Out Of Sardis: Chapter 1 – An Unlikely Hero

Note: I’ve written a number of books over the years, mostly fiction. And, while I always work aspects of my own life and faith into the stories and characters I craft, I’ve never written anything quite as close to my own heart as my current project, Out of Sardis: How a Forgotten Letter from Jesus Can Bring Hope to Your Church. It’s a study of Jesus’ own words of instruction, rebuke, and hope, written to Christians in late first century Asia Minor, along with insights from our current church culture and my own struggles and experiences as a pastor of a non-mega, non-franchised, rather uncool American church.

Rather than go the traditional publishing route (or even the standard Indie route), the book will be released in installments on this website, like some kind of old-timey serialized novel, before being bundled into an ebook upon completion. This will allow me to include insights from reader interaction in later chapters. I hope you find Out of Sardis challenging, refreshing, and encouraging.

Fifty-two.

That’s how many people (including myself) are in attendance at the worship service this morning. This has taken a toll on my spirit, to say the very least. A less pious-sounding way to put it would be that I’m moping. And, I would argue, for good reason. When I call for the kids to come forward for Children’s Time, only my six-year-old really makes the cut. A few young teenagers come up too, just to be nice. They always do. This little Baptist church is their home, and that means far more to them than “feeling grownup,” which is what they would get in exchange for staying in the pew. I’m proud of them for that.

But this morning it does little to raise my spirits. Fifty-two, I think, aware of the exact number because I glanced at the head usher’s “count sheet” as I made my way through the sanctuary, shaking hands during Greeting Time. It’s the new, bigger sanctuary that was built in the sixties. It can seat 250.

To be fair, the weather is horrible. It’s January in Michigan and the roads are covered in a sheet of ice. Surveying the group, I can identify at least half a dozen conspicuously absent members who have likely stayed home reluctantly, rather than risk driving in these conditions—certainly understandable. One of our larger families is dealing with illness. In fact, it’s flu season, and I’d guess a number of people are home sick. Five others are in Florida, soaking up the sun. (I’ll make a joke about this in my prayer later in the service, and then wonder anew if it’s okay to make a joke in a prayer).

So it’s not like this is an average Sunday, I tell myself. I also think of a colleague in my clergy peer group who would be ecstatic with this turnout, even on a good day.  But, still . . . fifty-two. I look at my son and the four middle schoolers, smiling up at me from the chancel steps. I’ve known them (the middle schoolers) since they were toddlers and they are happy to listen, to learn, to answer my leading questions and even laugh at my corny jokes, which is more than most pastors can say of their young people.

And yet, I can’t help but think about the hundreds of children in the surrounding neighborhood—children who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, have never been baptized or catechized or received Holy Communion. Our church was founded as a mission Sunday school in the early 1920s, a labor of love kicked off by a woman who realized that the new-and-growing southside community of Oldsmobile workers had no church and, therefore, the neighborhood children had nowhere to learn about Jesus. The children’s classes led to adult classes, and eventually to a church—the only church in the area for some time.

And I can’t help but think about the arc of my decade of ministry here—how the average attendance grew from about seventy to about a hundred and ten in the first five years. How it has now, through disinterest, disengagement, and especially death, come back down significantly. When we were growing at a good clip, a colleague asked me, “Do you think it’s because of you?” I piously answered, “No, of course not,” but I secretly thought, Yeah, probably.

I launch into my prepared children’s message, an object lesson (it’s always an object lesson) about how Jesus paid our debt. But my mind is on the e-mails that come regularly into my inbox from readers who found my books at a Barnes & Noble or bought them on Amazon and then started listening to my sermons on the Internet each week. “I wish I lived close enough to attend your church,” they often write, or something similar. I wish they did too.

I think about the excitement of writing—flying down to Nashville to address the assembled fiction buyers on a makeshift talk show set, the thrill of hobnobbing in the “Governor’s Suite” of a tall, glass and steel hotel in Saint Louis after an awards gala, with a number of bestselling and award-winning authors and the editors and marketing professionals who make the books happen. The people are kinder and more approachable than you might expect and there’s an air of humility in the place, but there’s also an energy there—the energy that comes from a successful venture (theirs, not mine). That energy, or maybe a close cousin, has at times been palpably present in the church I serve.

But not today. Not with fifty-two. Because our world is all about numbers, isn’t it? Immediately upon taking my first church out of seminary, I learned that. Whenever someone learns I’m a pastor, they ask the same two questions: first, “What church?” I tell them the church name, then describe where it is in relation to the fire station and library. “And how many people go there?” is the inevitable follow-up, even from those who have no intention of ever setting foot inside. And maybe it’s just chance, but I’ve found myself fielding similar questions since my writing career began. “How’s the new book doing? Do you know how many copies have sold?” People are just being nice, of course, trying to show genuine interest, and we’ve all been taught that outward success is the ultimate legitimizer.

And I have—at least this morning—bought into that.

There’s a vague spirituality to this line of reasoning—the kind of amorphous thing that our culture loves. Maybe it has to do with the so-called “law of attraction,” the idea that positive results come to positive people with positive attitudes. But there’s also a cold pragmatism, and it’s this pragmatism that seems to appeal to the churches of today. “Healthy churches are growing churches” is the refrain I’ve heard from a dozen church growth gurus at conferences, retreats, and training seminars. It makes me wonder if we were healthier when attendance was growing, and what that means for us now. I wonder what Jesus would say to this pragmatic proclamation—Jesus, who warned against obsessing over the outward appearance, lest we become like white-washed tombs.

Still, cold pragmatism or no, who can deny that people are drawn to places, groups, and movements that look alive? One need not buy into the “law of attraction” to recognize that, if something feels alive, people tend to flock to it. If it looks to be petering out, they will give it a wide berth. Perhaps this is why there are so many books to be bought, so many buy-the-kit programs to be implemented, all promising to create a sense of life in your church. Perhaps this is why the experts suggest investing in stock photos of happy, young families for your church’s website, even though these families are not part of your community.

And what’s the harm in it, really? we might ask. But there’s still that question of what Jesus has to say on the matter. And I believe the answer to that question is readily found in Scripture, in a letter from Our Lord to a church that looked alive—a letter that has been largely ignored.

Letters From Jesus

Jesus actually vomits in Revelation chapter 3. Or at least he threatens to.

Most of us have been reminded of that fact more than once—that a literal rendering of Revelation 3:16 would be, “Thus, because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” The King James goes so far as to translate it “spue you out of my mouth,” which strikes me as sort of a “radical” early-nineties slang word for vomit, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is that such a rendering is quite accurate (although I’ve heard a number of preachers imply an intimate familiarity with this particular Greek verb, despite this being its only occurrence in the New Testament).

Who then is Jesus about to spew out of his mouth and why? One thing is for sure: I don’t want it to be me. If I were the kind of guy who had a “bucket list,” making Jesus puke would not be on it. Whatever the opposite of a bucket is, that’s the list I’d put that on, which I think warrants a closer look at this passage. In the context of Revelation 3, Jesus is dictating a letter to a church—namely, the church in Laodicea. It’s part of a series of seven letters that Jesus sends to seven churches in seven cities, which continue to instruct, guide, inspire, and rebuke the Church of Jesus Christ to this day.

If you’ve ever studied Revelation 2-3, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that there is a general pattern to these letters. They begin with a glorious, symbolic description of Our Lord (e.g. “the First and the Last, who died and came to life”).  Then he commends the church for what they’ve done well. Next he rebukes them for what they’ve done poorly, or what they’ve failed to do, and warns what will happen if they do not repent and follow his commands. Finally, he closes with a wonderful promise of what incredible rewards await those who “overcome to the end.”

As is often the case in the Scriptures, though, some of the most fascinating stuff can be found in the deviations from the pattern. Of the seven churches, two are not rebuked for anything. The section that normally begins, “But I have this against you . . . ” simply doesn’t exist in those two letters. Oh to be one of these congregations! We might call them “good example churches,” as they could be safely emulated without danger of drawing a rebuke from Our Lord. Then there’s the flipside. Two other churches are not praised for anything. There’s nothing for Jesus to applaud there, no attaboys to be handed out—just reprimand, a command to repent, and a warning of what awaits them if they don’t. Laodicea is one of those “bad example churches.”

So what is Jesus’s main complaint about Laodicea, the one that has him on the verge of spewing (or spueing, as it were)? It’s that they’re lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. For this very reason— and to this very day—Laodicea is infamous amongst church leaders. They’re the villain, the cautionary tale, the one thing we never want to even be accused of being: lukewarm. And so we often worship with contrived excitement and plastic smiles, we are intentionally and continually active, wrapping ourselves in a flurry of religious activity. We don’t sit still, don’t stop spinning—not even on the Lord’s Day. Anything to avoid even the appearance of lukewarm Christianity.

What we want, it seems, is to be like another of those Revelation 3 churches: the church of Sardis. Now they looked alive! Everybody knew the church in Sardis wasn’t lukewarm. The crowds were flocking in, drawn by the thousand-watt glow of pure, unadulterated vitality. Even non-Christians knew this place was happening. We want that for our own churches. I admit, I want it for mine. And every month, there seem to be new methods and books and webinars about how to become more “Sardisian”—and new testimonials of churches who have grown as a result.

There’s just one problem: Sardis was not one of the good example churches. Nor was it one of the mixed-bag congregations, doing some things well, but with room to grow. No, Sardis was the other bad example church. Along with Laodicea, Sardis garners no praise, no commendation; Jesus has nothing good to say about her, despite her reputation for being alive. As with Laodicea, he has only harsh reproof and dire warning. And yet, in a sad twist of irony, while Laodicea has become the villain of the modern church, Sardis has somehow become the hero.

The Sardisian Captivity of the Church

This book will attempt to do two things. First, it will urge caution when dealing with all things Sardisian. Caution is especially needed today because, as we will attempt to show, the new “conventional wisdom” in the Western Church makes the same assumption as the church in Sardis—namely that the world’s understanding of success applies to the Church as well. This can be seen in the latest buzzwords, movements, and programs—across denominational lines and across the spectrum from liberal to conservative. Has a church become huge? God is at work. Has a church “plateaued?” It had better try and copy the huge one, and it should probably start with some major PR, brand development, and perhaps a survey to find out what people want to see and experience.

Secondly, this book will seek to encourage pastors, leaders, and lay people of faithful churches who are struggling with what appears from without to be a lack of vitality. After taking a look at both of the bad example churches, we will consider the two good example churches, and we will find that they were poor, undergoing trials, being slandered, and had “little power.” Their programs were not being covered by the six o’ clock news, they didn’t have all the latest equipment and facilities, and their reputation for life didn’t automatically put a butt in every seat. But Christ had no rebuke or threat for them, only praise and promise.

This is so very timely. During the Reformation, Luther famously spoke of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” referring to the period when core doctrines of the Church had been obscured and hidden from the people, replaced with superstition and a power-hungry, laity-controlling approach to the sacraments.  Today, we might instead speak of the “Sardisian Captivity of the Church.”

Today, the values of the wider Christian culture are set by the churches that have a reputation for life (and a budget to match). Are some of these churches faithful, Gospel-preaching outposts of the Kingdom of God? Absolutely! We are urging caution, after all, not condemnation! But even for those churches, the danger persists: self-promotion quickly becomes self-seeking .

Another reason this is timely is because many pastors and churches are willing to try anything today. The current trends are bleak for the average local congregation, and we’re facing things we weren’t even thinking about a generation ago. There are far more churches—and more kinds of churches—to attend. When the congregation I serve had seventy babies on the cradle roll, there were maybe three other churches within a square mile, and the birthrate was more than seven times what it is now! Today, the birthrate has plummeted and if I start counting off the churches in the vicinity of mine, I lose interest before completing the list. Even if everyone in our community were interested in church, there are fewer people coming up and more churches to choose from. And add to that the megachurch factor: people are willing to make a trip to a church with “lots to offer,” leaving many neighborhood churches feeling the loss.

The overall belief trends are working against us as well. In the church youth group bubble of the early ’90s, a teenaged Me absorbed a continual stream of spiritual triumphalism, manifest in everything from puffy-paint T-shirts to rock anthems. It was all going up from here. The shock and awe of Time Magazine’s “Death of God” cover story had faded away completely, and it seemed as though the church had come out of that fight on top and relatively unbloodied.  No one counted on the “New Atheism” with its devangelical zeal, nor did we realize that, in the coming decades, a growing share of young non-atheists would self-identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” and see no need whatsoever for a church in their lives. As a pastor, I see the “New Atheism” as something of a sad-clown-show in the streets, in the process of jumping the shark. I’m far more concerned with those who have been dubbed the “nones” and the “dones” And I’m far from alone in my concern. I have in my study half-a-shelfful of very astute, albeit depressing, analyses of these trends.

And adjacent to that is a whole shelf of “church growth” books, many of which turn to Sardis for the solution to these problems. They focus on the external, the outside of the cup (Matt 23:25), rather than the blood of Christ that lies within and the mystery of our faith—on what Luther called the “theology of glory,” rather than the “theology of the cross” (see chapter __). The philosophy of Sardis tells us to focus on the appearance of our buildings, the sleekness of our presentations, the high resolution of our videos, and the glossiness of our info tables. These are the same things a Costco or Staples store might put on the front burner.

Certainly, outward things have their place. We would not want to drop unnecessary stumbling blocks on the road to the cross (which is itself the greatest stumbling block to the rebellious heart). If a crumbling sidewalk, a confusing layout, or a filthy bathroom causes someone to leave before they can hear the life-giving news of the Gospel, then shame on us. And yet, when these become the main thing, the One Thing, we put ourselves in a dangerous place, whether or not we achieve the desired sense of vitality.

It reminds me of that Rich Mullins song, “My One Thing,” in which he muses about how everyone he knows has that “one thing” that they say they need, and attaining it is what drives them. The chorus—both a holy boast and a prayer—declares, “My one thing! You’re my one thing! And the pure in heart shall see God.” At the end of the day, there is room for only One Thing on the altar of our hearts, and this is true of our churches as well. If that thing is not the cross of Christ, then it is an idol. It is our Golden Calf, our Back to Egypt, our lukewarm self-sufficient faith, our reputation for being alive. And, as Rich Mullins observed, when we think we know that “one thing” we need, it quickly turns into “I need just one thing more.”

Yes, this is timely. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that, in the last days, people will be lovers of self and lovers of money (2 Tim 3:1) and that they will “not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions . . . ” (2 Tim 4:3 ). Where the church was once on guard against this, the modern Sardisian movement says, “Let’s roll with it, leverage it, use it to our advantage. Why fight it?” But even a cursory reading of those seven letters in Revelation 2-3 makes it clear that faithful churches will fight it to the bitter end.

And they will overcome.

***

The week after fifty-two, the weather will cooperate a bit more (at least by Michigan winter standards). There will be more people in worship. The dark cloud will lift from over my head for the moment. But if I’m honest, I know that in the back of my mind I’m still looking for that one silver bullet that can make my church “look alive.”

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)

Zach Bartels

I’m pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. I’m husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint and The Last Con