A review of Seven Deadly Spirits

In so many discussions and conversations on the nature of the church in our era (or any era) there is a curious reality that is almost always left out. Curious not because it is of minor importance or an extraneous component. Rather, because it seems so utterly vital to the nature of the church and is so absolutely a part of the Biblical discussion, and yet is still far too often ignored, even in so-called mystical or hyper-spiritual congregations.

This reality involves the spiritual context of a particular congregation, and it is precisely what John wrote about in the beginning of Revelation.

In his book Seven Deadly Spirits, Scott Daniels writes, “that real change takes place in the church not simply by altering the visible structures of the institution, such as changing pastoral staff, instituting new programs, or modifying the style of worship, but by altering the spirit or core essence of the entity as a whole… I am convinced that the genius of the letters in Revelation is John’s underlying recognition that complete change cannot occur without naming, describing, and calling to account the collective spirit of the church.”

In other words, so much of church growth or renewal has been about addressing the symptoms or changing the decorations. This is the old analogy of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, all while completely ignoring the fact there’s an iceberg and a major gash in the hull that is causing the ship to sink. Daniels moves us deeper past the usual church growth topics, which so often want to jump into the newest model or develop the flashiest program, rather than really assessing the specific contexts of a congregation or neighborhood.

Daniels is not here emphasizing spirits as in some kind of evil, outside malevolent force. Rather, he is emphasizing that a spirit of a church is a collective spirit that reflects the people — present and past — who have influenced that setting. This spirit “that emerges from a congregation is formed by a unique combination of human action, institutional history, and cultural influence. The corporate spirit that emerges in every church captures the hopes, fears, and horizons of imagination for a congregation.” This emphasis on a collective human spirit does not discount broader spiritual realities, but it does put the emphasis precisely where it needs to be, where the Bible itself points us. In our choices and temptations and overall approaches to life we can reflect the Spirit of God, or we can choose to participate in another expression of spirit, one that reflects chaos and corruption. Every church, it seems, like every person has a different kind of temptation or tendency, but these differences can be loosely gathered together in common themes.

Daniels uses the letters to the churches that we find in Revelation as a model of understanding the various kinds of temptations and spirits that can take hold of church, and in doing this he gives us insights and direction on how to best understand the specific issues and then how we can move to best respond in a way that recreates a church spirit.

Here is his outline:
* Ephesus: The Spirit of Boundary Keeping
* Smyrna: The Spirit of Consumerism
* Pergamum: The Spirit of Accommodation
* Thyatira: The Spirit of Privatized Faith
* Sardis: The Spirit of Apathetic Faith
* Philadelphia: The Spirit of Fear
* Laodicea: The Spirit of Self-Sufficiency

Understanding how these various spirits affect and undermine particular communities is essential to really respond to broken or confusing contexts. But more than learning about these spirits, Daniels writes, “the redeeming of the deadly spirit of a church can only fully be achieved as we also learn how to embody the Scriptures in community.” And it is this fuller picture, not only of diagnosis but also of hope and promise that really fills out this excellent, readable, and enlightening text.

It should also be noted that Daniels is not a removed spectator, writing only in terms of theory. His own experiences as a pastor have shown him the highs and lows of these spirit realities. And his recent experience in helping turn a large church away from a season of brokenness and difficulty to a renewing place of health and light suggests that what he is writing about is something he has put into practice, and continues to apply to specific contexts.

Seven Deadly Spirits is the sort of book that may not have the widest audience, but it is, I think, very widely needed. I would go as far to say as this is a book that should be required reading by every new pastor or seminary student, as it orients both their expectations and their own tendencies to let go these undermining spirits and re-embrace the holistic Spirit of life. But more than these pastoral leaders, I think anyone involved in a church would greatly benefit by reading through this text, as it helps to really understand why we often experience, or contribute to, negative realities within a church setting. By naming the spirits for what they are, both leaders and those in the congregations, can begin to respond and overcome these tendencies, with the help of the Spirit who calls us, and empowers us, to live out in full the life that Christ has given to us. The Lord “stands at the door and knocks, inviting us to be open to his renewed life with us.”

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