By Andy Alexander
The Lord said of the church at Sardis, “that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 2:1). Sardis had been alive spiritually, for the Lord told them to remember how they had received and heard, but now, although they had a reputation for being alive, they were dead. Obviously, the Christians at Sardis were not aware of their dire condition.
It is a sad fact that local churches die from time to time, but what causes a thriving, spiritually alive, local church to die? What are some of the signs that point to this happening? We want to notice some of the possible warning signs of death in this article in hopes of strengthening the church of our Lord. A congregation may have some of the signs mentioned, but not all. Whatever the case, if there is improvement that we can make in our personal lives and we make it, then this improvement will strengthen the local church of which we are members.
Signs of Approaching Death
These are outward signs that warn of the approaching death of a congregation. These signs would suggest a deeper spiritual problem, which if corrected, could save a congregation from death.
One sign that indicated the Hebrew brethren were drifting was that some were forsaking the assembly (Heb. 10:25). Our love for our brethren and the Lord will naturally grow cold if we cease to assemble regularly with them (Heb. 10:23-24). As the passage teaches, we are to be present to stir each other up unto love and good works. If we forsake the assembling of the saints, then we cannot be encouraged by them and they cannot be encouraged by us. In fact, we would be a discouragement to those who do faithfully assemble to worship God.
The figures on the attendance board can be an indicator of a serious problem. When gaps begin to appear between different services of the church, then we can know that a problem exists that needs attention.
Another warning sign closely associated with forsaking the assembly is if only very few are concerned about those who miss regularly. Concerned enough, that is, to call or visit and inquire as to the reason for their absence and rebuke if necessary (2 Tim. 4:2). A love for the Lord is waning in the life of those who forsake the assembly, but also in the life of their brethren who feel no compulsion to try to save their lost soul (Gal. 6:1; John 13:34-35).
The cares and pleasures of life are an ever present danger for the children of God (Luke 8:14). Satan has infiltrated many local churches via this avenue. He has been successful in convincing us that the pursuit of material goods and fun and games is more important than working diligently for the Lord in his vineyard (1 Cor. 3:9; John 9:4). This is not to say that material goods and recreation are sinful, but they can become such if we get our lives out of balance and begin to place more emphasis on these earthly treasures than on the kingdom of God.
How many Christians can find time to play softball, soccer, or golf two or three times a week, work overtime or take on a second job, but can barely work in enough time to assemble with saints? And when we do squeeze the services into our hectic schedules, our lessons are not done and our children are not prepared for class. If we find ourselves so busy or so tired that at-tending services is a burden and we are rarely, if ever, prepared when we do attend, then could we possibly be doing other things the Lord has commanded of us? Jesus commands us to read and meditate on his word, to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction, to teach our neighbors and our children the gospel, to encourage our brethren, to be hospitable, to restore those who have erred from the truth, and to care for our aged parents (1 Tim. 4:13-16; Jas. 1:27; Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 6:4; Heb. 10:23-25; 1 Pet. 4:9; Jas. 5:19-20; 1 Tim. 5:16). This list is not exhaustive, but how many who have difficulty attending because of the cares and pleasures of life are actively carrying out any of these commands? “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3). No, God’s commandments are not grievous, they just get in the way of secular things we would rather be doing.
Another sign of approaching death can be seen in our close associates. Jesus associated with sinners with one goal in mind saving their souls (Matt. 9:10-12). His closest friends and those he associated with on a regular basis were his disciples (Matt. 12:46-50; John 11:1-5; 15:14). Our close friends may be good, moral people in the eyes of the world, but do they strengthen us in Christ? Do we open our mouth and try to teach them the truth as Jesus did when he encountered those in the world? If we are actively trying to teach them the truth, one of two things will likely occur: they will either obey the gospel or begin to shun us. This is a natural consequence of teaching the gospel; either people obey Christ or they reject him (Matt. 12:30). Those who reject him usually feel condemned by those who accept him, and they generally do not want to keep company with those they feel condemned by.
How does this relate to our topic about a dying church? If we find ourselves readily accepted by those in the world, maybe we are not actively trying to reach them with the gospel. And, just maybe, they are pulling us away from those we ought to be associating with our brethren. The more we are separated from our brethren, the more likely our love for them will grow cold.
We are commanded to exhort one another daily according to Hebrews 3:13. Yet, the only time we see our brethren is three times a week at most and that for only a few brief minutes after services, then how can we do much exhorting. It is a serious problem and needs more than a Band-Aid to repair it when most members of a congregation would rather be with worldly people instead of their brethren.
Another sign of approaching death is when the church produces more coaches, fishermen, hunters, ball players, shoppers, and such like than Bible class teachers, elders, preachers, and godly women. The Hebrew brethren were rebuked for their lack of growth in this area (Heb. 5:12-14). There had been sufficient time for them to have matured in Christ to the point where they could be teachers, but instead, they were in need of someone teaching them the first principles of the oracles of God.
Is it becoming more difficult to find among our own members those who will put forth the time and effort necessary to work up a sermon or teach a Bible class for a quarter? Are teachers coming to class prepared? Are we challenging our class or the congregation? Does our class invite discussion and comments, or snores and dreams?
When we have members who are capable of teaching in the local schools or willing to coach just about any recreational activity, then ability to teach is not the problem. A knowledge of the subject may be lacking, but that can be remedied with a regular study period each day. The problem is willingness. Some are willing to study and teach secular subjects for money. Others are willing to learn about and teach recreational activities because their children are involved, and they believe that wholesome recreation is a must for a child to grow up normal in the twentieth century. Granted, there is nothing wrong with some wholesome recreation, but do our children witness us placing more emphasis on earthly exercise than godly exercise?
There seems to be no shortage of coaches, school teachers, and recreational directors, but there does seem to be a dearth when it comes to Bible class teachers, elders, preachers, and godly mothers who work at home. Do we have to be lying on our death bed before we recognize the importance of learning, obeying, and teaching God’s word to the next generation?
A lack of discipline will cause a congregation to weaken and be susceptible to death. The church of Christ in Corinth was admonished to withdraw from an erring brother in order to save his soul. An additional reason for purging out the wicked from among them was “that a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). When there is no enforcement of the law, sin will spread. For example, if some young people are permitted to dress immodestly, others will ultimately follow their example. When the first group is not disciplined for their sinful actions, then the second group will usually be allowed their indiscretions and generations to come will likely follow these bad examples. When one group’s sins are not addressed as they should be, then another group with different sins will be strengthened to continue in their evil ways.
In Kentucky the speed limit is rarely enforced. The result: nearly everyone speeds. Likewise, if God’s laws are not enforced, then sin will be the result and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We need to see God’s law will eventually be enforced (John 5:28-29). Many are not disciplined in local congregations because some are afraid that discipline will bring trouble, or that the one who needs to be disciplined is a family member. Discipline will strengthen the local church and love for our erring family members ought to cause us to want to do all we can to bring about their salvation. Besides, our failure to discipline is disobedience to God (2 Cor. 2:9).
Another sign of spiritual illness is when a local church begins to take in sinful members from other congregations. Problems are welcomed into the local body that may not show up for several years. If one congregation takes in leaven that has been purged from another congregation, the leavening process will continue wherever the leaven is allowed to do its evil work. Leaven imported from another congregation will destroy a church just as fast as the home-grown variety.
A congregation is also in danger of death when it de-sires weak, watered-down preaching and the preacher fulfills their desire. Timothy was taught to stand firm and “preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; re-prove, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4 :2). Paul warns us that some will not want sound doctrine, but the evangelist is to preach to please God and not men (2 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 Thess. 2:4).
Preaching like Jesus, Peter, Stephen, and Paul will be offensive to some in the church today, but God will be pleased and honest hearts will respond to God’s call (Matt. 5:8; Lk. 8:15). Sermons that exposed error and pointed the way to salvation caused the first century church to be persecuted, but it also brought on unprecedented growth (Eph. 5:11; Acts 19:1-20). God’s word is just as powerful today, and if we would wield the sword God has given us as the first century Christians wielded it, then perhaps we would see similar results (Rom. 1:16; Eph. 6:17).
This list of warning signs is not exhaustive. Hopefully, we will examine ourselves and make correction where correction is needed (2 Cor. 13:5). No congregation has to die, but die it will if its members drift through life and never make any self-examination and correction. James warns about those who look into God’s mirror, the Word, and see flaws, but do not make the needed correction (Jas. 1:23-24). Let us be wise hearers of the Word and strengthen the church of our Lord. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Guardian of Truth XL: 2 p. 6-7
January 18, 1996