Though the reality of weak and dying congregations of God’s people saddens us, we take comfort in the fact that there are many congregations throughout the world that are thriving. In addressing the 7 churches in Asia, Jesus highlighted the good along with the bad (Rev. 2-3). A careful examination of each address reveals important characteristics which are present in healthy and thriving churches.
Congregations that are hardworking (Rev. 2:2- 3; 2:19). To the church at Ephesus Jesus said, “I know your… labor” (Rev. 2:2). The word “labor” has to do with exhausting and toilsome work. As we sometimes say, “he works his fingers to the bone.” To the church at Thyatira Jesus said, “…and as for your works, the last are more than the first” (Rev. 2:19). Such a commendation indicates that their service in the Kingdom was growing and improving with time. These two passages make clear the fact that Christ wants hardworking congregations.
We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10) and we must be “zealous” in them (Tit. 2:14). God does not want congregations to exist solely as a “worshipping society,” in which members show up on Sunday to worship but put forth no other effort in service to God. He wants congregations who are busy teaching (2 Tim. 2:2), serving (Gal. 6:10), and encouraging (Rom. 14:19). Such congregations exist because of the individuals who make them up. If congregations which work like Ephesus and Thyatira are to exist, then Christians who work like Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:5), and Tryphena and Tryphosa (Rom. 16:12) must exist. What about you? What about your congregation?
Congregations that are opportunistic (Rev. 3:7-8). To the church in Philadelphia Jesus said, “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (Rev. 3:8). This congregation was small but powerful. Their resources were limited, perhaps, but they had opportunity because the Lord had opened a door for them that no man could close, not even their enemies.
Opportunistic congregations are like the men of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32. They know the times. They are in tune with the needs and concerns of the people, and they are constantly evaluating themselves to determine how best to maximize every opportunity to work and serve. When the disciples returned to Jesus in John 4 they seemed oblivious to the opportunities before them. Jesus had just finished talking with the Samaritan woman who subsequently went into the city and told everyone about Him. Instead of focusing on the approaching crowd of people, the disciples were concerned with whether Jesus had eaten. So He said, “Do you not say, There are still four months and then comes the harvest? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest” (John 4:35). Concerning your congregation, are you more like the men of Issachar or the disciples?
Congregations that oppose sin (Rev. 2:2). Unlike many other congregations addressed, Ephesus was commended for her faithfulness in opposing sin and error. Jesus said, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not and have found them liars” (Rev. 2:2). To “test” is to determine the nature of something through close examination. Ephesus looked closely at false apostles and rejected them. They could not “bear,” or tolerate, them, or any evil, to any degree. Faithful congregations follow in their footsteps. We love the good and hate the evil (Rom. 12:9).
Sin is a cancer and when it is allowed to exist within a congregation of God’s people, it will ultimately bring about their ruin. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6) which is why Paul commanded the Ephesian elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has mad you overseers” (Acts 20:28). If sin is present within the body we must “cut off the opportunity” (2 Cor. 11:12) for it to spread. Such is not always easy. It often involves uncomfortable conversations, confrontation, and no shortage of tears and heartache. Yet, it must be done to preserve the overall health of the body.
Congregations that are faithful through persecution (Rev. 2:3; 9; 13; 19; 3:4). Ephesus had borne and been patient (Rev. 2:3). Smyrna suffered through tribulation and poverty yet remained faithful (Rev. 2:9). Pergamos is where Satan’s seat was (Rev 2:13). Thyatira was patient (Rev. 2:19), and even Sardis had a few which had not defiled their garments (Rev. 3:4). Though many of these congregations had problems which needed to be addressed, they were all commended to some degree for their steadfastness in persecution.
Persecution and Christianity go hand in hand (cf. Matt. 5:10-12; 2 Tim. 3:12). It is not a question of if but when, and how severe the persecution will be. What must be remembered is that trial and persecution can strengthen us if we endure them faithfully. James wrote, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas. 1:2-3). It is interesting to note that nothing is said of Laodicea’s suffering. Perhaps this is a reason why they were lukewarm. Faithful congregations stand for truth and standing for truth will inevitably draw the ire of the enemy. But regardless of the severity of the storm, they stand firm and endure.
Congregations that are rich where it matters (Rev. 2:9). Smyrna was an important center of Imperial worship. The trade guilds and religious cults were important there and whoever refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would be excluded. The Saints there struggled to make it. Jesus described them as “poor.” A term that refers to abject poverty where one possesses nothing. And yet He also said they were rich. Not in material goods, but in spiritual (cf. Matt. 6:19- 21).
The overall health of a congregation is not measured by the size of their building, number of members, or financial resources. Individuals make up the whole and if the individuals are sound, then so too, the whole. A congregation of 25 faithful servants is more powerful than a congregation of 500 who are unsound.
Though it is tragic to see sick congregations shrivel away to nothing, we take great joy in the fact that so many congregations of God’s people are healthy and thriving. God’s Word provides the information the church needs to thrive, and every congregation has the ability to follow the prescription. Sick churches can repent and be healthy again. Sound churches can ensure their health long-term. With scripture as your guide, make an honest evaluation of yourself and your congregation. Are you willing to do what it takes to ensure that your congregation flourishes?
Cody Westbrook serves as the minister for the Southwest Church of Christ, Austin, TX