“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:5, ESV
The television show Survivor is responsible for putting a mental picture in my head that I now begin to see when I read this passage of scripture in Revelation. You can almost picture Jesus in a large room with hundreds upon hundreds of burning lamps, holding a piece of pottery in his hand that looks like a cooking pot, moving about the room on his Father’s instructions, snuffing out the flames of the lampstands of unrepentant churches. That’s probably not an accurate picture of what it looks like, but I do believe that this scripture, and others, teach that God’s glory and presence can depart from a church and that the Holy Spirit’s presence can no longer be found in the church’s ministry or activity.
So how does a church get to the point where it is no longer inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and its lampstand is removed from God’s presence? In an affluent, consumer-driven culture, it is relatively easy.
I’m not one who indicts all of the churches in one particular culture because of some highly visible flaws in some of the more prominent ones. But we are clearly in a period where things that happen in churches, and among church leaders, duly reported in the secular media, are very inconsistent with the basic principles of the Christian faith as they are laid out in the New Testament. We have situations where church members are slugging it out with their church leaders on the internet and in the court system. There are reports of moral failures among high profile, “celebrity” pastors and leaders, and I’m certain that there are others that do not make the media. But above all of the sensational news, there is the stark fact that, in spite of the spectacular amount of money that is spent on church operations and Christian entertainment in Western culture, and particularly the US, the results are considerably less than spectacular. Only recently have some American church leaders acknowledged that, in fact, conservative, evangelical Christianity, just like mainline Protestant Christianity, is in decline. Very little evangelism is taking place, most of that is among the children of the already-churched, and as many as 85% of those are leaving the church when they become young adults. We’re keeping Jesus busy snuffing out lamps.
In his book Organic Church, Neil Cole says, “When church is so complicated, its function is taken out of the hands of the common Christian and placed in the hands of a few talented professionals. This results in a passive church whose members come and act more like spectators than empowered agents of God’s Kingdom.”
Yep. I’ll go along with that.
Sitting and listening, rather than participating, engaging, learning by doing and getting your hands dirty, does not create the kind of environment where followers of Christ are transformed by the Spirit, discipled in the Word, and over time, grow to become mature enough to follow the Great Commission and go and reproduce themselves. Churches, in order to attract people, have modified their function for the convenience of those they are trying to attract. People can take an hour or so out of their busy lifestyle, sit, listen, write a check and move on. They can either see the performance live in the arena, or go to a satellite location for their own convenience and watch it on a big screen. That is all that is asked of them, though some churches do provide places for those who are looking for a deeper experience. But most people either don’t have the time for that, or don’t know they need to be looking for it.
The problem with this kind of church experience is simple. People are spiritually starving. The program is planned and conducted like a Broadway play. The actors are on the stage, the audience in its seats evaluates the performance based on “what the got out of it,” and as a result, the transforming, convicting power of the Spirit is set to the side. Bible study is given out in a 20 minute sound byte, not too much, just an inspirational thought or two to generate positive attitudes and good feelings, and systematically separated from the wholistic message of scripture so that the parts which may be seen as convicting do not disturb the “flow” of the service. Stipped of the Spirit and the Word, what kind of discipleship and ministry can happen?
A new church building has been going up three blocks from my house for the past year. Recently, the congregation began to meet there. It is a large facility, probably holding as many as 1,200 people, perhaps more than that. But I noticed that, apart from some office space on one side, it was all sanctuary. There is very little small group meeting space or even fellowship space. The auditorium was build to focus the church on the pulpit, and on the pastor’s preaching. I visited their website to see if perhaps they were utilizing members’ homes for small group discipleship, and found few such opportunities available. If the website is any indication, from the history of the church to its present structure, it is a church that is completely and totally built around the founding pastor and his wife. It would seem, in that environment, that the Holy Spirit might be an unwelcome rival.
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!…For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” 2 Corinthians 13:5,8
Check your lampstand.