Deteriorating Churches

Local news headline: “Deteriorating Tampa Church Can’t Fight Demolition Anymore.”

The story is about a Seminole Heights area church—or, more correctly, its meeting place. The building that has housed Praise Cathedral for more than 40 years has, for the last several of those years, been falling apart. The passing time has brought decay, structural problems, a collapsed roof, and even damage sustained when a drunk driver crashed through the front door. Several months ago, Tampa code enforcement declared the 100-year-old building unfit for occupation. The church was given extra time to make the needed repairs, but its handful of remaining members have been unable to raise the money. This month time ran out, and authorities gave the order for the building to be demolished.

As I read this story, I thought about the seven churches addressed in the book of Revelation (chapters 2 and 3). Some of them had deteriorated, too—not their meeting places, but their spiritual vitality. That decay, unlike a dilapidated building, may not have been obvious to outside observers. Even many of the Christians in those churches were unable or unwilling to see it. But the Lord did.

  • The church at Ephesus had decayed. Despite resisting false teaching and persevering in hardship, they had “left their first love” (Revelation 2:4).
  • The churches at Thyatira and Pergamum had decayed. At Thyatira, a so-called prophetess had led some disciples into idolatry and sexual sin—and the rest were putting up with it (Revelation 2:20ff)! At Pergamum, too, some had adopted an attitude of compromise with pagan religion and morals (Revelation 2:14-15).
  • The church at Sardis had decayed. Jesus said, “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Their reputation as a vibrant, healthy group concealed spiritual lifelessness.
  • The church at Laodicea had decayed. They had become “lukewarm” and self-confident, lacking a sense of dependence on God (Revelation 3:14-17).

If these churches didn’t change and start repairing the damage, Jesus said, they would be judged. “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent…or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5). Demolition day was coming.

The warnings to those ancient churches point to a sobering fact: a congregation can deteriorate spiritually to the point that the Lord no longer recognizes it as His. And that can happen even when that church has growing numbers, a busy activity program, an impressive meeting place, and a sterling reputation.

A church deteriorates when it compromises in its teaching. Sometimes a congregation waters down some aspects of the gospel in pursuit of popularity, or comfort, or maybe some perception of “relevance.” Such a church may win accolades, but it isn’t winning souls. It may grow larger, but it isn’t growing stronger. We have a responsibility to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).

A church deteriorates when it tolerates persistent ungodliness among its members. Paul warned that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Corinthians 5:6). A church that is permissive toward immorality (as the Corinthians were toward one of their own who was living in fornication) deteriorates in several ways. It permits disciples to become hardened in sin. It permits both sinful conduct and indifference toward it to spread like an infection. And it damages the church’s credibility in proclaiming the gospel.

A church deteriorates when it is busy with all the wrong things. Many churches occupy themselves with secular education, social projects, entertainment, political activism, and much more—things that Scripture nowhere authorizes as part of a local church’s work. In some cases, the spiritual work that Scripture commands is all but forgotten. Churches in the New Testament were active in spreading the gospel, building up Christians through instruction and worship, and assisting disciples in need. That gave them plenty to do, and it glorified God. Let’s be content to follow their example.

A church deteriorates when its members become apathetic. A group of disciples can grow self-satisfied with past accomplishments and forget about pressing on. They can grow tired and settle for keeping up appearances instead of working for growth. They can grow attached to the comforts of this world and lose sight of heaven. Such attitudes cause a church to rot. “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).

There are many other ways in which a church might deteriorate. Even this church. We will prevent it only by committing ourselves to God and by using the New Testament as the standard for our teaching, our worship, our organization, our activities, our daily living, our attitudes, and our goals. And if we see that any of those things are falling into disrepair—whether in our collective fellowship or our individual lives—then let’s heed the admonition of Jesus: “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die…Remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent” (Revelation 3:2).