Restoring the church’s first love: a case study from the church at Ephesus
Along similar lines today, countless churches desperately need revitalizing. And, in God’s goodness, the same prescription he gives for that ancient church is the same for today’s churches. Indeed, the early church at Ephesus is a case study in church revitalization with relevance far beyond its own time.
In Acts 20, the apostle Paul in Macedonia, sends word to the church at Ephesus. He instructs tthe church elders to “pay careful attention” to the congregation to which the “Holy Spirit has made them overseers,” and to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Paul warns, “Fierce wolves will come in among [the church], not sparing the flock.” Further, he says that these wolves will arise “from among” the church itself.
Paul had poured himself into the life of this church: he spent three years there; he preached the gospel; he discipled believers; he appointed elders. And now he is warning them to be on guard for what will happen as, over time, false teachers and deception come.
Later, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul encourages his son in the faith to stay with the Ephesian church in order to preserve it against the false teachers about which he warned them, that he “may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
In our terms, Paul sends Timothy to revitalize the church at Ephesus.
In the timeline of the New Testament, this exhortation is coming less than 20 years after Paul’s first letter to the Ephesians. And, evidently, false teaching had already infiltrated the church.
So in Acts 20, Paul warns the Ephesians to be on guard. Then, in 1 Timothy 1, he tells Timothy he sent him there to deal with false teaching. But the story of the church of Ephesus does not end there. The Ephesian church appears again in the second chapter of the Book of Revelation, where, this time, Jesus speaks to the church. The Savior commends the church on several points, and then speaks perhaps the most indicting words found in all the New Testament: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
The timing here is about 55 years after Paul’s original admonition to the elders, and the Ephesian church needs revitalization again.
Many times we become more enamored with the maintenance of the ministry than the movement of seeing people come to Christ. A lot of things that pastors are often expected to do are not all that exciting, but they have to get done: someone has to clean the bathrooms, turn on the lights and turn off lights, lock up the building. And we can focus upon all of the elements of church life that are financial, physical, material and so forth. But many times, we lose a sense of mission. When our focus is upon the wrong things we end up getting the wrong results.
And, for many of our churches, the results are indeed wrong. Roughly 80 to 85 percent of established churches in America are either plateaued or declining. And sadly, 3,000 to 4,000 churches are closing every year. In 1920 there were 27 churches for every 10,000 Americans; by 1996, there were only 11 churches for every 10,000 Americans. The Southern Baptist churches are baptizing no more people today than they did in the 1950s, when the population of the United States was less than half of the current population.
Many churches today once experienced a fire for God; their people were passionate about the work of God. But, for one reason or another, they departed from the mission. They, like the Ephesian church, lost their first love.
It is striking in the Book of Acts that the early church had almost none of the things we do. But they had something that many of our churches, sadly, do not — and what is absolutely indispensable to the ministry of church revitalization — the fullness of the power and the presence of God in the life of that church.
The early church — as reported throughout the book of Acts — prayed for boldness and the boldness came (Acts 4:23-31). This episode is a powerful example to us of what happens when a church has the right kind of focus: a God-centered focus. One of the essential things we must do as leaders of the church in order to be agents for revitalization is help believers recapture a focus on the person and work of God. This church is God’s church, this work is God’s work, and apart from the overcoming, enabling grace of God we are nothing and we can do nothing.
Church revitalization, first and foremost, is not a plan; it’s not a scheme; it’s not a strategy. Primarily, revitalization is a reconnecting with the heart, mind and purpose of the Lord of the church himself; it is a spiritual matter. Revitalization is remembering what God has done, calling for repentance where there is unrepentant sin. Where there is a doubt in the capacity of God we call for faith. We proclaim the Word of God. And we lay out once again what it means to be the church. The goal of revitalization is to help people recapture — as Jesus says in Revelation to the Ephesians — their “first love.”
If we have the right love, then everything else falls into place. Because if we truly love the Savior, we will love what the Savior loves. We will have a burden to connect lost people to Christ and to take people deeper into God’s Word so that they may be more fully conformed to the character and commission of Christ. That, in essence, is the ministry of church revitalization.
Adam W. Greenway is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry as well as William Walker Brookes Associate Professor of Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Southern Seminary
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.