Staying with the Ship

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: On November 19, 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared. The youngest son of U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and a recent graduate of Harvard, Michael went on an anthropological expedition to New Guinea. On November 17, his team was traveling in the Pacific Ocean when their forty-foot dugout canoe was swamped and overturned miles from shore.

Two of the guides told Michael and his partner, Dutch anthropologist René Wassing, to wait in the boat while they swam for help. But as the hours went by and their boat floated aimlessly, Michael told René, “We don’t know if they’ll make it back. They may never even find us out here. I think I can swim to shore on my own.” With that, he jumped into the water and swam away.

He’s never been seen since.

The next day, René was picked up. The disappearance of Michael created an international media frenzy. His father flew to New Guinea to help organize a massive search, but they could not find his body. Some speculate that he was attacked by sharks; others say he was eaten by cannibals. But what seems sure is that if he had stayed with the boat, he would have survived.

Have You ever been tempted to jump ship?

No—I don’t mean hurling yourself out of a boat and swimming away as Michael Rockefeller did. Rather, growing numbers of people are bailing out of the church. Whether it is because another member in the church hurt them, they became distracted by the world’s temptations, or they were simply bored, thousands slip overboard and many never return.

Though the church has its imperfections—members who don’t walk the talk and leaders who don’t hold to the highest standards—life in the vast worldly ocean can be dangerous. Many who become fed up with the church and slip over the edge find themselves swept away from God by the storms of life.

If you’re thinking about jumping ship today, I want you to know there are good reasons to stay with the boat. Despite the many problems and the spiritual storms that threaten to capsize the vessel, I encourage you to stay with God’s church, because it is much safer than swimming with the sharks. A Bible story about a sinking ship powerfully illustrates this point.

Stay with the Ship
Later in his life, the apostle Paul was arrested and imprisoned. Seeking a fair trial, he appealed to Caesar directly. As a result, he was loaded on a ship full of prisoners and guards and sent off to Rome. An entire chapter of Acts tells the harrowing story of their encounter with a fierce storm at sea.

During the journey, a ferocious tempest came upon them, and the crew began throwing everything overboard to lighten the ship and keep it from sinking. For several weeks they were violently tossed about, unable to determine their location because of cloudy skies. Paul interceded in prayer for everyone on the boat, and an angel responded, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you” (Acts 27:24). He shared this good news with the crew and concluded, “However, we must run aground on a certain island” (verse 26).

As they neared land, some of the sailors decided to jump ship in an attempt to save their lives. They tried to lower the only lifeboat and sneak off by themselves. Paul saw them and said to the centurion, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (verse 31). So the soldiers quickly cut the ropes to the skiff and let it fall into the sea. Eventually, the ship struck shore and, incredibly, every passenger survived.

I believe Paul’s words echo to us living today as we near the shores of the Promised Land, especially during this stormy time before Christ returns: Unless we stay in the ship, we cannot be saved. The Lord wants us to stick together. The body of Christ is not a fragmented people each going his or her own way. God’s people are to be a unified body of believers who come together to encourage one another. Christians are not to be interested only in their own affairs but to show concern for the lives of others.

Sobering Statistics
I’m sad to report that large numbers are leaving the church. The Barna Research Group found that three out of five young Christians disconnect from the church after the age of fifteen. While some do come back, many permanently walk away. And a 2014 study in North America showed that more than 1.2 million leave the church each year. That’s about 3,500 souls each day!

In 2008, the Southern Baptist Church, with a membership of more than 16 million, found that only 38 percent of its members even attended church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church conducted a similar study and discovered that just 28 percent of the members did the same. While the Gallup Poll has pegged attendance numbers to 36 percent, further research shows that many Christians lie about church attendance—and the true numbers are closer to 28 percent.

Coming Together
The Bible emphatically encourages Christians to gather together. “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:24, 25). Those who claim the name of Christ should not live separate lives from other followers. We come together for worship and mutual encouragement, especially as we see the nearness of the Second Coming. There is redemptive value in our gathering together.

One reason Christians attend church is to learn to love others. The apostle John wrote, “This commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:21). Some mistakenly believe that we go to church so that we can associate with good people. They wrongly see church as a resort for saints. In reality, the church is more like a hospital for sinners. People aren’t always lovable, and the way you learn to love as Jesus loved is by loving the unlovely. If you have ever thought that you would stay away from church to be more holy, your very act shows how much you need the church!

You might be hanging over the edge of the boat. You may be discouraged, pondering the idea of taking off into the world. But the Holy Spirit is calling to your heart to stay in the body of Christ. It is a delusion to think that an active, healthy Christian can be separated from other Christians. Unless you have medical issues or are homebound for some good reason, you should make every effort to worship with others. This is why the Sabbath is called a holy convocation! (Leviticus 23:3).

Remember, the church is not the building; it is a gathering of God’s people who come to worship their Creator, fellowship with one another, and evangelize the world. The Greek word for church in the New Testament is ekklesia and comes from a compound word that means “to call out.” The church is a body of people called out of the world and joined together through faith in Christ. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

An Oxymoron

Can you be a Christian and not be connected to God’s church? Well, wouldn’t that be like a honeybee separated from the hive? It makes about as much sense to me as a salesman without customers or a football player without a team. Can you picture a quarterback throwing a football to himself as the defense swarms him? It’s a humorous picture, sure, but when applied to the church, it is just sad. Jesus never intended His followers to exist as hermits.

When people became Christians in the New Testament, “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, emphasis added). If you’re interested in being saved, then you’ll be added to the church. The idea of being saved apart from the church is a foreign concept in the Bible. It reminds me of a hitchhiker I once picked up. When I shared my faith with him, he told me, “I’m already a Christian, just not a practicing one.” He showed me the crosses he wore to prove he was a believer, but does hanging a cross around your neck make you a Christian? Not according to Scripture. It’s not wearing a cross, but bearing it, that matters.

Some say, “I’m not going to attend church until I know that I’m following Christ. After all, I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” Actually, it is for that very reason you should go to church—to follow Jesus more closely! The Holy Spirit was poured out in great measure on an assembled group of believers, and it is when we gather together to hear God’s Word that we may fully come under the conviction of the Spirit. Paul sent a letter to a young pastor once to say, “I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Staying away from church will not keep you spiritually alive!

Glowing Together
Years ago, a pastor went to visit the home of a busy farmer who had stopped going to church. As the two sat in front of the fireplace, the farmer said, “Pastor, I’m still a Christian. I just don’t need church right now. I still believe and pray. God knows my heart.”

The pastor wasn’t sure how to respond, but he leaned forward, picked up the fire poker, and separated one of the burning pieces of firewood from the others. The two men sat looking at the piece as it burned by itself. For a while, the fire on that piece continued to glow—but then it went out. Neither of the men spoke a word, until the farmer turned to his pastor and said, “I get the message. I will be coming back to church.”

Friend, you cannot burn brightly for Christ when you stay away from His church. You cannot worship or grow in faith all alone. God wants you connected to the body of Christ. Don’t try to go at it alone or you will die spiritually. Just as a child needs a family, just as a lamb needs a flock, a Christian needs a church. So hang in there!

I imagine that when Noah and his family were living on the ark during the flood, there must have been some unpleasant moments. The constant rocking of the boat, the deafening cacophony of countless shrieking animals—and their smells—the work of feeding all those furry passengers and mucking their stalls. There must have been several times the family of Noah wished to be somewhere else, but nobody jumped overboard. The ark, even with all its problems, was their passport to salvation.

Within most churches you will encounter a few hypocrites, occasional financial challenges, some inconsideration, and more than a few gossips. But you will also encounter Jesus dwelling among His imperfect people. Don’t get discouraged and leave the ship—the storm outside is much worse.

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