I don’t know anyone who would say that it is good for a church to be stagnant. I don’t know of anyone who sets out with the ambition to pastor a stagnating or stagnant church. But I know there are some who are against stagnant churches. It is one thing to be against stagnant churches in the sense of wanting to see them thrive rather than decline. It is another thing to be against them in wanting to see them die if they don’t thrive. It is one thing to acknowledge that pastoring a stagnant church would be less than ideal. It is another thing to accept a foregone conclusion that God surely wouldn’t want me to lead such a church. While it’s certainly less than ideal for a church to be struggling and/or stagnant, surely it’s better for them to be stagnant than non-existent, at least in some situations. When I think of stagnant churches, I think of the church at Sardis. Jesus, the Lord of the church and the One who gave His life for her, dictated this letter:
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Rev 3:1-6)
Here we have a church that is clearly not the model of health. Their reputation is better than the reality of their anemic, weakly condition. Yet, Jesus doesn’t say they’re so bad that they need to just disband and move on with life, disperse to other congregations, etc.
What does Jesus say to the stagnating church?
He says to watch. They needed to be aware of their condition and the situation. They needed to soberly assess their condition.
He says to strengthen the things that remain. Things that are good. Things that are worth preserving. Things that are worth fighting for. They still have some faithful saints among them. All hope is not lost.
He says they need to remember what they have received and heard, and hold fast to it. This assumes that they have been taught the truth. They just haven’t kept in mind as they should have; they haven’t clung to it.
He commands them to repent. Repent of what? They needed to repent of the sin and carelessness of which they have been guilty. They have been living with a reputation that exalts them much higher than who they really are. They have not been watchful. Perhaps they simply ignored their situation and allowed things to slip until the damage was well-nigh irreparable. They needed to repent of their lack of energy and dedication to preserving what was good, letting it approach death instead. They needed to repent of failing to remember and hold on tightly to what they had learned and claimed to believe.
Jesus doesn’t tell the church to extinguish their own lampstand, close their doors, and disperse to other communities. He tells them to repent, and to pay attention to themselves and strengthen the good things still there. Jesus doesn’t tell pastors to forsake churches like this. Pastors of stagnant churches need to preach along these lines and take special note of the faithfulness they find in their congregations. He should beware of bringing in a guru or instituting some program completely foreign to the people and insensitive to their cultural context. He should love them, pray for them, preach the gospel to them, and live among them as the servant of God. Even if the church stays stagnant, and even if the church one day closes its doors, let it be in spite of the fact that they heard God’s directives faithfully declared to them and that they paid attention to His Word.