Hero Image

Three Symptoms of a Dying Church

How to Diagnose Your Own Local Body

“I knew the patient before she died. It was ten years ago. She was very sick at the time, but she did not want to admit it. . . . She never got better. She slowly and painfully deteriorated. And then she died. . . . She, of course, is a church.”

So writes Thom Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Church (3–4). One of the defining marks of a dying church is that the people in it don’t realize it’s dying. They don’t know they’re on a one-way journey to the ecclesiastical morgue. There is enough about the church that makes it seem alive and worth showing up to each week, but the symptoms of death pervade.

While the heart of a church is still beating, how can we take its temperature to check if it’s thriving or slowly preparing to gasp its last breaths?

Help from a Doctor

I believe the letter of James is here to help us, whatever kind of church fellowship we’re in. If all is well, it can warn us that all can be lost if we think we are beyond failure. If all is broken, it can comfort and care for us if we think our collection of bruised and bewildered believers is beyond the pale.

“One of the defining marks of a dying church is that the people in it don’t realize it’s dying.”

The reason James can help us so profoundly is that he sees both symptoms and the underlying cause. He is like the physician we visit, convinced our cough is just a cough, only to have him listen carefully to our breathing and then diagnose a much deeper malaise. James goes deep, to the ultimate source of all our problems. He has a sharp scalpel, but he wields it with a gracious, loving hand, because he knows exactly what medicine to prescribe.

He gives us the symptoms, the disease, and the medicine for a dying church.

Three Symptoms of a Dying Church

James lays out three symptoms for us to help us self-diagnose our health: the words we speak, the lines we draw, and ignoring good works.

1. Churches begin speaking angry words.

We get the first hint of this in James 1:19, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The issue surfaces again in James 1:26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” By chapter 3, James is giving us a full frontal assault on the damage we can do with our tongues: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

James tells us “these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10), but he is having to write precisely because these things can be so. We all know what this is like. In my home, it’s usually Thursdays. I don’t know what it is about this day of the week in particular, but it can be the day when our tongues do their worst. Fuses shorten, tempers fray, words sharpen. Out they come, sibling to sibling, husband to wife, parent to child — and a room is on fire! People get burnt.

And uncontrolled tongues are just a symptom, not the disease.

2. Churches begin drawing ugly lines.

In chapter 2, we discover this church loves partiality. It has favorites. The rich over the poor, the haves over the have-nots. It is honoring certain types of people and dishonoring others. There is an in-crowd in this church and an out-crowd; there is an attraction to the people with means, wealth, and status.

“We are divided on the inside and that is what leads us to cause divisions on the outside.”

Such socioeconomic dividing lines might exist in your church. But even if these particular lines aren’t present, we draw lines in plenty of other ways. It’s what makes us feel safe in physical spaces and social groups, and what causes us to bond with some and ignore others. We draw lines between men and women, students and old people, married and single, employed and unemployed, and no doubt a myriad of other ways too.

We gravitate towards those who can help us and give to us much more than those who have nothing to offer us. It’s why we are so unlike God when we draw lines. God loves the defenseless, the poor and the weak, the people with nothing to contribute, and it’s why religion that is pure before him visits orphans and widows — it cares for the unrewarding of this world (James 1:27).

3. Churches begin ignoring good works.

The letter of James is so challenging because it is written to a church that has faith. It is a church that loves the gospel. The theology is orthodox and all the boxes are ticked. This is a church that loves preaching. They love hearing a sermon. They love the Bible.

But although they love hearing the Bible, they don’t do what it says, and so James blindsides us: no good works, no action, means, in fact, no living faith. You might look like you’re alive. But you’re dead. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).

Bad words, partial lines, no good deeds. If we went to see the doctor with those symptoms and he said to us, “Okay, go away and speak good words, don’t draw lines, and do good deeds,” would that help us? Is that the cure?

Where These Sins Come From

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5–8)

Lodged in these verses is a term which describes part of the human makeup, a medical term if you like. It’s the word double-minded — literally, the word is “two-souled.” This teaches that it is possible to have a “two-ness” to me, a two-ness corrupting my one-ness.

We know that living with two of you can land you on the psychiatrist’s couch, as she listens to you describe yourself and eventually you are given the diagnosis of split-personality. James is saying our deepest problem, the well from which all the symptoms flow, is spiritual split-personality: we are divided on the inside and that is what leads us to cause divisions on the outside. A divided heart leads to divided actions.

Living as Two

Just look at how double-ness inside us takes shape outside us:

  • “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). We can be divided between hearing and doing. We love hearing, but we don’t find it so easy to do. We split them off one from the other. We like being in church and we loved the sermon, but by Tuesday we’re struggling (again) to do what God told us to do. Why is that?

  • “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). James is probing here a very profound reason why we honor the rich over the poor. It’s because one part of us loves the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and another part of us loves the glory of wealth, riches, and prestige. James is calling his readers to not be divided in our glory gaze.

  • “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16). We divide faith and good works, thinking we can separate them and safely have one without the presence of the other. Why is that?

  • “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:10). Notice the dividing line splits our mouth. Our speech is not united. It is double in form and content.

When the World Is in the Church

We can see that this letter is all about the problem of double-ness where God intends there to be one-ness. Its main thesis is that there is no point ever trying to fix the tongue, or change the lines we draw, without changing the heart, the source of it all. We will never change how we relate to a poor person and a rich person in the same room unless we realize the real issue is not money but the evil inside: “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4).

“The quarreling, the unbridled tongue, the discrimination in our midst reveal that we’re happy to cheat on God.”

Evil thoughts and selfish desires are our real problem, the kind which are willing even to ignore the damage some people are doing to the whole body if I can stand to benefit from them personally. James does more than give us a sterile medical term for our problem. He calls it adultery. Adultery is the ultimate form of double-ness, a twisted two-ness where there is meant to be beautiful one-ness: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4).

Imagine a young couple just back from their honeymoon. They are starting out their life together, a new adventure, and in their new flat the doorbell rings. They open it to find an old flame of the husband from years ago: “Hi, I thought I’d come and live with you for a few years!” Before the bride can express her astonishment, the young husband bounds along, gives the woman at the door a hug, and exclaims, “This is going to be so much fun! One big happy family!”

Why is the bride weeping? It’s because of jealousy. Righteous jealousy. It’s because of real love, true love. “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?” (James 4:5). Can we hear what God is saying? You like someone else in bed. You like being married to the world as well. The world likes the rich over the poor. The world quarrels and fights and murders and has bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. And when you live like that, it shows you are double in your loves.

What Do You Really Believe?

Here is where I find the message of James so penetrating. He is saying to us: the quarreling, the unbridled tongue, the discrimination in our midst — and there are many other symptoms of sickness in this letter — reveal that we’re happy to cheat on God. “Yes Lord, I’m all for you” — then out comes the words, the actions, the decisions that show I am also all for me.

This is a most painful letter. As my friend Andy Gemmill has put it, James is the kind of physician who can look at our speech and our living and the way we relate to each other, and he can read through those actions what we really believe about God.

“The medicine for this disease is repentance: regular, daily, heartfelt repentance.”

Just like a doctor can look at the rash, the cough, then listen to the erratic breathing, and say, “I’m afraid there’s actually a very big problem here,” so James is saying, “Give me a few months among you as a church family. Let me observe you and listen to you. Let me watch the air you breathe. And I will tell you who you love.” James says, “Let me just watch how you treat your friends, and speak to your church family and your children, and I will tell you where your heart is and who you love. Let me watch you welcome the outsider, and I will tell you what you believe about God.”

If those are the symptoms, and they point to a deadly disease, then what help can there be for us?

Grace, the Heavenly Remedy

Do you know what actually kills this church? Do you know how they actually die? They die by saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

If you want to kill the gospel in your home, with your kids, in your marriage, you kill it by saying, “Oh well, that’s just Thursdays. We’re all a bit tired. That’s just the way it goes, I suppose.” The person whose manner is brusque and whose tongue is like a knife needs to change. We should never, as gospel people, say, “That’s just the way it is.” No, the point of all of this is that James is saying the symptoms are a sign that something is terribly wrong. The tongue can do immense damage. The lack of good works can show your faith to be dead. So, what do we do with the double-mind, the divided heart, the fractured self?

The answer is here: there is medicine we can take called God’s grace. “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6). The medicine for this disease is repentance: regular, daily, heartfelt repentance. The medicine is learning a new language. We stop saying, “It’s just Thursdays,” and we start saying, “It’s just sin.”

Isn’t that what James is doing here? “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). James speaks plainly. He doesn’t use all the tidy euphemisms we use to justify ourselves. It’s sin. That’s why we honor the rich over the poor; that’s why we speak the way we do; that’s why we can ask others how they are with no intention of meeting the needs they go on to tell us about.

Healing for Fractured Hearts

James teaches us in this letter to learn to dig deeper with God. The words you’re speaking, the way you’re relating, learn to ask, What’s going on in the heart? If the language of sin and grace and forgiveness is not the regular currency of your dinner table and your pillow talk at night and your coffee time, if there are brothers and sisters in your church who have wronged you or you have wronged and you are not keeping short accounts with each other, let James help you. It’s certainly a letter to help me, and I pray it helps you too.

“Churches die by saying ‘that’s just the way it is.’”

You heal the divided heart with the gospel. With grace. When was the last time you asked someone to forgive you? When was the last time you repented out loud to God for your specific thoughts, spoken words, or named actions? That’s how we measure if we’re taking the medicine. You can start now, here, at your computer screen, with these words in front of you. God is so tender with us, so merciful, so patient.

Think how jilted lovers act. When someone discovers adultery, what happens? There’s always anger, and then there’s the cold shoulder and the exclusion, and the days of welcome and warmth are over. But what does God do? “You adulterous people . . . draw near to God!” (James 4:4, 8). The grace of God is sweet, sweet medicine. It can make the wounded whole and begin to heal the divided heart.

It can take a dying church and make it live again.