How to commit church-icide: Cause a church to forget the Gospel.
If you want to cause a church to die, to be spiritually dead in the eyes of Jesus even though humans may still call her “alive,” then make her forget the Word, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Get her to stop living for the purpose of Jesus Christ. For His mission of redeeming and ransoming a people by grace through faith to the glory of God.
Instead, get her to live for politics.
Get her to be perpetually jonesed-up for social causes.
Get her to be most energized about maintaining her own internal structures and programs.
If you want to (spiritually) kill a church, take her heart and trust and attention away from the work and purpose and man of Jesus Christ, and get them to be on something else.
That’s what happened, in some form or fashion, to the church in the city of Sardis. You can tell this by looking at Jesus’ solution to the problem. His command to this spiritually distracted church. This is His letter:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
In several of these letters Jesus narrates in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus tells churches to remember His Word, cling to His Name, or something similar. These are commands to those churches to redirect their gazes to His Gospel and mission. To reorient their lives around His ministry and work and Kingdom. Some of these churches had veered from faith in, from living for, Jesus Christ into rampant sexual or public sin (Pergamum and Thyatira). But in Sardis’ letter, Jesus doesn’t mention the sin that has been strayed into. He is just rebuking the straying.
This church had spiritually died, stopped being a living and healthy church, by forgetting the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. It was that message, that Gospel, that had made them a real church, and to forget it was to cease being one.
While no one can snatch a true Christian sheep from God’s hand (John 10), a local church can become an unsafe place for sheep if she stops living for and daily, weekly remembering the Word of Jesus Christ. A church isn’t a real church if she doesn’t feed on and delight in this: That only by believing in and following Jesus Christ can sinners have real life and be made right with God.
If a church isn’t constantly preaching and singing about and remembering that, she’ll harm the real Christians who are a part of her and she’ll stop making real Christians out of lost people.
So, Jesus’ command to that sort of church is remember, keep, and repent. Turn your collective heart and attention, church, away from sins and lesser things and turn them towards the person and work of Jesus.
And it isn’t hopeless; he offers everything in the world, even to dead churches and wicked individual sinners. But if our church is more interested in good things or neutral things than in Him, then she’s ignoring that offer. If we’re more interested in social justice, church football games, choirs, who people vote for, or denominational happenings than in King Jesus, then our church is spiritually dying or dead. And we should remember the Gospel, keep it, and repent of loving dead idols rather than our living Father.
We should start living first for the Holy One, and let everything else come next.