You’ve heard of secret shoppers, right? People who are hired to pose as customers in stores and to provide feedback on their shopping experience? Many years ago, the Wall Street Journal profiled the work of a man named Thomas Harrison who hired out as a mystery worshipper. He would attend a local church worship service and then provide the church leaders with a report card, outlining the good, the bad and the ugly.
For example, after attending services at a mega church in Cedar Hill, TX, Mr. Harrison included in his report that he had seen a water stain on the ceiling, noticed a “stuffy odor” in the children’s area, observed a stray plastic bucket under the bathroom sink and was met by a sullen greeter who failed to say good morning.
By the time he was done, Mr. Harrison had put together a 67-page report that included praise for the preaching and the cleanliness of the worship center. He noted that the brick-paved island in the parking area needed attention (“Some weeds are growing through the cracks.”). His biggest criticism was the lack of engagement from the greeters or from anyone in the congregation for that matter. He wrote “I was not greeted upon entering the seating area in either service. In the second service, I even moved to a second area of the auditorium about 10 minutes into the service — but still no greeting.”
Mr. Harrison’s report card for local churches focuses on pragmatics and “customer experience” metrics. While these are not unimportant matters, in the end, Jesus has something very different in mind when He looks at His church.
We know this because in scripture, we have a report back from Jesus where he assesses seven first century churches, noting what was commendable and what was in need of correction. His focus was not on the weekly worship services, but on what was true about the worshippers themselves. Today, as we look at Revelation 2 and 3 to see what Jesus had to say to the seven churches in Asia Minor, we can see at least four things that were important to Him.
The first thing is that He expects us to have an obvious love for Him. To be zealous in their worship.
When He speaks to the members of the church in Ephesus In Revelation 2, He says
“I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” He tells them to repent of their half-hearted worship. Speaking to the church in Sardis, Jesus chastises them for being spiritually lethargic and tells them they need to wake up. “You’re dead,” He says. “Unresponsive. Cold. Wake up. Strengthen what remains.”
You’re probably familiar with how Jesus rebukes the church members in Laodicea. “I know your works,” He says. “You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
When our worship of Jesus is half-hearted and lukewarm, something is terribly wrong and needs to be addressed. Imagine a lukewarm bride to be in the days leading up to her wedding. Any casual observer would recognize a lack of excitement or delight as a warning sign. We would expect both bride and groom to be eager, excited and full of anticipation and joy. A lack of passion would be out of character. Jesus says the same is true for His bride.
The second thing you notice as you read Jesus’ critique of the seven churches in Revelation is His desire that His church be holy, set apart and different from the culture in which they live. He expects us to be living transformed lives.
Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for not bearing with those who are evil. This is not a call to self-righteousness or a sense of moral superiority. But He is affirming their commitment to holiness in the church and in their own lives. Specifically, He addresses the way these churches relate to the sexual immorality that is part of the culture in which they live. These churches in Asia Minor were being pulled away from God by the corrupt culture around them. We are too, every day.
The third thing Jesus commends these churches for is their commitment to sound doctrine. He commends the church at Ephesus for how they test those who claim to be apostles but are not. And He rebukes the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira for embracing false teachers. And He tells the believers in Sardis that it is critical that they remember the things they have heard and received.
In our day, holding to sound doctrine can be seen as divisive and narrow. We live in a day when there is a lack of biblical discernment on the part of God’s people, which makes us susceptible to false teaching. And there is a not so subtle shift away from the importance of sound doctrine in churches to what one author calls a “generous orthodoxy” where we try to learn from the good in all religious systems.
That’s not the way of Jesus. Instead, He wants us to be people who embrace what AW Tozer called a “gentle dogmatism.” “Moral power,” said Tozer, “has always accompanied definitive beliefs. Great saints have always been dogmatic. We need right now a return to a gentle dogmatism that smiles while it stands stubborn and firm on the Word of God that liveth and abideth forever.
We should be humble. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be gentle. Be gracious. But Jesus wants us to embrace the truth of His word and not to back down from it.
Finally, in His report back to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus commends those believers for their faithfulness and endurance. He is calling His church to be filled with people who persevere and do not become weary in our well doing and our obedience.
Jesus affirms the church at Smyrna for their faithfulness in the face of tribulation and poverty. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” He says. “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Jesus commends the believers in Pergamum and Philadelphia for “holding fast to my name” and for not denying the faith. He affirms the church at Thyatira for their “patient endurance” and tells them to “hold fast what you have until I come.”
I hope that one day when we are again welcoming visitors to worship with us on Sundays that our landscaping will be well maintained and our greeters will be unmasked and friendly.
But more than that, I hope we will be people who are filled up with a passionate love for Jesus, who are living holy, set apart lives for Him, who are committed to sound doctrine and the truth of His word, and who are able to faithfully endure whatever hardships we may face. A tidy facility is important. So is a well-orchestrated worship service. But let’s make sure we are keeping first things first. Let’s be the people Jesus is calling us to be.
For those of you who will be joining us on line this Sunday, make sure you have the kids around the screen at 9:40 am. That’s when Mrs. Jen will join them for their Gospel Zone lesson this week. It’ll last about 10 minutes. And we’ll start our worship service on line at 10am, as usual.
Our second Confronting Christianity book study get together will happen this coming Monday night at 7:00. You can join us live or on line. We’ll be looking at chapters 3 and 4 this week – “How Can You Say There Is Only One True Faith?” And “Doesn’t Religion Hinder Morality?” Feel free to jump in any week and be part of the study and the discussion.
This Sunday is Father’s Day. As I’ve thought about our service this week, I believe the Lord would have me pause our study of John’s gospel to reflect on the importance and value of purposeful, intentional fatherhood. We’ll look at how important fathers are to God’s plan for our lives.
See you (in person or on line) Sunday!
Soli Deo Gloria!