How sad it is that so many congregations of the Lord’s people are dying. Sadder still, the fact that much of it could be prevented. Major health problems often advertise their presence through minor symptoms. Doctors recommend routine health screenings to look for signs of trouble. In many cases, if symptoms can be identified early then steps can be taken to prevent any major problems. The health of the church operates in the same fashion. By looking closely at symptoms, one can get an idea as to the overall condition of the congregation.
Revelation begins with addresses to 7 congregations scattered throughout Asia Minor. Each one receives commendation and/or condemnation for matters occurring in their midst. These churches stand as a perfect model for congregations today. The symptoms of disease in the first century still occur in the 21st century, and if we can identify them we can treat them. What are the symptoms?
A congregation that leaves its first love (Rev. 2:4). A congregation of God’s people can be as straight as a gun barrel in matters of doctrine but empty as an abyss in matters of the heart. This is what we find with the church at Ephesus. They were hardworking, dedicated, steadfast, and faithfully opposed error, yet their heart was not in the right place. They had left their first love. They did all the right things for all the wrong reasons.
God is concerned both with what we do and why do we do it (Matt. 6:1ff). Our labor is to be an outgrowth of our love (1 Thess. 1:3). Without love what we say, what we have, and what we give means nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). All things are to be done in love (1 Cor. 16:14). A congregation may have great numbers and engage in many good works, but without sincere and zealous love for the Lord, those things are meaningless.
A congregation that tolerates sin (Rev. 2:14-15; 20). Amos 5:15 commands “hate the evil and love the good.” Paul said genuine love abhors what is evil and clings to what is good (Rom. 12:9). These two actions are not mutually exclusive and yet so often we live as though they are. The churches in Pergamos and Thyatira knew what it was to cling to the good but failed in hating the evil. Pergamos tolerated the doctrines of Baalam and the Nicolaitans while Thyatira allowed a Jezebel to seduce brethren to commit fornication.
Sin, in every form, will spread through a congregation like a poison and kill the church if allowed to go on unchecked. Joshua learned that lesson regarding Achan and the church at Corinth was rebuked sternly for turning a blind eye to sexual immorality in the congregation (Josh. 7; 1 Cor. 5). Though it may not be easy, we have an obligation to deal with sin in the church. Though a body may appear healthy externally, it may be rotting away and dying internally. Such is the reality of a congregation that allows sin to fester in its midst.
A congregation that is lukewarm (Rev. 3:15-16). Laodicea was a wealthy resort town known as a retreat city for the wealthy. It was well-known for its black sheep wool, eye salve, and hot spring bath houses. The congregation had obviously developed the laid back attitude of the city. They were completely indifferent to the Lord and His work. Such an attitude made the Lord sick. “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you our of My mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
A lukewarm congregation is one that simply exists. The people go through the motions and trappings of Christianity without any care or passion one way or the other. Evangelism is haphazard, worship is just a duty, and when the final “Amen” is uttered, the people race to see who can exit the building first. Such is the same mentality which existed in the children of Israel when Elijah asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). A lack of enthusiasm for the Lord is a sure sign of inward decay.
A congregation that falls asleep (Rev. 3:1-2). The church at Sardis was dying and did not know it. They had fallen asleep. Jesus said, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (Rev. 3:1-2). Note that they “had a name” but their name was not indicative of reality.
A congregation may be well known in the brotherhood because of its work and large numbers, but numbers and names are not necessarily an indicator of good health. Many are the stories of celebrities who seemed to have it all to the public eye but were privately falling apart. If we allow ourselves to become comfortable with the status quo, always look for the path of least resistance, and be satisfied with simply being satisfied, then we are standing in the shoes of Sardis.
It is tragic to watch a congregation wither away and die needlessly. Thankfully the Great Physician knows the cure. Each of the congregations in Asia Minor were exhorted to repent and assured of their Lord’s approval upon doing so. Nothing has changed. Dying congregations need only to honestly examine their symptoms in light of God’s Word and change. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches.