How Can You Spot A Zombie Church?

Back in the 1980s, as a young Christian involved in the various youth movements of the time, it was very common to hear people speak of this or that church being “dead.” Entire geographical areas were also written off as lifeless: “the church back east is totally dead, man.” That was a common post-mortem among the 20 and 30-somethings in those days. It always struck me as wrong to speak of this or that church as “dead,” when there were certainly genuine born-again Christians involved — I mean, if some of the individuals in a church are abiding in the Vine, how can we say the entire fellowship is dead?

I still think it’s a good idea to assume the best and, even if a church is dwindling or struggling or recovering from some catastrophic sin or event, I would hesitate to pronounce a community of Christians dead. After all, Jesus gives people life and they never die: Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25–26 ESV)

At the same time, I have to consider these kinds of questions and concerns through the lens of Scripture, particularly the letters to the seven churches in John’s Apocalypse. In those churches, we find some puzzling, troubling statements to make sense of. For starters, Jesus told the church at Sardis they appear to be alive and need to repent, yet they are both dead and dying and there were still a few authentic believers there:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)

This church was walking dead and, even though Jesus held out the hope that they could wake up and repent, there is a sense in which this church was a zombie church and He threatened to eliminate them if they continued trudging on in the same direction. Jesus also warned the church at Ephesus He would come against them and remove their lampstand or witness (Revelation 2:5), while sparing those who continued to walk in white — the remaining believers. Take note: although the Church universal will never die and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18 ESV), individual expressions of the Church evidently have no guarantee they can continue on as the living dead.

From this and other passages, I think it’s reasonable to believe there are zombie churches — fellowships of believers that have the appearance or a reputation of being alive while being already dead in one sense and in the process of dying at the same time. There is nothing new under the sun and you probably have encountered a zombie church or two. I’m convinced I have.

For example, I know of a pastor1 who was at a church in an area with many good, Evangelical churches. This church, Grace Bible Chapel, was started by a group of committed Christians who thought their denomination was getting a bit too liberal — they became an independent fundamentalist church. One of the founding couples, Robbie and Grace Thibodeaux2, were instrumental in locating a good pastor for the church. And, then, another and another. Whenever the church would begin to grow, Grace would become concerned about the direction the church was taking and Robbie, an elder, would communicate her concerns to the other leaders. There would be a shakeup, the pastor would need to leave so another could be found to grow the church, and a lot of gifted people would move on, as well. It seems the church could never quite reach a healthy state of reproducing disciples, even though they preached the Gospel, baptized new believers, held onto solid doctrine, and even saw many answers to prayers.  A lot of people met Jesus through Grace Bible Chapel and many grew in grace before they would come to realize that something was just not right — they would move on or be moved out. The church showed many signs of life on the outside and had a good reputation as a Gospel-centered church for years, but they were dying on the inside. Eventually, the church dwindled to a handful of people, disbanded, the building was sold off to a local business, and the remaining Christians were absorbed by the solid Evangelical churches in the area. Yet, for years before their lampstand was removed, the church had been feeding off the life and energy of new believers and members, while clumsily plodding in one direction and then another, as the founding families wrestled for control of the church’s direction and vision. They focused inward, bad decisions were made, funds for outreach declined to practically nothing, the entire budget served the members, and the saddest part is this: around town, their former reputation was lost and the church came to be known as Grace’s Bible Chapel. It was a zombie church and when Robbie died, Grace could no longer manage the church herself. When the de facto leaders went missing in action, the zombie church received its catastrophic head wound and couldn’t recover. (Revelation 2:1-11, Matthew 10:35ff, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 2:1ff)

I know of another leader3 from a major denomination who served in a rural community in the midwest. Although there were only about 1000 people in the entire town, it was home to three Methodist churches4 — they rarely, if ever, cooperated for the Gospel. These churches were doctrinally compatible, but each saw its group as the one true Wesleyan witness in the area called to unify all three fellowships. On any given Sunday, all the members from the three churches could have met in the same building at the same time with room to spare. They all held the Bible out as God’s Word, taught and preached the same Gospel, followed basically the same service of worship with the same music, and did some good work in the community. But, they just couldn’t work together. Decades before, there were hundreds of practicing Methodists in the town and a huge revival began there that spread across the country. But, all three had dwindled to a total of less than 75 members (the average size of one church in the United States). As time went on, the non-believers in town noticed that these Christians didn’t actually love one another — the Gospel and Christ’s Church came in for ridicule, scorn and, eventually, outright hatred. Their historic buildings fell into disrepair and they came to rely on City Hall to finance restoration projects out of historical interest (3 John 7). Eventually, one congregation shrank to about 10 people, the pastor had to leave town for work, the church disbanded, and their beautiful old building was given away. These zombie churches had a reputation for being alive for a while, but their lack of love for one another and pride of place wore them down —  Jesus removed their witness. (1 Corinthians 13, Revelation 3:14-22, Luke 22:24-27)

Finally, there is a minister5 in an area with a population numbering in the tens of thousands. There are vibrant, Gospel-centered, God-glorifying, disciple-making churches, representing a number of denominations and streams of orthodox, historic Christianity. There is no want of good Christian fellowship and the Church in the community has not only a reputation of being alive but growth in God’s grace and favor. Within the Church in this area, there are at least seven churches that would be considered in the same stream or tradition, both doctrinally and practically. They are all within driving distance of one another. All are Gospel-centered, committed to Jesus, expressing a desire to see God glorified and His kingdom come, in and through their churches. Three of these churches have been planted within the past decade, while the rest have been around for a good long time. They all have a reputation for being alive and seem to be on good terms with one another. But, some of these churches are barely making it, financially. Their growth in numbers is flat or declining slightly — they see few conversions and have not expanded much beyond the original core of family and friends. Their resources are inwardly focused for the most part — much of their time and energy are expended in logistical or organizational activities. At the same time, the other churches in this stream are growing both numerically and spiritually, while sending money, resources and, more importantly, people out into the rest of the country and the world with the Good News and planting churches. So, the question is this: if a few churches are practically identical to the others while being far less effective for the Gospel and bearing little fruit– could those struggling fellowships be on the way to becoming zombie churches? Are they hoarding gifts, resources, and people, who would be better served and better servants under the oversight of better shepherds? Would they be more obedient to the Great Commission by folding their struggling communities into one of the larger healthy churches in the area?

Those are difficult questions to ask yourself if you are a member or leader in a church like one of those I’ve described. When a church still has a reputation of being alive and Jesus hasn’t removed it from the scene, we shouldn’t assume that it is dead or dying and we can’t say with certainty that it’s a zombie church. But, if I’m a member of or if I’m one of the leaders in a church that is static or declining while others from my tradition in the immediate area are growing and thriving, I have an obligation to seek the Lord on the matter, in the Scriptures, and through prayer — I would want to know if I am a member of a zombie church. 

In the next post, I’ll share some thoughts about what we can do if we suspect we may members of a zombie church.

 

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  1. that pastor could be me, someone I know, a leader I know of or an author/speaker []
  2. real people, but not their real names []
  3. that pastor could be me, someone I know, a leader I know of or an author/speaker []
  4. this account is real, but the location and denomination are fictional []
  5. that pastor could be me, someone I know, a leader I know of or an author/speaker []

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