It’s not as though the reality of churches becoming dead is some dismal or pessimistic evaluation that I alone am making up here—look at scripture: Listen to the Risen Lord, speaking prophetically to the churches in Asia Minor through his servant John. (In a sense, the evaluations of each of these churches should be a regular ‘check-list’ for every Christian community.) This text suggests that church communities do have a life-span as vital witnesses. The seven churches mentioned here were only a generation, or so, from their apostolic founding.

But to Sardis, he speaks this word: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1). So a good reputation, vital institutional life, nice folk, everything going smoothly, apparently—but they are dead. The reality is that they have somehow gotten distracted from their vital encounter with Jesus, their dependence upon him, his calling to costly obedience to his teachings, and from the mission he had given them. What seems evident is the fact that they were quite satisfied with their condition. But they had ceased being what they were called to be—like, maybe, “the missionary arm of the Holy Trinity,” as our Latin American friends like to say. This church at Sardis is given the ultimatum: “Repent! or you will cease to be a church.”

How would you know if a church—your church—were dead? What if dead churches become the norm? What if you have lots of wonderful church activities, sociable members, successful institutional life, the acceptance of ‘religious Christianity’ (which is faith without repentance), youth programs, balanced budget, a cool preacher… all that stuff that gives you a good reputation—but you are dead. You are not productive of transformed Kingdom behavior, or Kingdom relationships, or costly discipleship, or of Christ’s passion for those captive to the darkness—the broken, the hopeless, the meaningless lives striving frantically to know what life is all about. The gospel has lost its thrill for you. Who sees this? What if such dead churches become the norm, and no one anticipates anything other than such?—though the church is irrelevant to those seeking to be faithful disciples?

The demise of so much of the church presence in much of this nation and the West is due to this very phenomenon: impressive church sanctuaries, eloquent clergy, impressive traditions… but dead. But this is not a letter without hope. Note: “You still have a few who have not soiled their garments … they are worthy.” Ah, yes. There are nearly always, even in the most moribund church expressions, those ‘few’ who are the faithful ones, often somewhat out of sight, but walking with Jesus as his quiet disciples, and the presence of the Spirit.

In my career I have encountered such churches as Sardis, even worse. I was once asked to come as the teaching-shepherd to a church that didn’t even have the reputation of being alive. It was a dismal and pathological scene overall, but it was the convenient neighborhood church and had survived barely. But in that congregation were the few, who were faithful. They had hung-in there through long times of discouragement. I went, and nothing happened quickly, but calling the church back to its gospel and mission took years. It was not easy. There was pain and sifting. Yet at the end of a decade, the church was alive and fruitful, and I got much of the credit. But it was not basically I who deserved it, but the few, who had longed for faithfulness, and had become part of the committee who asked me to come as pastor and teacher. They were my prayer support as I assisted them in knowing scripture, in making disciples, in focusing again on the mission of Christ. My purpose in this blog? Admit that your church may be dead, painful as that may be, but take hope. There are those random colonies of true faith that inhabit such dead churches that have a way of changing the whole scene, and refounding the church.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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