A number of years ago, a minister friend of mine attended a minister's conference sponsored by a rapidly growing church and featuring its own minister as the primary speaker. My friend was in a difficult church situation and it had gotten him discouraged. He attended the conference in hope of getting some encouragement. Unfortunately the meeting turned out to be anything but encouraging. According to my friend the keynote speaker pointed to his great success and then made this appalling pronouncement: "If your church isn't at least 5,000 in membership, you need to get out of the ministry - you are not serious about ministry."
I can only imagine that if this individual had been reviewing the work of the seven churches of revelation, the only two with passing grades would have been Sardis and Laodicea. If church health is judged by size, programs or material possessions, these two congregations had it hands down. They were both unique for their day. In a day of general persecution, these two churches were being praised in their communities. Sardis had a reputation for being alive and vibrant, Laodicea was wealthy and very likely using some of that wealth to reach out to the less than fortunate. These two churches had it all together as far as human insight was concerned. They could have been running their own pastor's conferences telling others how they too could get in on the blessings.
The lord of the church saw them in a whole different light. Sardis, active in reputation was dead in spirit (Revelation 3:1). We should be careful never to mistake movement for life. There are, unfortunately, plenty of churches running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. It is my understanding that this proverbial statement comes from reality. That the body of a headless chicken will actually run around until it drops. The chicken, of course, is dead the instant its head is removed from its body, but it obviously doesn't seem to recognize this problem. There is plenty of movement - but no life.
A similar thing happens in the church. Far too many of us are running around doing all sorts of activities, maintaining wonderful traditions, but we are not connected to the head, Jesus. That was the problem in Sardis.
In Laodicea the issue was a marked lukewarmness to the things of God. Their focus was on their material possessions. The lord of the church says to them, "You claim to be rich and successful and to have everything you need. But you don't know how bad off you are. You are pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17, CEV). Today there are those who would have us believe that material blessing is the natural result of spiritual obedience. They misuse and misapply verse after verse to support this deluded doctrine. They even claim that Jesus was secretly wealthy (though over and over again we have his words to the contrary) because they claim that since he obeyed the father's will completely, he had to be a man of success despite the fact that the Bible identifies him as a man of sorrows. Like Laodicea it is possible to be materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt. Wealth does not equal spirituality and spirituality doesn't equal material blessing. God supplies our needs not our wants.
Here's what I know: if you believe the illusion that as a believer everything should be coming up roses for you, you will become disillusioned because it doesn't always work that way. Faith is not merely claiming and receiving some coveted thing; sometimes faith involves accepting what God gives us without doubting him and without complaining. This is true on the individual believer level, and it is true on the corporate church level.
It is not up to us to decide which church has the blessing of God upon it. He is the head of the church, and he alone gets to hand out the commendations or condemnations. Certainly we are responsible to look into the issues and, I think where necessary, point out sin, disobedience, etc., that may have crept in. Paul for instance opposed Peter when Peter fell prey to the sin of hypocrisy (See Galatians 2:11-21). But when all is said and done, it is the Lord who will hand out the rewards or take them away. Until then, our job is to know the truth, stay in the truth and walk faithfully with Jesus.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church. Write him in care of the church at 11677 Brown Bridge Road Covington, GA, 30016. Send e-mail to email@example.com