Recently, as I thought about the condition of the American church, I envisioned a room full of lifeless bodies; not human bodies but local bodies of believers. If I may, I would like to borrow your imagination and take you to a place you probably have no desire to visit–the morgue. I want you to imagine a cold, lifeless room in the basement of a hospital, full of gurneys draped with long white sheets. At the end of each gurney, protruding from under the sheet, are two feet with a single tag hanging off the right big toe. The tag may have several things written on it, but there are only two inscriptions I want you to pay attention to—the name on the first line and cause of death listed somewhere near the bottom.
I’m sure that some already feel that this exercise is far too morbid to continue, but I beg you not to eject from the tour just yet. It may be that this imaginary visit to death’s museum will be the one thing that keeps your church from becoming one of the exhibits. No matter how strong its past or vibrant its present, no church has any assurance that it will live to see next year. No church is so healthy that it could never become unhealthy. No church is so alive that it couldn’t die.
A dead church is a place where change and growth are not only unwelcome; they are impossible. Once rigor mortis sets in, the body grows stiff and still. Rather than being unmovable from the truth, it just becomes downright unmovable. Show me a church that sings about the wonders of Christ yet functions as if He is still dead, and I will show you a church that is dead and in need of resurrection. Like anything dead, a deceased church has eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and a mouth that is open yet empty.
Again to return to our exercise, I want you to imagine several specific corpses covered in white linen arranged in a row at the center of the room. Each has been assigned an apparent cause of death by the medical examiner. With their blue, lifeless lips, each testifies to the possibility of death if we do not heed the Great Physician’s orders.
I imagine the first toe-tagged body we approach. A glance at the ME’s report reveals her cause of death to be COPD. A postmortem investigation reveals this particular church was filled with smoke but short of breath. There is one thing that the dead always have in common. They are breathless. When I approach a casket, it is not the makeup or the coverup that captures my attention. It is the eerie stillness of the body in the box. We have all had the experience of peeking in on a sleeping love one and the relief we feel when we see the steady rise and fall of their chest. We look for breath because its absence means death.
In the beginning, it was God’s breath of life that made man a living soul. So it is the breath of God that gives the church life. The Holy Spirit is the wind that animates the body. Where the Spirit has ceased to move, the body has ceased to breathe. No matter how many machines the church is hooked up to, pumping it full of air, making it appear as if it is inhaling and exhaling, where there is no breath, there is no life. How many churches have resisted the influence and operation of the Holy Spirit to the point that He has left the building? The church that continues to push forward, even when short of breath, will eventually find herself out of breath. The church that’s out of breath will die.
I imagine a second dead church lying on the examining table. This church died of blood loss. Most likely, her condition started as treatable anemia. Yet rather than addressing her ailment, she allowed herself to be led astray by a man whose title was doctor, yet required a physician himself. Her blood loss was a tragedy, but it was not the result of an accident. She had given her blood away. Medical science and scripture agree that the life of the body is in the blood. When the blood stops flowing, the body stops going. In like manner, the life-giving current of the church is the precious blood of Christ. Any church who surrenders the preaching and treasuring of the blood forfeits her own life. A church that struggles with poor circulation will be constantly cold and lethargic. How sad it is when a church can no longer bear the sight of the blood that bought her pardon. Show me a church that has allowed the world to bleed her, and I will show you a dead, decaying church!
If we look to the next gurney, we will find a third dead church; cause of death, cirrhosis of the liver. The liver is the body’s filter. When the filter fails to function, toxins will begin to build in the body. Unremoved toxic waste will contaminate and kill the body. This dead church abused her liver with the intoxicating pleasures of the world, the flesh, and the devil. What is unique about her is this before her death, she probably appeared to be growing. Still, in reality she was only swelling. The first sign that the liver was failing was when the church started turning yellow and giving in to pressure rather than remaining loyal to the word of God. This church gave her liver little attention because she was more concerned that her makeup was attractive to outsiders. In the pursuit of relevance, she allowed herself to be seduced into drinking the poison cup of compromise. In the process of time, she silenced her liver’s cries of abuse and partied on. Now the church without a liver is a church without life.
We must move on. If we turn from the tables in the center of the room to the exterior wall and open one of the drawers, we will find a sad case. It appears to be an older church with a long, rich history of life, but she died of heart failure. Of all fatal ailments in the church, one of the most overlooked yet easily preventable causes of death is heart failure. This church didn’t abuse her liver or neglect her lungs; she just didn’t take care of her heart. Her diet was poor. She never came to the table of God for a balanced meal, nor did she exercise in the weight room of faith. Little by little her heart became hard and finally quit beating all together. Though she was old, she could have had many good and fruitful years ahead of her, but she made one mistake. She didn’t give any attention to her heart health. She is a reminder that a church that does not guard its heart will lose its life.
If we opened other drawers along the wall, we could talk about the church with treatable skin cancer. It started as a small spot on the surface but left untreated; it spread to every member of the body. We could discuss the curious case of the church that had no feet. They didn’t go, therefore they didn’t grow and subsequently perished. However, I want to give our attention to one final church that I think certainly must be mentioned.
This church’s cause of death was self-inflicted. Before we even pull back the sheet, there is something obviously off about this church. Something about the shape just does not look right. Upon pulling back the sheet, it’s immediately apparent what’s off–the head. I mean this in a very literal sense. This body is missing its head. A cephalectomy is the surgical removal of the head from the body. The mysterious thing about this church is that it was decapitated by its own hands. It wanted to be independent of Christ. It wanted to direct its own steps and decide its own destiny.
Any church that does not clearly submit itself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a church without life. Please understand me: a body without a head may continue to move and make noise long after its death. Still, she has become nothing more than the proverbial chicken running around with her head cut off. She has no direction and is just operating off muscle memory. When the body becomes convinced it doesn’t need its head, it is already as good as dead.
This visit to the morgue should cause us to stop and seriously consider the mortality of our own church. We are not immune to any one of these foolish actions or fatal diseases. Therefore, we must be faithful to watch and pray lest we also slip into the sleep that leads to death.