by Clarke Dixon
Dead and dying churches. They are everywhere in our nation along with opinions as to why and what to do. A lack of vision. Failure to keep up with the times in music. Too much politicking. Boring services and coma-inducing sermons. A changing culture that could care less. These are some of the reasons people give for the death of churches, with no shortage of advice on staying alive. Perhaps now is a good time to read this letter from Jesus to a dead church:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Revelation 3:1-6 (NRSV emphasis mine)
Is there anything here that can help our dying churches in Canada? Jesus gives them six imperatives:
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. Revelation 3:2-3a (emphasis mine)
Let us take a look at each.
To wake up is to leave dreamland and dwell again in the real world. It is to give up appearances and get back to reality. The church at Sardis appeared to be alive, but needed to grasp the reality that in God’s eyes they were quite dead. Every church needs to pinch itself from time to time to ensure it is awake and has a good grasp on reality.
The original language behind “wake up” is more literally “become watching” (Young’s Literal Translation). We are reminded of Jesus’ teaching:
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. (Lk. 12:35-36 NRS)
Churches, more than any other group of people on earth, should live in such a manner that the return of Jesus tonight would cause rejoicing and not embarrassment or regret. Sadly, many churches in our nation do not even think Jesus is returning.
Strengthen what remains and is on the point of death!
What remains, yet could disappear? A community of people gathered around a cause. Let us consider another time Jesus spoke of the potential for death:
John 15:5-6 (NRSV) I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
To strengthen what remains, the Christian community needs to gather, not just around a cause, but around a person, the Person, Jesus Christ.
Remember then what you received and heard!
What was received and heard, that is now forgotten? Consider the following example:
13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13 emphasis mine)
The Christians in Sardis are to remember the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is the message of reconciliation with God. It is the truth that such reconciliation is made possible by the grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Is it possible for a Christian community to forget the Gospel? Here are three ways the Gospel is forgotten among the churches of our nation.
- The Good News is forgotten where the reality of the supernatural is denied.
- The Good News is forgotten where confidence wanes in what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
- The Good News is forgotten where sentimentality becomes an idol.
This last one perhaps needs more explanation. Suppose you had to make a choice between a) having your church just as it is, with the building and the weekly services, but no possibility of anyone coming to Jesus through its ministry, and, b) a person coming to Jesus through the ministry of your church, but you must lose your building and the way you do things. What would you choose? If you chose option a, sentimentality may have become an idol. It can and does happen that the message of the church is seen of less importance than the institution of the church. Such churches need to “remember then what you received and heard.”
The word “obey” has the connotation of the mere keeping of rules. However the word in Greek is much more nuanced than that. Some of the definitions include: “keep in view, watch over, guard, keep, preserve, maintain, protect, observe.” Here is encouragement to keep, guard, and maintain the Gospel teaching. This is more than just keeping the right doctrinal teaching, for the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just good news. It is life changing good News. When we grasp the Good News fully, we will find ourselves grasped fully. Yes, churches are for sinners like you and me, and should be places where we can be transparent about our struggles. Yet, the Church is the people who live by the Holy Spirit. The statistics should reflect that people are bearing the fruit of the Spirit. If things look no different between the church and society, then chances are good that the church is dead. There is a need to guard the Gospel, not just in the sense of being able to recite a catechism, but in being changed people, a people who reflect the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
To “repent” means to have a “change of mind.” The church in Sardis is told to repent, to have a change of mind about what is important. In our day, there are many voices calling for churches to change. Change the music, change the morality, change the doctrines, change the traditions, change the preaching, change the preacher. Some churches try to change nothing. Many churches try to change everything. The change that really matters is the kind of change Jesus calls a dead church to make; a call to change the mind, to repent and focus on the life changing Good News of Jesus Christ.
There may be many reasons that churches die. But there is one reason that is inexcusable, one that Jesus speaks to; forgetting the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ. Neglecting the Gospel is a sure-fire way to kill a church. Does your church need to pinch itself?
(All Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted)
Clarke’s articles appear first on his blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon