Autopsy Of A Dead Church
Vance Havner once commented that ministries often begin with a man who has a vision. That vision is captured by others and becomes a movement. As the movement gains followers and momentum, it becomes a machine. After a while, people forget all about the vision and what was once a movement becomes nothing more than a monument to a man and a glorious past.
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 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 are flat-lined. Spiritually they are a dead church. Spiritually they are “dead men walking.”
Denis Lyle once wrote the following, “Tragically, many churches are dead. Like the rotting carcass of Lazarus, these church bodies have the foul stench of death upon them. They have the appearance of life, but they are in actuality, dead. Their sanctuary is A Morgue with a Steeple. They are congregations of corpses. They have undertakers for ushers; embalmers for elders; and morticians for ministers. Their pastor graduated from the Cemetery. The choir master is the local coroner. They sing, “Embalmed in Gilead.” At the Rapture, they will be the first churches taken for the Bible says, “the dead in Christ shall rise first.”
In an article entitled “When does my church need revival?”, Stevan Manley highlights 6 tell-tale signs of a church that is standing at death’s door:
1) The church is plagued with disagreements.
2) The preaching is ineffective.
3) Few can remember when a person was last saved.
4) God’s supernatural power is never seen.
5) God is not praised regularly.
6) No one is being called into God’s work.
Thom Rainer in his article “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned” wrote the following about a church he worked for:
I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively small crowd on Sunday morning.
The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me. I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult.
On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”
I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.
My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.
- The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
- The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempts to reach the community for Christ.
- Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
- The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
- There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
- The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
- With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
- The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
- The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
- The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
- The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”
Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.
And our text here tonight finds such a church like we’ve just described. The church at Sardis. From the outside the church had a name that denotes it was an alive church, but in reality it was dead. In my personal opinion here tonight that is where so many of our churches are today not to mention Christians themselves. They give off an appearance of being alive when in reality, they are dead as a doornail!
Revelation, where we will be tonight is book where our Lord Jesus Christ directly revealed to John about things to come. The book begins in the church age and looks directly into eternity. It presents greater detail of the Tribulation than any other one portion of Scripture. It then gives significant insight into the millennial reign of Christ and of the eternal kingdom to follow. Hence, the book looks forward from John’s day on into eternity. The book might be outlined accordingly: I. Introduction – chapter 1; II. The seven messages to the seven churches of Asia – chapters 2-3; III. Things hereafter – chapters 4-22.
For our purposes here tonight, we will be in the second portion of Revelation, looking at one of the seven messages to the seven churches of Asia in chapter 3. The church as Sardis. The third chapter of Revelation completes the final three messages from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia: Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Notice that phrase in verse 1, I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. For a few moments here tonight, I’d like to speak to you on the subject “Autopsy Of A Dead Church.”
These six verses can be easily outlined as follows and we will look at each in greater detail as we get further into tonight’s message:
1. Christ’s Condemnation (Vs. 1)
2. Christ’s Command (Vs. 2-3a)
3. Christ’s Consequence (Vs. 3b)
4. Christ’s Comfort (Vs. 4-6)
The fifth message is again directed to the angel, (messenger, or pastor) of the church that is at Sardis. Jesus here described Himself as “he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars.” If you were to look at Revelation 1:4, the mention of the “seven Spirits of God” may be a reference to the fullness, gifts, and graces of the Spirit of God. The seven stars are the angels (i.e., messengers or pastors) of the seven churches as noted in Revelation 1:20.
Notice and this is very interesting, this church receives no word of commendation or congratulations. There is no word of praise. In this regard she is like her sister church at Laodicea later on in the chapter (3:14-22) who also received no praise from our Lord. This church, Sardis, like Laodicea received only criticism, received only condemnation.
Now, I find the layout of these letters very interesting. Of the seven churches that received letters from Christ, the two that got the most condemnation and the one that got the most praise from our Lord are found here in Chapter three. The chapter begins with Sardis who is the dead church. The second letter is to that church who receives the most praise, Philadelphia, the one true church who kept Christ’s Word and did not deny His name. The third and final letter is to Laodicea, the final state of apostasy or the lukewarm church.
Now, I don’t have any Bible to back up this theory and that’s really all it is a theory but my thinking regarding the way these letters are written is as follows. Christ begins with Sardis, the dead church with nothing but condemnation. Philadelphia sees this and purposes amongst themselves that they will not be like Sardis and therefore is the church Christ would want. So, we come to Laodicea. Which when we look at it could be almost a combination of Sardis and Philadelphia. They’re a church in the middle, not quite dead but not quite as on fire. Lukewarm, in the middle. Now again, that’s just a theory. I have no Bible to back it up with but it’s something to give thought to. But again we see, Sardis, like Laodicea received only criticism, received only condemnation. And that’s what we want to see first here tonight.
1. Christ’s Condemnation
Once again, we see Christ starts off this letter as he has done with the previous letters and the remaining letters to follow, “I know thy works.” Now this is a very important point to remember and consider. Just like these churches and the people of them, Christ knows our works as well.
Ecclesiastes 12:14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
Very simply folks, we like these churches, will someday get a report on the work or lack of work we have done for Christ in this lifetime. The question we must ask ourselves is what if today Christ were to judge you for the work you have done for Him? Would your report be one praise or would it be one of condemnation because you wasted the time Christ gave to you.
Ephesians 5:16 Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
Are you redeeming the time? Are you doing all that you can for Christ? Now, allow me to say this about our service to Christ. Nowhere in the Word of God will you find a command that says you have to be involved in every ministry of the church. Nowhere in the Word of God will you find it is okay for a church or church leadership to condemn a person because they’re not involved in every single ministry. Rather, you will find an exhortation to do what you can and give your best at that which you can do.
Notice that phrase in verse 8, “she hath done what she could.” This ointment was very expensive, precious, and the very best that Mary had to offer. Not only was it the best she had to offer, it was all she had to offer but yet it was her best. Christian here tonight, you don’t have to be involved in everything but be involved in something! Give of your best to the master, do what you can for Christ and His cause. The problem today is not Christians doing what they can, it’s Christians not even doing that! There are things you could be doing yet aren’t! That’s the problem today! “She hath done what she could.” Are you doing what you can for Christ knows our works.
He goes on, “that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” This condemnation is perhaps more severe than to any of the other churches. They had a name which they were living. They claimed to be Christians. However, they in fact were spiritually dead. This is an indication of deadness of vision, vitality, and service.
Vance Havner says about Sardis, “she had it all in the show window but nothing in stock.” Sardis had a reputation as a beehive of activity and vitality. This was most likely a church with size, money, and programs that caused people to stop and take notice. She appeared to be and claimed to be a healthy church. Yet they had become a church that had been infected by the disease of spiritual compromise, worldly accommodation, and satisfaction with the status quo. This church was not a persecuted church because it was not bothering anyone! People may have admired it, but not for its courage, commitment or conviction.
Being a church that is alive and living for Jesus requires more than a name on a marquee, a building with a steeple, or regularly scheduled services on a weekly basis. Too many churches today have a name that they are alive, but yet they are dead.
They had the church services, the programs, the dinners, the fellowships, so on and so forth yet they were missing the most important thing that a church needs and that was Christ as it’s center!
Colossians 1:18 …that in all things he might have the preeminence.
For Sardis, Christ was not the preeminence, all they had was a name! And folks, we can have all of the church services, the programs, the dinners, the fellowships that we want but if Christ is not center of all that we do, we are dead! All we have is the appearance of life! That was Sardis!
Thankfully, Christ doesn’t just leave it at condemnation, He never does. He provides an escape, a hope, a command, and that’s what we see secondly here tonight.
2. Christ’s Command
The very first thing Christ commands them to do is to “be watchful” which has the sense of be alert, on guard, or awake! See, the city of Sardis only had one entrance. All they had to do was put a detail of soldiers at that spot and keep watch. But on two occasions the city was over taken by the enemies because the guard had fallen asleep. This is the parallel that Christ is making, learn from your past failure. Be continually watchful. Keep your spiritual eyes and ears open 24/7. Wake up! Be watchful. Recognize the ever-present danger of the enemy’s presence and our tendency to drop our spiritual guard.
Secondly, Christ says “strengthen the things which remain” which means make firm, establish what is salvageable, but do so quickly because they are ready to die. Why? For I have not found your works perfect (complete, fulfilled) before God. See folks, Sardis was content with a halfway completed work. Sardis was content to be mediocre, O.K., alright. God says get going, get fired up once again while there is still time!
Thirdly, we see Christ says “remember”, remember the original truth of the gospel which they had once upon a time heard and had received Christ. Never leave your foundational doctrine. You began with Jesus and the Word, stay with Jesus and the Word.
Fourthly, Christ tells them to “hold fast” or keep, guard. The truth of the Christian faith is a precious treasure never to be taken for granted. Jude says earnestly contend (fight) for the faith. Jesus says hold fast what you received and heard. Do not ever let it slip away!
The fifth and final part of Christ’s command, He tells them to “repent” or simply change your mind and change your direction concerning sin. See folks, when there is sin or spiritual shortcoming, the directive of God is as simple as it is clear: repent, turn away from it, forsake it!
Christ gives them the command yet he also gives them the consequence if they don’t heed the command and that’s what we see thirdly here tonight.
3. Christ’s Consequence
If they as a church would not be concerned to the degree they would repent of their spiritual deadness, turning truly to Christ, He warned. “I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” Though there might seem to be a reference to the coming of Christ as a thief in the night in His return, the thought rather may be of His impending chastening. “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6). He would chasten them.
Finally here tonight we want to see Christ’s Comfort if they would heed His command.
4. Christ’s Comfort
As bad as things were in Sardis, there were some there who were saved and seeking to serve the Lord. They are given the Lord’s promise that they will walk with the Lord in white. They have lived out the truth in this world, and they can be confident that they will share His glory in that world.
White clothing was worn in Roman times during festivals and times of celebration. It was a symbol of purity, victory and festivity. What a promise to the faithful members of that church. Jesus says, “You folks are standing faithful. You have not defiled your garments with the deadness that exists all around you. You are saved and you are serving. One day, you will walk with Me in My Heaven. It will be a time of victory, festivity and purity.” That is His promise to all those who are saved by His grace.
Jesus tells the rest that is they will repent, and turn to Him, they will receive some precious promises, “the same shall be clothed in white raiment” – They will be made pure and victorious. “I will not blot out his name out of the book of life” – They will be made secure in the relationship with Him. By the way, this verse is not a verse that serves as a threat of loss. It is a verse that offers a precious promise of absolute security to all those who believe in Jesus. Someday, Jesus will usher His redeemed ones into the presence of the hosts of Heaven and say, “This is one of Mine! He was not ashamed of me and I am not ashamed of him!”
Our Lord once again closes with this warning, He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. In other words, take heed to what the Holy Spirit had to say.
As we prepare to close here tonight, may I ask how are we doing? Do we still have a vision? Are we still part of a movement that has momentum? Or have we forgotten that vision? Have we lost that vision, have we lost that movement, and have we lost that momentum? Have we become nothing more than a monument remembering a glorious past? Do we have no desire to see the lost saved, those in our community saved? Are we simply a church with a name that says we’re alive or are we like Sardis dead?
Folks, I don’t believe that to be the case at all! We still see growth, harmony, emotion, and motion within this church. We still see a great spirit among the people, we’re still seeing souls saved, and lives changed. And you know what? Praise God for it! So why this message? Because if we’re not careful and watchful, we can easily become like Sardis. A church with a name that says we’re alive yet dead! The Great Physician has His finger on the pulse of this church and on that of every member. What does His touch reveal about us, reveal about you, reveal about me? I want to challenge each of you as we close here tonight to examine your heart and the life of this church so that we can keep being a Lighthouse for the Lost in every sense of the meaning!
Listen to this Message Here: http://libcphiladelphia.sermon.tv/mc/9566066