Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had. Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66). Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.
In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22. Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor. Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce. But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there. It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.
What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it. Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV). Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency. Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.
But how very different was God’s perception of them! “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty. “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16). They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.
And so it is with us today. We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer. What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment. We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives. We are all too prone to ethical compromise. “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).
The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era. The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s). But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian. Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American. It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews. But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy. The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life. In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.
And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism. The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology. The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways. But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings. First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage. Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant. The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.
But what does God think about all of this? What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18). What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth. And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.” Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire. Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution. And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.” Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot work it up ourselves.
Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.” They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes. In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.
And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition. What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.
The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. There be zealous and repent” (v. 19). If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now? Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us. God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy. A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them. But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.
What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20). This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning. But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church. This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often. He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him. But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.
The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet. The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual. It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God. The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness. When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ. Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.