To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
– Revelation 3:1-3, NIV
For the last several years, I’ve been talking up the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer to anyone who seems remotely concerned about the future of the Church in America or the future of their congregation or the future of Friends. Given the depressing state of faith in our country since I read the book on Mackenzie Morgan’s recommendation, I’ve been talking about the the book a lot.
So why am I writing about the book instead of just advising you to read it? After all, it’s an extremely quick read, a few hours at most. Even better, it’s a steal at well under ten dollars!
I’m writing about it for two reasons.
First off, a friend of mine, a pastor of a Quaker church – a man with an obvious interest in maintaining his congregation’s “non-deceased” status – attempted to read the book and said he just couldn’t get through the layers of cultural specificity. It was, in his words, “too Baptist.” Whether because I am gifted in cross-cultural communication or because I was raised Baptist, that wasn’t an issue for me. I would hate to have Friends miss out on Rainer’s insights because they can’t relate to his context, so if I can effectively “translate” for a Quaker audience, I’d like to do so.
But I’m doing a series about it now – in the midst of a busy and challenging season in my ministry, in my professional life and in my personal life – because Friends are out of time. In the last ten years, Friends in the United States have lost 12% of our members and 24% of our meetings.
Think about that: since 2010, nearly one in four American Quaker meetings or churches has closed its doors. The topic of dying congregations, and how to save them, feels urgent to me, and I’ve been unable to write much of anything since I read these devastating numbers.
Friends have a great reputation – for courage, for justice, for faithfulness. In other words, we have a reputation for being alive.
But like the church in Sardis, if we don’t change – by strengthening what remains of our communities, by recommitting to the beauty and richness of our spiritual heritage as Friends, by waking up to the need for change – our final hour will come like a thief in the night.
And the deeds of faith to which we are called will remain undone in the sight of our God.
Now is the hour of our visitation. Now is the hour of our decision. Please, please, please – let’s be real with each other as we explore topics like these, inspired by Thom Rainer’s book.
- Worshipping the Past, Abandoning the Future
- Refusing to Let “Them” Run Things
- Our Treasure for Our Pleasure
- Great Commission? Or Great Omission?
I have only ever been a member of liberal Quaker meetings, and I am sure I have blind spots, but I’m hoping this series can engage Friends from across the theological spectrum. We need each other so desperately.
And let’s take heart. Even in Sardis, as bad as things were, there were a few people “who [had] not soiled their clothes.” They received a promise: they would walk with the angels, dressed in white, for they were worthy.
Will we be worthy to walk with them?