The American Anglican Council’s (AAC) Church Revitalization program, ReVive!, teaches that rather than focusing on church growth, it is better to focus on church health. If the church is healthy, it will naturally grow. In looking at the Church in Thyatira in Revelation 2 through “Church Revitalization Eyes,” the first thing that stands out is that they had many of the characteristics of a healthy church for which Jesus commends them. Unfortunately, just as in our times where good churches are hurt by sexual sin, the Church in Thyatira was at risk by allowing the devil to meddle. Let’s look at both the positive aspects of church health to emulate and the negative unholiness to avoid:
Write this letter to the angel of the church in Thyatira. This is the message from the Son of God, whose eyes are like flames of fire, whose feet are like polished bronze: “I know all the things you do. I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things. But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to turn away from her immorality. Therefore, I will throw her on a bed of suffering, and those who commit adultery with her will suffer greatly unless they repent and turn away from her evil deeds. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches out the thoughts and intentions of every person. And I will give to each of you whatever you deserve. But I also have a message for the rest of you in Thyatira who have not followed this false teaching (‘deeper truths,’ as they call them—depths of Satan, actually). I will ask nothing more of you except that you hold tightly to what you have until I come. To all who are victorious, who obey me to the very end,
To them I will give authority over all the nations.
They will rule the nations with an iron rod
and smash them like clay pots.
They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star! Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.” Revelation 2:18-29 (NLT)
Aspects of Church Health to Emulate
Jesus first points out some very good qualities all churches could use more of, “I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things.”
First is love. Have you ever read 1 Corinthians 13? Love is kind of a big deal for Christians! Without love there is no hope for church health and growth. Love for God, love for each other, and love for the lost, are all essential for a church to thrive. How are you and your church doing with love?
Next is faith. Another big deal. Faith that God is with you is the only way to overcome the fear that comes with the risk taking and change making that are required for being a missional church. How is your church taking on big enough things so that faith in God is required? If you can do it without him, your vision isn’t big enough.
Then there is service. The “L” in the five VITAL aspects of church health is “Life of Service,” or better, “Lay Mobilization.” A church will be unhealthy and not grow if it is not regularly mobilizing members in service both in the church and out in the community for evangelism. How does your church mobilize lay ministers? How does your church move people from consumers to contributors?
Jesus then commends them for having patient endurance. A healthy church must have a clear and doable vision based in the Great Commission and then pursue that vision with unwavering, unflinching commitment for a long time. Too many congregations create a vision statement that looks good on the bulletin, but it is never really acted upon. Patiently enduring in the same direction over a long time will yield much fruit. Is your church’s vision clear? Is it doable? Are you focused on it year in and year out or do you keep shifting visions never getting any traction?
Finally, Jesus commends them for constantly improving on these things. I love that. We can’t improve on the Bible and the Gospel but we can and must constantly improve on how we live it and deliver it. The question is how do we share the never changing truth in an ever-changing culture? The answer is by constantly tweaking and improving under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!
Unholiness to Avoid
The local church is the hope of the world. It is primarily through local churches led by local church leaders that God advances the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Healthy local churches that are transforming lives to be like Christ are a grave threat to the devil. In 1 Peter 5:7-9 (NLT), Peter gives the church great advice, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” If I were the devil, my strategy would be to focus on trying to devour leaders of healthy churches to take them out and take away the church’s impact. Based on the number of church leaders who fall due to sexual immorality and other sins, it seems the devil figured out that strategy long ago. In fact, we read about him doing it in the Church in Thyatira!
Whether you are clergy or laity, if you are church leader who is seeking to make your church healthy in order to fulfill the Great Commission, you will be a target for the devil to try and take you out. As in the Church in Thyatira, the devil still uses sexual immorality and idolatry to lure believers away. He uses tools like, “that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray.” She no doubt made the lie appealing and rationalized it – which is only a rational lie! The devil doesn’t come and say, “Hey, here’s this horrible evil thing that if you do it over time it will destroy both your ministry and the impact your church will have for God’s Kingdom, do you want to do it?” He is subtler and ties the temptation to an unmet need in us that will be something that somewhere within us we really want. It will be appealing and desirous to us.
Do you remember the original temptation and Eve’s response? The devil said about not eating the fruit, “’You won’t die!’ the serpent replied to the woman. ‘God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.’ The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too.” Genesis 3:4-6 (NLT) Notice that she wanted what she thought the disobedience would give her! The devil will match your temptation to something you want.
I intentionally included 1 Peter 5:7 above about giving your cares to God for he cares about you along with the part about watching out for the devil because they go together. It is when we are not fully satisfied with God in our lives, when we doubt he really cares for us and that being the son or daughter of the creator of the Universe is somehow not enough, that we think we really need something else beyond himself. And that’s when the devil will be right there prowling and roaring with something else – sex, money, power, position, pleasure, whatever – which will look “beautiful” and “delicious” and you’ll want whatever the lie says you’ll get.
So where in your life are you not satisfied in God. What cares do you have that you doubt God’s care for you is enough? Go to God and keep going to God until you become fully satisfied in your relationship with him. As Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” If you don’t want anything other than God, the devil’s power to tempt you is drastically reduced!
Although we’ll never be perfect and God graciously continues to work with us sinners, striving for personal holiness is necessary if we’re going to lead healthy churches. If personal holiness just for the sake of holiness is not enough motivation, please, for the sake of keeping a healthy church, keep your holiness a priority.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization & Coaching at the American Anglican Council.