by Carmen Holland

In Luke 9:20 we read Peter's great statement of faith that Jesus is the "the Christ of God." For Peter, this likely meant that Jesus was the anointed messiah King who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory. Jesus had other ideas.

"But he forcefully commanded them not to tell this to anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised'" (Luke 9:21-22, NET).

Suffering, rejection, death–not the picture I usually have in my mind when I think of Peter's climactic confession of faith. But Jesus explains that the prior experiences are necessary for the subsequent experience of resurrection:

"Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself?'" (Luke 9:23-25, NET).

This is one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus. Still, many Christians accept the necessity of the death to self for spiritual life. We sing about the cross we are called to bear, and quote Bonheoffer: "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." However, I believe that what we reluctantly apply to our individual experience, we almost completely ignore in our corporate experience.

You walk through the door, and no one is there to shake your hand. The Sabbath School "discussion" consists of following the quarterly from one day's questions to the next. Hymns are played at a snail's-pace and sung listlessly. The sermon comes courtesy of a VCR and TV stationed in front of the pulpit. When the service ends, you show yourself out.

Those of us who have experienced a Sabbath morning like that know what it means when "dead churches" are under discussion. To be a member of a dead church is a terrible fate, and they are used as an ecclesiastical boogey man to motivate pastors to make their churches successful. But I submit that according to Jesus, the problem with these churches is not that they are dead, but that they are still far too alive.

Some churches are clinging to life with all their strength, but by holding on to the things that they think will give them life they are in fact killing themselves. They think they are saving themselves, when the Savior says that in order to be saved, we must surrender our life. But this is only where the problem is the most obvious.

Other churches are seeking success, lest they, too, become a dead church. These churches look for tips and techniques, best practices, evangelism methods, trends, and other methods that will help their church become more alive. This is not wrong in itself, but I worry that often we want our churches to obtain resurrection without rejection, new life without spiritual death.

Jesus presents no other option for individuals speaking spiritual vitality, why should we expect that it would be any different for His body, the church? Jesus totally rejected normal notions of success in establishing his spiritual kingdom, so why does His church so often pursue status and social recognition as a means of kingdom growth? Somehow, while professing belief in spiritual death, we have come to think of church as a place that is supposed to help us live better, and not a place to help us die better.

"For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:26).

I think many of us would be ashamed to see our churches endure corporate suffering, rejection, and death. We believe that beautiful buildings, wonderful worship, excellent evangelism, attractive advertising, and professional pastors are the key to keeping a church alive. But Jesus says that while we think we are enriched and have need of nothing, what we really need to do is die to our false riches and accept the true riches he has to offer (Rev 3:17-18).

So what does a truly dead church look like?

Some years ago I had opportunity to attend a celebration at a Mennonite church. Some 20 years earlier the church was ready to shutter it's doors. They had totally expended themselves in maintaining their building and traditional forms of worship.

So the few remaining members came together in prayer and felt God telling them they needed to sell their building, and change their focus toward sheltering and facilitating the recovery of addicts in the community. Through a miraculous process (including a prophetic vision of the property they were to purchase) God led them in establishing recovery center. At the anniversary celebration of their transformation, the adults played in a praise band, and the youth group sang two hymns a capella in four-part harmony.

That church had been rejected by most of the congregation, suffered the pain of giving up their dearly loved traditions, died to the forms and functions they were clinging to for dear life, died for the sake of serving their community, and in the end, experienced the power that raised Christ from the dead bringing their church to life. That's the kind of dead church I hear God calling us to be–a church that doesn't just display the cross symbolically, but takes up its own cross and follows Jesus.


Re: Dead Churches
On January 28th, 2011 wfnoel says:


Thank you for describing what is happening in a much larger number of Adventist churches than we're willing to admit. Thank you for also showing that renewal is possible. Unfortunately, such renewal is rare and difficult. For that to happen the traditionalism that is killing the congregation must be recognized and shed before the church has died.

I used to attend such a church. It is still a large haven for the defenders of traditionalism, but the path to their demise is painted in neon. A group of us saw the problems and wanted better. Our rescue required splitting from that church and forming a new congregation embracing the ideals we wanted to experience. Today we are a growing church and a house of praise to God. We have a number of non-traditional ministries that are growing the church and new ministries forming. It has happened because we've embraced the individual empowerment of the Holy Spirit that is described in the New Testament.

Here's my short list of warning signs that a church is in serious danger of dying, regardless of attendance: 1) Limiting "ministry" to clergy roles and public evangelistic crusades. 2) The church board controlling everything, including determining what ministries members can pursue. 3) A pipe organ. 4) Singing only old hyms accompanied by no instruments other than a piano or organ. 4) Prohibition of new hymns, electric guitars, drums, etc. 5) The same order of service as 20 years ago. 6) Limiting the Holy Spirit to an unseen Divine force that only shows up to help at an evangelistic crusade. 7) Sermons that have more EGW quotes than Bible verses.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 Trudy Morgan-Cole says:

There's been a really interesting discussion over at my favourite online hangout, Ship of Fools, about "What is meant by a 'dead church'?";f=2;t=015457

Watching the discussion, which has drawn people from a variety of church traditions, the main thing I've figured out is that a church one person might call "dead" may be vital and alive for someone else. So while I agree with your underlying point — which, if I'm reading it correctly, is that we need to be willing to die to our ideas of what church should be in order to allow Christ to revive our churches — I disagree with many of the typical markers of what makes a "dead church." I particularly take issue with wfnoel's list of dead church identifiers. The presence of a pipe organ is a warning sign??? That's a matter of worship style! For some people, the LACK of a pipe organ is a warning sign, while the presence of one is the highest form of worship music.

I think it's very easy for us to write off as "dead churches" places (perhaps including our own home congregations) that have a worship style we personally don't like, or that don't attract the kind of people we find interesting and appealing, or that don't offer some particularly program we feel is essential.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 steve billiter says:

Dead churches are not a matter of aesthetics, but rather some of these things can be the results of the Laodicean condition, where yes,Christ does tell us we are poor, blind, naked, and in need of the eye salve of the Holy Spirit. But what was left out is the precise steps that Jesus gives us to leave this dead condition and enter into life.

The severe shaking of God’s people will come at the Sundaylaw juncture, and those who are shaken out will leave because they have notheeded Christ’s call to repent;

Rev 3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

Rev 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, Iwill come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me.

Rev 3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame,and sat down with my Father in his throne.

“There is in some of the members of the church, pride, self-sufficiency, stubborn unbelief, and a refusing to yield their ideas,although evidence may be piled upon evidence which makes the message to theLaodicean church applicable. But that will not blot out the church that it willnot exist. Let both tares and wheat grow together until the harvest. Then it isthe angels that do the work of separation.” {2SM 69.1}

The Straight Testimony Produces a Shaking

“I asked the meaningof the shaking I had seen, and was shown that it would be caused by thestraight testimony called forth by the counsel of the True Witness to theLaodiceans. This will have its effect upon the heart of the receiver, and willlead him to exalt the standard and pour forth the straight truth. Some will notbear this straight testimony. They will rise up against it, and this will causea shaking among God's people.”–1T 181 (1857). {LDE 175.3}

“When the shaking comes, by the introduction of falsetheories, these surface readers, anchored nowhere, are like shifting sand. Theyslide into any position to suit the tenor of their feelings of bitterness.”–TM112 (1897). {LDE 177.1}

Sadly, now that we have 16 million Adventists, we also havea higher proportion of those who for whatever reasons, choose to remain in the Laodiceancondition. The results as we now see in them are liberalism, and grossworldliness seemingly prevalent everywhere in our beloved church. Will it getworse? My opinion is that it will certainly become far worse in the very near future,but the work of the 3 angel’s messages also continues to go forward withincreased power.

“Satan will work his miracles to deceive; he will set up hispower as supreme. The church may appear as about to fall, but it does not fall.It remains, while the sinners in Zion will be sifted out–the chaff separatedfrom the precious wheat. This is a terrible ordeal, but nevertheless it musttake place. None but those who have been overcoming by the blood of the Lamband the word of their testimony will be found with the loyal and true, withoutspot or stain of sin, without guile in their mouths. . . . The remnant thatpurify their souls by obeying the truth gather strength from the tryingprocess, exhibiting the beauty of holiness amid the surrounding apostasy”(Letter 55, 1886). {7BC 911.6}.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 steve billiter says:

Non-traditional preaching? Whats that? A strange gospel perhaps? Personally,I listen to pipe organ music on my computer, and find its sacred style leads me closer to Jesus. Drums? Certainly an earthly, devilish, device of Satan to ensnare the unwary into a false sense of euphoria; a counterfeit for the real Holy Spirit.

Those who bring drums into God's remnant church are fulfilling prophecy;

"The things you have described as taking place in Indiana, the Lord has shown me would take place just before the close of probation. Every uncouth thing will be demonstrated. There will be shouting, with drums, music, and dancing. The senses of rational beings will become so confused that they cannot be trusted to make right decisions. And this is called the moving of the Holy Spirit."

"The Holy Spirit never reveals itself in such methods, in such a bedlam of noise. This is an invention of Satan to cover up his ingenious methods for making of none effect the pure, sincere, elevating, ennobling, sanctifying truth for this time." {2SM 36.2}

Music in many Adventist churches has become a snare just before Jesus comes!

God Bless!


Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 Elaine Nelson says:

A dead person has ceased to grow or replace his body cells.

A dead church is one that has experienced no growth in many years. Look around and see how many in your own area can be identified. It's very simple: no growth=gradual death, but unburied.

I personally am aware of many SDA churches that have not grown in 50 years, simply maintained the same membership.

Is there another definition of "dead" churches?

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 wfnoel says:


Dismiss aesthetics as warning signs of spiritual decline if you wish. I can only tell you of my experience with God and that I have been rescued from that condition and such a church by the Holy Spirit. Defending aesthetics, complaining about being Laodicean and waiting for the fulfillment of prophetic milestones like a national sunday law are three of the surest signs of a person or a church that is on a short path to spiritual death, if not already there. Discovering the Holy Spirit frees us from that entrapment and makes the thought of returning to them so repulsive to me as to be unthinkable.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 wfnoel says:


It is obvious that your concepts of church are based far more on tradition than scripture. Have you not read the list of musical instruments that were associated with worship in ancient Israel and at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were the flute, lyre, stringed instruments, cymbals, timbrels, DRUMS, etc. The admonition from David is to sing a new song, to play loudly and with skill. Oh, and they danced. Yes, that's all in the Bible.

No, pipe organs are not in the Bible. Neither are pianos. Now, I'm not going to exclude their use from worship simply because of that because musical instruments have changed over time. The point is that David was listing all the instruments that were available at the time. In other words, he was telling the people to use whatever they had available to make music to celebrate the greatness of God. So, if we're to be consistent with David's instruction, we should be using a lot of other instruments besides the organ and piano.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 29th, 2011 wfnoel says:


Do you need more evidence than what you listed and what else you have seen?

Re: Dead Churches
On January 30th, 2011 Wayne L says:

People are afraid of change. We sometimes confuse change with change of Biblical principles but that is not neccessary the case. How can we reach our Youth using 8 track ministry in a 21st Century MP3 Society. We must at least be willing to study new ways that doesn't compromise God's church. Traditions can deter growth if we continue to be stubborn in conducting service business as usual. Imagine if we the church had refuse to use radio, tv or the internet as media forms to witness and get our message across to people. Tent efforts are great but they're limited in scope and reach.

In regards to a dead church. Growth doesn't necessary remove the title. What are the sermons preached? What percentage of the church attend Sabbath School? Can the average member be counted on to give a bible study if needed? Can this Church still function without "that" Pastor,a dynamic choir or active children ministry?

Re: Dead Churches
On January 30th, 2011 wfnoel says:

Wayne L,

Excellent observations! Asking about attendance rates reveals a lot about the condition of the church.

Have you had the opportunity to see any of the data collected by the Church Growth Institute measuring Adventist churches in North America? Their numbers might make you rethink the role of the pastor in the local church. Consider a few points. First, a church that has a pastor to itself (single-pastor district) typically is losing 1-3% of its membership each year. That's right, they're shrinking. (The loss rates in multi-pastor churches are sometimes much worse.) Where a pastor has a two-church district, the churches are typically shrinking by up to about 1% per year. In a three-church district the membership tends to remain stable. The biggest growth is typically seen where a pastor has at least four churches.

Go outside North America to the areas where the church is growing faster and you'll find something very contrary to our traditional concept of the role and importance of the pastor in the local church: where churches are growing the fastest, the pastor typically has at least 10 churches in their district!

There's a reason for these growth rates: the more church members see of their pastor, the more dependant they are on the pastor to do what they're supposed to be doing. So, if you want your church to start growing, the first thing you should do is either fire your pastor or ask the conference to merge your church into a district with at least three other churches.

Growing churches have several distinct characteristics. First, they are primarily lay-led. The role of the pastor is minor and mostly that of a guest speaker and sometimes trainer. Second, while they may hold an occasional evangelistic crusade, their primary outreach to the community is through a diversity of other ministries. But above all, there is a focus on seeking the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the Adventist church has been so focused for so long on exposing the works of Satan that are done in the name of the Holy Spirit that few Adventists would recognize the true working of the Holy Spirit if it was a neon light flashing in their face.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 30th, 2011 EdD says:

"shouting, with drums, music, and dancing"

I find it interesting that those who like to reference this quote always focus on drums and dancing. If the items on this list are evil, in and of themselves, as opposed to how they might be misused to produce "a bedlam of noise," then we should also do away with all loud preaching (some of which certainly qualifies as shouting), and with all music.

Steve, are you prepared to make that call? If not, the focus on drums and dancing loses its force. Either the entire list is a problem, or it isn't. The misuse of anything can be a problem, but there's an old maxim that "abuse does not prohibit use."

Both dead bodies and dead churches safely avoid shouting, drum, music, and dancing.

Ed Dickerson, AToday Web Columnist

Re: Dead Churches
On January 30th, 2011 Trudy Morgan-Cole says:

Sure, but the presence of drums and dancing doesn't guarantee a church is "alive." This stuff is window dressing. I love contemporary services with lots of electric guitar, drums, praise music and I'm not adverse to a little dancing in the aisles. I also like to raise my hands in worship. But none of that makes me a "live Christian" — my walk with Jesus is what does that.

I'm sensitive to the fact that lots of people are deeply moved by pipe organs and choirs and turned off by contemporary worship, and I think it's absolutely ridiculous to suggest that one worship style is more blessed by God, more indicative of the Spirit's presence, than another.

You can "go through the motions" in a contemporary worship service just as easily as in a traditional one. And of course there are hundreds of other ways to worship besides those two oversimplistic polarities.

Re: Dead Churches
On January 30th, 2011 EdD says:


I absolutely concur. But we don't have quotes to attempt to invalidate other approaches. That misuse was all I was addressing.

Personally, I object to the very term "worship styles." The very word style suggests there's a way that works and others that don't. But God makes it clear that He is not to be manipulated. We can't summon Him with any ceremonies or formulas. Our job is to open ourselves to him, and the expression of worship will take care of itself. Focusing on how others are "doing it" is already a diversion from true worship.

Ed Dickerson, AToday Web Columnist

Re: Dead Churches
On January 31st, 2011 David Hamstra says:

Computer difficulties have prevented me from joining the conversation earlier, but I see Trudy and Ed have already been making the points I would have made.

Obsession with perfecting a style of worship or church growth technique is to me a key indication that a church has not really died to self. It is still trying to save itself, and as long as it continues in that vein, it will have little use for the rejection, suffering, and death the Savior offers.

Wf, remember that correlation does not imply causation.

Ed, if your looking for the other side of the coin to EGW's "drum" statements, check out what she has to say about Catholic worship. It's quite clear to me that we cannot adopt either a high or low church worship style and think we are safe because we do so.

Regarding worship, I have found that some of the most rewarding experiences have come when I've died to my selfish preferences, and opened my heart to God through a musical genre I was not comfortable with. Having regularly worshiped in one church that sang primarily country gospel and another urban gospel music has stretched my understanding of the mediums through which we can praise God. Both rural and inner city folk have suffered economic difficulty, and this is reflected in the worship songs they write. Through their music, God has blessed me with a greater appreciation of his care for us in difficult times.

David Hamstra

Re: Dead Churches
On February 2nd, 2011 deejayemmm says:

Any religion that says "Keeping the Seventh-day Sabbath will be the requirement to be saved in the end times," is saying that Christ alone is not enough for salvation during the end times. This religion then factually makes itself a "works" church and thus, a false religion, both starting and ending in error.

Dan Millen

Re: Dead Churches
On February 3rd, 2011 Danny Bell says:

Laodiceans are not backsliders or liberals. If you read Revelation 3 correctly they are those who feel no need to change and are blind to their condition.

Well done to the writer of the article – we so desperately need to adress our negative growth in western countries.

Re: Dead Churches
On February 4th, 2011 wfnoel says:


You are correct. The presence or absence of this instrument or that activity is not the issue in worship. Except that people use them to measure a church service and determine if it is "worshipful." Ask people for a definition of worship and most can't answer. Some even point to the order of service in the church bulletin! That is such a mistake because worship is none of those things, it is simply our expression of adoration and praise back to God after having an encounter with Him. (For a deeper discussion of this watch for my upcoming AToday article "What if we actually worshipped?")

Re: Dead Churches
On February 4th, 2011 wfnoel says:


Correlation does not imply causation? No, it isn't proof. But it's true often enough to arouse serious suspicion. Having been rescued by God from a tradition-bound church it is easy for me to see the causes in the correlation and how certain traditions are failing to produce spiritual vitality or church growth.