Imagine going to a new church for the first time. You walk in, receive a bulletin and proceed awkwardly to your seat. You can feel the glances of the strangers around you, assessing your appearance. The worship starts and people sing songs of joy with expressions of apathy. The preacher delivers his eloquent diatribe about everything that is wrong with the world today. The people show up and seem content to sit and spectate. The whole thing seems to lack an overarching sense of purpose. You ask yourself why this particular church exists and an answer doesn’t readily become available. You leave feeling just as lost and lonely as when you arrived; only now with a side of disappointment. You were looking for something, but you didn’t find it.
Something was missing. You may not be able to put your finger on what it was but you could tell it wasn’t there. I’m not trying to be unfair. There are plenty of churches that are wonderful. There are also many that are not. The church should be a life-giving, life-sustaining, life-changing community that transforms the world through the Gospel. Instead it is often reduced to little more than a spiritual social club filled with judgment, hypocrisy, and division. This hasn’t happened by accident.
I spoke to a lady once who came into church after an outreach event. We spoke for a few minutes and she told me this was the first time she had stepped foot in a church in over five years. The last time she went to church she had just moved to the area and was looking for a place to worship. She walked in the door and she was wearing a skirt that went down about four inches below her knees and a t-shirt. Before she even crossed the foyer into the sanctuary the pastor ran to her and said (in front of everyone): “If you are going to dress like a whore, get out of my church.”
Not exactly a quality display of the love of Jesus. This lady and her entire family walked away from church and Jesus. Stories like this are too familiar. Church members, leaders, and organizations have hurt too many people for us to believe that everything is honky-dory.
Around 3,000 churches die each year. Sadly, some should. Some churches have become lifeless, zombie churches. Many lost sight of their purpose. That loss of purpose is changing the church from being a life-giving entity to a lifeless group of zombies.
Zombies are creatures that appear to be living – at least at a distance. They aren’t really alive but they’re not really dead either. Zombies don’t produce, contribute or accomplish anything; they just wander around aimlessly consuming any life they find. They are a corrupt and destructive force that taints all with which they come into contact. Zombies act like they are alive, but they are dead. They just don’t know it.
Similarly, from the outside, some churches appear alive. The lawn is mowed, the music plays, meetings are scheduled. Things are moving, but that’s it. Healing is not administered, joy is not experienced, minds are not edified, and people are not changed. They don’t grow or reach out. They don’t exist to share the love and life of Jesus with the world. They don’t exist to impact their community with the gospel. They don’t exist to give hope to the hopeless or to care for the broken. They just exist to simply to exist.
Zombie churches are contagious. They have become infected with mindsets, traditions, rules, and rituals that are not Jesus. When man-made stuff starts taking precedent over the kingdom of God, problems ensue. God is life. When a church loses its focus on God it loses its connection to life. God is not a vending machine where you can go through the right motions, push all the right buttons and it will give you what you want.
The scariest part about zombie churches is that they look a lot like living churches. They have prayer. They have worship. They have sermons. They might even be friendly. But they are stuck in a deadly rut of routines and rituals. These churches are caught up in doing what they are “supposed to do” but are lacking the true essence of what they are supposed to provide: life. Zombie churches are places where Jesus is taught but He isn’t attending. How do you identify a zombie church?
These are symptoms you might expect to see in a church that is not completely focused on Jesus.
1. A dying church will have idols. An idol is anything we treat as more important than God. Communion, baptism, service, prayer, worship…anything can be an idol. The most dangerous idols are good things that are treated as more important than God.
2. A dying church guards its rules and rituals. Traditions are not evil, but when tradition is simply for the sake of tradition, it is likely a result of the church’s attempt to compensate. When the relationship with God is gone, we often try to fill that void with religious practices to feel “connected to the divine.”
3. A dying church lacks intimacy among its members. People in Zombie churches are often friendly but not a true community which offers a safe place for us to grow, learn, fall down, repent, and support each other.
4. A dying church focuses inward. Of course it is important to take care of the community within the church family. The purpose of Godly community is to support and encourage each other. The danger comes not when this happens, but when this is all that happens. The purpose of our encouragement and support is not so we will feel better about ourselves, but so we will be better able to go back out into the world and show people the love of Jesus.
5. A dying church will have an unhealthy devotion to doctrine. Sound biblical teaching is one of the most important things a church can offer. When we say cruel or unkind things in the name of ‘preserving sound doctrine’ we may be defending Jesus but we are not acting like Him.
6. A dying church will focus more on human involvement than divine activity. They will be works or effort based rather than grace based. Our salvation is not about what we do, but what Jesus has done for us.
Bitterness, resentment, disunity, quarrelling, closed mindedness, and stagnation are major symptoms of a zombie church. These things indicate real danger to the community. The most compelling symptom can be seen with a question: “If this church closed its doors today, would anyone else notice?”
My purpose is not to bash the church. It is to identify the illness that affects it. I believe the church is worth fighting for. I believe she can and will be saved. In many places the church is sick but there is a cure. So how can they be healed?
There are five practical steps to curing the undead church.
1. Love first. Love most. The best way to share life is through love. In John 13 Jesus tells us that we should be identified by our love. That’s the cure. When the church gets distracted by other issues or loses focus on Jesus, it begins to drift away from that connection to life – beginning the mortal transformation into a zombie church.
It’s easy to talk about love. Love needs to be more than just something we say. Love affects everything we do. It needs to be more important than customs, traditions, or personal preferences. Love changes the way we talk to and about people. It alters how we see them, what we think of them, and how we respond to them. Love changes everything.
2. Get out. Pride focuses inwardly. Humility focuses outwardly. Life in the church comes from living on mission for the Gospel. Jesus travelled. He got outside the synagogues and engaged culture. He met people where they were. His church should do the same.
3. Remove idols. Make the focus Jesus. Be all about Jesus. Be all for Jesus. Don’t worry about anything else.
4. Show don’t tell. People have heard of Jesus. Most haven’t seen Him. We should spend at least as much time showing the love of Jesus to people as we do telling them about it.
5. Abide. Life or death is a result of what we feed on. Zombies feed on rules and rituals. Christians feed on the life of Jesus.
Our greatest goal should not be to score the highest on the Bible trivia app, it should be to live like Jesus, to love like Jesus, and to look like Jesus in everything we do. The church is ever, only, always about Jesus.
God does not need us to be gatekeepers. He needs us to be extensions of His love to a lost and hurting world. When we fully grasp His love and grace is all we need, that love and grace will ooze from us. When you are surrendered to Jesus His love fills you and flows through you. That life cannot be contained. It is not given with limited supply. Our life comes from Jesus and is give to us so we can continue distributing the life of Jesus to others. Life is given so that life can be given.
If you want to read more, check out my book, Zombie Church: breathing life back into the body of Christ. It is available on in hard copy, as an e-book, or on the kindle. You can pick up your copy here: http://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Church-Breathing-Life-Christ/dp/0825424593