Do You Have a Zombie Church?

There are zombie churches among us. Undead churches where undead persons feast. Where genuine life has been lost, and in its place is something … scary. Lifeless.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, zombies are dead corpses that imitate life. They are infected, living dead, and they feed off the living. Zombies act like they are alive, but they are not. Zombie churches might not look any different from healthy churches, but they are missing one key ingredient: life.

Jesus is the source of life. When we get disconnected from Jesus and what he is doing in the world around us, we become disconnected from life. Just because a church loses its connection doesn’t mean it closes its doors.

Think of zombie churches as churches that have been infected. They are contagious. Instead of offering people a real, transforming relationship with the Creator of the universe, they offer hollow rituals and pointless routines. All the motions seem right, but something is missing.

Proving our Hypocrisy

I spoke to a lady once who came into church after an outreach event. We spoke for a few minutes, and she told me this was the first time she had stepped foot in a church in more than five years. She told me that the last time she went to church was on a Sunday morning. She had just moved to the area and was looking for a place to worship. She walked in the door, and she was wearing a skirt that went down about 4 inches below her knees and a T-shirt. Before she even crossed the foyer into the sanctuary, the pastor ran to her and said, “If you are going to dress like a whore, get out of my church.”

Not exactly a quality display of the love of Jesus. This lady and her entire family walked away from church and Jesus. Stories like this are too familiar, to the point where Christian writers are talking of the church like it’s time to abandon ship. The church is not perfect. Sometimes it’s not even close. But the church is the bride of Christ. That alone makes her worth fighting for. The church may have its problems, but she’s not beyond saving.

Addressing the Symptoms

I remember going to a church in Arkansas to preach with a friend of mine. The church was about 12 people, and each week they rang a church bell to invite people from town to service. When new people showed up, the church families would huddle together on the far side of the room as far from the visitors as possible. They knew that they should announce their service to the community but had forgotten why. They did not welcome people in search of God. They were not filled with God’s life. They just existed for the sake of existing.

Zombie churches are contagious. They have become infected with mindsets, traditions, rules and rituals that are not Jesus. When man-made stuff starts taking precedent over the kingdom of God, problems ensue. What typically ends up happening in the church is we start making things more about us than they should be. We take Jesus out of the center of our lives and we place ourselves there instead. When this happens individually, we call it selfishness. When it happens corporately, it becomes toxic. There are several symptoms that a living church (which is connected to the life and mission of Jesus) is becoming a zombie church.

These are symptoms you might expect to see in a church that is not completely focused on Jesus:

1. A dying church will have idols.

An idol is anything we treat as more important than God. Communion, baptism, service, prayer, worship … anything can be an idol. One thing you will certainly see in a church that has lost its connection to life is that something that appears good on the surface will have taken precedence over God.

2. A dying church guards its rules and rituals.

Traditions are not evil, but when tradition is simply for the sake of tradition, it is likely a result of the church’s attempt to compensate. When the relationship with God is gone, we often try to fill that void with religious practices to feel “connected to the divine.”

3. A dying church lacks intimacy among its members.

People in zombie churches are often friendly, but not a true community that offers a safe place for us to grow, learn, fall down, repent and support one another.

4. A dying church focuses inward.

Of course it is important to take care of the community within the church family. The purpose of Godly community is to support and encourage one another. The danger comes not when this happens, but when this is all that happens. The purpose of our encouragement and support is not so we will feel better about ourselves, but so we will be better able to go back out into the world and show people the love of Jesus.

5. A dying church will have an unhealthy devotion to doctrine.

Sound biblical teaching is one of the most important things a church can offer. When we say cruel or unkind things in the name of “preserving sound doctrine,” we may be defending Jesus, but we are not acting like him.

6. A dying church will focus more on human involvement than divine activity.

They will be works- or effort-based rather than grace-based. Our salvation is not about what we do, but what Jesus has done for us.

Bitterness, resentment, disunity, quarrelling, closed mindedness, and stagnation are major symptoms of a zombie church. These things indicate real danger to the community. So how can they be corrected?

Understanding the Cure

The question becomes: How do we treat this condition before it becomes fatal? It all comes down to Jesus. Biblical interpretations, religious denominations, traditions and the rules of man are all hollow. They pretend to have life but can’t really offer anything. Jesus gives life. He alone should be the focus of the church. When we make the church about anything other than Jesus and Jesus alone, we have made the church dysfunctional. Our greatest goal should not be to score the highest on the Bible trivia app; it should be to live like Jesus, to love like Jesus, and to look like Jesus in everything we do. The church is ever, only, always about Jesus. Healthy churches remember that—and live by it.

Jesus taught, healed and cared for people. He came to set us free and to give us a better, more meaningful life. Jesus touched people, healed them, restored them and most importantly, loved them. We should welcome sinners, comfort the hurting, provide for the poor and tend to the sick. We should be known not by the things we stand against, but by the One we stand for. We should be living examples of the love of Jesus by simply following the example of Jesus.

God does not need us to be gatekeepers. He needs us to be extensions of His love to a lost and hurting world. When we fully grasp His love and grace is all we need, that love and grace will ooze from us.

Tyler Edwards

Tyler Edwards is the lead pastor of Crossover Church in Johnsonville, S.C., and the author of Zombie Church (Kregel, 2011).