Summary: When the heart goes out of our faith, then the life goes out of our church. A vital congregation has its source in God.
Nobody wants to be a part of a dead church. Not even Jesus! In the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, we find Jesus speaking to the church in a city called Sardis, and you know what he says? He says: “I know your works; you have a name [for] being alive, but [actually] you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). In other words, their reputation was still intact, but, spiritually speaking, it was a lifeless congregation. What an indictment! And from the lips of Jesus himself! Here was a church that couldn’t have been more than a few decades old, and yet already it was dead.
You can tell when a church is dead. For one thing, there’s no sense of purpose. There’s no compelling reason for the church to exist. People just seem to be going through the motions. And, as someone has said, “When there is no vision, private agendas rise to the surface.” Suddenly, everything becomes “about me.” The church becomes a club with member benefits. There’s an inward focus, and all people want is to have their needs met. There comes about what the Bible calls “a famine…of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). It’s not that the Bible is not read; it may even be proclaimed from the pulpit and taught from the lectern. It’s just not listened to. It’s not obeyed. The Bible’s authority is minimized, and so people feel free to take it or leave it. And they don’t pray. At least, they don’t pray with much fervency or passion or expectation. And, on top of all that, there is often an atmosphere of criticism and blame. There is a climate of negativity, a downward spiraling of emotion. And, of course, when a church no longer knows what it is supposed to do – when it doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose – it tends to dissipate it resources in doing everything – or anything – else!
John Kotter, who is a Harvard business prof, says that stagnant organizations – like dead churches – are characterized by one or another of two highly dangerous conditions. I want you to listen to this. I want you to hear what it is Kotter has to say. He claims that the first hazardous condition is one of complacency. No surprise there. Right? But look at what he says about complacency. According to Kotter, complacency “always comes from success.” Isn’t that interesting? It “always comes from success and [unfortunately it] lives long after the success has disappeared.” Complacent churches don’t see what’s happening. They don’t see that past triumphs no longer provide the momentum they need for future survival.
The other hazardous condition is what Kotter calls a false sense of urgency. Now, according to Kotter, every organization – whether a church or a family or a school or a business – every organization needs a sense of urgency. But there is what he calls a false sense of urgency. While complacency is a result of waning success, false urgency is spawned by what? By a sense of failure. I can see that; can’t you? Attendance is down. Money is short. The building is crumbling. Whatever. And suddenly there is a flurry of activity. That’s the first sign of false urgency. People run from meeting to meeting. Agendas are crowded and lengthy. Everyone is engaged in a doing more and trying harder. And it doesn’t change a thing – except, perhaps, to make everyone feel exhausted.
There is probably no clearer portrayal of a dead church than Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. I mean, look how graphic his description is! The valley was “full of bones.” There were, according to the prophet “very many” of them. It wasn’t just a pile here and there. The entire valley was blanketed with lifeless bones. Dry – Ezekiel says “very dry” – porous, sun-bleached bones. And did you notice what God said to Ezekiel near the end of the passage? He said, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”
Here was the congregation of Israel – the church under the Old Covenant – and it was as dead and lifeless as the congregation in Sardis, the church under the New Covenant. Maybe more so. As Ezekiel stood knee-deep in the midst of all those brittle bones on the valley floor, God asked him: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And that’s the question we want to get the answer to, isn’t it? But before we jump to the answer, I want us to look at something else.
And please understand: I’m not saying that our church is dead. I think we do sometimes slip into complacency because we think everything is fine, and I think we are sometimes tempted to engage in false urgency, slapping band-aids on perceived problems rather than getting to the root of them. But I don’t think we’re dead. I just don’t want us ever to slip into deadness. And I don’t think you do either.