The disciples had been eyewitnesses to it all. They had heard the words, seen the miracles, felt the power, and participated in the ministry. They had walked away from lucrative jobs and comfortable homes. They had given up personal dreams of achievement and security. When they answered Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, they gave up everything to share in what God was doing through His Son’s life. For months which had now turned into years, they had been there with Him. Imagine their surprise when late one afternoon Jesus turned to these men, looked them straight in the eye and asked, “Who am I?”
“Who am I?” What kind of question was that? Was He confused? Had He forgotten who He was? Why would He ask such a question? “Well…,” someone stuttered, “some of the people think you are John the Baptist who has come back from the grave.” “And I overheard a camel driver say he thought you might be Elijah or Jeremiah or one of Israel’s other prophets returned to life,” piped in another.
Fine. But now the real question, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked. Without hesitation and without forethought, Peter blurted out, “You are Christ! You are the Messiah! You are God’s Son! You are the One we have prayed for and looked for and hoped for! That is who I say you are!” “Peter,” Jesus rejoined, “you are exactly right! And you didn’t think that up by yourself; God revealed it to you. And that very understanding from God will be the bedrock upon which My church will be built.”
As a ministerial student in college, one of my first religion classes was composed entirely of young people who had responded to God’s call upon their lives. We were all there because we believed God intended for us to be pastors, missionaries, Christian educators, and ministers to His people. Being novices, we did not want to do or say anything that would hurt God’s people or damage His church as we learned how to be good ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. More often than not, the class would begin with prayer and a brief question and answer dialogue with the professor who had been a pastor himself. As class began one Monday morning, a student was particularly burdened over a problem in his little country church and his attempts to help the leaders deal with the matter wisely. His brief story ended with a flurry of questions for the professor, “What if I’ve given the wrong advice? What if my suggestions make things worse? What if the church falls apart because of this?” After a lengthy pause, the professor said, “Son, you can’t kill that church. It belongs to God and He knows everything about it. All you can do is be obedient to the Lord and do what you think He wants you to do.”
“Son, you can’t kill that church.” Maybe. But I do know this; a church sure can commit suicide. Now, of course, there are two types of suicide. There is physical suicide and then there is spiritual suicide. Unfortunately, pastors know too well the grief and questions left behind as families struggle to understand what has driven loved ones to take their own lives. Physical suicide is a tragedy.
Scripture depicts the other type of suicide also, spiritual suicide; the kind of suicide that destroys one’s soul and one’s eternity. Among the many examples of spiritual suicide is the story of the rich young man who found Jesus one midday morning and asked a pointed and eternal question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-22) After being told the answer and thinking it over, Scripture notes that “he went away grieved” and without eternal life because the price was too high, Jesus watched him go and let him go. The Lord did not lower the price or change the means of gaining eternal life. From that point on, the young man was headed down the path of spiritual suicide. He had made a decision that would destroy his soul.
Just as it is possible for individuals to commit suicide, so it too is possible for churches to commit suicide. It is unlikely many congregations will knowingly choose to close their doors or dismantle their buildings, but many do choose paths that ultimately lead to spiritual death. Even the casual observer is aware of too many congregations well on their way to spiritual, and even physical, suicide.
The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, is a fantasy about heaven and hell. A horrific discovery is made as the story unfolds. In hell a flourishing church is discovered. In that church there are a lot of activities and much noise as the congregation does this, that, and the other, just like a spiritually robust church. It offers the latest programing and has a dynamic organization. The church, however, is not God’s church. It is a spiritually dead church. The programs, as well as the personalities that lead them, are great, but it is a spiritually dead church. I don’t know about you, but the image of that church frightens me.
Mental health workers tell us there are signs people often exhibit before they commit suicide, before they take their own lives. Among those warning signs which say, “Help! I’m headed for self destruction,” are words and actions that communicate depression (“Someone has painted my whole world black and I can’t get it unpainted.”), isolation (“Leave me alone!”), and despondency (“It doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing matters anymore. Nothing will ever change.”). Likewise, a congregation headed toward suicide also exhibits warning signs which are cries for help. Among the most telling signs which reveal that a church is headed toward spiritual suicide are these:
The church does not remember whose it is. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the church belongs to God and He has made Christ the head (Ephesians 1:22). Jesus Christ is in charge of the church. Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Jesus Christ is in control of the church. Not the preacher, not the deacons or elders, not the Sunday School teachers, not the mission leaders, not the choir, but Jesus, He is in charge of the church!
Shortly after seminary I pastored a delightful and growing congregation in a small town. A story about a visitor to town was told as truth. Supposedly, a fellow was there over a weekend for business. Saturday afternoon he inquired of the local pharmacist where the Church of God was located because that was his denominational background and he wanted to worship with that congregation on Sunday morning. The pharmacist thought for a moment, scratched his chin, shook his head and said, “Let’s see. The church over on Main is Mr. Story’s church. And the one across from the school is Mr. Johnson’s church. And the church just east of town is Mr. Allen’s church. You know,” said the pharmacist, “come to think of it, I don’t think God has a church in this town.” Ouch!
Mark this too, a spiritually alive church, one where Jesus is the head, is powered by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, a church moving toward spiritual suicide is powered by people. They may be good, talented, personable, persuasive, well-meaning people, but they are people nevertheless.
The church does not recognize why it is. A church headed toward spiritual suicide is one that has no compelling vision from God. It has no unifying purpose. The people no longer know what God’s will is for their lives together. There may be plenty of activities, programs, and opportunities. There may be a lot of preaching, singing, and meetings, but there is no common understanding of God’s purpose.
Where there is no unifying vision or purpose, a church will become almost schizophrenic. It will have a divided spirit and will be divided in its activity. It will be pulled in this direction and pushed in that direction. Where God’s vision no longer binds the congregation’s spirit as one and is not the focus of it’s thoughts, prayers, and resources, either the strongest personality or the most enticing program will fill the void.
The church does not recall what it is. Several images come to mind when thinking about the church and what it is to be. One of those images is the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). As the Church, we are our Lord’s body. We are His eyes, hands, mouth, and feet. On His behalf, we are to say what He would say, go where He would go, and do what He would do. On the other hand, if we do not say what He would have us say, it will go unsaid. If we do not go where He would have us go, His presence will not be known. If we do not do what He would do, His love and compassion will not be experienced.
A second image that comes to mind is the church as the “Family of God.” As family, we are related. In a congregation, we are brothers and sisters. We are family because each is a child of the Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ. We are related to Him and therefore to each other.
In any family, every person is important. At various times we have had different ideas, needs, desires, expectations, and priorities. At times we have not understood, or even wanted to understand, each other. We have had our differences. But when supper time comes, there is always a place at the table for everyone. Why? Because we’re family. That is also true of my church family. God does not expect or even want all of us to be just alike. But He does expect us to remember that we’re family and there is a place for all of us.
There is a third image that comes to mind. Some scholars have described the Church as a “Colony of Heaven.” As Rome expanded across the ancient world, she planted colonies wherever she went. Those colonies represented occupation and control. Rome was in charge there. In fact, Rome transported her culture, laws, worship, architecture, values, priorities, and processes to those colonies. Rome intentionally made her colonies look, feel, and behave as much like the mother city as possible. If anyone ever wanted to know what life was like in Rome, all they had to do was visit a Roman colony. Likewise, the Church is a colony of heaven. God’s Church on earth is to be like God’s Church in heaven. Jesus even prayed that it would be so (Matthew 6:10). Let me put it another way. If anyone would like to see what heaven is going to be like, all they should have to do is go to church. With so many churches as there are, that ought to be a disturbing thought. That reality should shake the Church into recognizing how far it really is from God’s intent.
The church does not recollect where it is. How could it be that a church would not know where it is? Every church is somewhere. Every church surely knows where it is. Really? My church is located in a particular city, occupies a specific place, and is there because God put it there. My church is where it is on purpose. It is not there by accident or coincidence. It is not there just because someone thought it would be a good idea to have a church in that place. God intended for my church to be where it is. And when He created my church, He did so with the intent that it would make a difference in the lives of people in that area.
A church moving toward spiritual suicide has forgotten that God has placed it where she is to make a difference in the lives of people in that particular area. A spiritually suicidal congregation may have great preaching, fantastic programs, and inspiring prayers. But the preaching, programs, and prayers all focus on the needs and desires of the members. Little is done to make a difference in the lives of people who are not church members and who are not part of God’s family. Check a church’s calendar of activities. How much is done to reach people for faith in Christ and how much is done for the sole benefit of church members? Check the budget. How many dollars are directed toward introducing people to Jesus Christ and how many dollars are directed toward taking care of the saints?
Prevention is easier than intervention, of course. If a congregation will choose a spiritually healthy life-style of yielding to the Lordship of Christ, being obedient to the will of God, living out its purpose for existence, and giving itself to connecting lost people to eternity through Jesus, it will avoid the tragedy of spiritual suicide.

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