There are zombie churches among us. The undead church. Where undead persons feast. Where genuine life has been lost, and in its place is something . . . scary. Lifeless.
In some churches, the loss of life is obvious; in others it is more subtle. Have you ever walked into a church where everything appeared normal? Everyone was smiling and seemed so happy because, after all, smiling at church is what Christians are supposed to do. Everyone was personable, but no one was really personal. It might even have seemed like everyone’s friendliness kept you at arm’s length. How many people greeted you at church but never really took the time to get to know you? Have you ever gone to a church service where nothing seemed wrong per se but you just felt like something was missing?
Some of us have not only wandered into these churches, but we have sung in their worship, listened to their sermons, and returned week after week. Some of us have become part of these churches. Some of us have lived our whole lives in a zombie church.
Why Talk About Zombies?
I confess: I have a taste for cheesy horror films. These are movies that lack the skill or budget to actually be scary, and despite their great efforts end up as more of a comedy with monsters than anything else. Bad acting, bad dialogue, typically a bad story, and bad costume design can make for a good laugh. My favorites of these films are zombie movies. Zombies are neither dead nor alive; they are beings trapped in a mindless existence.
Yes, there are zombies in our churches. Not only that, but this seems to be a growing trend. The doors are open, the people show up faithfully, the songs are sung. But that’s it. So many American churches today are filled with people whose spiritual lives consist of little more than showing up to church on Sunday morning and, for the “super spiritual,” maybe once in the middle of the week. We have become experts in going through the motions, but these motions are all we go through. I can’t help but wonder if God didn’t have something more in mind for His church. It seems that something is missing.
In looking at the church in North America today and comparing it to the church in Acts 2 and 4, I can’t help but think that we have lost the basic foundation of what it means to be the church. I have heard horror stories (no pun intended) of churches splitting because two families couldn’t get along or factions didn’t agree on a method of evangelism. Shouldn’t we have more important things to worry about? When our mission as the body of Christ can be overshadowed by something like building decorations, we have gotten onto the wrong path.
Zombie churches might not look any different from healthy churches, but they are missing an essential ingredient: life.
Living churches exist. You can walk in the doors of a living church and feel overwhelmed with the presence of the Spirit of God. But not all churches are alive. Life is found in what a church does with Jesus and how they go about following Him in their community. When the church neglects the commission of Jesus—stops ministering to the poor and the hurting and stops sharing the love of God with others—then it stops living. It just exists and keeps on existing. Undead. How can a church offer the eternal life of God if it does not have life in its midst?
You’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat!” Life or death is a result of what we feed on. Living Christians feed on the life that Jesus offers while zombies feed on rules and rituals. If you are feeding on Jesus, then naturally you are becoming more like him. If you are feeding on traditions or laws or denominational differences, then what you are eating doesn’t sustain life.
Dead Churches Faking Life
The church is supposed to offer the source of eternal life, Jesus. Some do exactly that. Sadly, others do not. Even in places where the lawn is mowed, the music plays, and meetings are scheduled, life can be absent. Just because things are moving does not mean there is true life. Some churches have hollow motions. Healing is not administered, joy is not experienced, minds are not edified, and people are not changed. One of the best tests to see if a church is truly alive is to ask the question, if the church closed its doors would anyone outside of it even notice?
While in Bible college, I went to a church in Arkansas where my friend Eric was preaching. This church had nine members. It did not have nine members because it was a vibrant group of believers launching into a new region, hoping to set their town on fire with the love of God. No. It had once housed sleeping infants, restless toddlers and children, adults of every size and shape. It had once been a church with life and love and energy—until . . . The facts of the “until” I do not know. Perhaps the town’s economy changed and people moved away. Perhaps the church itself changed, split, or atrophied. For whatever reason, the church had not prospered.
At the time of my visit, not one of the nine survivors was under the age of fifty-five. Several of them had been born and raised in this very church. And they intended to die there.
They hired a Sunday-only preacher to bring a sermon and give an invitation. After a month of this, Eric asked them if he could come down on a Saturday and have a fellowship picnic with them at a park. They said no.
After his first few months, Eric asked them if it would be OK if he didn’t do the invitation every week—because, well, no one new showed up.
The man who was basically in charge of the church told Eric, “I don’t know that I am comfortable coming to church without an invitation.” Eric wanted to ask, “An invitation to what? Everyone in this church has been a Christian for two or three times the amount of my life.”
One week, a young woman showed up. No one said hello. No one walked over to introduce themselves. During the greeting time, the nine faithful members all warmly embraced each other without so much as a smile or nod to their guest. In fact, throughout the service the members stared at her like she was a monster.
This lady could have been walking into a church for the first time in her life. When people go to a new church, they are usually looking for something. What if this woman had shown up that day because she was looking for Jesus? The best impression of Jesus she received is that Jesus is cold, impersonal, and only cares about His own. And that’s because, as you know, people see Jesus by looking at those who follow Him. So when the church fails to show the love and hospitality of Jesus, how can the world see it? Jesus tells us to go to the world, and yet sometimes God is gracious enough to bring the world to us. We cannot afford to miss opportunities like that.
This church was missing something. The doors were open; the services were held. But this church was dead. The Nine Survivors went to church because it is what they had done their entire lives. For them, church wasn’t about a relationship with Christ. Church was what you do on Sunday morning. We could learn from their faithfulness and dedication in staying with a church for so long, but this church was missing something no church should ever go without.
Restoring Life to the Undead Church
A zombie church is a church that goes through the motions. But it has been a long time since they really lived their lives for Him. Zombie churches may do the right things, but they do them for the wrong reasons. Our “heart” is reflected not just in what we do but by the motivation and determination with which we do it. It is possible for us to look good by following all the proper religious protocol while holding on to wickedness and sin.
In reading through the Gospels, I’ve noticed how frustrating the Pharisees and Sadducees are to Jesus. In John 4 we see Jesus interacting with the Samaritan woman, a woman who has lived a sinful life. Jesus treats her with kindness and love despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to get who He is. Yet when He encounters the religious leaders who use their “connection to God” for personal gain and come to Jesus in efforts to trap Him, Jesus often rebukes them. Unlike man, Jesus looks to the condition of the heart. To those who come honestly seeking Him, Jesus is gentle and patient, even when they make mistakes. Peter’s life is an example of just how much patience Jesus has with those who honestly seek Him. Yet in Luke 11 we see Him criticizing the religious leaders again and again. Jesus knew their motives. While the disciples wanted to learn, the religious leaders wanted to trap Him. In the church, we are not just supposed to do the right things; we need to do the right things for the right reasons.
What the church needs above anything else is a genuine connection to the giver of life, the life the Holy Spirit brings to all who genuinely seek to dwell in the presence of God. Do we mold and shape God to be like us, to give us what we want, and to be on “our team”? Do we like the idea of a god, a god of our own fabrication, a god controlled by rules and traditions? When we read God’s Word, do we read our own wants and desires into Scripture, molding it to fit with our lives, or do we mold our lives to fit with Scripture? Life comes when we stop trying to make Jesus like us and we start trying to make ourselves like Jesus, when we lay down our wants and desires and seek to conform everything we are and have to be like Him.
Excerpted from Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back into the Body of Christ (Kregel, 2011), by Tyler Edwards. Used by permission. Download Chapter 1 for free below!