Most Christians do not pull open the heavy oak door of the old church building on main street expecting to find twisting slides adorned with colorful Disney characters, hung over fraternity boys lounging on frayed occasional chairs, or high end apartment decorated with stainless steal appliances. Yet these scenes and countless others now fill the space once reserved for vibrant congregations. Introspection demands that Christians of every denominational tribe should ask, “Will we be next?” We will be the last generation that fills this space?
To answer this question, Christians must wrestle with another foundational question: Why do churches die? Why does God turn sacred spaces into places of secular profit?
The quick, Sunday school answer is “sin” Micah 1:5 declares that God sends the nation of Israel into exile because they have turned away from God.
All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel.
What Sin Kills Churches?
But what sin? What sin cause God to say, “Enough” as he rushes down from heaven to crush the rebellion of his people? It is the sin of idolatry.
Micah makes this clear in second ways. First, he talks about the how Jerusalem and Samaria have committed the same sin. Their mountains serve the same gods. This would have been a troubling association for the people of Judah. From its inception, Israel had practices idolatry. Jeroboam created a new religion based on the worship of golden cows to keep his subjects from returning to Jerusalem to observe the Passover feast at the temple. 2 Kings 2:28 reports, “So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” To be an Israelite at that time was to be an idolatry, a worshiper of false Gods. Though Judah has the temple, her people like the people of Israel us their high places to worship false gods. There is no distinction between the two nations. “Her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah (Micah 1:9).”
Secondly, Micah point-blank says in verse 7, “All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces.” They were idolaters.
Knowing God’s hatred of idolatry, the men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin removed many statues and stain glass windows from their churches. They understood that representations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints did not further worship because the minimized God. Calvin noted,
For surely there is nothing less fitting than to wish to reduce God, who is immeasurable and incomprehensible, to a five-foot measure.https://www.amazon.com/Calvin-Institutes-Christian-Religion-Set/dp/0664220282/ref=sr_1_4?crid=1UUL3T52IM3P3&dchild=1&keywords=institutes+of+christian+religion+john+calvin&qid=1594138180&sprefix=institues+of+CHristian+re%2Caps%2C142&sr=8-4
When men and women assume God resides in a crucifix, a portrait, or a statues they do disservice to the Christian faith. God is grander, holier, and far more glorious than anything humanity can image. When the create images of the one true God, they do not represent God but rather the person’s limited concept of God. To worship an religious icon is to be worship an idol.
Though protestants must be aware of idols and seek to avoid them, most will not be undone by idols that sit atop of buildings. They will be destroyed by the idols that reside in the basement of their hearts. In Ezekiel 14:3, the prophet proclaimed,
There men have taken idols into their hearts, and set a stumbling block of iniquity before their faces.
Most churches do not come to an end because they hang a picture of Jesus in the pastor’s office. They come to an end because their members allow idols dominate their hearts which control the desires and actions.
The Dangers of Heart Idols
Brad Bigney helpful defines an idol as, “anything or anyone that captures our hearts, affections, and mind more than God.” Luther concurs writing, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say that is really your God.” In short, we can worship a host of things ranging from sex to children to money, to vacations to suits at church to rap music. Anything we love so much that we get upset if we don’t have it and sin to attain it Is an idol.
How do we know if we are driven by idols instead of love?
We mistreat our families, our fellow Christians, and our neighbors. When people stop loving God, they stop loving people. Micah 3:3 describes the covetous people of Judah as follows:
You who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron.
When we slander people on Facebook to get our way at church, give the silent treatment to our kids to force them to do what we want, and consume our neighbor’s purity as we watch pornography videos, we reveal the presence of idols in our hearts. The church exists to deal with these and thousands of other idols through the preaching of the Word, counseling, and church discipline. But when the church stops battling these idols and allows them to fill its pews, it will die. God will tear down the congregation, allowing daycares to flourish where pulpits once stood.
Undoubtedly, most dying churches mistreat their members and their community as the gasp for survival. But ultimately, they do not die because they failed to hold Fall Festivals, embrace Facebook, or play the right music. They died because they stopped worshiping God, exchanging the God of heaven from the slimy gods of this world.
The Results of Idolatry
Such an exchange is always a bad exchange because the gods of this world possess no loyalty to you. Micah notes that the idols represent the futility of human life. He proclaims,
All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces, all her wages shall be burned with fire, and all her idols I will lay waste, for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return.
To secure the gold needed to make idols, the ancient cult temples facilitated prostitution. The Jews worship sex and tithed to that cause. Their coins were melted down into idols. But their idols failed to protect, sustain, and guide them. When the Jews were taken into captivity, the idols were transformed back into coins. The coins were then handed to soldiers who took them back to their own temples exchanging them for sexual services. The same circle of life encompasses the idols of our hearts. The ties and suits, the furniture, the books, the shoes, and the cars that we fought, bleed, and sacrificed for will one day desert us. Our kids will host a garage sale selling all our prized possessions for a fraction of their actually cost so that they get a few dollars and finally get that pair of shoes, the second dream home, or that vacation that they have always wanted. Idols do not save. They destroy.
Now we return to our question, “Will my church die?”
Do you have idols in your heart?