We return, this morning, to our series on the seven letters, written to seven churches found in the book of Revelation. As a reminder, these letters represent a snapshot of the situations, strengths, and challenges facing the 1st century churches. There is no evidence that these letters were written or distributed independently of the other. Instead, the repeating format of these letters – a characteristic of Christ, a commendation, a complaint, a correction, and a conclusion, suggests that they are a part of an overall literary structure for the purpose of training the modern church how to live a Christian life.
The training takes place in seven areas: We’re trained to love (Ephesus), to suffer (Smyrna), to tell the truth (Pergamum), to be holy (Thyatira), to be authentic (Sardis), to be in mission (Philadelphia), and to worship and receive gifts to serve God (Laodicea). 
These letters contain lessons and insights for every age and generation, including the La Verne Church of the Brethren.
Today, we are focusing on the 5th letter written to Sardis, dubbed the apathetic church. Sardis was founded in 1200 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Asia Minor. Because of its strategic position at the junction of five major trading routes it was also quite prosperous and wealthy.
Life in Sardis during the 1st century was characterized as luxurious but degenerate. The church of Sardis was composed of self-satisfied, nominally Christian people. They had a benign faith likely due to the fact that they had not experienced persecution, nor any real hardships. Their challenge was apathy.
If Sardis had a church Twitter account their feed might read: Join us for worship this Sunday….or not. #Meh.
So, to the church of Sardis, a church going through the motions, doing what is expected without being interested, enthusiastic, or sympathetic, Jesus says, “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead”. Ouch!
In his book, It’s Revealing, Pastor Tom describes the characteristics of a dead church:
- Lack of Feeling: In the dead church there is no joy OR sorrow. It doesn’t care for the physical or spiritual needs of its people, it’s just…there.
- Lack of Warmth: Not every church is into hugging and gushing. The personality of the congregation may be a little cool. But, when people visit and there is no warmth or connection at all, your church is dead.
- Lack of Movement: There may be lots of reasons why a dead church no longer moves. But, churches that refuse to change are not moving, they are dead.
If we interviewed members of churches that have closed their doors, that have died, I bet we would hear variations on those themes.
I experienced such a church first hand when I traveled with my son to Maine, his first year of college. Trying to give him space and time to get acclimated to his new surroundings, I found myself exploring the charming little neighborhoods that surrounded the college. The area was rural for sure, but the presence of college kids meant there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the downtown area. Young people just bring a natural vitality with their enthusiasm and infectious energy that I am certain local shopkeepers and restaurants were grateful for!
I was excited to worship with the local church across the street from the Bed & Breakfast where I was staying. The classic, wood framed building was adorned with beautiful stain glass windows and it boasted a tall spire that reached to the heavens. Although it was in need of some TLC, there was nothing about it that made me believe it was no longer serving the community.
Inside, there was a decent sounding pipe organ and enough seating for probably 300, though no more than 25 were present in this aging congregation. There was one young man. He was playing a beautiful organ interlude. But, I soon realized he was probably a paid college student because as soon as he hit the last note, he gathered up his belongings and left out a side door. A small choir of 4 older woman and two men, was led by a seemingly cheerful, woman who both directed the singers and played the piano while also valiantly trying to get the congregation to sing along. She did so without much success.
When the preacher took the pulpit he warmly reminded his people to stay after worship for coffee and donuts before making a few announcements, reading scripture and launching into his message. Regrettably, but perhaps telling, I can’t remember anything about the service, but what I did notice throughout the morning, was a fair amount of activity outside the church. Through the stain glass windows I could make out the silhouettes of people walking, riding bikes and even pushing strollers. Families were just outside the building! The people inside were going about church as if on auto-pilot without any connection to the world outside. And the people outside seemed completely unaware but certainly unaffected by the church.
At no time before, during, or after the service did anyone greet me or welcome me to worship. And, to be fair, neither did anyone stare me down or treat me like an interloper. I just seemed to be invisible to them. The story I told myself was that they stopped being excited by new faces because they never saw them again. Who knows? I don’t know what they’ve been through or what steps they may have taken to revitalize. Whether they were aware of it or just chose to ignore all the signs, this church was dying. There was no feeling, no warmth, no sense of movement.
Now, it is one thing for me to say a church is dead. It is an altogether different matter when JESUS says you’re dead. This is the place that Sardis finds itself and possibly the North American church if it does not wake up and change!
I’m a Deadhead. It’s a terrible name (or beautiful one, depending on your interpretation) that simply describes a person who is a devoted fan of the rock group the Grateful Dead. I once heard an interview with members of the band explaining how they got their name. Apparently, it was chosen randomly from Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition.
The definition of Grateful Dead reads: “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial”. Is it time to arrange for a burial of the North American church??
Phyllis Tickle was an American author and lecturer whose work focused on spirituality and religion issues. In her book, The Great Emergence. She argues that Christianity is currently undergoing a massive upheaval as part of a regular pattern that occurs about every 500 years in church history. During these periods old ideas are rejected and new ones emerge.
Those of us who are over age 35 were born into a culture that could conceivably still be called Christian. As David Kinnaman at the Barna Group has shown, in North America, people who are churchless (having no church affiliation) will soon eclipse those that are churched. In addition, 48% of Millennials (born between 1984-2002) can be called post-Christian in their beliefs, thinking and worldview.
According to Tickle, that latter population has “been born right smack-dab into a fully matured emergence, the Great Emergence. They can’t change their sensibilities any more than they can change the color of their eyes. They’re going to be non-hierarchal. They’re going to be afraid of institutions. They’re going to want to spread out horizontally. They want to be communal. They’re going to be actively involved in social justice as they define it, and not in the usual Protestant way”.
I am so grateful to belong to a congregation that cares about social justice issues that puts its money where its heart is, that looks outward – beyond our church walls, and into the future with intention. We are warm, we’ve got the feels, we are moving all over the place! But, is it enough to reach those that view church with a “side-eye”? We don’t want to die but, we know it’s happening all around us. We are not immune to the effects of this mass exodus.
As we look down the road there is reason to be afraid. For one example, we have real budget concerns. Our beloved building is old and in need of constant maintenance and repair, patterns of giving have changed. Our older adults were raised in a different time and have different expectations about giving. We have been relying on them for years, but they won’t be around forever. We’re seeing the effect of that fact already. Every year it gets harder and harder to meet our budget.
And let me be clear about the newer generation. It isn’t that they don’t care. They actually carry the world on their shoulders! Think about it. This is a generation raised on the world wide web. They are more global in their thinking, interactions, and relatability than any generation before them.
It is my personal experience that they care deeply – about gun violence, racial and gender equality, global warming, about the integrity of our political system and corporate greed – and they feel a responsibility to do things differently.
Who does that sound like, by the way? Jesus presented a political manifesto that emphasized non-violence, social justice and the redistribution of wealth – but in the North American church that lead is buried underneath the beliefs of some who use Jesus’ teachings to justify a narrow, authoritarian and judgmental form of social morality and it is driving people away. This is the world that La Verne Church of the Brethren finds itself.
Last week Dr. Eric Bishop talked about calling. He said, “It’s God’s purpose that puts us where we are. And we don’t always understand the, who, what, or why of that calling”.
Is the La Verne Church of the Brethren being called to be the authentic church? Are we being called to be home for those who feel lost and forsaken by the North American church? I think we are. Are we perfect? Nope. We’re not called to be perfect. We are called by Christ to love God, to love our neighbor and to love ourselves. And how we go about sharing that message matters.
We know that it’s not uncommon for people to “window-shop” for a church home. So, it’s tempting to want to throw some paint up on the walls and spruce the place up a bit. Of course we want to make a good impression! But, feeling, warmth, and movement in a church is generated by people, not paint. We don’t want to be an impeccable showroom where people stop by, check us out but never really come in.
La Verne Church of the Brethren is home to so many of us already. We’re not an “off-limits” living room that remains picked up, clean and un-lived in until guests arrive. There are shoes piled up by the door, dirty dishes in the sink, and fingerprint smudges all over the glass tabletops. That’s what a lived in house looks like.
People are looking for an authentic expression of faith. They want to see our mess! Are we prepared to open the doors and show people that our house isn’t perpetually spotless but, there’s always room at the table?
Yes! And the good news is, we’re already working at it:
- We decided years ago to be an open, proud and welcoming congregation to the LGBTQIA community.
- We invested in a commercial kitchen because feeding the hungry is important to us.
- We are serious about cultural awareness and understanding our white privilege.
- We changed when and how we gather on Sundays for the sole purpose of being more hospitable to visitors.
And that is really good news, because it’s the people who make church what it is. It’s you. All of you! Your voice, your gifts, your wisdom, and your mess – that’s what makes an authentic church.Together, you get to influence what this church is, what it will be – if we are alive, or if we’re dead.
You, us, we are church. And it’s good to be home.
 Eugene Peterson, The Message Study Bible
 Thomas Hostetler, It’s Revealing! Looking at the Apocalypse