“The culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australia does not . . . oblige (people) to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort.”
As the Christian church declines in Australia, and the western world generally, there is a consequent search for ways of being more missionally fruitful. Many reasons are cited for the current missional malaise but there is one Elephant in the ‘Mission Operations Room’ limiting the effectiveness of missional efforts that gets insufficient attention. This might be called the ‘‘Laodicean Syndrome’’.
In Revelation 3:14-22 we read Jesus words to the church in Laodicea, a church where the members seem quite satisfied with its life and material comfort. Leon Morris describes it as-
“A church in an affluent society”, one much like ours. It is a church that has lost its passion for Christ, one professing Christianity but “untouched by its fire”.
It is a church Jesus accuses of being lukewarm and is colourfully described by Paul Barnett-
“As mediocre, as lukewarm and vomit inducing as the water from the hot springs in nearby Hierapolis”.
Jesus warns the Laodicean congregation that “I will spit you out of my mouth”, implying that He will close the church down. Despite their affluence they needed to realize their pitiful spiritual poverty and repent and start to focus on what is rich in God’s sight, before it is too late. This lukewarm-ness, this lack of passion for the things of God, this self-centredness and self-satisfied contentment in a comfortable but stagnated church life would quite frankly seem to be a common characteristic of a large proportion of church members today. This often true of even those in large and perceived to be ‘successful’ ones.
Fundamentally, and with great relevance for our mission, there are large numbers of church members who, even though they might place great importance on expository sermons and bible study, are spiritually anorexic. This ‘‘Laodicean Syndrome’’ is evidenced by a general lukewarm-ness and apathy to Jesus core demand to “Go and make disciples’.
Such church members are often regular attendees who have received years, often decades of, bible teaching. However, the result of this so often seems to be a spiritual anorexia marked by a ready willingness to be taught more about Christ (through sermons, bible studies, attending conferences etc) but with a corresponding lukewarm-ness, a lack of real passion for Christ. This is characterized by an absence of real desire and willingness to lead the truly sacrificial lives required for the demands of mission to our 21st century culture. We are reminded that a combination of increasing biblical knowledge and spiritual anorexia is not a new phenomenon by the great puritan pastor Richard Baxter who wrote-
“Though some are never weary of hearing sermons or reading
(the bible) they yet have starved souls”.
The problem is our congregations contain many“starved souls” and these do not have a passion for mission. A small survey I ran a few years ago supports this claim. A number of Senior Ministers were asked to respond to the statement-
My Congregation has a real Passion for Mission to the Australian Community.
The responses indicated that only around 20% of congregations have any degree of real enthusiasm for local mission. This would appear to give some support to the concerns expressed above in regard to a lack of passion for mission in our churches.
Charles Spurgeon the great Baptist preacher, also evidently knew of this problem of spiritual anorexia when he said
“ . . much reading about him, much talking about him but too little
feeding on his flesh, and drinking his blood-these are the causes of
tottering professions and baseless hopes”.
It must be emphasized that this is not in any way an argument against the study or teaching of the bible, that is my passion, rather it is an alarm at the observable threat that the prevalent congregational spiritual anorexia presents to the mission of the gospel. For it is ‘knowledge’ without the Spirit setting the heart on fire for Christ, indeed it is the church of St. Lukewarms.
“Our congregations contain many“starved souls”and these do not have a passion for mission”
Such a phenomenon produces a form of passionless, cerebral, cold Christianity (if it can be called Christianity at all) that, while it may pay lip-service to it, will not be passionate about mission, or show any anguished concern for the terrible destiny faced by the lost around us. To put it another way, the spiritual anorexic may know a great deal of what the bible says about hell, but does not feel the terror or smell the awful stench of it.
Another marker of the ‘Laodicean Syndrome’ is that spiritual anorexics generally have a ‘Me-Church’ faith where the church ‘exists for me’, to provide the religious, pastoral and social services I and my family perceive we need, when, where and how we want them. It is a consumerist faith, one where if a church fails to meet my current requirements I’ll move on to the next church that does. When the mission project is pushed with its requirements for sacrifice, inconvenience and cost, the ‘anorexic’ will be at best apathetic and passively resistant or move to another church, one that allows them to remain ‘religiously comfortable’. Others if pushed too far will ‘fight like ‘hell’ (literally) against mission-driven change.
The question to be answered is, why are there so few in most congregations with hearts enfired for God, without which the mission is lost. This phenomenon of “starved souls” we will fail to address at great peril to the future of the Australian church. Indeed, as we look out over Australian congregations, the lament of the great evangelist D.L. Moody comes to mind-
“How many are there in the church today, who have been members for fifteen or twenty years, but have never done a solitary thing for Jesus Christ? . . . . they cannot point today to one single person who has ever been lifted up (to heaven) by them.”
It seems that even after many years of church membership and bible teaching the result, certainly not for all, but for a large and spiritually influential number in our churches seems to be a spiritual anorexia, a form of ‘Christianity-Lite’ characterized by an un-transformed life lacking in a sacrificial, self-denying passion for the mission of the gospel. It is the presence of such members in a congregation that gives rise to the ‘‘Laodicean Syndrome’’, a reality that will not achieve the missional effort required to turn the tide of decline, and will not be dealt with by wishful thinking.
The ‘Laodicean Syndrome’ is a major reason why future mission, if it is to become effective, cannot be based on the traditional parochial platform, for the spiritual DNA required for passionate, costly mission of the ‘Jesus kind’ is just not present.
The traditional (parochial) church model, infected as it largely is with the ‘Laodicean Syndrome’, has not been capable for over 20 years, is not capable, and cannot be changed to be capable, of being the platform required for the dynamic mission needed to produce the vastly increased missional fruitfulness that will even stem let alone turn the outrushing tide of decline.
I am aware of just how shocking that statement will be to many. However, all the evidence is that it is true, and the way forward demands the adoption of a totally new, non-parochially connected mindset in regard to mission.