It is entirely possible for a group of God's people to die. Near the end of the first century our Lord told the church at Sardis, "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Rev. 3:1). Out of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, only this congregation and the church at Laodicea seem to be lacking in outward foes, but they both had inward trouble to deal with. They were not plagued by emperor worship, the Jews or the Nicolaitans. Viewed externally, the church at Sardis looked peaceful and acceptable, a model church -- but from the Lord's viewpoint it was spiritually dead. The truth is that the church was so lifeless that it was not even worth attacking. Like some that Paul spoke of, they had "a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).
"This church has the reputation of being alive, but the Lord sees it as it actually is -- dead. Apparently this church, like the one in Ephesus, had begun with enthusiasm and a burning zeal for Christ and truth, but now it was dying of 'dry rot,' an internal deterioration. As the widow who gives herself to pleasure 'is dead while she liveth' (1 Tim. 5:6), so this church had sunk into spiritual inactivity, possibly to the level of the world, while yet maintaining an outward impression of love and piety. This describes many churches today that have a reputation of soundness and activity, but inwardly are decaying and dying." (Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction And Commentary, pp. 144, 145).
There are congregations throughout this country that are every bit as dead as the church at Sardis. Like Sardis, some of them have good reputations and a great past. They assemble every Lord's Day and observe the "acts of worship" described in the New Testament (Acts 2:42). Sometimes they point back to the past and take pride in the fact that some "great" preachers used to work with them. But, like in The Wizard of Oz, you can pull back the curtain and see them for what they really are: spiritually dead.
In our society when a dead body is 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 "contributing causes" of death. In this article we are going to do an autopsy on a dead church and look at the immediate cause of death and some contributing factors.
Over the past twenty years I have had the opportunity to preach in meetings with many different congregations -- some of which were dead and did not even know it.
In local congregations seldom is the "cause of death" easy to see. Most of the time it is not a single item that killed a church -- it was a combination of several things that brought about their demise. I think of several congregations I know of that used to have large numbers of people assemble together every Lord's Day, but now struggle to keep the electric bill paid. As an outside observer it seems to me that all of the "dead" churches I know have several things in common, and it is these elements that I want to examine here. Some of these elements might be classified as "causes" and others as "effect."
Bible classes are an expedient way to teach the story of the Bible. In Bible classes teachers can adapt the material they present to the age level and understanding of the students in their class.
Preaching from the pulpit can not be as specific, since in the same audience you might have college graduates sitting along side of high school drop-outs, babes in Christ sitting beside well-grounded Christians, those who diligently study their Bibles daily sitting by some who won't open their Bibles again till the next Sunday.
Some congregations conduct their Bible classes in a hodgepodge manner -- teachers are allowed to teach what they want whenever they want. It is not that they are teaching error, but as a whole the students are not being given the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).
Some of the Bible class books brethren use are nothing but fluff, even though they were published by well-known brethren. It is not that they contain false doctrine -- they do not contain any doctrine! This is why the brethren here in Zion have invested a great deal of time and money in developing our teaching program. Our teachers prepare all of their own class books and teaching material. The church here owns three copying machines to keep up with the demand for printed matter. Yes, it would be "cheaper" and easier to purchase printed class books, but, as everyone who has ever taught anything knows, the teachers who prepare their own material get the most out of a class. The brethren here believe that saving our children is far more important than saving a few dollars.
When a congregation neglects the Bible class program, it produces untaught Christians. Where will future elders, deacons, preachers and teachers come from, if not from a local congregation? The future of every congregation is in their own hands, not in some college operated by our brethren (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2).
Visitors to our assembly who have children usually want to see our classrooms. If they see nothing but neglect they will go elsewhere (if they care about their children).
There are some congregations that would be content if the preacher never left the four gospels in his sermons, and sadly, there are some preachers who are willing to comply! There are some passages in the Bible that are very difficult to understand. The epistles of Paul contain doctrines "in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16). The Revelation, one of the most difficult books in the Bible, contains a blessing for the one who "reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it" (Rev. 1:3).
The purpose of our preaching is to explain the Scriptures. In the days of Nehemiah, the Levites "read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading" (Nehemiah 8:8). As Paul preached the gospel of Christ in Thessalonica, he "reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3).
Dead congregations usually have a history of "short-term" preachers, i.e., men who only stay two or three years before moving on. Sometimes this is because the men they asked to work with them are lazy -- they have a three year supply of sermons and when that is exhausted they find it easier to move on than to study.
Lazy preachers can get by with just a few hours work a week -- they reach into their file cabinet on Saturday night to find out what they will preach in Sunday morning and can spend the rest of the week playing golf or reading USA Today. They never write an article, class book or prepare any original material. Some of these men are great at having tea parties, but they usually do not know the epistles from the apostles.
Sometimes churches have a high turnover of preachers because the church is full of knuckleheads and unrepentant sinners (cf. 3 John 1:9-10). I know of a few congregations who have had five preachers in the past ten years -- some men did not even stay a full year. When the truth is taught and the local Diotrephes gets his toes stepped on, the easiest thing to do is to kill the messenger (cf. Acts 7:54-60). Bickering among brethren is an infectious disease (James 3:1-12).
Neglect in the pulpit usually results in a lack of stability in a congregation and no consistency in public teaching. A new preacher does not even get a chance to know the brethren or the town before the moving van pulls up, and brethren end up hearing the same "milk" of the word without ever having the opportunity to savor the "meat" of the word (Heb. 5:12-14).
I use the word "saved" in an accommodative sense, for if there is no joy in your life I sincerely doubt if you are really saved to begin with.
Recently one of the children at this congregation showed me a piece of sour candy he had just purchased (the candy even had a warning label on it). When that little boy put the candy in his mouth he made a terrible face that reminded me of some Christians I have 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 for 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 a "cause" or "effect" of a congregation's death.
Joy is a part of Christianity. Christ is to be received with joy (Matt. 13:20). "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (Matt. 13:44).
After going out on the limited commission, "the seventy returned with joy" (Luke 10:17). Jesus told the apostles, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). While on this earth, He told them, "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24).
There is joy in heaven over a sinner who repents (Luke 15:7).
After the resurrection of Christ, the disciples worshipped the Lord and "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24:52). When the people of Samaria received the gospel, "there was great joy in that city" (Acts 8:8).
The apostle Paul tells us "the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). Joy is a part of the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22). As Christians, we can even "count it all joy" when we "fall into various trials" (Jas. 1:2).
King David had sinned grievously against God by committing adultery and murder. In humble repentance he prayed, "Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with Your generous Spirit" (Psa. 51:12).
What happens to a congregation filled with saints who have lost the "joy of their salvation"? They end up losing their children and scaring away anyone who is even remotely interested in the gospel. Who would want a "religion" that makes people so miserable? In the end, they lose their own soul as well.
This is more an "effect" than a "cause" of death. I realize the meetinghouse is just an expediency, and that we are not even required to have a meetinghouse to assemble in. I also realize the most beautiful building in the world is not a sign of spiritual vitality or the Lord's approval. However, it has been my observation that "dead" churches usually meet in unkempt or decaying buildings -- I am not talking about the cost or size of the building, but how well the brethren maintain it.
Why is an unkempt meetinghouse a "dead give-away"? The meetinghouse itself was purchased with the Lord's money, and the way brethren treat the meetinghouse is a reflection of their attitude towards the Lord.
Think of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple -- both constructed with the finest materials and put together with the greatest of care. Our meetinghouse is neither a tabernacle nor a temple, but it is a place where God's people assemble together for spiritual purposes. The building is not "holy" in any way -- but it was purchased with "holy" money (i.e., the Lord's money).
Paul told Titus to "adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things" (Titus 2:10). While this passage is specifically talking about "adorning" the gospel by our lives, it also teaches us to present the gospel in the best light possible.
Several years ago a congregation asked me to come work with them. I drove to their meetinghouse to have a discussion with the elders about the work there. When I pulled into the parking lot I noticed the sign in front of the building was severely damaged, not from a recent storm but from years of neglect. First impressions are lasting. My first impression about this congregation was that the brethren just did not care about how the rest of the world viewed them or the Lord.
Sometimes parents allow little children to mangle some of the free Bible tracts in our tract rack. When I see such disfigured tracts I throw them away -- the greatest message in the world deserves a better presentation than we often give it.
What is the harm in allowing the meetinghouse to decay? It shows a lack of appreciation for what we have and a lack of concern for things belonging to our Lord. Like the Jews in the days of Zerubbabel, it shows that we have more interest in our own houses (cf. Hag. 1:1-5).
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" (Rev. 3:3).
Our victory lies not in the past, but in the future (cf. Rev. 3:1).