I wrote earlier in the week about the need for ministers to discover their own identities. The same principle holds true for churches. In fact, both ministers and their churches walk down the path of self-discovery together.
In the opening chapters of Revelation, the exalted Jesus speaks to individual congregations in a way that resonates with the preacher’s journey toward his personal identity. He does so in a series of letters dictated through the Apostle John to seven distinct congregations. While the seven are obviously connected through their common relationship with the Lord, it’s their differences that so clearly emerge through the course of the correspondence. Each one is unique because of the peculiar mixture of surrounding community, corporate personality, leadership, community challenges, congregational giftedness and corporate successes and failures.
The congregation in Ephesus is rebuked because their love for Christ wasn’t what it once was. But they’re also commended for opposing evil. Jesus warns the congregation at Thyatira against a false prophetess named Jezebel. The church at Pergamum, on the other hand, is given notice regarding the threat posed by the teacher Balaam. The city of Pergamum is also singled out as a place “where Satan lives,” a chilling detail revealing the high degree of opposition the church there must have faced.
The church at Smyrna—the only one of the seven not chastised—confronts an especially painful future including martyrdom for many of its people. The congregation is further noted for its poverty, setting it apart from the wealthy Ephesian church. In Sardis there’s need for revival: “Wake up!” is the specific instruction. In the next breath, though, the Lord acknowledges the church’s mature leadership. How two features so clearly contradictory can be present in the same congregation at the same time isn’t specified. Mark it down to the uniqueness of the church there.
The believers in Laodicea receive the harshest words of all. “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” Jesus says to them. Yet in the next breath he assures them of his love.
Each one of the seven churches possessed unique characteristics, and Jesus’ directions to them were custom-made. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all perspective. No copy cat pattern. All seven were bound together, of course, by their shared belief in the crucified and risen Savior and their common challenge to remain faithful to him. The path each congregation had to follow in living out their faith, though, was distinct.
Preachers and their churches are engaged in the same task. Both are trying to find their unique identity and discover their particular voice. When the one succeeds, so will the other. On the other hand, when one fails in the search, the other usually fails, too.
Preachers and churches dance together—whether we realize it or not. If the dance gets out of rhythm or one partner forgets the steps or the Spirit’s music is no longer heard, both partners stumble and lose their place. But when the dance flows as it should it’s an intricate and choreographed movement reflecting a beauty greater than either partner has on their own. The partners mirror one another in their movements and at the same time express their unique personalities. In that case, the dance is mysterious, elegant and fulfilling, and in it we preachers find our voices even as our churches find theirs.