A Dead Church

A Dead Church: Jesus’ Condemnation and Challenge to Sardis

Have you ever heard someone refer to a church as being “dead”? Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “I grew up in a dead church,” or perhaps, “That church is dead. Avoid it.” But what really defines a “dead” church? It’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. Dead churches still hold services, engage in singing and praying, listen to sermons, and can even experience numerical growth. From the outside, everything seems perfectly in order—buildings going up, attendance charts are up & to the right, and there is a sense of respectability within the community. Yet, spiritually, they’re on life support.

Calling a church dead is a harsh indictment but one that Jesus used to describe the church in the ancient city of Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6). Like an ER doctor examining a critical patient, Jesus diagnoses the fatal condition of the Sardis church with brutal honesty. His assessment cuts deep: “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Not a single word of praise or commendation – just a direct critique of their true spiritual state. This church had no spiritual pulse. Their works are incomplete, their confession is compromised, and the glory of Christ is absent.

How Does A Dead Church Die

The sobering truth is that churches don’t simply die overnight; instead, they decline gradually over time. They slip from a state of vibrancy to stagnation and, from there, into spiritual death—all the while oblivious to their own demise. It is a tragic reality that a dead church fails to recognize its own decline. In fact most continue to believe they are very much alive and healthy.

This slow decline should serve as a warning, prompting us to reflect on our own lives and the state of our churches. A church’s spiritual vitality is ultimately comprised of the collective spiritual health of its individual members. We must take heed and honestly assess if we have unknowingly drifted into a form of lifeless Christianity that Jesus warned against.

Are we spiritually alive and thriving, or have we allowed ourselves to slip into a state of spiritual apathy? Has my church’s passion for Christ and the gospel flatlined? Are we truly feeding on God’s Word, and is our prayer life consistent and fervent? It’s only by acknowledging the warning signs and taking corrective action that we can prevent ourselves and our churches from succumbing to spiritual lethargy and ultimately, spiritual death.

Churches Die When They Let Down Their Guard

One of the key ways churches transition from vibrancy to spiritual deadness is by letting down their guard. Just as the city of Sardis was conquered not once but twice because it failed to keep watch, churches can also be overcome by spiritual complacency and lack of vigilance. When we are not actively guarding against the encroachments of the world and the schemes of the enemy, we are vulnerable to being overrun from the inside out.

Doctrinal purity, moral integrity, and spiritual discernment require constant, diligent watchfulness. Satan doesn’t need to attack a church from the outside if he can lull it into a spiritual sleep from within. Once we let our guard down and stop being watchful over our hearts and minds, it’s a slow fade into spiritual decline and death. We must remain vigilant against the constant pull of the culture to conform, as well as guard against unbiblical ideas and practices infiltrating the church’s teachings and philosophy of ministry. A lack of vigilance is the first step to becoming a dead church.

Churches Die When They Live In The Past

Another way churches risk dying is by relying solely on past achievements or the reputation of their spiritual legacy. This slow decline can go unnoticed as churches become comfortable with past successes, reputation, and traditions, neglecting the essential work of nurturing their spiritual life.

As disciples of Jesus, we’re called to continually draw near to God, seeking His presence and guidance in our lives. This daily pursuit of intimacy with God is essential for spiritual renewal and vitality, as James reminds us, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” It’s crucial not to become complacent or stagnant in our faith but to actively pursue spiritual growth through prayer, devotion, obedience, and a vibrant connection with God.

Churches Die When They Focus On The Wrong Things 

A pivotal way churches lose their spiritual pulse and vitality is by shifting their focus away from the spiritual riches found in Christ onto secondary pursuits. It’s a subtle but dangerous shift that prioritizes worldly success metrics over the spiritual growth and transformation of individuals. When a church becomes preoccupied with priorities like facilities, events, offerings, and attendance rather than cultivating intimacy with Jesus and proclaiming His gospel, it is on the road to spiritual bankruptcy.

We feel a sense of validation when our churches are well-attended and growing numerically. But we must guard against the flawed thinking that assumes larger crowds and fuller auditoriums automatically mean we are doing things right. While growth is important, it must not come at the cost of compromising the core message of the Gospel. If our growth is a result of compromising the gospel, avoiding anything that could offend, and failing to exalt Christ above all, then we are simply growing a dead church, not an alive one.

How To Resurrect A Dead Church

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t just diagnose the problem; He offers a cure. His prescription for the Church in Sardis (and any church finding itself in a similar predicament) involves – a call to wake up, strengthen what remains, remember the Gospel daily, keep and obey it faithfully, and embrace repentance as a continual process. This blueprint for revival is not only for the collective body but also for individuals within the church.

A Call To Wake Up

The spark for revival, whether in a church or an individual’s spiritual life, begins with the wake-up call. Jesus teaches that the first step towards revival, both in our personal lives and in our church community, is to become fully aware of our true spiritual condition.

Jesus’s command beckons the church—and, by extension, all believers—to shake off complacency and apathy, confront the reality of our spiritual state, and rekindle our passion and zeal for God. This involves humbly realizing that yesterday’s victories are insufficient for today’s battles. It’s a call to vigilance, reminding us that the Christian journey is not one of coasting but of continuous growth and engagement.

Strengthen What Remains

After the wake-up call, Jesus commands the Sardis church to “strengthen what remains” of their spiritual vitality before it slips away completely. But how do we grow spiritually? We become more and more like Jesus. How do we become more like Jesus? We practice spiritual disciplines. What are spiritual disciplines? Those are practices and habits that we can incorporate into our lives that help us become more like Christ.

Growing spiritually is not about trying. It’s about training. Just as athletes rigorously train their bodies for the game, we, as followers of Jesus, must train ourselves for maturity and godliness through spiritual disciplines.

Spiritual disciplines encompass a variety of practices, including studying God’s Word, engaging in prayer, observing Sabbath rest, serving others, participating in community, practicing generosity, seeking solitude, sharing our faith, and fasting. Each of these disciplines plays a vital role in shaping us into Christlikeness.

Remember The Gospel

Jesus’ command to “remember” the Gospel points us to the foundational truth upon which we build our faith. The Gospel reminds us that Jesus lived a sinless life, fulfilling the righteous requirements that we could never achieve on our own. He willingly endured the cross, bearing the punishment for our sins and offering us forgiveness and eternal life. Moreover, through His resurrection, He conquered death, ensuring our hope of salvation and entrance into God’s kingdom.

Remembering the Gospel involves preaching it to ourselves daily, allowing its truths to penetrate our hearts and minds, and sharing it with others boldly.

Keep And Obey God’s Word

Jesus’ command to “keep and obey God’s Word” emphasizes the importance of not only knowing the teachings of Scripture but actively living them out in obedience. It’s not enough to merely possess knowledge of God’s Word; true faith demands a life characterized by obedience and application of God’s Word.

As James 1:22 states, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” When we fail to put the Scripture into obedient practice, we embrace a spiritually dead form of Christianity devoid of the power that comes through keeping Christ’s commands.

Embrace Repentance

The final step in Jesus’ revitalization process for the dying church in Sardis is the command to “repent.” Repentance is more than just acknowledging wrongdoing; it is a change of mind that leads to a change in behavior. Repentance signifies a willingness to let go of our own agenda and submit to God’s will, allowing His truth to shape our thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

Repentance doesn’t just refer to that initial turning to faith in Jesus at our conversion. It is an ongoing posture that Jesus calls all disciples to maintain daily. No matter how mature we become, none of us ever outgrow the need for frequent repentance and course correction in our walk with Christ.

We can embrace all of Jesus’ other commands to wake up, strengthen, remember, and obey – but without a lifestyle of repentance paving the way, we’ll eventually stall out spiritually.

From A Dead Church To An Alive Church

It is a sobering reality that a church can seem alive but actually be dead. Reviving a dead church or stagnant spiritual life is not easy, but it is possible through the reviving power of Christ. He is the great Physician who has diagnosed our condition and prescribed the treatment. Will we take the difficult steps toward restoration and spiritual vitality? Or will we continue fading away while falsely assured that all is well? The choice is ours – but Jesus has made clear that a vibrant, spiritually alive relationship with Him is possible.

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