the shape of leadership

Seven Questions for the Church

How Revelation 2–3 helps diagnose congregational health

Doug Clay on October 13, 2021

Like you, I’ve never been through a season like this. Bible college didn’t give me a playbook for how to lead a church, let alone an entire Fellowship, through a pandemic or in times of widespread social unrest. The Bible doesn’t give us a detailed plan, either.

However, Scripture does reveal the Lord’s heart for His Church. Throughout this season, I’ve been drawn to the letters Jesus sent to the seven churches via John. I see in them seven diagnostic questions Jesus asked — and continues to ask — about the health of His followers:

1. Are we passionately in love with Christ and His Church? Ephesian Christians had many things going for them. They worked hard, upheld biblical doctrine and morality, and persevered in the face of hardship. But they were doing God’s work without God’s love.

“Yet I hold this against you,” Jesus said to them. “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).

Although Jesus didn’t define this lost love, He taught that the love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand (Matthew 22:37–40; 1 John 4:7–12). It seems love was lacking amid the hard work, orthodoxy, and perseverance of the Ephesians.

Christ’s primary concern is that we stay in love with Him and the people He entrusts us to serve.

2. Do we stand strong when tested? Christians at Smyrna lived under difficult circumstances. “I know your afflictions and your poverty,” Jesus told them (Revelation 2:9). Those afflictions were demonic in origin: “The devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days” (verse 10).

Christ’s letter to Smyrna reminds us that no Christian is immune to suffering, regardless of spiritual maturity or social status. Jesus did not promise to remove their difficulties. Instead, He said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

If we serve and follow Christ merely for earthly benefits, hardship and persecution will derail us and potentially destroy us. To stand strong in times of testing, we need a heavenly focus.

3. Are we producing biblical disciples? Pergamum’s believers lived “where Satan has his throne” (Revelation 2:13).

Christians may inhabit the same city as the devil, but they can resist the pressure he exerts on them.

Jesus said, “You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city.”

Yet Pergamum tolerated the teaching of Balaam. According to Numbers 31:16, Balaam enticed the people of Israel to practice immorality. We might say the Israelites wanted the benefits of salvation but didn’t count the cost of discipleship.

Pergamum reminds church leaders to live, lead and disciple biblically so we can avoid repeating this error.

4. Are we improving constantly? Thyatira was a small military town at the junction of two valleys.

Jesus said to the Christians there, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Revelation 2:19). Or, as the NLT interprets it, “I can see your constant improvement in all these things.”

What a great evaluation to hear from the Lord! We should always want to improve as we serve Jesus and minister to others.

Interestingly, Thyatira was the smallest city but received the longest letter. Sometimes we dismiss the importance of smaller churches in smaller communities. I am the product of both.

To be the
Spirit-empowered, Bible-engaged, missionally active Church God called us
to be, we need to do what He commanded.

For Jesus, a church’s size doesn’t indicate its significance. He calls all churches — small and large — to improve constantly. To churches that do, He promises “authority over the nations” (verse 26).

5. Does our reputation match our reality? At Sardis, there was incongruity. Jesus said, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). The name of Christ was on the church door, but the fruit of Christ was absent from its members’ lives.

Verses 2–3 provide the remedy: “Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.”

Sardis is a sobering reminder that every church is one generation away from becoming spiritually dead. We cannot assume yesterday’s faith will be there tomorrow. We must cultivate it today, in ourselves and others.

The Assemblies of God has a wonderful legacy, but I never want to rely solely on our reputation or our organizational structure, educational institutions, and the like for our continued vitality.

To be the Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, Bible-engaged, missionally active Church God called us to be, we need to do what He commanded.

6. Do we walk through doors God has opened? Philadelphia had been founded to spread Greek language and culture eastward. You might say it was a mission-sending church for the false gospel of Hellenism. It was an important, influential city.

By contrast, the Philadelphian church had “little strength” (Revelation 3:8). But Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” They were weak, but He was strong.

Think of all the blessings contemporary believers possess that the church in Philadelphia didn’t. We have financial and technological resources to spread the gospel that were unavailable to Philadelphia.

These are doors God has opened for us. I want to be a Church that keeps walking through them, both in the U.S. and around the world.

7. Have we invited Jesus to the table? Laodicea had a problem with its water supply. Hierapolis to the northeast was known for its hot sulfur water, providing refreshing baths for weary and hurting people. Colossae to the southeast was known for its cold water. An aqueduct brought Laodicea water from a hot spring, but by the time the water reached the city, it was tepid.

The Laodicean church was like its water supply — neither hot nor cold. Just lukewarm. It offered nothing to refresh the spiritually weary or satisfy the spiritually thirsty.

Laodicea brought considerable resources to the table of ministry, but those resources weren’t good. Jesus told them, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

Verse 20 identifies what — or rather who — was missing: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus said. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

We often use this text during altar calls as we invite nonbelievers to come to Christ. In context, however, Jesus said this to Christians. The Laodiceans had locked Jesus out of His own church, and Jesus had to knock to get back in. Can you imagine that?

Like Laodicea, American Christians have material resources at their disposal. It’s tempting to use them solely for our own comfort. It’s also tempting to mistake material resources for spiritual power.

I never want material resources to replace Jesus at the table of ministry in our churches. Without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). But with Christ, all things are possible (Mark 10:27).

Until the Trumpet Sounds

As I survey the difficulties Christians are experiencing here and around the world, I keep waiting to hear the trumpet sound. Until that happens, I want to answer these seven questions with a resounding “Yes!” Don’t you?

This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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