It is too easy to leave a church because it is "dead". It sounds much more spiritual than admitting some sort of consumer impulse in us to have it our way. If we pronounce a church "dead", we are by implication suggesting that we are not, that we are truly alive, that we really know what it means to experience God. God has graced us by placing our finger on the pulse of churches all across the world, letting us play coroner in an ecclesiastical morgue, guessing at the cause of death.
Ah, this one had too much tradition. Or, This one never taught the Bible verse by verse. Or This one didn't have enough open worship or room for the Spirit.
But before we get carried away in spiritual superiority, it's worth asking ourselves what we mean when we say a church is dead. Consider this:
Jesus said "for where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt. 18:20).
Wherever God's people gather, whenever they gather, however they worship or how aware they are of God, God is there.
God's presence is not contingent on our awareness. Remember Jacob who only after his stairway to heaven dream exclaimed, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it"(Gen. 28:16). God's presence is often subtle and subversive. Think of the still, small voice Elijah almost didn't hear after the dramatic fire at Carmel. Think of the Son of God coming to earth as a Jewish baby born in a manger almost unnoticed by Herod from his opulent palace. God seems to specialize in being on the scene without fanfare and fireworks.
2. God is always working
In Revelation 2 and 3 , Jesus speaks to 7 churches regarding their forsaken first-love, their endurance in the face of persecution, their idolatry, their immorality, their dying hearts, their fading strength, and their lukewarm faith. Chances are, if you or I went to any of these churches, we might never go back. We might pull out of the parking lot, shaking our heads, saying how sad it is that this once-great church is now dead. And yet…
None of these churches are dead. Even the one he calls "dead", He clarifies by calling them to "strengthen what remains and is about to die" (Rev. 3: 2). They are not dead for one simple reason: Christ is speaking to those churches. As much as they struggle with sin (immorality, idolatry, and adultery), as much as they struggle to keep a burning, living faith in the midst of their institutional development, Christ is still speaking. What's more, for some of them, if His warning is unheeded, Christ Himself will come to them!
When we call our church "dead", too often we are basing our assessment by what we see. And all we see is human activity. We see how people worship or if they don't. We see how many people are coming or if they are. We call a church dead because of human inactivity when what makes a church alive is God's activity. And God is always present and working.
If we are evaluating churches by human activity or its approximation to perfection, we would be more accurate to say that every church is, in a way, dead. It is a relational organism that even at a small size involves structure and order. That makes the church– even a house church– at some level institutional. Furthermore, since it involves humans, it's imperfect. If we are going to condemn a church for being institutional or sin-laden, what are we left with?
“What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it. Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.” –Eugene Peterson
The church– dead by our standards– is necessary to protect the presence and activity of God among His people…
…and God's presence and activity among all His people means that no church is truly dead.
It is only dead to our eyes.