by Dr. Todd Hudnall
The majority of American churches are stalled or in decline. In his new book, Church Come Forth: A Biblical Cry For Transformational Turnaround, Todd Hudnall provides a strategic model for renewing and revitalizing plateaued and dying churches into prevailing and growing congregations. Hudnall combines Biblical insights, church revitalization research and his experience as a turnaround pastor to provide a guidebook for transformation. It is God’s desire to renew His church, and turnaround church leaders will find this plan a Godsend in effectively revitalizing their congregations. You can learn more at toddhudnall.com. Below is an edited excerpt from the book.
The Book of Acts records the Apostle Paul’s ministry in the region of Ephesus. In a metropolitan city, which was a center for occult activity, a powerful awakening was birthed. From Paul’s ministry training center, at the school of Tyrannus, church planters were sent out to start churches throughout Asia Minor (Acts 19:9-10). These new churches were formed from the sparks of the fiery revival burning in Ephesus. They must have been churches ablaze for God with the fire of the Spirit igniting their growing faith communities. Forty years later in Revelation chapters two and three, the resurrected and exalted Lord Jesus Christ, through the Apostle John, writes to seven of these churches. For pastors of stalled and declining churches they serve as instructions from Jesus Christ, the ultimate church consultant. In them are found various symptoms of churches in need of revitalization and instructions on how declining churches can be revived. All seven are examined in Church, Come Forth. One of them is the Church of Pergamum.
Pergamum was a center for worship of four of the main deities of the Greco-Roman world. People from all over that part of the world came to worship these gods in Pergamum. Far worse for the church was that the city was Asia Minor’s official center for emperor worship. In 29 B.C. a temple was erected to honor the divine Caesar Augustus and the goddess of Rome. The power and might of the empire was worshiped. The Roman proconsul was granted “the right of the sword” and the authority of the Empire to execute at will. To the oppressed and persecuted church the Lord Jesus declares it is He who has “the sharp, two-edged sword.” Jesus Christ is the ultimate ruler, judge and executioner in control of life and death.
“Today, many in the church believe it is possible to live compromising lives and still be committed followers of Christ. Yet, this is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.”
The church in Pergamum was facing persecution, and Jesus commended them for not denying their faith and encouraged them to remain faithful. Living in a pagan city that was the center of emperor worship would have been extraordinarily difficult for followers of Jesus, and the Lord acknowledges this. The Greek word for “dwell” means “to abide” or to be a “permanent resident.”1 Instead of fleeing this difficult city, they had decided to stay and make a difference. Some cities, churches and situations are more challenging than others. Leading a church through the transition required in revitalization can be extraordinarily difficult. Before accepting such a role, a leader should be certain of his calling and determine he will not leave the situation when it becomes hard, but will stay until he has accomplished his purpose in the transition.
Despite the church of Pergamum remaining faithful in the midst of intense opposition, Jesus rebukes it for its compromise. Within the church body there are members who are doing to the church what Balaam did to Israel (Num. 22-25). Balaam was essentially a prophet for hire who would pronounce curses and blessings for a price. The King of Moab paid Balaam to curse Israel, but each time he tried, God put blessings in his mouth instead. When his sorcery failed to work, he concocted a plan to defile rather than curse Israel. Balaam consulted with the Midianites to have their women seduce the Israelite men into worshiping their gods through sexual rituals and eating their sacred meals (Num. 25:1-3; 31:16). As Balaam seduced Israel to compromise with a pagan culture, so these within the church were seducing the believers in Pergamum to compromise with the world around them.2 They were being led into participating in sexual immorality at the pagan festivals and eating ritualistic meat at the pagan feasts.3 Instead of confronting and bringing discipline to those spreading error, the church toleratied their sin. 4
Today, many in the church believe it is possible to live compromising lives and still be committed followers of Christ. Yet, this is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. There is a system of thinking and living that opposed to God and the Bible. It is identified as “the world.” The book of Revelation tells of people taking the mark of the beast on their hands and their foreheads (Rev. 14:9). The deceived are accepting the beast’s way of thinking (their foreheads) and following what he does (their hands). In contrast, the redeemed are those with the Father’s name on their foreheads, who follow the Lamb where He goes (Rev. 14:1-4). Worldliness is following the current of the world in one’s thoughts and actions, rather than following the way of Christ. Jesus told his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:19).” In James 4:4, the apostle James warns, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” By God’s grace, those who reject the world live lives of purity. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul explains, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Worldliness is seen as being more concerned about the things of the present world than about those things that are eternal.5 That is why in his first epistle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:15).” In Romans 12:2 Paul exhorts the believers, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Some in the church of Pergamum have failed to renew their minds and they have drifted into worldly compromise.
“This is extremely strong language. Jesus is requiring the church to repent or to face judgment…”
Part of the compromise of the church of Pergamum was that some in the church had embraced the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. While the church in Ephesus hated their teaching and confronted them, the church of Pergamum did not (Rev. 2:6). Jesus correlated the Nicolaitans to those who followed Balaam. They perverted the teaching of God’s grace and, in an attempt to accommodate the pagan society, participated in cultic orgies, immorality and idolatry.6 Apparently some had seduced others in the church to become a part of it. Though the majority of the church did not join in the sin of the Nicolaitan group, they tolerated it. Their refusal to confront and exercise church discipline brought the Lord’s condemnation.7
This is extremely strong language. Jesus is requiring the church to repent or to face judgment. The sin of the church of Pergamum was that of being too tolerant. To twenty-first century Americans, Jesus’ words are shocking. In America, many consider tolerance the highest and most desirable virtue. The Bible also teaches tolerance, as the Scripture instructs the believer to “bear with one another in love” (Rom. 15:1, 1 Cor. 13:7). Yet the modern understanding of tolerance has come to mean all truth claims and all lifestyles are equal. This is a value the church must reject. Jesus claims He is the truth (John 14:6). Against all other views, opinions and ideas, followers of Christ must stand for the truth as it is found in Jesus (Eph. 4:21). The Scripture has been entrusted to the church as the only source of absolute truth (Ps. 119:160, John 17:17). Paul calls the church “the pillar and the ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).” The church is called to love those who disagree with its doctrine, but believers are not allowed to accept into the fellowship teachings and practices that are contrary to the clear, absolute truth of the Bible. According to Jesus, to tolerate heretical doctrine is to incur the wrath of divine judgment (Rev. 2:16). In the case of the church in Pergamum, they tolerated compromise with the pagan world around them. There is a temptation to go along with the world in order to be accepted or to enjoy their fleeting pleasures. Being permissive with certain culturally acceptable sins and choosing not to stand for truth when it is unpopular may allow a church to avoid criticism and appeal to the world, but it is not the way to build a prevailing church. To be the church Jesus desires, His followers must refuse to surrender to this temptation. Instead, the church has to be united to go against the current of the culture and stand for purity and truth. The church of Pergamum had allowed compromise. The believers had to change their minds about their behavior and repent (Rev. 2:16). A large number of churches and entire church movements have gone the way of Pergamum. In an article in the religious journal First Things, Johnson, Hoge and Luidens contend that mainline denominations have difficulty obtaining high levels of commitment and are in decline due to a lack of fidelity to orthodox Christian tenets.8 This only confirms the lesson for church revitalization from the church in Pergamum. To see spiritual renewal and revitalization, Jesus required them to repent of their worldly compromise and turn back to Him.
In the church I currently pastor, I inherited a leadership faction within it that was compromising both biblical truth and godly standards. These leaders were going about it subtly and attempted to defend the reason for their unorthodox stances. Nominal Christianity was viewed as acceptable and truth was colored in shades of gray relativism. The small but steady infiltration of this error and compromise into the body was affecting the church’s spiritual vitality. Rather than allowing the group to expand its influence, Biblical standards were enforced and maintained. Eventually, it became uncomfortable for the nominal and compromising to continue in leadership, and they chose to leave the church. When those promoting the compromising positions left, people who were drawn to their message also departed with them. In situations like this, there is a tendency for pastors in transition to fear the loss of members. Yet, by standing strong on Biblical convictions, it results in greater long-term health, strength and unity in the body.
The first church Jesus addressed in Revelations 2 and 3 was the church of Ephesus. Unlike its daughter church in Pergamum, it remained vigilant against compromise, but had become judgmental and unloving. While the church in Pergamum was an accepting church, it had become undiscerning and tolerant of evil. It is easy to yield to the extremes of Ephesus or Pergamum, but Jesus is calling His church to maintain a beautiful tension.9 Followers of Jesus are to have loving spirits of generosity that withstand compromising to the spirit of the age. Jesus Christ demonstrated this perfectly. He was loving but confrontational, accepting but uncompromising. Jesus is calling on His church to do the same.
Dr. Todd Hudnall has extensively researched the subject of church revitalization and organizational change. He has been a church planter and led two churches in dramatic transformational turnarounds. One of those churches was twice listed among the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in the nation. Hudnall has taught on church health at conferences throughout the United States and internationally. Having written two books on church health, his most recent is Church, Come Forth: A Biblical Plan for Transformational Turnaound. Hudnall is the husband of Kelly, who serves with him in ministry. The Hudnalls and their two children live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The majority of American churches are stalled or in decline. Church Come Forth is a strategic model for renewing and revitalizing plateaued and dying churches into prevailing and growing congregations. Todd Hudnall combines Biblical insights, church revitalization research and his experience as a turnaround pastor to provide a guidebook for transformation. It is God’s desire to renew His church and most church leaders will find this plan a Godsend in effectively revitalizing their congregations.
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