Five Sure Signs of a Dying Church
Due to the state of many churches today, I’m re-publishing this article from 2015. It’s more significant now than ever before.
Church is boring for most because the power of God has vanished from many congregations … there is a lack of desire to pursue Him in the pulpit as well as in the pew. Like Samson, they “know not that the Spirit of the Lord has departed” (cf. Judges 16:20). High attendance is not the gauge of success, faithfulness is. Granted, a healthy church should experience seasons of growth, but even cults generate large numbers of followers. Here are five simple ways to gauge the health of a church and a believer:
1. Is prayer an after-thought or a priority?
Nights of prayer and worship are often replaced with Bingo and fundraisers. We’re in a hurry to burn through a sermon, scurry through worship, and head to the nearest restaurant. This is a sure sign of a dying church. If churches are too busy to pray — they’re too busy. “When faith ceases to pray, it ceases to live” (E.M. Bounds). We should never allow our relationship with God to suffer because we’re too busy. “We must spend much time on our knees before God if we are to continue in the power of the Holy Spirit” (R.A. Torrey). Spiritual life and prayer go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.
2. Is the church known for either emotionalism or dead formalism?
Unfortunately, Christians often embrace one of two extremes when it comes to the topic of revival and the Holy Spirit. At one extreme are those who embrace pure emotionalism and hysteria — “if it’s odd it’s God” is often their motto. All weird behavior is excused. The other extreme resembles a cemetery. There’s no living, vibrant spiritual life taking place. The church is dead, cold and lifeless: talk of revival is either dismissed or ridiculed. Both extremes are characteristics of a dying church.
3. Is sin excused and holiness minimized?
In short, has the fear of the Lord vanished? Some time ago, a pastor of a large church in my area made an unforgettable statement, “We should avoid mentioning the fear of the Lord. It makes people feel uncomfortable.” Just writing that sentence makes me feel uncomfortable. The fear of the Lord is mentioned frequently throughout the Bible as the beginning of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him …” (Psalm 147:11).
When pastors and leaders believe that God has given them the authority to change truth in order to keep it relevant and alive (as in the case of same-sex marriage), they are departing from God. His grace is big and bold enough for all, but grace doesn’t replace truth — it reinforces it.
Fear can also motivate a person to repent. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Jesus spoke more on the fear of hell than on the glory of heaven. “That makes me both love Him and fear Him! I love Him because He is my Savior, and I fear Him because He is my Judge” (A.W. Tozer).
The present condition of the church (and America) leads one to wonder if this lack of fearing the Lord is contributing to her spiritually dead condition: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15-17).
4. Is love a concept or a reality?
True love is a “choice” and a commitment that we make to do good to others; it is not a “feeling.” If love is the greatest commandment, it should be our first priority. When our concept of love is different from God’s, unity suffers. Strive to develop the type of love that protects and defends others. For instance, stop yourself when you’re tempted to gossip or belittle others, and turn the conversation if someone is taking you in that direction. The Bible is clear: If you have not love, it profits you nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:3). You can be well read in all 66 books of the Bible, preach as well as Whitefield, Moody, and Spurgeon, and have a Ph.D. in theology, but if you don’t have love, you have nothing. Make love, forgiveness and unity top priorities. They will not rise to that level on their own.
5. Is there a love for the truth?
Ironically, churches that are “all about love” forget the other side of the coin: judgment is never mentioned; repentance is never sought; and sin is often excused. They want to build a church rather than break a heart; be politically correct rather than biblically correct; coddle and comfort rather than stir and convict. This leaves people confused and deceived because they believe in a cross-less Christianity that bears no resemblance to Jesus’ sobering call to repentance. Christianity only makes sense in light of the consequences of sin. The good news about Christ can only be appreciated with the bad news as the backdrop. There are times when the saints must be fed, and there are times when the sinners must be warned (C.H. Spurgeon).
Pastors must find the balance — preach the difficult truths as well as the joyful ones; preach the cross and the new life; preach hell and preach heaven; preach damnation and preach salvation; preach sin and preach grace; preach wrath and preach love; preach judgment and preach mercy; preach obedience and preach forgiveness; preach that God “is love,” but don’t forget that God is just. Ironically, it’s the love of God that compels us to share all of His truth, including those things that are hard to hear.
Although disheartening, this trend away from God’s truth is not surprising. The apostle Paul warned centuries ago: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine [God’s Word], but according to their own desires … they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). If this isn’t exactly what we see today, I don’t know what is.
Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Southern California and the creator of the WCF Radio Network. His program, Regaining Lost Ground, points us back to God and reminds us that although times change, truth does not. His books, blogs, and sermons can all be found at ShaneIdleman.com.