This world is broken, yet wrong-doing and pain takes you by surprise and anguish.
Marriages wither and become impassable gulfs.
Party leaders and national figures suddenly pass away.
Music bands split and inspiring movie stars wind up in jail.
There are, of course, reasons why such things happen. Marriages die due to lack of adoration and hard work and often, little adulteries that compound into a deadly avalanche of separation and divorce. Bands split due to misunderstandings and pride.
Party leaders die because death is the final equalizer and movie stars become prisoners because the law is a close second in the art of equalising.
Sin is at the root of all things that can go wrong and will go wrong.
Church communities die too
I recently read an article at the Gospel Coalition titled “It Only Takes One Generation for a Church to Die”. Justin Taylor mentions Sean Lucas, who while researching church history of a popular American denomination, desired to look up church communities he had only heard of until then.
He pursued leads on four, had-been-thriving, significant churches and was stunned to find one thing in common: none of them existed anymore.
Whatever the reasons might have been for these churches to stop functioning, Lucas writes,
“It is enough to cause us as pastors to get on our knees and to beg God to continue to grant mercy to our congregations and to grant them mercy in the generations after us.”
How could church-families, eternal beauty in the making, homes of the gospel of Jesus and a people devoted to Jesus Christ cease to thrive and finally stop living together? Somehow the ways of this world get to us. Things of beauty become twisted apparent-permanence.
Could Marg churches waste away and die?
Well, churches in the book of Revelation faced spiritual death and were warned by the Lord Jesus himself (Rev. 3:1,2,3). Certainly we too could die off if we get proud and don’t bother to be aware of the devil’s various schemes. If we no longer hold on to biblical truths and practices, and if we are left untended, our gatherings are bound to wither like the vine’s branches in John 15.
Here are six signs I understand could be the beginning of spiritual death, especially in the context of Marg churches.
1. When Marg omits sharing the Bad News before the Good News.
It could be because we don’t want to offend people, it could be because we don’t think it too important, but leaving out the bad news is just manipulative. The bad news precedes the gospel -all of us deserve eternal torment in hell is a central truth in the Bible. A prevalent unhealthy “gospel” today is “Jesus loves you and died for your sin”. Do you know what’s ironic? At least nine different times in the gospels, it is Jesus who teaches about hell and the coming judgment.
The good news is incomplete and powerless without the uncomforting bad news preceding it, because really- without the bad news, the good news is never really any good for anyone.
As a community, when we stop reminding ourselves of this truth and as the elders and teachers leave out this inconvenient truth in their preaching, the church could be very well on the decline.
2. When Marg is centrally concerned with something or someone other than Jesus Christ.
We call Him “Lord of Lords”, we know He is the “first and the last”. I have experienced that Bible-teaching has pretty much no power without the good news of one Man’s obedience making us righteous before God (Rom. 5:19).
Many a church has assumed that her people know the gospel, so “why to preach it to ourselves?”. Fatal mistake. As Justin Taylor quotes,
The gospel is accepted.
The gospel is assumed.
The gospel is confused, then-
The gospel is lost.
Sometimes other teachings and pressing concerns might take centre-stage and make us forget that to become like Jesus, Christians need to meditate on His character and His sacrificial work.
I think no church can ever honestly say they don’t need to remind themselves of Jesus, the Son of God, who, full of grace and truth, was made sin for our sake (2 Cor. 5:21) so we might become God’s righteousness.
3. When Marg doesn’t talk about sin as we ought to.
Marg members can talk about sin in two wrong ways: one, we could sadly be tempted to gossip about others’ sins and not our own. Two, we avoid talking about sin because well, sin doesn’t exactly trigger social bonhomie these days, does it? An erroneous conclusion runs amok; that “God has dealt with sin on the cross, so why talk about it and disrespect the cross of Christ”?
Rank heresy. Why then God’s word would have an apostle like Paul describe himself poignantly as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15,16). Such truth can come only from a genuine love for a holy God and a much truer knowledge of Christ than I possess.
Opening up about our sins in settings of brotherly, sisterly love in a church should make us uncomfortable not because we have self-respect to lose, but because our Heavenly Father crushed His Son, Jesus, for the sake of our sins. Believers have already lost all self-respect at the cross of Calvary, that they may find forgiveness and power to overcome sin (1 John1:8.9). When we are no longer bothered to pick up sin like Jesus did with His disciples, it’s good to assess ourselves about the legitimacy of our belonging to God.
4. When Marg preaches much and obeys not the Word of God.
Marg teaches about belonging to God and to spiritual brothers and sisters- family-, and about being made missionaries and slaves of God. But if we see a pattern where there is much preaching and little obedience to whatever is preached, there should be ample cause of concern. As Jesus reminds us –
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 7:21)
5. When Marg’s teachings becomes mere behaviour-modification.
Behaviour modification says “change your lives” and gives a host of commands to obey, without exhorting Christians toward the power of the new nature, God himself, living in them.
You see, God’s commands are so weighty, the only way to obey them is to be keenly aware of the gospel and therein find the strength to obey God. Isn’t that how apostle Paul writes out so many of his letters, beginning with the gospel and then following it with the charge of living the Christian life?
This is well summarized in these lines by John Berridge, the hymnist-
Run, John, and work, the law commands,
yet finds me neither feet nor hands,
But sweeter news the gospel brings,
it bids me fly and lends me wings!
6. When Marg stops living out true love and concern for its own.
This can be done while we claim to be on the mission or serving people, while we say we are gospel-centered and what not. Not showing brotherly love is easy for us all, isn’t it? All our knowledge of God from above is meant to make us love Him and the church more. This love then pours out to neighbours who witness the mighty wisdom of God being displayed through us.
As Zach Eswine writes, some of us can become lights that blind, not lights that guide. It’s my prayer that my life returns from this direction, for such is the temptation I face week after week.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1Cor. 13:3
While speculation on how Marg could spiritually die may not be of much use, writing signposts for myself, fellow church leaders and church family members seem helpful for possible crisis-points. May the good Lord let this post aid that process.
I am keenly aware that I lack experience and insight that people have received in years of walking under Christ and shepherding his people. So I invite others to share things that they think could kill churches. I have written in the immediate context of Marg, but only Jesus knows how much more I have got to learn!
Are there more signs that could be dangerous signposts for Marg?
Please share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below.
Bonus – Here is J. Mack Stiles on how churches can avoid the dangerous practice of assuming the gospel.