Dan Tomberlin (DMin) is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Pentecostal Theological Seminary
Several years ago I visited a Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Varna, Bulgaria as they were conducting a worship service. The building dated back to the 12th century and it was beautiful. The candles were glowing, and the incense was burning. The deacon was reading the gospel in an old Slavic language. The liturgy was awesome.
I turned to my Bulgarian host and asked, “What does this mean?” He replied, “I don’t know, I don’t understand any of this.” Suddenly, I realized that I was in a living museum. It was as if I was a time traveler, taken back to the 12th century. It was indeed beautiful and inspiring to me as a church historian. But there was one significant thing missing. The church was empty of worshipers. The deacons and priest were performing the liturgy to a small audience of tourists. This church was not reaching 21st century Bulgarians. Unintentionally, it was preserving the ancient Orthodox faith as a living museum, but it was not a living church. Sadly, many churches are nothing more than living museums. The forward mission of the church has given way to the maintenance of the past.
John said, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). The voice that John heard was that of an alarm. Jesus was about to speak a prophetic warning to the church. What are the warning signs of a church in decline?
“You have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4) suggest a church that has lost its passion. Jesus does not say that the Ephesian believers have apostatized. He says that they have left their “first love.” No longer are they passionate in their devotion to Christ. The joy of being in Christ has faded. There is no zeal, no fire in the heart. The relationship with Christ is no longer the first priority in their lives! A church that fails to demonstrate the love of Christ to each other and to the world is a church that has left its first love (1 John 3:14-17).
“…some who hold the teaching of Balaam…, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality” (Rev 2:14). The church often falls under the influence of false teaching that compromises its core values. Churches have often surrendered their theological and ethical values to the surrounding dominant culture. The church must not be conformed to this present age, but transformed to reflect the glory of the New Heavens and New Earth (Romans 12:2; Revelation 21:1-5).
“…you tolerate the woman Jezebel…” (Rev 2:20). The church sometimes tolerates toxic leadership. Toxic leadership is the abuse of power that sacrifices trust and integrity. This is especially insidious in the church. Gifted leaders often fall to the seduction of money, sex, and power. The Corinthian church favored the “super-apostles” model of ministry over that of the Apostle Paul. Paul charged that the “super-apostles” were actually “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11). John warned the church about Diotrephes, the leader “who loves to be first.” Toxic leaders are often ego-centric, schismatic, contentious, and critical. Toxic leaders must be confronted (3 John 9-10).
“…you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev 3:1). Too often, the church suffers from an illusion, or memory, of past greatness. When leadership begins to talk about renewal, a dying congregation looks to the past, to times when attendance and giving were at peak levels. These churches minister primarily to the “faithful,” but they are largely irrelevant to the unchurched and isolated from the community. A living church is motivated toward future missionary activities and goals.
“…you are lukewarm… you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:15-17). Complacency insures a maintenance model church. Just because attendance is stable and there is money in the bank doesn’t mean the church is a healthy missionary church. In fact, it may suggest just the opposite. A sure sign of a “lukewarm” church is a budget that reflects more concern for institutional and property maintenance than missionary outreach to the unchurched.
Jesus said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). Are we willing to hear the truth about our church?