantages. Sheer strength, or sheer cunning.
This leads me to a seemingly disconnected question. But I promise it's connected, just bear with me. How did our denomination get into such a mess? I mean, really, why is the Christian church itself seeing a decline in attendance over the past 20 years? Let's bring some numbers here so we can get an idea of how big this issue is.
So why are we declining still, if there are real mental, emotional, and physical benefits to worship?
In 2012, the European Social Survey found that one-third of European Christians attended worship at least once a month. Contrast that with twice that number of Christians in Latin American in worship monthly or even more. The World Values Survey stated that 90% of Christians in just 5 major African nations worship regularly. Gallup International, conducted a telephone survey to conclude that only 37% of Americans report attending religious services near-weekly in 2013. That number declines if you specify the attendance has to be weekly. In Illinois, for example, only 44% of those who claim the Christian faith attend church weekly. Not 44% of the population, 44% of Christians. There's an exception to this, though.
Pew Research Center did a study that found there is a "sharp increase in church attendance around the two most significant Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter." That's where we get the term "Chreasters" by the way. Now here's the twist. On Christmas, which is a significant holiday in any Christian denomination, "six out of 10 Americans typically attend church," according to LifeWay Research. That's a considerable increase over the high 40% of just the Christians who attend church that are included in that Christmas attendance.
Even with the added health benefits of church attendance, such as happiness, a decrease in depression, a reduced risk for Alzheimer's, better blood pressure, church attendance is falling off. But mental health issues continue to rise. Let’s look at those benefits for a second.
A researcher named Doug Oman published a study in 2002. It showed, "infrequent (never or less than weekly) attenders had significantly higher rates of circulatory, cancer, digestive, and respiratory mortality, but not mortality due to external causes." Yet medical issues persist in our society. A team led by researcher Jennifer Glanville found "that religious attendance promotes higher intergenerational closure, friendship networks with higher education resources and norms, and extracurricular participation." Yet our country has never seemed more polarized. Research available from the Harvard School of Public Health shows "that regularly attending church services together reduces a couple's risk of divorce by a remarkable 47 percent." And our divorce marches on undaunted. It seems to me there are a lot of reasons you would want to actually attend a church and be involved with what's going on there, right? Sort of seems to me that God is good for what ails you.
So why are we declining still, if there are real mental, emotional, and physical benefits to worship? Well, we have some great examples in this chapter written by the apostle John.
In the third chapter of Revelation, we have three different churches listed, and Jesus hits each of them reassuringly as well as critically. As we examine the word here, we go back to what I said before. This has all happened before, and will all happen again. Take Sardis, for instance.
Sardis is a case of history repeating itself, not only in the same place but in multiple locations. This hustling and prosperous city was located on a hillside in present-day Turkey. It was vitally important in Biblical times. It was highly defensible, having cliffs around it that were hard to climb. In the Bible, there are a couple mentions of cities on hillsides. Notably, Jesus talking about the city on a hill from Matthew 5:14. Archeological experts believe he was likely thinking of the city of Sepphoris when he was speaking of people who are called to shine a light before the world. With Sardis, we have a church called to do just that in a position to be just that. So how did they fail?
Now, I feel like I see historical parallels and patterns about as well as the next person. There are some easy-to-see parallels and patterns here because our church has not guarded a wall thinking that it was unnecessary. Spoiler alert, as we are about to find out with Sardis, it was necessary.
With this particular church, we find a similar situation to how David initially conquered Jerusalem, another city on a hill. The wall that Joab climbed the water spout to defeat the defenses of Jerusalem for David was virtually unguarded because it was thought that no one could climb the cliff. Sardis had this happen as well, not just once, but twice. When Cyrus conquered Sardis in the 6th century BCE, it was because one of his soldiers watched a defender climb down a secret path to retrieve a helmet he had dropped. You could forgive them for not knowing what happened in Jerusalem, which took place 400 years before Cyrus sent his soldiers up this secret pathway. For them to have it happen 200 years later when Antiochus the great did the same thing is a case of "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." Even if our church doesn't know the story of Sardis and its complacency in guarding the back door, we do have the account of Jerusalem and David's conquest. One would think we would learn a lesson about being vigilant. After all, no one less than Jesus himself tells us how important vigilance is when he tells us how suddenly the kingdom of God will come upon us.
Honestly, though, vigilance is just not prominent in human nature.
You see, the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are not just church bodies as we seem them. They are a characterization of the people attending worship services there. We experience different characteristics and issues. Still, we cannot look at the Revelation churches as a whole until we address them as individual people. Likewise, we cannot solve our broader church needs until we address our individual situations.
Our little church in Brimfield, Illinois began with a large congregation. It was almost the size of the larger churches in our United Methodist Church conference. We wonder how we went from attendance in the hundreds to the tens. The questions we have to ask are hard, and they can hurt to ask. So it's not surprising that sometimes we don't ask them. The reason they hurt is that they aren't questions that need to be asked about the church, these are the questions we need to ask of ourselves. We have to ask them because if we don't, we won’t overcome, and then Jesus won't let us sit that throne with him. To be clear, we don't just climb up there, we get placed there by Jesus himself. He will confess us to God almighty, who is, by the way, the owner of that throne.
The very sobering thought is, if he doesn't do that, we may not have a place to sit. And frankly, I'd like to take a load off after this life.
Take a gander at the current initiatives organizations like the Unstuck Group are starting within many churches. If we could transport these renewal groups back in time, we would find that the same issues we have in our modern day were present in the churches of the Apostle John's prophecy. As I said, this has all happened before. In Sardis, they let their guard down once and were conquered because of it. They let their guard down again, and they were overcome again. The truth is, our global church has been complacent in outreach as a whole. The cause of that was apathy and affluence, just like Sardis. The effect is that grace and compassion are in short supply resulting in an increasingly broken world. Cause, effect, result, repeat. That has got to stop.
What's more, is that this didn't happen because someone out-fought us. This happened because we thought we were doing well enough and started looking inside to our own needs and wants instead of looking outside to the needs and wants of others. This is actually one of the primary points of contention for groups like Unstuck. They didn't originate the idea, though, Jesus did when he addressed the church at Sardis. We've dealt with this to some degree or another for centuries. The common factor here is the human heart.
Even in light of all of this, Jesus never once said he would abandon Sardis, so long as they conquered. He made that promise to us as well. What are we conquering, though? Where is this battle? Who are we up against? What weapons do they bring to this battle, and what weapons do we carry? Do we even stand a chance of winning?
Newsflash: we are fighting ourselves.
We're not fighting the outside world, we're fighting the old authority inside us. Just because God installed a new operating system doesn’t mean the devil doesn’t want to roll you back to the old one he liked so much. All the way back when I started us down this path, I broke out the need for God to create in us a new authority through His Holy Spirit. The reason for this is that our old authority is what got us here. If we're not careful, our former authority will get us disinvited from a throne.
Time for a show of hands. How many of us have had an opportunity to share the gospel with someone, but didn't? How many of us have had a chance to give our full tithe, but didn't? How many of us have had an opportunity to serve, but didn't? You'll notice mine was the first hand in the air. It's not to give you an example of putting your hand in the air. It's because I have failed in all these ways in the past. Every last one of them, I have blown. Times I should have gone down the correct fork in the road when I faced Jesus, I failed him. Blew it utterly. You know what, though? He still gave me another chance at the next fork where I would encounter him. There was always another Sunday to worship. There was yet another opportunity to fast, to tithe, to take communion, to speak the truth in love to a broken person who just needed to hear that someone, ANYONE, loved them.
The reason is man's fallen nature, which is what we fight. All by ourselves, that's a fight we cannot win. Our own power is nowhere near complete enough to put up any kind of a struggle against our fallen nature. We have got to step into God to find that kind of power. "I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?" Psalm 121 gives us a clue.
If we want to change the outcome of this fight, we have to shift our focus up to the hill. Focus matters. Here’s an example. If we are plowing, and we focus on the plow going into the dirt, the line won't be straight. Shoot, we may not even be in the same field by the time we get done. But if we keep focused on achieving the end goal, the furrow will be straight, and the land will be correctly planted, ready for growth and harvest. This harvest has to happen. It has to happen here, and it has to happen now. But it first has to happen in our own hearts with help and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
The reason we start here is that this is where overcoming is done. Like Rocky Balboa said, "That's how winning is done." This is where we conquer, where we go from losers to winners. The battle that we are told to fight was never meant to be fought without Holy Ghost fire support.
Look, I have news for you that probably isn't news. The enemy made it over our walls some time ago. But just because that happened doesn't mean the fight is over. We don't roll over and we definitely don’t play dead. There's too much at stake for that. We shift our focus and we fight back. We know what our spiritual disciplines are. We fight back by doing them. We know that people need the love of Jesus, so we fight back by pouring it out like a firehose.
When I met with the church council during my intake meeting, I told them that I have no desire to preside over the death of the church I was appointed to because I serve a living, risen savior. He brought me back from the dead. When he died on that hill outside Jerusalem, everyone there saw a dead man. What they didn't realize is that on that hill was where a king conquered. Look up to that hill because that is precisely from where your help comes.
It's great that we're in church every Sunday worshipping because we are holding our ground. We've been a very pesky thorn in the side of the enemy, but we weren't called to be an annoyance. We were invited to be conquerors. We have to push the enemy back over that wall that we were so sure wasn't going to be attacked. We have to make sure we trust that the Holy Spirit is with us when we encounter opposition to the gospel. We have to make sure we don't cool off and go lukewarm in our desire for God's will.
We have a crown to gain, a reward to seek, a race to run, and a fight to win. The word for crown is, "Stephanos" and it means a garland or wreath that was placed on the head of authorities and victors. The crown that mattered most in the Bible uses the same word. Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2. They all speak of the crown made for and placed upon the head of Jesus Christ. It's a crown he wore so we wouldn't have to. That crown led Jesus to the throne of God, where God sat him down. Our overcoming leads us to the same throne, where Jesus says he will sit us down.
You are someone special, someone God went out of His way to save. And while that salvation only comes through God, it requires our cooperation, and so does the salvation of everyone else. We're all connected in that way. Breaking the connection breaks our crown. But speaking life into the lives of others who don't have life strengthens it.
Tell them they are unique like you are unique ... because they are. Tell them they are loved like you because they are. Show them because they are worth showing. Pray for them because their eternal lives depend on it. Invite them, and even if they decline, keep all of it up. That's how we win back our church. That's how we shove the enemy back over the wall. That is how we overcome because that is how the King of the Hill overcame.
Find your mountaintop, and through Christ, overcome everything you have to to get there.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.