Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart- Proverbs 3:3 NIV
I have this weird little theory that all Christian churches, denominations and organizations follow the same basic pattern of development.
They all begins with a dream, desire or idea God plants in the heart of a person or a group of people. This dream ultimately produces the birth of something new, spiritually useful and beautiful (Isaiah 43:19, Acts 2:42-47).
Then comes childhood.
Childhood is an exhilarating time in a church or ministry. Childhood is all about beginnings and growth. All the activity of this phase is born out of genuine love for Jesus, passion for the mission of Jesus and a desire to honor and glorify Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). Leaders are all about obeying Jesus above all else. As a result this phase typically results in an abundance of growth and spiritual fruit (Acts 2:42-47).
The childhood phase is also marked by chaos. Leaders don’t always know what they’re doing. Really important things just don’t get done and it’s not unusual for there to be disputes between key leaders (Galatians 2:11-14). Because this stage is naturally volatile, if an organization stays in childhood for too long it will die. No ministry or church can endure the disorganization and volatility of the childhood stage for long.
It’s just too dang messy.
If the organization or church survives the birth and childhood phase (some don’t). It marches into adulthood. Adulthood is the sweet spot for a ministry or church. There’s still an abundance of enthusiasm and a clear vision for where the ministry is going and what it exists for. The vision is firmly rooted in biblical principles and prayer. The ministry is still very Jesus centered but there’s more discipline than in the childhood phase. The policies and leadership structure developed in the early adulthood phase provide the stability necessary to keep the thing from flying off the rails. This is typically a very long phase that is even more effective and fruitful than the childhood phase. The organization or church earns a good reputation in the community and it does a lot of good. People are saved, lives are transformed and Jesus is glorified in a big way (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5).
Then comes middle age.
If an organization makes it to the middle age stage everything is going super well from an optics perspective. Money is pouring in, volunteers are plentiful and the stated mission is still rock solid.
There is a subtle shift that begins with leadership. Leaders become, usually without realizing it, much more focused on building the organization than they are on Jesus and glorifying Jesus. Jesus is still important, but He is no longer the main thing. He’s more of a figurehead at this point. Passion for Jesus and devotion to the mission gets lost in the day-to-day of “doing ministry”, “raising money” and “growing the ministry” (Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 10:7-9, Ephesians 4:11-16). It not uncommon of for shady behavior and sexual misconduct to become a problem at this point. Because leaders are much more focused is on how things LOOK rather than holiness, righteousness and pleasing Jesus, it is also not all unusual for the shadiness and sexual misconduct to be swept under the rug. All or most of the ministry work of this phase is centered on programs and fund raising rather than transforming people and glorifying Jesus. On the surface the ministry activity APPEARS to be people and Jesus centered. However, most of it is focused firmly on keeping the ministry machine going, raising money and justifying the continued existence of the organization.
This is exactly what where the church in Ephesus was at.
By the time Jesus addressed the first church in Revelation they were firmly in the middle age stage. The churches love for Jesus and concern for the spiritual and emotional needs of people became lost in their desire to maintain the status quo.
Jesus calls this “losing their first love” (Revelation 2:4-5).
But here’s the thing:
No one looking at the Ephesian church from the outside would have suspected there was a problem. Even most folks who attended the Ephesian church were likely unaware of the problems lurking just below the surface. The leaders were clueless. Leaders at this stage almost always lack any kind of real self-awareness. As a result, they thought everything was fine. And why not? All the externals looked awesome. Those who taught were skillful, polished and well-educated. The doctrine espoused was solid. No one deviated from orthodoxy. The church leadership avoided getting involved with problematic people or divisive issues. The money was rolling in and the attendees willingly suffered hardship for Jesus (Revelation 2:2-3).
The people’s hearts were far from God. The people no longer cared about the things Jesus cared about. The Ephesian Church was still very busy kingdom building. It was just the wrong kingdom. It was a human kingdom instead of Jesus’ kingdom.
Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesian Christians is straightforward: “do what you did at first”.
Jesus knows that one of two things happens at this crossroad of middle age.
Most of the time the ministry continues a slow drift further and further from the original mission and bit by bit it loses its ability to make a spiritual impact on the world. The church or ministry remains but the power it once had to make disciples and transform the culture evaporates. The people lose their saltiness and the church or organization becomes spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13). If it endures it morphs into more of a social service agency than an actual ministry.
There is a spiritual awaking. The people who attend and lead these churches recognize the problem. They see the drift. It breaks their hearts and they repent. They fully rededicate themselves to the cause of Christ. Jesus becomes the main thing once again and the church or organization continues to be a vital part of the body and a solution to the brokenness in this world (Revelation 2:7).
These things rarely (if ever) just happen.
They happen when we ask God to show us the drift in our lives, our churches and our ministries. In order to see the drift we must pray daily for wisdom and self-awareness. We have to ask God to give us a heart that’s willing to see the problems in our lives and ministries and our role in those problems.
Most critically, we must be willing to do what we did at first (Jeremiah 17:9-10). We have to fight to go back to that childlike state of spiritual existence where Jesus was our everything and our obedience was a gift we joyfully gave Him.