The Lord’s church often passes through different stages of spiritual development. For example, the church at Thyatira was improving, though plagued with false teaching (Revelation 2:19-20). The church at Sardis was past its prime – it was already dead, spiritually speaking (Revelation 3:1-3). Paul does brings out some good points regarding the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:4-7, 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Corinthians 8:7), yet they were plagued with church problems due to their carnality (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) and a failure to follow through on their promises regarding giving (2 Corinthians 8:7; 2 Corinthians 8:10-11; 2 Corinthians 9:2-5). Paul taught that the ideal path of a church is ever onward and upward (1 Corinthians 15:58). A vibrant life-cycle in the church comes from the renewal of a firm commitment to the Lord and to the spiritual mission to which we as the church have been called (Ephesians 3:9-11). The Lord’s soul-saving work is the most important work in the world, and as such, it deserves and demands our best effort, both individually and collectively.
It has been observed, by those who study organizations, that most of them go through three stages in their life-cycle. In this article, let’s make application of these observations to the church of our Lord.
1) Risk-Taker Stage – In this stage, church members are willing (by faith) to take risks to advance the cause of Christ, or as Jesus put it, to “launch out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). They gladly volunteer their involvement in the Lord’s work by being active and aggressive in evangelism, knocking on doors, and inviting others to the assembly (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:8). Launching out in this kind of daring faith means a church has the willingness to face the possibility of failure, problems, rejection or difficulty in doing the Lord’s work. The Thessalonian church had this bold devotion for Jesus, because of their idealist, vibrant spiritual traits – an active faith, loving service, and steadfast hope in the Lord’s second coming (1 Thessalonians 1:3). This is why the gospel grew and was glorified among them (2 Thessalonians 3:1). The adventure of faith means commitment to work hard and sacrifice to build up the local church in doing the Lord’s work. Such characterized the church at Philippi in zealously supporting gospel preaching (Philippians 4:15-16). The Lord’s church in Rome was widely known for their active, aggressive and encouraging faith (Romans 1:8, 12). The churches of Macedonia were materially poor but rich in dedication and sacrifice that even the apostle Paul marveled (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
2) Caretaker Stage – The church at Laodicea thought they had “arrived” because they smugly thought, we “have need of nothing” (Revelation 3:17). Yet the Lord evaluated them accurately by saying, “You are lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16). His sobering warning to “repent” (Revelation 3:19), would apply to all congregations today who are smug and self-satisfied. Lukewarm churches literally make the Lord sick! (Revelation 3:16). The caretaking church loses it vision of ever expanding growth, thereby missing its sense of mission and spiritual urgency. After a church has spiritually developed, it is so easy to drift into a “comfort zone.” A nice building is built; a good preacher is hired who will do the work for the members. Maintaining the status quo suddenly becomes a rut. This church seeks to “hold its own” but doesn’t look for new spiritual challenges within its membership. Members become weary of work and sacrifice (cf. John 4:35; Matthew 16:24). In this stage, religion becomes more of a “convenience” instead of a “conviction.”
3) Undertaker Stage – If a church remains in the caretaker stage long enough, it will soon be ready for the undertaker! The Lord, speaking of such a church in Sardis said, “You are dead” (Revelation 3:1). They were existing on their past reputation – “You have the reputation of being alive” (Revelation 3:1 – ESV). The rut they were in had become “a grave with both ends knocked out.” A member of such a church might say, “The church here is at peace.” This means that someone needs to come and preach their funeral so they can “rest in peace.” There’s not enough life to cause a stir about anything, either good or bad. A church in the undertaker stage lives in the past. It’s possible they may think they are a good church because they have much potential that could be developed, if they really put their mind to it. Also, they may think they are a sound church mainly because they have good intentions and theoretically stand for the truth on “all the important issues.”
As a member of a local church, how do we fit into that church’s life-cycle? Brethren, let us help the local church to renew itself in following Christ by “speaking the truth in love” that we may “grow up in all aspects into Him” (Ephesians 4:15 – NASV). Let’s be like the churches described in Acts 9:31 (NASV), “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.”