You must become alert! And you must strengthen the ones who remain, who are waiting to die, for I have not found your works to be fulfilled before your God.
The seven letters of Revelation contain some devastating rebukes for those in the churches of Asia. Out of the seven churches, two receive no commendation and only rebuke; the church in Sardis is one of those two and is the church that receives these words of condemnation: your works are wanting, so strengthen what is about to die.
As a pastor, I must confess that this is about the last charge that any of us would want to hear. I suspect that all of us yearn to serve a church that is thriving and healthy and filled with spiritual life, where everyone who attends is hungry to be taught the word of God, to be engaged in worship, and desires to apply God’s word to every area of their life. I suspect we all dream of serving a church where God’s people will come together and act like God’s people, loving one another and not deteriorating into bickering and where marriages would be seen as a permanent covenant and children would grow up in humble submission to their parents’ teachings. And we hunger for the church body that lives out their faith in such an infectious way that they are constantly pointing others to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, when going through the various ministerial resource catalogues, we find book after book written by a pastor of some “mega-church” somewhere who has found a way to bring people into the church by droves. My point is not to disrespect or arbitrarily write off such movements, sometimes these books contain some useful insights, my point is simply to say that such is not the model of church that most pastors have been called to. A rural church pastor, for example, may not even have 5,000 people in his town, let alone that many people in his church. In fact, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of protestant churches in America have fewer than 100 people in them on Sunday mornings.
In addition, many of these churches scattered across the countryside are predominately made up of older members where there may not be the energy, resources, or interest in many of the things that seem to attract the droves of people that may or may not be in their community to come to worship.
Again, my point is not to extol one model of worship service and put down another; those of you who have read my blogs for any amount of time know that I have some strong opinions in some of these areas, but that is not my objective today. My point is to reflect on the nobility of this call to strengthen what is about to die and to apply it in a way that we may not have otherwise considered. My purpose is also to honor those many pastors who may not have had ministries that the church culture would consider “glamorous,” but have faithfully served God’s people, often in churches that are dying whether due to age or due to an unwillingness to change in a way that communicates the truth of the gospel to a new generation. Many, many of God’s most faithful servants labor for decades in this context.
In some ways I have had the privilege of looking at this picture from both sides of the fence. For most of my pastoral ministry, I have served either full or part-time in small, rural churches dominated by septuagenarians and octogenarians. I have also spent time working amongst drug addicts and homeless, a group that may not be dying due to their age, but are just as near to death as the octogenarians due to the lifestyle they have chosen. I have also spent quite a bit of time doing nursing home ministry, again a group of people who are very much about to die. At the same time, I also spent several years as a chaplain of a Christian school working mostly with teenagers, a group who biologically are on the other end of the spectrum. They are filled with life and energy, but also bring with them a new body of issues and problems due to the frenetic lifestyle that many of them consider quite normal. It is true that the school is not the church, but life on life ministry takes place anywhere God places us and the relationships often bear a great deal of similarity.
All of that being said, I would like to apply this statement of Jesus’ in three ways. The first, in the context that it is given, and the latter two in perhaps a little different way, while at the same time trying not to do an injustice to the text.
In the context of the passage, Jesus is giving a rebuke to a church that has been unfaithful in its calling. Their works have a reputation for having life, he states in the previous verse, but they are really dead. The church puts on a good show and they do all of the right things, but what they do is simply going through the motions. Their good works are not done as a response to God’s saving work in their lives, but they are done out of a sense of misguided duty. Later on in the passage, Jesus speaks of those who have not soiled their garments, implying that most of the congregation members have given themselves either physically or spiritually to idolatry. In the midst of that, Jesus makes two statements: first, that he is going to destroy the church and second, that the pastor there needs to strengthen the church that is about to die.
There are many churches today that have fallen into this context. They are dominated by extremely influential people (often who have money) who decide what the church will and will not do, typically on the basis of preference and not on the basis of a heart committed to the Gospel ministry. Sadly, many pastors do not discourage this, either preaching in a way that keeps this dominant group satisfied or never rebuking the people for their actions. How often I have heard stories of ministry works being cut for the purpose of paying the pastor’s salary. It is a shame when the pastor becomes little more than a pawn in the game of church influence. Yet even in these churches, there is normally a remnant that is spiritually alive and who yearns to see the church break free from the bonds of the status quo and live. It is for those in this latter group that Jesus gives the command to strengthen the church. The institution is dying; it has a disease that is killing it from within like a cancer, but through the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of God’s word, those healthy body parts are strengthened in the midst of a great and agonizing collapse. Though this is not the calling to which most seminary students dream of going, there is a nobility to such a call and such a call, more-so than a call to a vibrant church I would argue, that will teach the minister how to pray and how to confront sin in the lives of people. This is the call to which the minister of Sardis was called, and this is the call that many pastors have had to labor through as we have sought to do ministry in this fallen world.
The second context I have already alluded to. There are times when the death of a congregation is not so much about the indwelling sin a body has, but has to do with the increasing age of the body without a younger generation that will come and accept the baton of leadership. Again, my interest in this reflection is not to attack one style of service over another, but there is a reality that many young families would rather not go to their grandparents’ church, but want to take ownership of something uniquely theirs. And we must understand that the mindset works the other way as well; many older congregations would rather not have the noise and activity that comes with young families filling the sanctuary. I suppose that I could go on and on in that area, but that is not the aim of this reflection.
The aim of this reflection is to state that there is a huge need for ministry in these areas. Our older/dying churches are likely not the churches that will be building numbers rapidly through evangelistic ministries, etc… Typically they will dwindle slowly until there are so few that the church closes or until there are so few that the influence of the older generation ceases to be a driving force and the church experiences a transformation and rebirth led by a few younger families with a clear vision of what the church could be. Just because someone is older or dying does not mean that they no longer need pastoral care or that the pastoral care they get should be second-class. Nursing home ministry for pastors should not be an afterthought when it is convenient, but it ought to be something of primary concern. Men and women, as image bearers of God, deserve the dignity and grace of such care and they deserve to have the kind of pastoral teaching and care that strengthens them in their faith up until their dying day. My own hat is tipped in respect to those who serve as Hospice chaplains and whose entire calling is devoted toward strengthening those who are about to die.
The third application is a very broad one, though I would argue comes very close to the context of Jesus’ original letter to those in the church of Sardis. Many are lamenting the downfall of the church in western society. Europe is all but a spiritual wasteland, though there are some wonderful (but isolated) renewal movements at work (for example the one I am involved with in eastern Ukraine). America is following suit. Many in America still think of themselves as Christians, but given the state of our culture, comparatively few are living out their faith in all of life.
The question has often been posed to me as to whether I expect that God is bringing judgment on America or preparing us for revival. There is an old axiom that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Of course, in some ways, I do not think that judgment and revival are mutually exclusive ends. Does not God know how to judge the wicked while preserving his own (2 Peter 2:9-10)? With that being said, I do pray for revival, but I know that with true revival there must be true repentance and typically there is not repentance until the sin to which we cling hurts too much to keep it within us.
At the same time that I am praying for revival, my heart tells me that we (as a nation and as a church) are facing judgment. Typically the church is healthiest when it faces the greatest persecution (the seven churches in Asia are an excellent illustration of that). When persecution comes and it begins to cost us something to call ourselves Christians, then the “convenience christians” will fall away and the true church will find itself being refined under fire and made strong. And it is in the presence of such a reality that pastors need to hear these words to the church in Sardis all the more: strengthen what is about to die.
I suppose that there is always a temptation to spiritualize a text, and that is not what I mean to do here, but I think you will find that history bears out a remarkable truth. Just as there is a promise of death and resurrection for our physical bodies, there is a kind of death and resurrection for the localized Christian bodies here on earth. God always preserves for himself a remnant (Romans 11:4-5); that is God’s way. He may permit a church to close its doors, but in doing so, he raises up a new witness and testimony for himself. It is right for us to lament the death of a congregation just as we lament the death of a person, yet we still move on. Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead, he will not permit a dead church to play act at being alive indefinitely but will preserve a remnant. And we who have been called to the Gospel ministry will often find ourselves in the midst of such a context where we are commissioned by God’s word to strengthen that which is about to die. Doing so won’t get us a book deal with a big publisher, but faithfully laboring in such a call will receive a “well done my good and faithful servant.” I daresay that I do not need to explain which one is more valuable.