Imagine that you're walking down the street by yourself. As you turn a corner you're shocked to find a body lying on the ground in front of you! What do you do? Some, in a panic, would run off screaming. Others would yell for help or call 911. If you were a doctor you would probably approach the body and check for a pulse.
Why would a doctor check for a pulse? To see if the person is still alive! It's really not all that difficult to know if someone is alive or not. If a person does not have a pulse, then his heart is not beating. And, if his heart is not beating, he is dead!
Perhaps you're wondering: What does this have to do with God's word? Allow me to explain. It's easy to check a physical body to determine if it is alive or not. Additionally, we know that there are dozens of things that can cause death. But, what about a spiritual body--like the church? Can a church die? If so, what can kill a church and how can one know when a church has died? How does one check the pulse of a church, so to speak?
First, it must be understood that churches can and do die. Let us consider Revelation 3:1-3 on this matter - "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, 'These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you."'" As our Lord spoke about the church at Sardis, He stated that they appeared to be alive but were in fact dead. So yes, churches can and do die.
But how? There are many ways in which a church can die, and the clearest way to know a church has died is if it has ceased to exist. If a congregation doesn't grow numerically, eventually it will stop assembling and cease to exist. Of course, some churches die even though they think they are still alive! The death of a church isn't always marked by the closing of its doors. A church may die inwardly, even while it continues to live and perhaps even thrive outwardly. This was what happened to the church at Sardis. They appeared to be alive, but Jesus said He knew their works--and they were dead!
Let us now focus our attention upon four things that can kill a church. This is not an exhaustive list but these four things can jeopardize a congregation of God's people.
1. PERSECUTION CAN KILL A CHURCH.
We know that Satan has often resorted to physical persecution. Listen to what the devil did to the church at Smyrna - "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:9,10).
We also know that Satan used physical persecution against other churches in the first century, and he still uses it today. I Peter 5:8,9 instructs - "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings [i.e., the sufferings caused by Satan] are experienced by your brotherhood in the world."
Why does Satan persecute the church? He hopes that persecution will silence Christians. For example, during Jesus' earthly ministry, persecution hindered some people from publicly confessing the Lord Jesus. "Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue [i.e., persecuted]; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (John 12:42,43). Yes, persecution silences some people, and that is what Satan desires. If he can get a congregation to be quiet and stop evangelizing and doing what is right because of fear, then that church will die!
Of course, just because Satan persecutes the church (even today) does not mean that we have to be silenced. We should choose to rejoice in persecution! Isn't that what the apostles and faithful Christians did? They didn't allow Satan to silence them; they rejoiced in their persecutions (e.g., Acts 5:40-42; 16:16ff)!
Romans 5:3,4 addresses this same point - "And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope." Also, James 1:2-4 - "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing."
We need to understand that persecution is a weapon in Satan's arsenal, and he uses it in hopes of killing the church. But, if we react properly to persecution and trials, then we will actually grow stronger as a result. We should also remember that the Lord notices when we rejoice in persecution, and He will reward us accordingly (cf. Matt. 5:11,12).
2. FALSE TEACHING CAN KILL A CHURCH.
Some churches die because of error that is taught. For example, the devil used false doctrine to threaten the church at Pergamos - "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (Rev. 3:14,15). There were two false doctrines that were plaguing the church at Pergamos: the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Jesus went on to say that if they didn't repent of these false teachings that He would come quickly against them in judgment.
Satan wants to kill the church, and certainly he has killed many congregations through the spreading of false doctrine. Both Paul and Peter warned of the danger of doctrinal error. Paul said in Acts 20:29,30 - "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things [i.e., false doctrine], to draw away the disciples after themselves." Peter said in II Peter 2:1,2 - "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed."
The apostles prophesied that false teaching would come. It did come and is still alive today! If one keeps up with the happenings of the Lord's church throughout our world, it is sad to see that many congregations are abandoning sound doctrine. Paul told Timothy - "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (II Tim. 4:3,4). The time Paul speaks of is now. So many folks have itching ears religiously. They just want to feel good when they listen to preaching. They want to hear jokes and stories; they want to be entertained. So many don't want to hear the word preached. They don't want to be instructed. They don't want to hear the rebukes that are a part of gospel preaching (cf. II Tim. 4:1,2).
May we never close our minds to sound doctrine and may we not support those who teach things contrary to the doctrine of Christ (cf. II John 9-11). If we can do these two things, we will guard ourselves against error. Of course, just because a congregation stands against false doctrine doesn't mean that Satan won't try to kill it another way.
3. WORLDLINESS CAN KILL A CHURCH.
What is worldliness? When I think of worldliness, I think of two things: immorality and materialism. Immorality is when we give in to the lust of the flesh and materialism is when we succumb to the lust of the eyes. Both of these are included in the love of the world (cf. I John 2:15-17). If a church is afflicted with worldliness, then they're in love with the world. In other words, they love the world more than they do God--and it shows in their actions.
When one reads Revelation 2:20-23, it is easy to see that the church at Thyatira was threatened by worldliness. Many congregations today are also hindered by the worldly ways of the members. Immorality has made havoc of many congregations, and materialism has drawn many Christians away from their service to the Lord. When worldliness takes over, the church stops producing good fruit (cf. Luke 8:14). Worldliness kills churches!
How can we prevent Satan from killing us with worldliness? We must work to develop a deep love for God--a love that appreciates what He has done for us and a love that understands we can't be friends with the world and please Him (cf. James 4:4). We must not be conformed to this world but be transformed by renewing our minds (cf. Rom. 12:1,2). We must watch and pray as Jesus warned in Luke 21:34-36 - "But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all time, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
If worldliness does not kill a congregation, there is another spiritual malady that Satan may try to employ.
4. INDIFFERENCE CAN KILL A CHURCH.
Apathy is a synonym for indifference. This is a subtle, yet effective weapon used by the devil. Satan does his best to persuade us to simply give up. He wants us to stop caring about religion and the work of the church. He wants to make us lazy spiritually. I'm afraid he's succeeded in far too many cases, just as he did in the first century (cf. Rev. 2:4).
Listen to what Jesus said to the church at Laodicea - "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 out of My mouth" (Rev. 3:15,16). Are you lukewarm for the Lord? God hates apathy. Friends, you need to realize that you don't have to oppose the church to help kill it, just be slothful and indifferent and you'll help Satan get the job done (cf. Matt. 12:30)!
Stephen, how would a person know if he is afflicted with spiritual indifference? What are the symptoms of this apathy you're talking about? Here are a few fundamental ones that come to mind: a failure to pray regularly, a failure to study God's word regularly, a failure to put forth significant effort to save the lost, and a failure to assemble with the saints when some other activity is available.
So, what's the antidote to indifference? There is no magic "purple pill"--the cure to apathy is just deciding to labor for the Lord and then doing it! As Galatians 6:9 teaches - "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." Let's decide to love God with all our being, and then stop being sluggish (cf. Heb. 6:11,12). Let us encourage each other to love and good works (cf. Heb. 10:24,25).
Certainly there are other ways to kill a church besides the four we have considered in this lesson. But, these four methods--persecution, false teaching, worldliness, and indifference--are definitely among the most effective weapons the devil has.
Preparing this lesson got me thinking about the church here, and I encourage you to think about your local congregation also. Jesus knows our works and actions, but what does He think about us? What would He write about us if we were one of the seven churches of Asia in Revelation? Is Satan making any progress in trying to kill us, or has he already got the job done? Where I live, we are currently blessed to be free of severe physical persecution and I hope that we are free of false teachings. But, what about worldliness and indifference? Are they taking a toll on us? Are they taking a toll on you and the Christians where you live? Are we apathetic about the saving gospel message? Do we have a love for the lost that is causing us to work to save them? Are we in love with the ways of the world? Are we more concerned about pleasing God than ourselves? If we look at how we use our time, money, and abilities, we'll know the answer to those questions.
It should also be pointed out that all of these things that can kill a church begin on the individual level. These four things afflict individuals, and when they die spiritually the congregation begins decaying also. Satan often kills churches one individual at a time!
Friends, to be forewarned is to be forearmed! Let's be honest with ourselves. Are we vulnerable in some areas to Satan's attacks? Let us make sure that the great deceiver does not succeed in deceiving us! May we do our best to bolster our defenses against the devil as he tries to destroy us. Let us be aware that he will destroy us in any way that he can. He will take advantage of us if we don't resist.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.