Pastor Ron E. Thompson: The Autopsy of a Dead Church

Pastor Ron E. Thompson

In Revelation chapters 2 and 3, John the apostle addressed seven letters to messengers from seven real churches located in what is known today as Turkey. Many scholars believe that each message also fits into various periods of history. Each church’s message, though specific to its situation, also offers applications for our lives today. Each message begins with a description of the glorified Christ who is the author. The
second part of each letter begins with the words “I know” showing God’s omniscience. Next, Jesus proceeds to praise the church for its merits, or criticizes it for its faults. Then comes a commendation, a criticism, an admonition, a call, a challenge, and a promise.

For this article, I would like to focus our attention to one particular church letter – the one sent to the church at Sardis. Often when someone dies, especially if it is the result of a crime or unknown cause, an autopsy is performed to inform the physician and family the real reason for the cause of death. It is hoped that perhaps some scientific information might be gleaned that would prevent an early death in the lives of those who are living. I would like to examine the church at Sardis because it is called a dead church, a condition that represents the problem in many churches that have already died to the things of true faith. Let us take an autopsy of Sardis as revealed in Revelation 3:3 and see what the real cause of its death. Why? In order that we can learn how to keep other churches from dying.

1. A Dead Church Does Not Realize it is Dead. The church, by definition, is to be alive. It is a place where God lives, where Christ lives, where the Holy Spirit lives — where believers are alive. A church is to be the fellowship of those who possess eternal life. Many churches have a name to be alive but are actually dead. They may be beehives of activity with things such as banquets, class socials, car washes, fairs, but extraordinarily little compassion for the lost, for personal spiritual growth and no missionary vision. Such churches have a form of godliness, but no power. Some are little more than social clubs. The life and power of the Holy Spirit is not present. The illuminating of the Holy Spirit is not there. The enabling of the Holy Spirit is not there. There is no godly leadership there. Without the Holy Spirit and without godly leadership,
God said the church was dead. It was a church dominated by the flesh, dominated by sin, dominated by unbelief, mostly populated by the unregenerate. However, there would be some believers there who were indifferent and some who were faithful.

2. A Dead Church Cannot Do Anything for Itself. Dead bodies cannot do a thing for themselves. I have worked for two funeral homes and know how important it is that the deceased person be properly dressed and cosmetized, to be made as natural looking as if they were alive. When a church must operate from plans handed down from a denominational headquarters and cannot operate and conduct its own affairs, it is a sign of death. A dead church depends on the pastor to do all the visiting of the sick, bereaved, and lost. It also depends on the same faithful few to do all the teaching, worship services, administrative work, prayer meetings, workdays, etc. Verse 4 indicates that Sardis means a remnant. Remember, even Sardis had a few who would walk with the Lord for they were worthy.

3. A Dead Church is Quiet and Dignified. While the Psalmist says to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10), some church services are so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Just beware that your quietness is not death itself. I am also advocating singing when we sing, praying when we pray, and having real heart-warming testimonies. The music of the church should not be classical or operatic nor rock and roll with its repetitious lyrics. Be sure to include the beloved old hymns. Make lyrics plain enough to view on the screen so that the congregation will not just be spectators. Worship should be joyful, uplifting, and lively, but not noisy. Avoid the temptation to take the prayer period time as an opportunity to talk and whisper,
or to get in a few winks of sleep. Remember, we are talking to God!

I want to close this article by sharing some thoughts from Dr. John MacArthur on this subject: “A church can be socially distinguished and have all its programming but be a spiritual graveyard. It reminds me of Samson, the hero of Israel in the dark days of their history. He had so many feats and exploits of heroic strength. But something happened. Samson fell into sin and lost touch with the source of his strength. His hair only symbolized the spiritual fact that God was his strength; and when he disobeyed God, he lost that strength. When confronted with danger, he tried to react, and the Bible records this: “He didn’t know that the Lord had departed from him.” What a sad statement. Same old Samson, but the Lord was not there. And this led to Samson’s defeat, imprisonment, blindness, and death. This is an illustration of Sardis. The church was once alive, but it began to court the world and tolerate sin, and it became weak and blind and dead. And now the church at Sardis is bound in brass chains, grinding the grains of sin’s prison, because God has long gone.”

Beloved, what do you suppose an autopsy of your church would reveal? Sardis needed a revival! God told Sardis in. verse two to “strengthen the things that remain.” In other words, put breath into those dry bones, life into that dead body.”

Pastor Ron E Thompson

Ron E. Thompson is a retired pastor/evangelist having had a ministry spanning over sixty years. He served as pastor of churches in Indiana, Virginia, Arizona, and South Carolina. As Director of Brethren Evangelistic Ministries, he held numerous evangelistic and revival crusades in twenty-two states. He led a team that conducted evangelism seminars throughout the United States and in several foreign countries. Ron is author of two books: Hurricane Evangelism and Sermons in Song. He is also a musician, having studied piano under noted composer-conductor, Hubert Tillery. Music has served him well as an avocation in his life and ministry. He currently is a pianist at the Fountain of Life Bible Church in Johnson City, TN. Ron received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Bridgewater College and his Master of Divinity degree from Grace Theological Seminary. He did graduate studies at Wheaton College and the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. He attended the North American Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in1994. Ron’s home is in Limestone, Tennessee. He is the father of two daughters: Evangeline Hales, a musician at Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, VA and violinist with the Lynchburg Symphony; Dr. Melody Archer, Retired Administrator and Principal of Tri-Cities Christian Schools, Blountville, TN.

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