On the first car I ever owned, the engine seized up because I ignored the banging noise it made when I let rip on a motorway. The reason I ignored the noise was simple. Being totally ignorant about mechanics I did not put any oil into the engine, and I mingled my ignorance with an unfounded optimism that all would be well. Ignorance and optimism are not good bedfellows. I was fortunate, insofar as I had a mechanic friend who fitted a reconditioned engine for me, and my pride was more hurt than my pocket. However, I learnt the lesson that it would have been much more sensible to ask him to give the car a once over before I pushed it to the limit, rather than going to him after the damage was done. He could have given me a couple of litres of oil, which, apparently, was all that was needed.
In the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, some of Jesus’ comments indicate that at least a couple of the churches were in serious danger of blowing out. It must have been pretty embarrassing for the believers at Ephesus to be told that they had lost their first love, or for those at Sardis to hear that they had a name for being alive when in fact they were dead. But the offering of good, though perhaps unwelcome, advice to enable us to avoid disaster is one of the marks of a true friend. Losing our first love is on a similar level spiritually to having no oil in the engine mechanically. If ignored it, will end in disaster.
We do not know the detail of how Ephesus and Sardis ended up in the situation where they warranted such a serious rebuke from Jesus. Ephesus had started well including a huge bonfire of occult books and genuine wave of repentance. The letter Paul wrote to them begins with a very positive statement of who they are in Christ, and what God has done for them through the covenant gift of the promised Holy Spirit.
If they were still around, I wonder if their websites would possibly be extolling their spiritual virtues in the way that many churches do today. By far the majority of church websites I have seen, display what appears to be an unwarranted optimism. Wouldn’t it be a fearful thing if that optimism was combined with ignorance? It does appear that both Ephesus and Sardis were ignorant of their poor spiritual condition. That would seem to me to be a salutary warning that we too may be ignorant of our poor spiritual condition, in spite of the optimistic front we seem to put on.
So how do we know when a church is in a sick condition? With a car, provided we do not continue in ignorant optimism, it is generally quite easy; there is an M.O.T. checklist that can be used as a point of reference to compare what is, with what should be. I have had experience of a lot of churches, and know and have known many church leaders, but whilst they would all give their cars M.O.T.’s it has been rare indeed to come across any who consider it necessary to apply any sort of check up on their churches. On the contrary, some appear so confident that everything is exactly as it should be, that any suggestion to the contrary is rejected out of hand.
I do consider myself fortunate to have been involved in a number of situations that have failed. These have been both as an individual and as part of a church or other venture for God. Just as blowing out a car engine makes one a little more careful to check the oil, having failed a number of times as a Christian does make me want to check things out more thoroughly more often.
When I look around me, I sense that many, possibly a majority of, churches are in danger of failing to recognise signs of potential disaster. As I grow older, I do realise that I have to be on my guard against jealousy or cynicism, but as I have grown older, I trust I may actually have grown a little wiser as well. This means that I am more inclined to think it safer to check things out, especially spiritually, rather than relying on optimistic ignorance.