There Are No Dead Churches

It is too easy to leave a church because it is "dead". It sounds much more spiritual than admitting some sort of consumer impulse in us to have it our way. If we pronounce a church "dead", we are by implication suggesting that we are not, that we are truly alive, that we really know what it means to experience God. God has graced us by placing our finger on the pulse of churches all across the world, letting us play coroner in an ecclesiastical morgue, guessing at the cause of death.

Ah, this one had too much tradition. Or, This one never taught the Bible verse by verse. Or This one didn't have enough open worship or room for the Spirit. 

But before we get carried away in spiritual superiority, it's worth asking ourselves what we mean when we say a church is dead. Consider this:

Caernarfonshire, Bangor, St David's Church - The Tower 1. God is always present
Jesus said "for where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt. 18:20).
Wherever God's people gather, whenever they gather, however they worship or how aware they are of God, God is there. 

God's presence is not contingent on our awareness. Remember Jacob who only after his stairway to heaven dream exclaimed, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it"(Gen. 28:16).  God's presence is often subtle and subversive. Think of the still, small voice Elijah almost didn't hear after the dramatic fire at Carmel. Think of the Son of God coming to earth as a Jewish baby born in a manger almost unnoticed by Herod from his opulent palace. God seems to specialize in being on the scene without fanfare and fireworks. 

2. God is always working
In Revelation 2 and 3 , Jesus speaks to 7 churches regarding their forsaken first-love, their endurance in the face of persecution, their idolatry, their immorality, their dying hearts, their fading strength, and their lukewarm faith. Chances are, if you or I went to any of these churches, we might never go back. We might pull out of the parking lot, shaking our heads, saying how sad it is that this once-great church is now dead. And yet…

None of these churches are dead. Even the one he calls "dead", He clarifies by calling them to "strengthen what remains and is about to die" (Rev. 3: 2). They are not dead for one simple reason: Christ is speaking to those churches. As much as they struggle with sin (immorality, idolatry, and adultery), as much as they struggle to keep a burning, living faith in the midst of their institutional development, Christ is still speaking. What's more, for some of them, if His warning is unheeded, Christ Himself will come to them!

When we call our church "dead", too often we are basing our assessment by what we see. And all we see is human activity. We see how people worship or if they don't. We see how many people are coming or if they are. We call a church dead because of human inactivity when what makes a church alive is God's activity. And God is always present and working.

If we are evaluating churches by human activity or its approximation to perfection, we would be more accurate to say that every church is, in a way, dead. It is a relational organism that even at a small size involves structure and order. That makes the church– even a house church– at some level institutional. Furthermore, since it involves humans, it's imperfect. If we are going to condemn a church for being institutional or sin-laden, what are we left with?

“What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it. Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.” –Eugene Peterson


The church– dead by our standards– is necessary to protect the presence and activity of God among His people…
…and God's presence and activity among all His people means that no church is truly dead. 

It is only dead to our eyes.
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16 thoughts on “There Are No Dead Churches

  1. Man,
    The Shape of thoughts that come out of your mind are truly stunning.
    I can add nothing but a hearty AMEN…
    Thank you for your thoughts. It is very apparent you have come back from sabattical with energy and vitality and we are ready to recieve… teach on Pastor Packiam…

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  2. To set the stage, I have gone to church all my life but a couple of years ago I was fed up with the “business” aspect of the one I was going to and deemed them dead! Oh and part of the “institutional church”!! LOL Two things you covered; and very well I might add. [stage set]
    I really only came here to see why someone on a discussion board disagreed with your article. Thank you for writing this and listening to the Holy Spirit.
    I believe this quote sums up your article (to me anyway, you may think differently!!), “Wherever God’s people gather, whenever they gather, however they worship or how aware they are of God, God is there…. God’s presence is not contingent on our awareness.” How arrogant we humans are. If I am aware it’s only because God has allowed me to be aware at this moment in time and instead of judging, I should be grateful and praying.
    Also, that quote about the bark of tree being dead nailed it for me as well! Funny, how God uses people, isn’t it?
    God bless, Lysa

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  3. You say, “If we pronounce a church “dead”, we are by implication suggesting that we are not, that we are truly alive, that we really know what it means to experience God.”
    To that my response would be. I know that I’ve got areas to grow in. I’m nowhere’s near perfect, however I believe that God has given me some insight into much of the state of the church of today.
    Tozer says, “There are pure saints in almost all the churches, a few here and there, but the prevailing religious mood is self-centered instead of world-centered. Instead of being outgoing and soul-winning, the average church is self-centered and self-satisfied. We make our reports and we spend pages telling what wonderful good boys and girls we have been. Self-satisfaction seems to be upon us all.
    Worldliness of spirit is the prevailing mood in the average church, along with carnality of heart. To the Corinthians, Paul said in effect, “You are carnal and I cannot speak to you of spiritual matters. I would like to come to preach deep things to you, but you are too carnal.”
    Another prevailing mood of the average church is to be Christian in name but in practice to be unchristian. Our trouble is not that we refuse to believe right doctrine, but we refuse to practice it. We have the peculiar contradiction of believing the right thing and living the wrong way, a strange anomaly within the church everywhere.
    In the church many are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.”
    Ravenhill states, “To take an over-all view of the Church today leaves one wondering how much longer a holy God can refrain from implementing His threat to spue this Laodicean thing out of His mouth. Yet while over our heads hangs the Damoclean sword of rejection, we believers are lean, lazy, luxury-loving, loveless, and lacking. Though our merciful God will pardon our sins, purge our iniquity, and pity our ignorance, our lukewarm hearts are an abomination in his sight. We must be hot or cold, flaming or freezing, burning out or cast out. Lack of heat and lack of love God hates.The Church alone can “limit the Holy One of Israel,” and today she has consummate skill in doing it. If there are degrees in death, then the deadest I know of is to preach about the Holy Ghost without the anointing of the Holy Ghost…. We must rightly divide the Word of truth, The text “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”(Rev. 3:20), has nothing to do with the sinners and a waitig Saviour. No! Here is the tragic picture of our Lord at the door of His own Laodicean Church trying to get in. Imagine it! Again, in the majority of prayer meetings, what text is more used than “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst? But too often He is NOT in the midst; He is at the door! We sing His praise, but shun His person!””
    Finney says, “One holy church crucified to the world would do more to promote Christianity than all the churches in the country, living as they now do. If I had strength to go throughout the churches, I would preach to bring them up to the gospel standard of holy living. Of what use is it to convert sinners and make them feel that there is something in religion, and then by your conformity to the world prove that there is nothing in it? Where shall the Lord look for a church like the first church–that will be seperate and serve God?”
    Each of these [naive 🙂 ] men have called the church a dead church and these teachings, as quoted above, give a good idea as to why they called The Church dead.
    Now, I do agree that our God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is alive and well and active in our churches. I also believe that God speaks. He is constantly speaking in our churches. I, however, would venture to say that many in the church do not listen.
    These authors and preachers, amongst others who have espoused the same terminology of “the dead church,” call the church dead because the lack of healing, spiritual conversion, lack of prophecy, lack of Biblical teaching, lack of true Biblically-lead leaders. Many leaders feed milk most of their career, so many congregates go home without meat. Those that go home without meat, don’t care much about whether they are doing anything right at home.
    I recently heard that there is a pastor of a “Christian” church that said in one of his sermons, “Now, I don’t believe in God, but it’s up to you to find the truth.” Think of that congregation that has been going to that church for years under that preaching… I’d venture to call that a “dead church.” There’s NO life in that kind of preaching.
    Those are my thoughts. My “naive” self has used the term “dead churches” many times. I see much in “The Church” that lacks life; that lacks authenticity.
    It is for the reasons, as quoted about by some great men of God, that I, too, see what they see.
    ** As I’m re-reading your article. I understand that I, too, am saying things by what I see and it is true that I have called a church dead by human inactivity. Did not Paul, John and many disciples also call churches out on human inactivity?
    I believe Rev. 3:2 is possibly answered in Rev. 3:3 – “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
    I don’t know if I quite understand this statement – “The church– dead by our standards– is necessary to protect the presence and activity of God among His people…”
    So an unauthentic, worldy, self-consumed, irreverent church is necessary to protect the presence and activity of God? I don’t understand that concept.

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  4. Also, I would like to add that I don’t believe ALL churches to be dead, or almost dead, but there are quite a few…!! 🙂
    There are true authentic churches.
    You said, “Furthermore, since it involves humans, it’s imperfect.” True, but do we have to push the envelope on imperfection? Does the statement give me validation to lead the church the way I want to lead the church, or should I let GOD lead the church? 🙂
    If I spend forty minutes talking about myself and all the famous people I know and met and all my accomplishments(and I did this nearly every Sunday) and only spent 5-10 minutes in the Word, am I taking advantage of my imperfection, or am I letting God lead? I once went to a church like this.
    It’s what you do with the imperfection. Are you striving to live a life of holiness, or are you doing church your way? Are you doing church the congregates way (the way they like it and want it to be done), or are you doing it God’s way?

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  5. I would also like to make mention that I am not, by any means, endorsing a habitual leave of churches that don’t match our consumeristic lifestyles. There are churches that I believe are relevant to leave, but it doesn’t make it right to be a habitual leaver.

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  6. I got to thinking that maybe you are talking about “Dead by our standards” as being driven by our consumerism… ? Is this what you meant?
    The church should obviously be done and lived out by God’s standards.

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  7. hey ben! thanks for your thoughts…great great quotes. i think we know each other well enough that i know you would never advocate “habitual leaving of churches”…and i trust you know me well enough to know:
    1. i would not say there is never a time to leave a church…there are times…and how we handle them is very important.
    2. i would never advocate “pushing the limit of imperfection”. i just think sometimes we complain about there being so many “sin issues” in church when that’s what you will find everywhere. the difference, of course, is that a church ought not revel in its sinfulness and be apathic about it. we should, in peter’s words “make every effort” to add to our faith….to grow. you know i agree with you.
    finally, i think the word “dead” might be a semantic issue: when people like ravenhill and other revivalists use the word “dead” they mean that they church is unresponsive or unattentive to God’s voice…i understand that. i just personally think– with all due respect to ravenhill– that it’s a poor choice of words. the church is God’s body and His bride…until He decides to stop speaking, wooing, calling, to us, we cannot call it dead. we might do better calling the church asleep…as keith green once did. as an aside, i would disagree with ravenhill’s exposition of rev. 3. here again “standing at the door knocking” is a picture…it’s poetry language…If we are supposed to believe that Jesus was literally standing at the door outside their church knocking, what should we make of Paul’s claim that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father? Paul’s letters most closely resemble theological treatises…John’s revelation is a vision. Almost all prophetic language– particular that involving God or His speech– is poetry. that doesn’t make the meanings less literal..it just means we read it differently. it shouldn’t be set in contrast to matt.18:20. to do that would be tantamount to calling Jesus a liar…or to say that “wherever two or three” doesn’t really mean that…and we don’t want to start down that road. Jesus speech in Matt 18 didn’t occur in prophetic vision; it’s in historical narrative.
    anyway..overall, bro, i think we are on the same page. all of us want to be people that are quick to respond to God’s voice. and we want to lead churches that do the same. but to pronounce churches dead…well, that may be OK for tozer and ravenhill…but i am less willing to make sweeping statements about “churches in general”. it’s hard enough to gauge the health of the church you attend!
    much love.

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  8. I believe you are right my friend – I think the word “dead” might just be a semantic issue. As I read and re-read your blog numerous times yesterday, that was part of the conclusion I was coming to. And I do know you well enough to know that you would never advocate that “there is never a time to leave a church” and “pushing the limit of imperfection.”
    “When people like ravenhill and other revivalists use the word “dead” they mean that they church is unresponsive or unattentive to God’s voice…”
    – Absolutely, and that, too, is where I come from when I say that a church is “dead.” My desire is to see the church ALIVE and thriving, consumed by God and set ablaze. I’m tired of seeing churches thriving on image and lukewarmness. We have made God consumer trendy and and a nice guy. I think it’s time for The Church to look at its hypocracy and see that it has become more of an entertainment center and less of a hospital, a playing field and less of a battleground.
    …and I’m getting on a role. Time to bring it back around…!
    I do believe that we are on the same page. I think I was coming more from a cautionary outlook on your post. Not all who call the church “dead” are naive, but I do agree, symantically, that there could be a more proper word used when it comes to calling The Church “unresponsive or unattentive to God’s voice.”
    -+-
    As far as Ravenhill’s exposition on Rev. 3:20. I THINK I see where he (Ravenhill) is coming from.
    (edited). LOL… I was going to go throw a whole expository on why God won’t except the lukewarm Christian, but you already know exctly where I’d go with it and we both know the kind of Christian that Christ wants as His bride.
    So, I’ll just leave it at – I understand why Ravenhill is saying what he says in his exposition of it.
    I love you bro! I enjoyed our conversation. I love to think! Be blessed my friend!

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  9. First-time commenter here 🙂
    Thanks for this post! I’ve been feeling discouraged about my church for a long time now, and reading this may be yet another way the Lord’s telling me to stick around. God bless!

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  10. I would encourage you to spend time on your face before Christ, Nelima. Maybe God has you there for a purpose. A purpose meant to change the course of your church! Anyways, be encouraged – God hears your plea!

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  11. Great post! And I agree, but I want to ask a couple of questions. Are there places that call themselves churches, but deny the power, presence, salvation, and holiness of God, places where because of blasphemy or lack of holiness or lack of right-ness God has removed his spirit and his blessing? If so, how should one describe these places if the word “dead” is not appropriate? Can dead connote a spiritual reality and not simply a emotional or commercially viable gut response? And then how would we know the spiritual reality?
    But on the other hand who are we to pass judgements on the Bride of Christ (of whom we are a part). If we cannot find Christ somewhere, maybe we ought to look inward rather than outward to find the true source of the problem. Many of the Pharisees did not see Christ, but it was not his fault but theirs.

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  12. Thank you for your words of wisdom, it’s something I needed to hear. I think I’ll look for ways that I can bring more life to my church rather than condemning it for what I think it doesn’t have.

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  13. Thanks for a great article. Its amazing to see how The Church worldwide is dealing with the same challenges. I live in South Africa, and this debate about some churches being dead/asleep rages on. In fact, I was contemplating leaving my church for a more conservative, legalistic one. Your article has got me thinking.

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  14. i hadn’t visited your blog in awhile…. nice article!
    Once again I think it’s us charismatics that have a tendency to make this judgment. Heck, I go to a VERY alive church, and sometimes I come out of a service thinking to myself… wow, church was really dead this weekend.
    We love the manifest presence of God, and if we don’t FEEL it or SEE it, we tend to forget that God was indeed there. Or we blame ourselves for not worshipping hard enough.
    So how much easier is it for us to point our finger at the liturgical variety with condescending disdain. I think it is most often done out of pride or insecurity, and it makes me cringe.
    But I do think there is a place for admonition… as iron sharpens iron. If our brothers and sisters are living morally bankrupt lives… not worshiping in truth… attending church in body only… are they not spiritually dead? But there is One who can breathe life into the dead.

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