Brazilian Bishop shakes up Aldersgate conference

By Matthew Hamilton

Bishop Joao Carlos Lopes is the president of Brazil’s Methodist bishops who preached in June at the annual Aldersgate Renewal Conference in Charleston, West Virginia. His sermon was on how to revive dead churches.

Aldersgate is a ministry for charismatic United Methodists who emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their worship. More than 1,000 United Methodists attended this year.

The Brazilian Methodist Church, with about 200,000 members, has been autonomous since the 1930s. It is experiencing growth in recent years thanks to leadership from evangelical bishops like Lopes, who is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He serves on the board of the Atlanta-based Mission Society for United Methodists.

Lopes began his sermon with Revelation 3:1–4, which speaks of a dead church. It says: “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”

Lopes taught that Sardis was a wealthy city and its citizens lived a comfortable existence. Because of this, the city’s inhabitants lived idly and passively. What happened to the church in Sardis is that the Christians adopted the same apathetic lifestyle that existed outside of the church. And because of the apathy, the church did not experience any persecution. Nor did it experience any heresy. Lopes continued on to say that it is not a positive attribute for a church not to ever experience persecution or heresy:

“Whenever there is revival, there is the danger of heresy. And whenever there is conviction, strong conviction, there is persecution. So a church that has never had a heresy or persecution is not worthwhile.”

Lopes went on to explain that there was no persecution in the church of Sardis because the Christians were harmless to the powers of the world. And they did not experience any heresy because they were spiritually dead rather than alive.

When Lopes was still just a pastor, he asked his bishop what to do with a church that had become dead. The bishop’s reply was that a dead church needs someone to be brought in that will provoke the church (sometimes with heresy), shake the church awake, and that will start a revival. Then one must cut away any heresies that have come. This is better than letting a church remain spiritually dead because “a spiritually dead church creates spiritually dead Christians.”

Lopes then declared that someone brought back to life by the power of Jesus will wants to serve Jesus. He explained the story of Levi, who was a tax collector, a hated man because tax collectors stole money and worked for the Roman Empire. Levi was a religious person, but he was dead inside, and Jesus brought him back to life. Because of this, Levi threw a large banquet for all the other tax collectors and invited Jesus to shake up the spiritually dead tax collectors. And of course the Pharisees denounced Jesus for being with the tax collectors, but Jesus said that he had come to help the sick, not the healthy. Lopes then proclaimed, “A sign that a church is alive and awake is that it cares about sinners.”

The Bishop then proclaimed that the first thing God wants a dead church to do is to wake up and admit that they have problems rather than pretend that everything is just fine, like the church of Sardis. God tells a dead church to strengthen and renew itself with the power of Jesus and to return to its first love, to where the church first started. Lopes went on to talk about Revelation 3:4, which says that the church of Sardis still had a few holy men and women, “a faithful remnant” as Lopes called them. A church with no faithful remnant shuts down. But as long as a church remains open, there is a faithful remnant and they can, with the power of Jesus, revive a dead church.

Lopes then preached that a living church will have a ministry of evangelism, reaching out to those outside the church. A church needs God’s power and compassion to come back to life and minister to others. God has already given believers the power. If a church is dying, it’s not from lack of power, but a lack of compassion. And lastly, Lopes argued that it is wrong to criticize a dead church or a spiritually dead Christian. Instead, Christians should have compassion for one another and use the power of God to raise the dead.

Matthew Hamilton is an intern at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.