A dead church can be detrimental to your spiritual growth, so avoid one at all costs. Church leaders must also recognize signs of a dying church and act accordingly. While Christian fellowship is vital (Hebrew 10:25), we are called to discern as there are false teachers ready to deceive (Matthew 7:5; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1). Sadly, some churches are spiritually deficient and could rightly be called dead.
One might think a dead church is one that has physically shut down. However, a congregation can be thriving numerically and busy socially yet remain corpse-like spiritually. In the book of Revelation, the church of Sardis was described as having “a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).
These are sobering words. Be careful not to gauge the health of a church by the number of members, the opulence of the buildings, the success of the congregants, or other outward results. A dead church has deeper issues.
Here are some indicators of a dead church:
1. The gospel is ignored or misinterpreted. Scripture points to the person of Jesus Christ and His redeeming work for the penalty of our sin. This is the gospel message (Romans 1:3; 3:21–24) and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it (Romans 1:16–17). The gospel is at the center of Christianity, and preachers of a false gospel are considered cursed (Galatians 1:8). The gospel message distinguishes a dead church from a living one.
A dead church either preaches a false gospel or none at all. False gospels include the prosperity gospel (Jesus died so you can be rich and healthy), the self-esteem gospel (Jesus came to boost our confidence in ourselves), and the social justice gospel (Jesus came to address social issues).
The true gospel is about how God reconciled us to Himself through the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. The gospel entails an understanding of sin, God’s wrath, Christ’s death, and His resurrection. A church that ignores or downplays this transforming message is dying or already dead.
2. A dead church tilts towards legalism or licentiousness. Christians must avoid the two errors of legalism and licentiousness. A dead church has fully tilted to one of these extremes. Legalists believe they are accepted by God for following set rules. Some of these rules are non-biblical, like forbidding playing sports or attending movies. Biblical rules are turned into matters of salvation when they shouldn’t be. For example, legalists might preach that not tithing can lead one to hell. Legalism is what Paul faced with the Galatians (see Galatians 5:2–4).
True Christians can fall into the trap of legalism when they make their convictions a primary issue. Failing to show grace to those who might disagree with them on non-essential doctrines is another symptom of legalism. Having a few legalistic Christians doesn’t necessarily classify a church as dead. The problem arises when the church’s teachings and traditions show these traits.
The other extreme is licentiousness, explained in Jude 1:3–4:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
Licentious people believe (or live) like the grace of God gives freedom to indulge in every sinful desire. Scripture is against this view. God’s grace compels us to say no to ungodliness (Titus 2:11–14). We are free from sin, not for sin (Romans 6:14–18; John 8:34–36; Galatians 5:13). We are not to live in sin but live for God (Romans 6:11). Immorality is common in a dead church, as was the case in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1).
3. There is no love. John 13:35 says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” A dead church lacks love. Jesus praised the church in Ephesus for its many good works but rebuked it for its lack of love (Revelation 2:4). Love for one another is a crucial quality believers should possess.
The type of love Jesus speaks of is not the sentimental kind promoted in liberal circles—the type of “love” that affirms everyone but never points anyone to God’s truth. Biblical love is affectionate (Ephesians 4:32) but also tied to what’s right and true (1 Corinthians 13:6). Loving God means obeying His commandments (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2–4). Loving others involves treating them the way God wants (Romans 13:8–10). This can include rebuking them when they err.
4. A dead church denies essential doctrines. Does a church deny the Trinity? The deity of Christ? Salvation by grace through faith? These are red flags. A church that disagrees with core aspects of the faith is living with inconsistency, like a vegan who eats meat. While we extend grace on areas of secondary importance, we must guard against heresy and contend for the faith (Jude 1:3).
As Rupertus Meldenius rightly stated, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (Paraenesis votiva pro Pace Ecclesiae ad Theologos Augustanae Confessionis, 1627). Dead churches divide Christianity. We can agree to disagree on non-essentials, but there’s no unity without essential beliefs. Unity is not threatened by those who point out false teachings but by false teachers who secretly bring heresies into the church (2 Peter 2:1).
A dead church can be restored if the leaders recognize their failures and turn back to the right path. While a church can be considered dead in other areas, like finances and infrastructure, we choose to highlight what is more important for the soul. Biblical love and truth supersede money and large buildings.