First, I want to reiterate that churches belong to Jesus and not us — He wars against zombie churches (Revelation 2:16) and we do not — period. If a death-blow falls on a zombie church it is Jesus, with His shocking white hair and flaming eyes, Who comes against them by the word of His mouth — Jesus is the zombieslayer.
But, it’s plain throughout the Scriptures that each one of God’s people fills a role in the Church as members of His Body. Christians engage in the life and ministry of local churches (Acts 13:1-4, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 12), love one another in reproving unruly brothers and sisters (Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1-5, 2 Timothy 3:16), join with Jesus in disciplining stubborn sinners (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5&6, 2 Corinthians 13:1-4), and may be called upon to take part in a discipline process by removing those who won’t repent (Matthew 18:15-20, 2 Corinthians 13:1-4, Titus 3:10).
You and I are our brother’s keepers — so, we have the responsibility and privilege, in love, to engage a zombie church.
How can we do that? In the New Testament era, there was a Church in each town. Now, there are churches (plural) in almost every town. In our contemporary church culture, it’s not often possible nor desirable to involve ourselves in the affairs of churches we are not associated with — unless we have been invited. Some gifted individuals may minister to individual churches as coaches, helping to assess their health and craft solutions for moving forward or folding into another church. But, this post is intended for the average, everyday believer or leader.
The majority of churches in America belong to presbyteries, dioceses (yes, that’s the plural), denominations or associations. Those churches have a leg up on the so-called independent churches — those groups a friend affectionately styles as “entrepreneurial Evangelical” churches. Networked churches generally have a framework in place with processes to help sister churches work through tough times. Independent or non-denominational churches will generally navigate rough patches in-house, though wise pastors will invite other leaders or ministries in to provide a fresh set of eyes and sensible, Biblical help.
Whatever framework a local church works within, they need to address this question: what practical steps can members take if they suspect their church is manifesting zombie characteristics or tendencies? Here are a few ideas:
- If we take our cue from the seven letters to the seven churches in John’s Apocalypse, Jesus would have us begin with some serious introspection. Paul the apostle also encouraged the believers at Corinth to examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV) That Scripture, like all the rest, was written for our benefit and we would be wise to regularly reflect on where we came from, where we are as a church, and where we’re going as a family of Christians. This is the concern of every member — not only the leaders (Acts 15). The way back to life begins from within the community, in the power of the Spirit and under the illumination of the Scriptures.
- So, what if you’re not a leader in your local church? How would you initiate that kind of self-assessment? Is there an openness to hear hard questions or listen to dissenting opinions? Are your leaders open to discussions that may lead to unpleasant conclusions? Often, zombie churches continue to stumble around town because pastors have a lot at stake: many are concerned about earning a living, their reputation as a minister, being near family and friends or even more sinister motives like control and power over others. Some may have found themselves in a good situation — they don’t want to rock the boat, but rather still the waters and continue to experience smooth sailing. But, those considerations must take a back seat to Gospel witness, mission, and multiplication — the primary metrics behind any decisions about whether a church should continue on or shut their doors. If prayerful, Biblical, frank discussion is off the table, a zombie church may already be sucking the life out of you — you will need to take decisive, bold action. Whether you stay or go, you will have to walk with the Spirit, by the direction of God’s Word (Matthew 23:1-12, Luke 14:26, 1 Timothy 6:1, James 4:1).
- If a free discussion is possible, often the first question we must ask is why our church exists when there are so many in the area? What is our place or purpose within the wider, flourishing Christian community? This is particularly relevant if we have plateaued numerically or are in decline when many or most churches in the immediate area are growing and thriving. What is our mission and how does that differ from all the others? How does our mission complement or serve the Church in our area? If your church has a problem with honesty and transparency, these questions will need to be pressed. Leaders or close-knit groups can subconsciously or even intentionally veil the true mission of the church behind the Gospel. Authentic churches exist because of and for the sake of the Gospel — no one will deny that, but they may set other priorities alongside the Gospel and competing motives will rarely surface in superficial or general discussions. True feelings about the church and idols usually emerge only through persistent and pointed conversations. It is not uncommon to learn over time that people want to continue on as a church, not because they love something more than Jesus, but because they love someone or something alongside Jesus ( Luke 14:26, Luke 16:13). That’s an unacceptable mission for a church — unless it’s a zombie church.
- Finally, get involved in the budget process and don’t rest until you know where your church’s money goes — every cent. Money isn’t everything, but it’s often the best indicator of what or who a church really values (1 Timothy 6:9&10). Knowing how to read or interpret a church budget is a lot like changing the oil in your own car. The primary purpose of an oil change is to lubricate the motor so the car will go. But, when you look at the oil draining out of the crankcase it can tell you a lot about what’s right or wrong with other systems and may save you grief down the road. On the surface, a church budget will tell us if we’re paying our bills, rendering taxes to whom tax is due, and avoiding financial corruption or scandal. But, drill down and determine how much of the budget is focused inward on the congregation and how much goes to outreach, disciple making, church planting, and compassionate care. If 90% of your budget is spent on expenses or salaries and there is little interest or effort to change those numbers within the leadership, you may be in a zombie church. It might be time to discuss kingdom priorities over personal preferences and repent. If there is an entrenched resistance to change, it may be time to come up with a plan to dissolve the fellowship, release people and resources to other churches in the area, and quit squandering the gifts God has given.
It’s difficult to leave a church that displays zombie-like behaviors. It’s even harder to stay in the hope of seeing it return to life. Just like their counterparts in pop culture, zombie churches die hard and seem to go on and on and on…
Next up, is there hope for a zombie church?