“And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed…”
I Samuel 4:10
In my previous post, I made the argument that we can, in fact, judge a church based on its statistics and results if we interpret them correctly. I drew the comparison to the fig tree Jesus cursed because it had leaves with no fruit, which was an unnatural phenomenon that provoked the Lord to Command the tree to wither and die. In this post, we’ll be examining some of the more insidious signs that a church, like the cursed fig tree, is dying.
Spiritual immaturity among longtime believers
While the Bible says believers will grow in grace and in the knowledge of spiritual things, there is a problem when people who have been saved for many years, and even hold positions of authority within the church, are just discovering the most basic spiritual and doctrinal truths for the first time after so long. Longtime believers should understand what the fundamentals of the Christian faith are, that Christ is the central figure of the entire Bible, that the gospel does more than simply stamp our ticket out of Hell, and that our position in Christ is greater than our identity in temporal things. If a believer has been saved for years or decades and is just discovering these basic truths for the first time, or believing they’ve never been taught these truths before when they’ve sat in fundamental churches for years, this is a sad sign of stunted spiritual growth.
A breakdown in church discipline
In Matthew 18, Jesus prescribed the procedure for settling conflicts among believers in the local church. If a brother or sister has a grievance against another, that person is to go to the person who hurt them and speak directly with that person. If that fails to resolve the issue, they are to involve a third party to help restore them. Then, if that also fails, they are to take their grievance to the entire church.
In a sick or dying church, this biblical pattern for discipline completely breaks down. What the church is more likely to see are aggrieved members engaging in gossip and backbiting. Instead of going directly to the person who hurt them, or for whom they have spiritual concern, they run to somebody else and tattle on that person like it’s kindergarten all over again. The spiritually mature will say, “If you hear any gossip, put it out of your mind and don’t share it.” The spiritually immature will say, “If you hear any gossip, let me know everything you heard and who told you…that way we can deal with it in a scriptural way, of course.” Wink.
This fosters a Gestapo-esque mentality of gossip, talebearing, and tattling in the church, sometimes even encouraged by insecure, immature leadership…all in the name of extinguishing gossip and promoting unity in the body. Instead of being obedient to Christ’s command for church discipline, sniveling, adolescent busybodies run to a deacon or the pastor to report everything they heard…”so it can be dealt with in a scriptural way, of course.” Wink. And the next thing you know, biblical church discipline has been exchanged for a weeks-long sound off from the pulpit publicly targeting a handful of individuals over a private conversation that occurred weeks or months ago. Obviously, just like Jesus intended.
Predictable, prefabricated church services
A hallmark of a dead church is dead worship.
By all means, have a plan for your service. Don’t leave it open to disorder and confusion. But be open to the leading of the Spirit. We are to worship in spirit and in truth, after all. Do the worship services at your church feel stale and predictable?
A dying church has decided to replace the Holy Spirit with programs and formulas. Worship to them has become nothing more than an academic pursuit. Rather than let the Spirit speak to hearts, the worship service is carefully scripted and manipulated. While they condemn churches who act as though the Spirit can’t move without laser lights and a fog machine, they give Him between the minutes of 11:06 and 11:18 to move through our liturgies and “worship” that has all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge to prepare our hearts for the coming religious-themed lecture.
Part of this problem can be blamed on the Neo-Reform movement, which has the liturgies and formalities of mainline Protestantism (which itself maintains, at least in part, the lifeless practices of its Catholic roots) to creep into fundamental churches. In an attempt to oppose the rock-concert-and-pep-talk flavor of contemporary Christianity, they have overcorrected and completely evicted the Spirit from their services.
If you want to gauge the life of your church, examine the life of your worship services. In too many churches, Delilah has come in and cut Samson’s hair while he was asleep, and when he woke up, he knew not that the Spirit had departed from him.
Devotion to a man over devotion to doctrine
The aforementioned “Gestapo mentality” also flows out of this particular travesty. What is the church’s doctrine? Whatever the man on the platform says it is (and chances are good he came up with his ideas from some pile of drivel he picked up at Lifeway). Christ is no longer the preeminent One in the dying church; the pastor is.
Loyalty to the pastor becomes the measurement of one’s spiritual maturity. Loyalty to the pastor becomes the primary qualification for one to be allowed to minister and use his/her spiritual gifts in the church. Loyalty to the pastor becomes the number one expectation of church leadership. Sure, lip service may be paid to Christ, but the all-important question in the dying church has become, “What think ye of the pastor?”
This can manifest itself in more than one way. The more covert way is that we can see it in ministry being done in the flesh. The dead, liturgical service like the one mentioned above doesn’t require any work or power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish. The church can follow its procedures without even a conscious thought. If the frozen chosen ever thawed out, the Spirit might start to move, revival might break out, and the entire program might get derailed…and we couldn’t have that. We can do so much in the flesh that looks and sounds impressive–that without the blessing of God and the anointing of the Holy Spirit will all burn up someday.
More overtly, we see the fruits of the flesh being born out in the church body. There may not be fornication, witchcraft, or murder occurring in the church, but you probably won’t have to look hard to find envy, strife, pride, idolatry, covetousness, and backbiting. Has politics taken over your church, as people jockey for positions and approval and a chance to be part of the “inner circle”? Has loyalty to a person other than Christ encouraged a culture of backbiting and hostility toward other believers? Have we allowed our adherence to a creed or position (the popular “Gospel-centered” movement is a prime example) to enable bullying, manipulation, and self-righteousness in the service of that position?
Ultimately, it is this carnality that kills the church. The Spirit is life; the flesh is death. Without the Spirit breathing life into it, the body will soon die.