The Peril of Lukewarm Christianity
Dr. Jim Denison
Jim Cymbala is pastor of the world-famous Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. But 30 years ago, it wasn’t that way at all: a handful of people at the weekday prayer meeting, and not many more at Sunday worship. Their building was falling apart, their future with it. In desperation, he and the church began calling on God, seeking the fullness of his Spirit and power and joy. And God has done a miraculous work with them. I have been part of their Tuesday night prayer service, attended by more than 2,000. God is very, very real in their lives and worship.
I was pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta when I met Jim the first time in his study. Second-Ponce is one of the wealthiest churches in the South. By contrast, I found myself on a campus with security cameras everywhere and two full-time bodyguards. I was taken aback by the poverty and difficulty faced by most of the church’s members. I asked Jim how they were able to do church in such a difficult place.
He smiled and replied, “I don’t see how you are able to do church in such a difficult place. Here, we know we need God. How many of your members can say the same?”
If this were all there is–if your faith story were to conclude today–would you be pleased with what you have experienced of God?
Have you discovered his joy and peace? Have you been used by his Spirit to save souls and change lives? Has your life become all your Father dreamed it would be?
Or, has it been a while since you even thought about such questions? Or since you wished for more in your experience with God than you have? Or since you wanted to be more effective and significant in his Kingdom than you are? Or since God was real for you?
Let’s see if we’re living in Laodicea today, by asking three questions of our souls.
Living in Laodicea
First, is your faith routine?. “I know your deeds,” Jesus says, “that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (v. 15). Laodicea was founded in the mid-third century B.C. by Antiochus II, who named the city after his wife. Its location, 43 miles southeast of Philadelphia, had every natural resource at its disposal except water. Water had to be transported through stone pipes which were three feet in diameter. This aqueduct system was an engineering marvel, but the water it supplied was adequate at best.
Pipes were laid to two sources, each six miles from Laodicea. One was located at Denizli, to the south. This water was fed by snows from the mountains, and started the journey to Laodicea at near freezing temperature. But by the time it had traveled six miles through sun-warmed stone pipes it became lukewarm.
The other source was the hot springs at Hierapolis to the north. These are still stunningly beautiful and a major tourist attraction. The springs rise from within the city, flow across a wide plateau, and spill over a broad cliff 300 feet high and a mile wide. At its source, this spring is at near boiling temperature, with steam rising from its surface. It felt like a sauna to my touch. But by the time it traveled through six miles of pipes it, too, had become lukewarm.
And so Laodicea knew all about lukewarm water. Unfortunately, lukewarm described not only the city’s water but her Christians as well. Their faith had become routine, comfortable, and boring. The new had worn off their Christianity in the forty years since their church had been founded, and their relationship with Jesus had become a religion about him. They came to worship, listened and gave and sang, but faith was just a part of their lives. They had lost their joy, zeal, and passion. Their hearts were as lukewarm as the water they drank.
The Laodicean Christians remind me of the boy who said to his sister in church, “This is boring!” She elbowed him in the ribs and said, “Shut up. It’s supposed to be boring!” If you wander away from the source of your faith, your faith will become as lukewarm, boring, and routine as Laodicea.
How long has it been since you were excited about coming to church to worship Jesus Christ? When was the last time you were overjoyed to read God’s word, or thrilled to be with him in prayer? Do you share your faith with zeal? Do you give your money to God gratefully? Or is your faith boring and routine?
Second, are you self-sufficient?. Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities on her continent. She sat astride the intersection of the two great trade routes of the day, one traveling north to south and the other running from west to east. She was also the site of large manufacturing and banking operations, and was especially known for her woolen carpets and clothing.
And so Jesus quotes this church: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing'” (v. 17a). They thought their future secure, their resources sufficient for any crisis. But self-reliant people are always wrong. We all need the protection and power only Jesus can give.
Today beautiful Laodicea lies in ruins, mostly unexcavated. Where this proud city once ruled its valley, it now lies buried beneath a dirt mound. These Christians and their city were self-sufficient, until they were gone.
It’s possible to live in a spiritual Laodicea and not even realize it. To become self-reliant, trusting in our own ideas and abilities. To make decisions, build careers and achieve success, all with little dependence on Jesus’ leadership and help. All the while assuming that our hard work must be pleasing to him.
We so easily make Jesus part of life instead of Lord. Prayer becomes an activity rather than a relationship, the Bible a book rather than a guide, church a building rather than a family, our faith in Jesus an occasional resource rather than a constant commitment. We become human doings rather than human beings.