What makes a church a church? More importantly, what makes a church a healthy and lasting church? Have you seen any buildings in your community that were once considered “churches”? Once vibrant places where people gathered on Sunday, they are no longer in the business of housing the “church”. Now they are dilapidated structures – empty deteriorating shells – a far cry from their once prominent presence in the community.
Dilapidated and disappearing “church” buildings are appearing in the landscape across our country. In an article titled, From sacred to secular: Canada set to lose 9,000 churches, the National Trust for Canada, a national charity that works to save old buildings,
estimates that 9,000 more religious spaces in Canada will be lost in the next decade. This is approximately a third of all faith-owned buildings in the country. Project leader Robert Pajot says every community in the country is going to see old church buildings shuttered, sold off or demolished. "Neighbourhoods are going to have multiple churches closing," Pajot also said, "Some people qualify this as a crisis, and I kind of agree. It is going to hit everybody."
Many churches have already been transferred from sacred to secular use as art galleries, concert halls, libraries, community centres and even micro-breweries. In some cases, an old church building has deteriorated so badly that even heritage officials admit the buildings need to be razed.
The article suggests that the increasing secularization of society coupled with new spiritual practices have cut into traditional Christian church attendance. And with fewer people in the pews, and less money in the coffers, rising maintenance costs on old buildings have overwhelmed many congregations.
But can church closures simply be reduced to a matter of secularization, less people in the pews, and less money in the coffers? What really lies behind these buildings coming to such a tragic end? More importantly, what happened to the people that once attended these buildings – the people who were once known as “the church”?
I have listened to people tell me stories about their church closure. Here are some of the familiar laments: “We once had a vibrant church in this building.” “People loved to come here.” “The music and singing were wonderful.” “There were bean suppers every Saturday that showcased our great cooks and the community always came out in great support.” “We had bingos and raffles, card tournaments and auctions – this place was hopping with activity.” “A lot of people were married and had their receptions here in this building; and we had many notable funerals here as well.”
Others would say, “It’s terrible it had to come to this, but our numbers dwindled over the years, our congregation began to age and the remnant that was left was unable to keep the doors open and pay the expenses.” “So, with much regret, we finally had to sell the building and the few people that were left just went elsewhere.”
Others were contemptuous about the closure of their “church” and were quick to assign blame. Comments included, “Today’s culture is just so indifferent to church”. “They aren’t into church anymore.” “They would rather go to sporting events”.
I have never heard anyone lament their church’s closure because of their fond memories of people coming into a relationship with Christ and being discipled as his followers. This conspicuous lack of regret says volumes about these “churches” and the reason for their closures. It speaks to what they valued and what they didn’t value. It begs the question, were these “churches” real churches or were they just social clubs with a “Christian” flavour?
Churches are not perfect places. That’s because they contain imperfect people like you and me. And yet, while no church is perfect, real churches exist for a purpose. They are to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in Christian community and to tell others the good news about Jesus.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to young Timothy about an upcoming visit, he spoke about the church and its purpose. “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15).
A real church is more than just a place for a bean supper and where one socializes with friends. It is the church of the living God. Paul emphasizes the importance of people’s conduct in church and states that the church is a pillar and foundation of the truth. Churches are defined by two important things: godly living and truth – not bingos and church suppers.
When churches don’t stress the need for godly living by following the teachings of Christ, what can we expect those churches to look like? When churches are no longer a pillar and foundation for the truth, what can we expect to hear taught in those churches? If you take a look at some churches in your community, you may see and hear that anything goes and everything is tolerated!
This is not the church Jesus desired. Paul said Jesus, “died so that the church could be pure and without fault, with no evil or sin or any other wrong thing in it " (Eph. 5:27). Godly living and truth mattered to Jesus. It must also matter to all who desire to be a part of his church.
Jesus loved to commend churches when they deserved it. That’s because he knew at all times “their deeds, their hard work and their perseverance” (Rev. 2:2).
In some situations, like the Ephesian church, he commended them for hating the works of the Nicolaitans like he did (Rev. 2:6). In other situations, like the church of Pergamum, he rebuked them for not hating the works of the Nicolaitans. Obviously, some churches get it right when it comes to godly living and others don’t.
The Nicolaitans were a group that corrupted God's people by suggesting compromise with the culture of the day. They were involved in sexual sin (Rev. 2:14-15) and Jesus was not impressed when the church at Pergamum embraced their teaching and their way of life. In fact, he threatened judgment on the church unless they came clean. The church today is facing the same danger as the church in Pergamum. It needs to come clean. It needs to rediscover what it means to live holy lives.
Satan employs the same strategy today that he used in Pergamos – what you can’t curse or crush, you can corrupt through compromise. Please don’t miss this salient point – Jesus didn’t hate the Nicolaitans, nor did he call the church to hate them. Instead, he hated their works and actions and called the church to do the same.
Yet, even though the Ephesian church got it right about the Nicolaitans, they weren’t off the hook about other things. They were rebuked by Jesus in Revelation 2:4-5. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Just because Jesus commended the Ephesian church for some things, doesn’t mean the good dismisses the bad. He doesn’t cut them any slack. They had lost their first love for him. He says, “repent or else”! He says, “If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches.” What did Jesus mean by this warning?
Most biblical scholars agree that the lampstand that Jesus is referring to is symbolic of his presence among them. If they refused to repent, Christ said that he would come and remove the church's lampstand from its place. For Jesus to remove a church's lampstand from its place would mean the church would cease to be a church. Just as the seven-branched candlestick in the temple gave light for the priests to see in the Old Testament, the churches were to give light to their surrounding communities. But Jesus warned them that their lights could go out. In fact, Jesus himself would extinguish any light that did not fulfill its purpose. The church had to repent of its sins and return to its first love of Jesus.
There are also other churches that think if they are busy enough with social activities and community functions, they must be a healthy church. The church at Sardis is a prime example. Jesus said in Revelation 3:1, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Imagine everyone in the community, including the church itself, thinking that their church is “alive”, while unaware that Jesus thinks their church is dead.
How many churches today have closed, or are in the process of closing, because they have carried on activities for years in a flatline state – thinking all was well? Perhaps they never stopped long enough to ask, “Do all the bean suppers, raffles, bingos, etc., that we do in this building fit the description of what the church should be? Have the things we’ve done over the years in this building aligned with the mission and purpose of our Lord for his church”?
Living godly in a relationship with Christ and being committed to scriptural truth are what makes for a real church. When church buildings close their doors, it’s often because the church failed to take seriously the teachings of Jesus, or failed to carry out the Great Commission, or failed to repent when necessary.
Christ is still watching the lamps, and He doesn't mind trimming the wicks or even using the snuffer when churches refuse to give light. These seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation once existed in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey, where the dominant religion today is 98% Muslim. These churches in Revelation are no longer in existence.
So, let’s come back to my opening question: “What makes a church a real church”? The apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonian church he had started in 1 Thessalonians 1: 2-10. He recalls how the church started and what kept it going. In these few verses he tells us what it takes to be a real church.
1. A real church has a pastor who preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
If you don’t have a pastor who preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, then you need to get one. Paul said, “For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power” (1 Thess. 1:5). Today’s church has suffered far too long from smooth talkers and social flatterers. The church needs pastors that have a conviction and passion to preach God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. A real church has conversions to Christ that are demonstrated by true repentance.
When the Good News was spoken boldly under the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul says in verse 9 that people responded by “turning away from the world and its idols to the living and true God”. This is repentance. This is conversion. This is being born again. These are the results of the Word of God being preached under the power of the Holy Spirit. People’s lives will be changed.
The Thessalonian believers turned away from the world. They didn’t embrace it or compromise with it. They forsook their idols and turned to God. Repentance is about renouncing our sins, asking forgiveness from Christ, and turning our lives completely over to God.
3. A real church has Christians serving the Lord. It’s the norm not the exception.
In verse 9, Paul also says that they didn’t just abandon their idolatrous worship, but they replaced it with service to God. A real church is made up of people who have turned from their sins and who desire to follow and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. They look for ways to honour God through their service and strive to obey him.
4. A real church has Christians serving with the right motives.
When people turn to God and serve him, motives matter. True Christian service isn’t about having my picture hung on a church wall or a plaque in your memory. In verse 3, Paul says their work of service was “produced by faith, their labour was prompted by love”. In a real church, people don’t “serve” God for the recognition they can receive. They serve out of love and gratitude for what the Lord has done for them.
5. A real church communicates the truth.
A real church consistently talks the right message. In verse 8, Paul says, “the Lord’s teaching spread from you”. Their message was not a compromising message filled with psychobabble or secular jargon. It was the “Lord’s teaching”. They upheld and communicated God’s truth even if it was unpopular.
6. A real church looks forward to seeing Jesus come again.
Finally, a real church looks forward to the return of Jesus. The church at Thessalonica was “looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven — Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. He was the one who has rescued them from the terrors of the coming judgment.” (see 1Thess. 1:10).
When Peter talked about the return of Jesus and all that would happen at that time, he asked a question, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? Peter then went on to answer his own question: “You ought to live holy and godly lives (2 Peter 3:11)”. When a real church’s orientation is to serve Jesus until he returns, it will care deeply about godly living and upholding the truth.
At the end of Christ’s letters to the seven churches, a vivid picture emerges in Revelation 3:19-20. It depicts Jesus outside the “door” of the church. This is what he says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
Christ pictures himself as being outside the “door” of the church. He is knocking and wanting to come in. Whenever Christ is moved to the margins and pushed outside the church altogether, he is left standing, knocking at the door, seeking to be invited back in. My friends, if you are in a church today that hasn’t closed its doors, please hear his knock, open the door to Jesus and become a real church.
 Bonnie Allen, “From sacred to secular: Canada set to lose 9,000 churches, warns national heritage group”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/losing-churches-canada-1.5046812,
(Accessed March21, 2019)