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IS YOUR CHURCH DEAD?


I have, once again, been studying my favourite book in the Bible, that of The Revelation and each time I read it I find there are more personal revelations that come to me from this wonderful writing. It is such an inspiring book and one that cannot be exhausted in what it can say, providing the reader is prepared to listen to what God is saying and not just read the words (that sadly is what most people do when they read God’s word).

In my writings for this message, I want to look at a particular passage. One that most have probably read countless times but, I wonder, how many have listened to what it actually is saying. 

"To the angel of the church in Sardis write:  These are the words of Him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.  I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up!  Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.  But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you."     Revelation 3:1-3

Let’s start with how can we define what John means by the church, not just for Sardis but for the other six churches of Revelation as well.

Firstly we will look at what he is probably not defining the church as. It is extremely unlikely that he is talking about some form of physical structure made of wood, stone or whatever building material might be used, depending upon the part of the world we are in and the prosperity of the community. I say this because, the inference of the word church throughout the Bible is one of the “people who gather together” rather than a physical structure.

What, I believe, is the purpose of the letters to the seven churches is that it clearly defines the seven major categories that church fellowships can be classified as. While I am careful not to be rigid in this definition, those who have really studied the basic characteristics of these seven churches all appear to agree that it is unlikely you will find a major classification not covered by these seven. Secondly, we need to be aware that any specific fellowship/group may cover more than one of these categories in it’s lifetime. There is inference here in the Sardis message that there were certainly times when it might have had other classifications instead of this one.

Now, let’s look at some possibilities of who he is talking to. I say some, because others may have had other revelations as to what they feel may be the “church”.

The first one is it is probably certain that he was talking to one (or all) of the groups that gathered in the actually mentioned community/city. In this instance we are talking about those in the city of Sardis. We are not told whether there was just one fellowship in the city of Sardis or not. Nor are we told if (assuming multiple fellowships) there was interaction between the groups. Whatever the case, it is not important to the message.

The important thing is that John is addressing a situation that God had revealed to him about this fellowship. This church was, apparently, quite a high profile fellowship with plenty of activity happening and lot’s of “noise”. However, the revelation to John is that this is all just show. In today’s world we would possibly call it advertising hype. Plenty of things to say how wonderful they were but absolutely no truth behind what was being seen and said. John warns them that they had better change their ways otherwise what they thought they had would actually be taken away from them, along with the things they really had, and they would be left with nothing.

Now I think it is only fair to this church that I make the following statement. The passage does not say that everyone associated with this fellowship was the same. It is highly probable that there were some (though probably not many) who were very much alive in Jesus and were probably despairing of what was happening within their fellowship: wondering how things might be turned around and made like it should be.

Okay. this is the first “church” that the passage refers to (keeping in mind we can apply this interpretation to the other churches mentioned in these 7 churches).

What of the others?

I want to mention three others that come immediately to my mind.

The first of those is church fellowships we might encounter if we were to do an historical research project into churches from the first century through to the times of recent history. As we did our research it is highly probable that we would find many fellowships that fitted the characteristics that John has written in this passage. The number would be proportionally dependant on the amount of research we had done. I won’t dwell on this aspect as much of what would apply here, applies to the next group.

Now we look at modern churches. I have attended many different churches over the years for a variety of reasons as I have moved around the country as a part of my work, my ministry or my personal travels. It is sad when I attend a church that fits these characteristics, especially when I go out into the local community of that church and hear that people are saying what an active and alive church it is. How sad. You sit in a meetings and there is so much hype, activity and noise that you realise there is no way the Holy Spirit could attend this church because they are far too busy to have time for truly spiritual things. Sure, they are “seen” to be full of everything but you leave with a feeling of total emptiness and wondering what it was you had just attended.

Again, I am quick to add that I don’t believe that everyone in that fellowship was of the same spirit. On many occasions the Holy Spirit led me to talk with someone afterwards who made it quite clear that they lamented the sad state of their church that was “too busy” for God. Such revelations have always encouraged me because I know that it was the Holy Spirit that led them to feel they could say something to me at the time and that tells me there is still a heart beat there that God could use to revive the church.

I don’t want to go into the reasons why churches fall into the “Sardis Syndrome” as the reasons can be many. Some of those can include the presence of dynamic pastors who have gone astray;  the presence of dominant local people who “control” the fellowship; maybe they have just lost direction; or maybe countless other reasons. Whatever the case, the church has lost its way and needs to heed the warning to return to God’s ways. Sadly, however, one influence that appears is not a local influence but the influence of a parent church which has lost its way and has dragged the churches under it down. This can be regional, national or even international. Obviously, the higher up the chain the devil can corrupt, the more people he will drag down by doing so. This is not limited to modern churches but to the more traditional churches as well because none are immune to the temptation and to falling.

Appearance is very easy to generate in the modern world because so very few people know the truth of God’s word anymore that they are easily deceived by what might have an outward appearance of being “Bible based”. So a church (and this is not pointed at any group around) that is seen to have very rousing music, lots of dancing, clapping and praising, large congregations and much activity will attract attention of non-Christians and, especially, the media. People are quick to say how wonderful they are and talk about all the things they do but, because these are not tested against God’s word, fail to realise that it is all empty show.

I think most people would know or know of churches that, sadly, fit in that category. This is the very church John wrote about in this passage.

Now my fourth “group” is going to raise eyebrows.

I will start by saying this: no, confessing this. This is about my personal experience above all things.

This last group is about personal connection with God. It is not about (though it can certainly be influenced by) a group of people who fellowship together but it is about how an individual’s relationship with God is happening. In my lifetime I will confess to at least 2 periods in my life where I was under the “Sardis Syndrome”. I am not proud of that aspect, far from it, but I have certainly been there.

Why? Because I lost my way through various influences and wandered off the path God wanted me to be on. I doubt if any (maybe there was one or two) who would have known because I still gave all the outward appearances of being right up there with it. On one of those occasions, I was not aware I had walked that path until I was back on the right one. That is how subtle it can be. I would also be prepared to confess that I have experienced, in my personal walk, all seven of John’s churches from Revelation.

Now having made my confession, I will proceed to talk about the “Sardis Syndrome” as it applies to the individual.

It is far too easy (if we are not very diligent) to get so involved with the outward show that we overlook, even forget, the spiritual truth of it all. As a musician I have always found it so much easier to perform out front of my church than to lead praise and worship. Many would probably not know the difference, because it is all about attitude. Whose glory am I seeking? God’s or mine. It is very easy to seek my glory and most people, if they are honest, will know what I mean in that sense. With being a musician, there is added pressure because there is a very fine line between  performing (that is seeking my glory) and being dynamic in my presentation (that is bringing glory to God). But this aspect applies to most frontline Gospel workers because you are “up the front” and you therefore are an influence on others. This makes you vulnerable to the attacks by the devil because, if he can lead you astray then two things happen: you have a reduced effectiveness in your witness; and you are likely to lead others of the right path at the same time.

So, if you go back and read the passage again, you can see just how much John has touched this subject as he wrote.

Now I have listed four interpretations to this passage, but I would be most surprised if there wasn’t more: just that God has not revealed them to me because that is His choice.


CONCLUSION

Regardless of which interpretation we choose to work under (and I guess the modern church and the personal aspect are the real ones to be concerned about, as the others are now historical), the result is the same.

The warning is very clear. “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.  But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” It is up to us to recognise we are in this state and turn and repent, because the alternative is to lose what we have got, including our very soul.


R.J.Burling