But we don’t have to. We have Scripture. And not only does God’s Word contain a record of the teachings of Jesus on earth (in the Gospels) and the inspired apostolic interpretations of those teachings, it also contains the oft-overlooked Revelation of Jesus Christ and its seven letters from Jesus to seven churches (from whence this blog derives its name). We need not guess or grasp.
Want to know Jesus’ position on sexual ethics for a church that finds itself in a pluralistic, over-tolerant, “sexually liberated” culture? It’s tempting to read our own views into Jesus’ heart and lips (i.e. “I just can’t imagine Jesus saying…”), but to do so is naive at best and idolatrous at worst. How much better to read the letters written by Jesus to churches in almost the same setting (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira), in which Jesus addresses these issues directly?
Likewise, when it comes to philosophies of ministry, particularly the hot-button issues of Church Growth and Church Health, it’s easy for all of us to assume that Jesus wants to use whatever ideas, strategies, traditions, or gimmicks we prefer in order to grow our churches. I know I’m guilty of this. And if we’re clever, we can even frame certain narratives from the Gospels such that Jesus seems to be on board with this or that trend, book, or buzzword.
These days, I most often see this done (and have been frequently tempted to carry it out myself) with regard to the uber-popular notion that you can tell where God is moving (and how powerfully he’s moving) by how many people gather together, how much of a buzz a church generates in the media, and how large and impressive the facility is.1 This assumption is so prevalent in mainstream Evangelicalism today (under more than a dozen different banners and slogans) that it is now assumed without challenge by many pastors and church members. And, as a result, many pastors and church members find themselves discouraged, beaten down, even despondent by the fact that God is apparently not working in their normal, ordinary, non-state-of-the-art, non-revolutionary churches.
And yet, in Jesus’ earthly ministry, we don’t see Our Lord sharing this assumption, nor do we see this in his seven letters. There are innumerable charts out there, showing the seven-fold structure these letters follow, and even a quick glance at one of these charts reveals a few intentional holes in some letters. These holes are very telling. The two churches with no commendation or praise at all2 are the two most impressive, outwardly successful churches who generate the biggest buzz. Likewise, the two churches with no rebuke or threat are the two least impressive, seemingly insignificant (from the world’s perspective) congregations who really ought to meet with a consultant and razzle-dazzle up their operation. But Jesus does not tell the struggling churches to emulate the superstars. Quite the opposite.
This is not the first time Jesus addresses this theme. In John 6, we find what Dr. Robert Godfrey has called “Jesus’ Church Shrinkage Seminar.” Jesus, who has just met the felt-needs (read: fish and chips) of thousands of people, starts the chapter with five thousand plus consumers and weeds it down to a handful of disciples. They leave because he’s teaching “difficult doctrine” (including the doctrine of election) and emphasizing the importance of the Lord’s Supper, which the crowds find to be not only irrelevant but downright creepy (drink your blood?). And Jesus’ response is not to entice them all back and say, “Sorry about that, guys! What do you want me to teach about and emphasize? How may I further meet your felt needs today?” No, he turned to his disciples and said, “Are you leaving too?” He knows their true need, and while it was easy for Jesus to keep himself surrounded by happy, adoring crowds, he did not give in to the temptation.
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying here: I’m not saying that big churches are bad and small churches are good. Many small churches are dying because they have become little more than social clubs for their members. Others have embraced the Sardisian philosophy with abandon, trapped in the same destructive thought patterns as Sardis, but without the trappings of outward success.
On the flip side, when large numbers of people truly come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, that’s something to be celebrated. In Acts 2, we’re told that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls . . . and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (vv. 41, 47, ESV) During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards reached tens of thousands of people with the Gospel. Spurgeon likewise had a very large church and, today, I could name off the top of my head at least twenty megachurches (complete with video production teams and house bands and multiple campuses) that are solid, Gospel-focused churches. Two in my own town. But the reason we know that God is at work in these churches is because they’re faithfully preaching the Gospel, not because they’re huge, cool, slick, or famous. And not because the number of people in the auditorium is growing larger. Growth is good when it results from the seed landing on Good Soil, but as any oncologist will tell you, all growth is not good growth (particularly not fast, superficial growth).
Whether a church is alive or dead depends not on how big or impressive it is, how cherry the coffee bar, or whether their service is broadcast in three states, but on what they value. The marks of a church, according to the reformers, are the preaching of the Word and the sacraments (sometimes church discipline is thrown in their too). Are these central to a church? If so, that’s a good start. Is their primary reason for gathering together to receive Christ in the Word read and preached and in the bread and the cup? Are they preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name and equipping members to go out and fulfill the Great Commission? What do our churches ultimately want for themselves? What’s the big dream?
This is often readily observable in church mission/vision statements, some of which are so focused on the outward, worldly marks of success that they may as well read, “We want to be like Sardis. We want our church to be loved in the community, for people to come in by the droves, feeling right at home, having their needs met and itches scratched. We want to grow, not because sinners are repenting of their sins and coming to faith, but because masses are coming in and filing the seats. We want our church to be on the news, to hear the world praising us without reservation.” And even when the official documents don’t lay it out like that, our hearts often do. I don’t know a single pastor (myself included) who doesn’t struggle with a desire to exhibit this type of success in our churches.
Again, this is our default assumption at its strongest, because this is where I get to assume that God wants to glorify me. Was Jesus Himself tempted by this train of thought? Yes. When Jesus hadn’t eaten for forty days, and had been driven/led out to the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted by the devil, Satan knew he only had a few shots at the Son of God. He had to make each one count; he had to pull his most effective weapons out of his arsenal. And two of the three temptations were exactly along these lines: don’t go the way of the cross, instead go the way of pleasing men and receiving their praise. Go the way of big, outward success by compromising on the whole “taking up your cross and dying” issue.
If Jesus could be tempted this way, let none of us think we’re above it. And if Jesus could resist that temptation by looking to Scripture, then we can as well. And that’s why we’re doing this study. Too many times, from the inside and the outside, I’ve seen churches throw themselves into programs that essentially promise to turn your church into Sardis. I’ve seen churches (sometimes despondant) buy the books and the kits, implement the programs, only to get surveyed to death, torn up by conflict, their funds depleted, and little or nothing to show for it. But the sad thing is that, in most cases, even if the book or program had delivered, to be like Sardis, with all the signs of life, the perfect branding, the punchy vision statement, and the buzz all around—and yet with anything but the ordinary means of the reading and preaching of the Word and the administering at the sacraments at our core—we’re walking right into a harsh rebuke from him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
We’re now working our way through the diagnosis. Bear with me; we’ll soon be speaking in positive terms, looking to Scripture for a cure. In our next post, we’ll have a look at the actual city of Sardis and the situation there. Until then, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Soli Deo Gloria,
1 We will not flesh it out here, but one can easily derail this assumption by pointing to Mormonism or Islam or even the New Atheism; many unbiblical systems of thought and worship are “growing” from a worldly perspective. Is God by necessity working in these? Sadly, more and more of the early leaders in the resurgence of Sardisian church philosophy seem to be following this reasoning to its natural conclusion and assuming that God is, in fact, at work just as much in Christless man-made religion as long as it appears to be growing in some sense.
2 We’ll deal with the existence of a faithful remnant in Sardis in a future post.