It’s been more than a year since I returned to the US from the UK. The year I spent living, working, and ministering in the heart of England will always exert a strong influence on my life (and I hope that year will only have marked the beginning of my relationship with old Blighty and not the end of it). One of the things that particularly struck me during my time in the UK was the sense of decline which seemed to permeate the church culture. There was none of the naive optimism that pulling the lever for the right candidate or passing the right law would somehow transform the culture. There was little of the bravado and swagger which has too often characterized the American church. Perhaps this has something to do with the deeper-set character differences between the stereotypical “brash/optimistic” Americans and the “stiff-upper-lip” Brits. I don’t know. But part of the story was that Britain knew that she had, in some profound sense, fallen. Fallen from a place of influence and strength within the Christian world to a place of reproach. The British church has been pushed to the margins by an increasingly aggressive secular culture.
Now the good news is that there are wonderful stories of God’s grace in Britain that need to be told. There are reservoirs of resolve and stockpiles of strength which reside in the spirit of British believers. I was blessed to see first-hand churches being planted, people being baptized, the gospel being preached, and the faithful being built up in my short time in the British church.
All of this however, prompted me to contrast the UK with the US. Many of my British friends seemed to think that the church in America was strong. After all, don’t statistics show that 70% of Americans identify as believers? Aren’t there hundreds of solid Christian schools and colleges? Aren’t there dozens of Reformed seminaries? Aren’t there publishing houses, and ministries all over the country that are working for the spread of the gospel? Aren’t there faithful Christians in all levels of influence and in every field of work? Aren’t there churches with thousands of members? Aren’t there more missionaries coming from America than there are from any other country in the world? Isn’t the American church strong?
Well, yes. And yet, no. The American church has a reputation (and even an appearance) of great strength and vitality, but as I’ve reflected on the differences between the church in the US and the church in the UK it’s helped me to realize something: as an American, I serve in Sardis.
Now what do I mean by that? In Revelation 1-3 Jesus gives his famous “Greeting to the Seven Churches”. These “greetings” often contain rebukes as well. Corrections for sins committed and warnings of pitfalls to be avoided. Here’s what Jesus says to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
These words deserve a full exposition, but I simply want to use them to draw our attention to a simple idea: America is Sardis. We have a reputation for being alive, but we are dead. Those familiar with the state of American Evangelicalism will know the cancers which seems to eat us away from the inside. We are not as healthy as we appear. But Jesus is calling us to both repentance and hope. Repentance for our dead deeds and incomplete works yes, but also hope that we are to remember what we have received and heard, we are to strengthen that which remains, and we are to keep God’s words in repentance. As Jesus said: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”