Intro: Imagine you’re crawling, scorched, near death, across a hot burning desert. You are dying of thirst and close to dying, literally. But, ahead, you see a sign that reads, “Cool, clear, life-giving water… only five miles ahead”. This sign gives you renewed energy, new hope and you continue your crawl across the dry scorching desert. As you arrive at the promised place, you see a magnificent building, radiant in its beauty, the sign outside invites you in, even beckoning you with the promise of life giving water.
So you crawl through the entrance into a glorious building and there before you is the promised well, with the bucket ready to be let down and filled with water to quench your thirst and to pour life back into your body. With the last bit of your strength, you lower the bucket into the well, expecting a splash as the bucket hits the water, but it never comes. The only sound is the dull thud of the bucket hitting the bottom.
You think that perhaps you are just delirious, and it’s just a mirage, so you reel in the bucket only to find it full of dust. Dust that cannot quench your thirst, but dust that only deepens the thirst and destroys all hope. Sound far-fetched? This is the experience of many people who go to God’s house expecting to be filled and fed with the water and bread of life, only to find all the trappings and the rituals, but no help or hope for all those who’ve made their way there.
It has been well said that many a church begins with a man, reaches out with a mission, becomes a movement, but ends up a monument. This is a polite way of saying many a church begins with life but ends in death. It has a glorious past, but a glorious past is all that it has. It is now a church of the living dead. There are live bodies walking around with dead spirits on the inside and amazingly, astonishingly, only God has noticed. Spiritually there is no pulse, no heartbeat. Spiritually they have flatlined….they are dead!
Such is the condition of many ‘churches’ today.
Let me begin by saying (contrary to what some believe) the ‘real’ Church, the blood bought Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well. Hell and all its demons can’t kill the true Church. “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) When I refer to church here, I mean a building (church) not THE Church.
It’s entirely possible for a ‘church’ to die. Take the church of Sardis, for example, the Lord told them, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). On the outside, the church at Sardis looked peaceful and acceptable, a model church but from the Lord’s viewpoint it was spiritually dead. Like some that Paul spoke of, they had “a form of godliness but denying its power” (Timothy 3:5)
As the widow who gives herself to pleasure ‘is dead while she liveth’ (Timothy 5:6), so this church had sunk into a spiritual coma (not really dead but not alive), while yet wearing their self righteous mask of love and piety. This describes many churches today that have a reputation of soundness and activity, but inwardly are decaying and dying. They have lost their sweet aroma of life and have become an aroma of death. (2 Corinthians 2:15.16)
In local ‘churches’ as in some deaths the ’cause of death’ is not easy to see. Most of the time it’s not a single item that killed a church, it was a combination of several things that brought about their demise. Thus an autopsy is needed.
This writer believes the main reason for the death of today’s church is the spirit of religion has been allowed to creep in and take over and Holy Spirit has been pushed out. (Revelation 2:4–5, 7)
Let’s look at another church, the church at Ephesus. They had every element of church life in order and they were a hard working congregation. Yet the fire, the passion, the love had gone out of it. We see now that religion had taken over with its dull duty and tired traditionalism. The power of God was missing and like a light bulb without power, it’s useless.
In our society when a dead body’s found and the cause of death is not immediately known, the county coroner will order an autopsy. An autopsy will not only give the immediate cause of death, but will also list the ‘possible causes’ of death. Here I’m going to try to do an autopsy on a dead church and look at the immediate cause of death and look at some of the symptoms. Come; look over my shoulder as let’s do this together.
As with any decaying ‘building’ we must first look at the foundation. If a foundation is a good one, than you can restore but if the foundation is bad you must tear down and rebuild.
Reformation, renewal, and revitalization assume some preexisting foundation of faith from which to rise up a new church. But what if that assumption isn’t correct? What if the assumption is part of the problem? What if being a member of a church for 20 years doesn’t automatically guarantee your spiritual growth? What if holding every office in the church doesn’t automatically mean someone is a disciple of Jesus Christ? What if teaching Sunday school or ‘preaching’ a pre written sermon doesn’t mean you’re anointed but just well ‘read’. Do we dare probe deep enough to find answers to these questions?
Let me define what I mean by spiritually dead churches. If your church spends most of its energy on itself and its members, it can be pronounced dead. When you remove the ‘heart’ (Holy Spirit) from a church, it dies just like you would if your heart were removed.
From what I’ve seen in most of the churches in my adult life, I have concluded that the majority of them are dead and their institutions have ceased being the Church. They have the form but not the substance of what it means to be the Church Jesus built. Dead congregations sitting in their padded pews listening to a dead message coming from a tired, wore out pastor. I call them the walking dead. “These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to which the mist of darkness is reserved for ever.” They have no life! No solid foundation! They’re dry bones. They’re dead!
Dead congregations usually have a history of ‘short-term’ preachers, here today, gone tomorrow. Sometimes this is because the men they asked to work with them are unmotivated and uncaring, they have a three year supply of sermons and when that is exhausted they find it easier to move on than to study.
Uncaring preachers can get by with just a few hours work a week, they reach into their file cabinet full of notes on Saturday night to find out what they’ll preach on Sunday morning and can spend the rest of the week playing golf, reading USA Today or ‘tooting their own horn’ on some social network. They never write an article or prepare any original material. They surf the web looking for new material. Sometimes churches have a high turnover of preachers because the church is full of foolish unrepentant sinners (John 1:9,10). Some of these men/women are great at having ‘tea parties’, but they usually don’t know the epistles from the apostles. Some are not ‘pastors’ at all but are wolves masquerading as shepherds caring nothing for the sheep but after their own reward. They look for ways to serve themselves, and the kingdom be damned.
Most church leaders are more concerned about keeping an audience instead of preaching the truth from their pulpits. Because when the truth is taught and the local Diotrephes (3 John 1:9) gets his toes stepped on, the easiest thing to do is to kill the messenger (Acts 7:54-60). Bickering among brethren is an infectious disease (James 3:1-12) so they put on ‘shows’, ‘smoke and mirrors ‘ to appease the people and draw a crowd. They tell the people what they wanta’ hear, tickling ears…do what you want to. If it makes YOU feel good, do it!
I’m reminded of a nest of baby birds sitting with their mouths wide open waiting for momma bird (pastor) to feed them and they have no concept that Jesus intends for them to feed others. “To whom much is given, much is required.”
As we dig into the corpse of a dead church I can present to you at least a dozen symptoms and if they had been treated might have saved the life of this church.
1. They have lost the sense of their purpose… to minister to those who haven’t heard about Jesus Christ and have forgotten the meaning of the Great Commission.
2. They exist primarily to provide fellowship for the ‘members of the club’, members only kinda’ thing. If they’re not part of the clique, they don’t fit in and are pushed out.
3. The people expect their pastors to focus primarily on ministering to the members’ personal spiritual needs; me, me, me! And sadly pastors do!
4. They design ministry to meet the needs of their members only. Pot Luck dinners, yard sales…all for the church.. not to put food and clothing in the store house. Most don’t even have a store house!
5. They have no idea about the needs of the ‘stranger outside the gates’. They step over and close their eyes and shut their ears to the cries of the crippled, blind, the needy that are literally lying on the doorstep of the church.
6. Most are focused more on the past than the future, still trying to live on yesterday’s manna not realizing it’s dead and rotten.
7. They often experience major forms of conflict, a lot of mes, and no yous. Too many ‘chiefs’ and not enough ‘indians’. Everybody wants to be ‘somebody’. Everybody wants to be served but no one wants to serve.
8. And with a dead church it’s all about numbers, they care more about the financial statement (who pays tithes and who don’t) than the number of confessions of faith, souls being saved. They care only about filling their own pocket books when there are literally hundreds of hungry, needy families right in their own cities or neighborhood. Instead of feeding a family they buy more and better pews, fancier pulpits.
9. Also, I’ve found that a lot of the churches have removed the altars from the building which is the most vital part of a living church, the heartbeat! But more importantly they’ve pushed Holy Spirit, Himself out Who is the breath of the Church, you remove the Spirit and the body dies.
10. No one hears about salvation, there’s no altar call and no one gets saved; the baptistery is dry, if they even have one. This is not to say that all churches taking in large numbers of new members and baptizing many hundreds are automatically proven healthy. Unfortunately, one can use gimmicks to get people to join a church and manipulate them to be baptized. I say to our shame that many churches resort to this rather than trod the hard road of building a healthy church.
11. Neither the members nor the leaders are willing to pay the price to make the church healthy. Going from deathbed to health requires sacrifice, commitment, and often pain. It will require a willingness to die to self. That’s why a truly sick-unto-death church would rather die than live. They don’t wanta’ pay the price, they don’t wanta’ fight!
12. Last but not least.. too many think of themselves as the ‘Lone Ranger’. They don’t ‘need’ the church. Listen to me, there are no lone rangers! ‘Me and Jesus have our own thing going’ is just a song and has no scriptural meaning. In fact Jesus is/was all about unity. “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one, as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” (John 17:21)
But now, I want to dig even deeper into the corpse and look at the spiritual issue. It’s not just that these churches are sick; they are spiritually dead!
I know some of these churches are filled mostly with good Christian folk, but there’s no discernable spiritual power, they’ve made Holy Spirit feel so unwelcome, He don’t show up any more. They’re just ‘good’ Christian people and we all know what Jesus said about being good. (Mark 10:18) *smile* Some people have even put their pastors on a pedestal and made a ‘god’ of him/her, taking God’s place on the throne. And when this happens pride walks in and we know about what happens after that. God will share His glory with no one but He’ll lift the humble and will also bring down the prideful.
So it’s obvious, isn’t it? The only solution for spiritually dead churches is resuscitation (resurrection). You can’t revitalize something that is dead. They must be brought to life again! And that my friends, is called resurrection.
Revitalization is a waste of time. You can’t restore anything on a broken and crumbling foundation. You can’t breathe life into a corpse. Only God can do that, only God can resurrect the dead! Only God can breathe and bring life to a valley (church) of dry bones!
You must rebuild the foundation on Christ alone; any other foundation is sinking sand! He is the corner stone and the ‘Builder’ of the Church. And when Christ is the foundation; when He builds the church all hell will not be able to ‘kill’ it.
Oh! One more thing…no one laughs! There’s no joy among the saved. I use the word
‘saved’ lightly, for if there’s no joy in your life I sincerely doubt if you are really saved to begin with. Someone once asked me, “Do you think Jesus ever laughed? The Bible doesn’t say He did.” My answer was, “I don’t know whether he laughed or not but He sure created me so I could!” And then I discovered He did laugh or sang anyway… “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
We are ‘created’ to laugh, joy is the very atmosphere of the throne room of Heaven (Psalm 16:11) and laughter is nothing but audible joy. I heard someone tell a story once about the lack of joy in the body. One of the children at a local church showed her a piece of sour candy she had just purchased (the candy even had a warning label on it). When that little girl put the candy in her mouth she made a terrible face that reminded her of some Christians we’ve known over the years. They sit in the pew as if they are at a funeral and when they leave they stick out their hand and you are not sure whether you should shake it or pray over it.
This lack of joy is easy to spot and the ‘Christianity’ they offer, no one in their right mind would want. As ‘churches’ go, I am not sure if this lack of joy is the cause or just a deadly symptom of a church’s death.
The preacher who thinks he has to tell jokes to elicit laughter from his people is missing the point. The difference in that kind of provoked joy and the natural joy that arises from the hearts of happy worshipers is the difference in night and day; life and death!
So my friend…Live! Laugh! Love! And if you find yourself in a ‘church’ full of zombies ‘walking dead’….run as if your life depends on it, because it does!
In His love,
Is there any hope for a “dead” church? The Lord extended some hope to the church at Sardis, providing they would “hold fast and repent” (Revelation 3:3).
Our victory lies not in the past, but in the future (Revelation 3:1).
God bless you!