The Bible teaches that a congregation may exist, may even be engaged in various works, and yet be spiritually dead. The ancient church at Sardis was addressed by a letter recorded in Rev. 3:1-6. That church existed, it was in place among the seven churches of Asia in the latter part of the first century. It had various works going on, for the Spirit said he “knew” or was familiar with them. That congregation had a “name” or reputation for activity and life, yet the Bible says it was dead, (3:1). Death involves a separation, and a dead church is one whose works are separated, or detached from a genuine, living or “perfect” faith, (Jas. 2:26; Rev. 1:2). What can be done about such a grave situation? Is there some way of reviving a dead church today? To answer that question, consider what God told the church at Sardis.
Dead churches must use the Bible to make an honest evaluation of themselves. “Be thou watchful,” (Rev. 3:2). Watchfulness involves careful observation, being own the lookout. Some illegitimate, unscriptural practices probably need to be culled out and eliminated. This may include denominational, man-made terminology or customs. Look carefully at everything you are doing, and ask, How did this get started? Where is the scriptural authority for it? Is it expedient? Have we lost sight of the “traditions which we were taught,” from the word of God, (2 Thess. 2:15)? Have we allowed them to gradually be replaced with man-made traditions? Taking the time to make a careful, honest inventory of every aspect of the work of the congregation will be enlightening. Don’t shy away from asking the hard questions: Why have good people left? How many home Bible studies are we conducting? What’s happening to our young people? Is every teacher qualified? How are we spending the Lord’s money? Is our community being positively influenced by this congregation? How do we treat guests and strangers? Are we mainly emphasizing our own needs and desires, or the needs of the lost around us?
Dead churches must lovingly recognize and nurture the last vestiges of life which remain. “Establish the things that remain, which were ready to die,” (Rev. 3:2). Even at Sardis there were “a few names that did not defile their garments,” (Rev. 3:4). There may still be traces of the faithful work done by them and others who have gone before. Seek it out! Look for it and cherish it. And when you find it, establish it, reinforce and build upon it. Even in hollow congregations which are merely “keeping house” or “going through the motions,” there may be some wisdom and value back of those motions. If we look carefully we may find the wisdom of our ancestors, even in such wayward congregations.
Dead churches must humbly repent of their error. “Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent,” (Rev. 3:3). Can you remember how you were when you first obeyed the Gospel? Do you remember the innocence, the excitement, the zeal? When you first “received” the message of salvation, how did it affect you? You were probably overwhelmed with grace and thanksgiving. Your wide eyes envisioned the amazing possibilities for reaching your family and friends with the gospel. Try hard to remember your child-like humility when you “received with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your soul,” (Jas. 1:21). If a dead church is to be revived, it must admit that it doesn’t know at all, it is not perfect, it has made serious mistakes, and it’s time to repent.
Repentance is a change of heart, produced by godly sorrow, (2 Cor. 7:10). Could it be that some congregations need to spend less assembly time in glib celebration, and a little more time in solemn morning? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise,” (Ps. 51:17). “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,” (Mt. 5:4).
Dead churches did not get that way overnight, and it may take a lengthy, Herculean effort to revive them. We are not told whether the church at Sardis was successfully resuscitated from the brink of death. We can only hope that she humbly took the advice provided to her. But what about us today? Can we see traces of ourselves in Sardis? And can we learn from God’s instructions clearly laid out for her? If so, there may yet be hope—even for a dead church.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.