Church Revitalization is all about bringing new life to existing churches. With that in mind, I recently began a series examining the seven existing churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 through “church revitalization eyes.” Do Jesus’ words to them say anything to us about revitalizing our congregations today? This article looks at the second church Jesus addressed, the church in Smyrna:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” Revelation 2: 8-11 (ESV)
A quick read reveals that this church had two major issues:
1. Current and future tribulation/suffering.
2. Poverty, or at least a perception of poverty.
Jesus’ words to not be afraid and to be faithful unto death indicate that their tribulations and perceived poverty may have caused them to fear and perhaps weakened their faith. Fear in the face of troubles and keeping faith when money is tight are certainly challenges that many congregations face today.
In North America, most of our tribulations won’t come to the point of physical persecution, prison, or martyrdom; however, our tribulations are still tribulations for us. They could be things like an aging congregation with decreasing attendance, not many children or young people coming anymore, and insufficient facilities. We’re also dealing with a culture where the times of “Christiandom” are long gone, where “If we build it they will come,” no longer works and it is much harder to grow a church. Having to become missional can be scary.
Seeing your own church as “poor” is a very common challenge for many congregations, especially when compared to a mega-church down the road. Even though as Americans we “are rich” in comparison to most of the rest of the world, we can still easily develop a poverty attitude. When a new idea comes up it is often shot down with, “we can’t afford that” or, “that will increase our insurance” or some other money-related excuse. Churches that are in maintenance mode or decline often start looking inward and try to protect what they have rather than taking risks for what could be. This kind of poverty attitude leads to more maintenance and/or decline.
Jesus’ words on how to overcome both of these challenges then are just as true for you and your congregation now! The bottom line message is that you overcome fear with faith.
The main way to do this is by remembering who Jesus is and how much you are loved by him. Before Jesus addressed the suffering or the poverty, he reminded the church in Smyrna of who was speaking to them about these things. He said, “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.’” Jesus is the first and the last. He’s the beginning and the end. He was before all that is and will be there after the end. He created the entire universe from nothing. He is all powerful. He is bigger than our biggest problems. The worst thing that can ever happen to us is death and he even overcame that! Speaking of overcoming death, Jesus declared how much we are loved by saying that he is the one who died and came to life. He is the one who so loved us that he came, died and came back to life for the forgiveness of our sin. As 1 John 4:10 says, “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.”
So, he is both all powerful, and all loving. With that knowledge, we can confidently overcome any fear of tribulation and perceived poverty with faith in him. He is completely trustworthy.
Doing the work of bringing new life to your church is not easy. It involves taking risks. It likely means failures will happen along the way. Those risks may even involve spending precious money that seems so scarce. Risking failure and spending tight resources is scary. It naturally stirs up fear within us. But knowing who Jesus is and that you are safe and secure in his arms, you do not have to be afraid. The loving creator of the universe who owns all the money anyway is trustworthy. You can be faithful to his mission to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom come to the world around you. You can by faith take risks for his name’s sake. What’s the worst that can happen? Failure? Embarrassment in the eyes of men? Death? Oh well, as Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
We all want to hear, “well done, good and faithful servant” when we get to heaven. Do you remember which servant heard that in the Parable of the Talents? The one who took risks with what he was given:
“And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” Matthew 25: 20-21 (ESV)
And do you remember what the servant heard who was afraid, made excuses, and didn’t take risks?
“He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Matthew 25:24-29 (ESV)
No matter the tribulations and perceived poverty you and your church face, remember who Jesus is and that you are safe and secure in his love, overcome your fear with faith and take some risks for the sake of revitalizing your church!
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching.