Like all living organisms, church growth is usually a good thing and the lack of growth leads to death.* That’s because an organism that isn’t growing is dying in most cases. In other cases, there is a phenomenon known as abnormal growth and it is a terrible thing. In the human body abnormal growth is called cancer and we all know what that can result in.
Growth that results from the doing of good works, teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, loving and serving others, making disciples, etc…, is healthy growth. On the other hand, when churches accommodate what the Germans refer to as the zeitgeist, the spirit of the day or times, there may be growth but it will be abnormal. Such abnormal growth is cancerous to the life of churches living on mission with God. Though that growth may appear good for awhile, eventually the spiritually unhealthy nature of such growth will manifest itself.
This accommodation involves assimilating social and political views, both on the right and the left. Rather than assimilating the beliefs and values of Jesus, which is ascertained by understanding Jesus in his second-temple Judaism culture, Christianity takes on the socio-politics of the day. Even scarier, sometimes this is done with enough proof-texting of scripture and reasoning that it appears right. Only from the rear-view mirror do we begin to see otherwise.
Of course, this is where we need a clear picture of Jesus and the life he has called us for. This is where the book of Revelation speaks. Though some of the imagery in Revelation makes the book appear more difficult to grasp, I don’t believe it makes the book impossible to understand. Revelation was originally written to seven churches about persecution that Christians were beginning to face and would soon endure in severity (cf. Rev 1:11, 19-20). So whatever is said about the end times or last days, it’s something that was understandable as a word of encouragement, instruction, and warning to those seven churches first. That’s why I am skeptical about interpretations of Revelation that are always rereading the imagery in light of current events.
What makes Revelation a powerful word for our day is that these seven churches are just like churches today… imperfect and struggling, sometimes very compromising with the faith, etc… These seven church were also unpopular among the empirical society of Roman culture. But not with Jesus!
Revelation opens with a victorious image of Jesus Christ prepared to fight the battle for his bride, the church. So the word Jesus has for his churches is a victorious message that calls for faithfulness. In Revelation, the word “blessed” is used seven times (1:3; 14:13; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14), describing the blessed as those who listen to Jesus and the prophetic words of this revelation, who remain faithful, who share in the victorious resurrected life of Jesus. Though they suffer for the name of Christ, they win because God reigns and has already defeated their enemy. While there are times of great tribulations, there will come a day when the new heaven and new earth will appear with God dwelling among his people — the church of Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation is a powerful message to these seven churches reminding them that they win, so be faithful. That is still a powerful message that churches today need to hear. Whether in a season or great peace or of great struggle, of incredible growth or apparent decline, churches, including us, must remember…
We win, so be faithful!
* This post was originally published as an article of the same title in Connecting 28 (March 20, 2013), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.