Against complacency

Last week, I started a period of fasting and prayer to seek God on a couple of matters. The biggest of these is a frustratingly predictable cycle in our church: we can run up to 45 or 50 people and then shrink back to 30 or 35. In short, I want to break this cycle. And so I am asking God to reveal things that are creating a “lid” on our congregation. I started out last week by praying for Him to reveal strongholds in my life. I defined a stronghold as a sin issue which is deeply entrenched and possibly hidden. I.e., it’s something that I think or do over which I absolutely refuse to allow God to have control. I then prayed that I would be circumcised of heart. According to the Bible, this means that I am open and sensitive to the indwelling presence, power, and direction of the Holy Spirit. And finally, I prayed that I would have the strength and courage to identify and address any issues which God revealed as I continued. This week, I have begun exploring the strongholds which may be present in our church. The most obvious text that I could come up with that would address these issues was Revelation 2-3: the letters from Jesus to the seven churches. And as I have studied them the last couple of days, I am compelled to acknowledge that we are probably dealing with a number of the same issues. Today, I want to explore the concept of complacency, which I believe was what Jesus was talking about when He wrote to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7

Jesus started His letter to the Ephesian church, like a traditional letter, by identifying Himself: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands.” It was a reference back to Revelation 1:12-16, where the glorified Jesus is described as walking among and lording over the seven key churches of the ancient world and their angels. The description there paints Jesus as beautiful, exalted, holy, royal, pure, fierce, and powerful, to say the least. When the Ephesians read this, they would have been reminded of the splendor, the grandeur, of our Lord. He was not just another god. He was not just another part of their lives. He was the Lord of the Church, and He was supposed to be the Lord of them. No one could approach Him in splendor or power.

Jesus then continues to note a positive about the church at Ephesus: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name and have not grown weary.” In short, the church at Ephesus was faithful in working, testing the spirits (as John exhorts), and enduring adversity. This is good stuff, and I would like to echo the sentiment when it comes to our church. We are very faithful in these areas as well, and I rejoice in that fact!

But then Jesus cuts to the chase. He says, “But I have this against you,” and in doing so, He reveals that, despite this compliment, things are not all rosy in Ephesus. His charge against the church: “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” A number of things jump out at me about this indictment:

  • “You.” This was not a problem with Jesus. It was not a failure with the community or other congregations. And it certainly was not a deficiency of Jesus. It was a problem with the church at Ephesus. They had done it. They were responsible.
  • “abandoned.” This word stings. I can’t imagine but that the Ephesians felt slapped in the face. It does mean, after all, to “give up completely.” In that respect, it sounds an awful lot like surrender. Or retreat. And it conjures up the idea of a ghost town or that Japanese ghost ship the US Coast Guard recently sunk. In any case, I’m sure the Ephesians didn’t like the idea that they had abandoned anything.
  • “the love you had at first.” Other translations talk of “your first love.” In either case, it speaks of precedence and priority. As anyone who has experienced “first love” can attest, it is an intense thing. The object of that love instantly becomes the single most important thing. Everything else takes a back seat. It is a love characterized, in short, by extraordinary passion.

And that’s what Jesus is getting at with the Ephesian church. They were doing the things they were supposed to be doing, but the fire, the passion, the first love was gone. In other words, they were just going through the motions.

I think our church is coming up against a stronghold of complacency. We go through the motions, but it’s just something we do. We lack the excitement. We lack the fire. We lack the first love we had at first. And so we do the worship service. We do Sunday School. We do Kid’s activities and such.

Now, I think at this point that I need to stop and note three things. First, this is not to say that everyone in the church is complacent. Indeed, there are several who are on fire for Jesus!

The second thing I have to note at this juncture is that I don’t think our church is at all unique in this. In fact, I dare say that complacency is common, even in churches that seem exciting, growing, even bursting at the seams. You see, “going through the motions” can be rephrased: “got it down to a science.” When we do A, then B, then C, so we get D, even if D is rapid growth, I think we’re risking complacency. You see, if we go by the definition of complacency that Jesus gave the church at Ephesus, whenever it becomes about the process rather than God, it’s complacency. (I told you it could be hidden!)

And the third thing is that I blame myself. You see, as I look at myself, I recognize these same tendencies in myself. I have done the worship service. I have done the board meetings. I have done the preaching. I have done the teaching. All without the fire. And I can’t expect the church to have something that I don’t have myself. So I take responsibility. I just can’t take it all.

So don’t crucify me for saying that we’re complacent. And let’s not get too down on ourselves for it, either. After all, Jesus didn’t start berating the Ephesian church for their complacency. He didn’t go overanalyzing to demonstrate exactly where their complacency manifest, either. He simply provided the solution. So rather than doing any of these things, let’s focus on what needs to happen to take out the stronghold of complacency in our church and our lives.

Jesus identified two specific steps for the Ephesians in vs 5. The first was “Remember.” If we’re going to overcome complacency, then we need to think back to a time when we know we had the burning passion Jesus is talking about. Perhaps for some of us, that was when we first believed. Perhaps it was some other mountaintop experience we’ve had along the way. Whatever it is, Jesus wants us to “remember how far you have fallen.” The question is why. And the answer is two-fold.

Because when we remember how far we’ve fallen, we’ll realize just how much we’re missing. The best way I can explain this is with an illustration. I’ve always been fascinated with flying. And I remember to this day the first flight I ever went on. My family had gone to the Grand Canyon for vacation. My brothers wanted to go horseback riding down into the canyon, but neither my mom nor I had much interest in that, so we went for an airplane ride over the thing instead. I remember the exhilaration when the wheels lifted off the ground. The press as the craft climbed. And the spectacular view. You could see everything from up there. All the colors in the canyon walls. The trails on the canyon floor. The astounding rock formations. The sparkling river. And then it was over. When my dad and brothers did their horseback thing, they came back marveling at how hot it was as you went down, how neat the rocks were, etc. But I was still thinking of the unparalleled vistas I had beheld from the airplane. And to this day, if I ever go on vacation to the Grand Canyon again, I will be sure to book a flight over the thing because I know now what I’m missing if I just stay on the ground.

The problem is, when you’re on the airplane, it’s hard to tell when the descent begins. Sometimes, it’s so slow you don’t even realize it until you’re practically back on the ground. And only then, when you realize how much you can’t see anymore do you realize – and miss – the rest. So Jesus’ point in having us remember is to remind us of what we’re missing!

And the second part of this remembering is to help us start figuring out the solution. In short, as we look back and remember the things that we used to do for Jesus – and why – we begin to get an idea of what we need to do – and why – now.

Which leads me to the second part of Jesus’ solution here in vs 5: “Do.” More specifically, He bid the Ephesians to “do the works you did at first,” and I think this is essential for two reasons.

The first is that it shows us who is responsible for rekindling that passion we once had: we are. It makes sense. I mean, we are the ones who abandoned it; it’s only fitting that we should be the ones to rekindle it. But how often do we pray that God will give us a passion for something? I know I have prayed that Jesus would spark passion in me more times than I would care to admit. But here, in Revelation 2, He gave the command to the Ephesians, to us, and to me. If I want passion, I need to go after it.

And the second is that it shows us how to rekindle that passion: do the works. To be honest, this seems entirely contrary to what I have always believed about passion. I always thought passion preceded action. And so I would pray for God to give me a passion and then wait for that passion to show up before I did anything. But Jesus says that action precedes passion. I.e., I need to get to work before I can expect to have that fire.

At this point, I have to acknowledge that this seems to contradict what I said above about complacency lurking when we are merely going through the motions. Indeed, many complacent churches and people are nonetheless quite busy in their complacency! But I suspect that, if we were to compare the things that we’re doing now, in our complacency, to the things we did then, when our passion was still white-hot, we will find a number of differences.

Now, understand that this is not to say that we must start doing all of the specific things we did when we were passionate. I mean, disco is not coming back. Bus ministry is probably dead for good. And the list goes on. Rather, it is to say that we should look for general patterns and the motivations behind them. And in my own contemplation, I came up with three:

  • Bible study and prayer. It’s not that I’ve stopped doing these things, but when I am complacent, I tend to minimize the amount of time I spend doing them, usually because I have more “important” things that need to be done. In an earthly relationship, Bible study and prayer equates to spending time with the person you love. It makes sense, then, that as I let other things encroach on this, the love that I had at first begins to fade. And when I do it with anything less than total abandon, I get the same. Reading other books and even spending tons of time in church activities won’t do this for us. If we’re going to defeat this stronghold of complacency, we need to get serious about Bible study and prayer!
  • Evangelism. Of course, I never knew the word when I first began my relationship with God. I just knew how excited I was, and so I would tell people what He was doing in my life. I would tell people about Him. And I would invite people to come with me to all sorts of different places where I knew they could meet Him. So, for instance, I invited everyone I met to the Bible study I was part of at our school. And I invited everyone I knew to join us at our church and youth group. In fact, I remember sitting down one day for lunch with a guy that I respected and admired and telling him how much I thought Jesus could do in and through him. He listened and even thanked me for my words, but looking back, I imagine what was really going through his head was probably more along the lines of “This dude is off the deep end!!!!!!” But that’s what passion does. We want people to have every opportunity to meet the object of our affection. And we’re not dissuaded or discouraged by little things like rejection or outright persecution. So if we’re going to beat this stronghold of complacency, we need to start telling evangelizing!
  • Giving. Simply put, we give to what we think is important. We give money. But really, money is the cheapest way we give. More, we give time and energy and creativity and excellence and… In short, we give everything we possibly can to that about which we’re passionate. And when that passion wanes, that kind of giving does, too. We might still give, but we also hold a little back for this. A little back for that. Etc., etc., etc. If we’re going to beat this stronghold of complacency, we need to get back to giving. Financially, yes. But to be honest, I think our church has been pretty good about this. Rather, we need to focus on giving time, talent, energy, creativity, and excellence in everything that we do. We need to give of ourselves, sacrificially, if we’re going to see passion rekindled and complacency eradicated from our church!

So there are three things that we can work on today to beat this stronghold of complacency in our church. And to be clear, we must do it. Because if we don’t, Jesus will come and remove us from our place. No, that doesn’t mean that we’ll be instantaneously smote with fire from heaven. In fact, I dare say that many churches which have been removed have continued on for years in some form or another. But they’re as dead and as dark as they come.

I don’t want our church to be as dead and dark as they come. Because I don’t want to be as dead and dark as they come. So today, I’m asking everyone in our church and any other church which is being strangled by a stronghold of complacency to get to work. Let’s not be satisfied with how things are. Let’s long for – and seek – the love we had at first. Remember the things we used to do and why. And start doing them again.

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