Tepid, halfhearted, indifferent, unenthusiastic, apathetic, moderate, lackadaisical… How would you like it if Jesus used these adjectives to describe Santa Barbara Community Church? Perhaps he will one day, and that’s because successful churches have a tendency to lose their oomph. They begin to rest on those things they think constitute “success,” and they no longer look to have the wind of the Spirit in their sails. In time, such churches find themselves going through the motions without the requisite spiritual fervor that yearns for God and seeks his glory. “Doing church” becomes an end in itself, programs take priority over people, and the community’s passion for God has faded. Soon the people get tired, and eventually they drift away either to other churches or to the last thing that made them feel good before they met Christ.
SBCC is in the middle of her twenty-ninth year as a community. We have just merged with Trinity Baptist Church, a wonderful body of believers in its forty-fifth year of church life. SBCC needed a facility and the collective wisdom of people with gray hair. TBC needed some younger people, teaching pastors, children’s ministries, etc. So we started hanging around together last autumn, and a funny thing happened on the way to Christmas. . . We fell in love with one another. We’ve come together with great joy and appreciation. Never a day goes by when I don’t hear several people from both congregations express their delight and gratitude to God for his bringing us together. And so. . . we’ll all live happily ever after, right?
Well, maybe. In the midst of great excitement, that we all seem to be sharing, we would do well to heed the warning Jesus made to the New Testament church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). Like Santa Barbara, Laodicea was a wealthy city in a beautiful location. Trade was good. People went to there to make money and to enjoy the surroundings. A church was planted in Laodicea, and it thrived. But by the time Jesus addresses this congregation, the church has become lukewarm.
In most of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, Jesus begins with a compliment to the believers. Not so to the Laodiceans: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot! Would that you were either cold or hot! And these harsh words had special significance for the hearers. You see, the price for living in Laodicea was terrible drinking water. No Evian, Perrier, or Sparkletts here. The drinking water for Laodicea was brought from Hierapolis, six miles to the north. By the time it got to the city on an aqueduct it was, indeed, lukewarm. Its high mineral content probably didn’t kill anyone, but a good glass of fresh, cool water was not to be found. One had to go seven miles to the south, to the cold springs of Colossae, for that.
And what does Jesus say to this church? He says, Your faith is like your water: tepid and disgusting. Consider what Jesus doesn’t say. He has no criticism of the Laodiceans’ sexual immorality, nor does he criticize them for tolerating false teaching. He doesn’t even say that they have lost their first love, as he says to the Ephesian church.
But, reserving some of his harshest criticism for this church, our Lord calls them lukewarm! The Laodicean church, evidently, had it all—a cute pastor, great children’s ministry, bumper stickers advertising the church, a vibrant college ministry, t-shirts, the whole shebang. But somewhere along the way the Laodiceans stopped begging Jesus for his blessing. They stopped crying out for his anointing. They ceased praying for the filling of the Spirit. They were lukewarm.
What can we do as the merged church of TBC/SBCC to avoid this dreadful condition? What can we do to avoid being spit out of our Lord’s mouth?
The answer lies in this simple call to our church community: Let us put first things first. In the end, “church” is not about ministries or missions. Church is not, in the final analysis, about outreach or even discipleship. Church is not ultimately about music, preaching, sharing, or giving. Church is about the glory of God. Church is about God calling people to himself—people who are so captured by his beauty that they cannot look away. A healthy church is essentially a group of people to whom God has made known the path of life. They are filled with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). That joy and those eternal pleasures fuel everything else in the life of a healthy church.
Have you heard the story of George Müller (1805-1898)? By any measure, he was an activist. He was busy doing things in his Christian life. He was the pastor of a rapidly growing church, he started orphanages, and he distributed literature and Bibles worldwide. Et cetera. What would you expect Müller to say about priorities in the Christian life? Stay busy? Never grow tired of doing God’s work? Suffer the little ones? Müller said nothing of the sort. In his autobiography we find these words:
According to my judgment the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.
Let us, as a merged body of believers, make this the business of our church. May we busy ourselves making our souls happy in God. The rest, then, will take care of itself.