Now that we’ve officially had our one year anniversary celebration, I can catch my breath, reflect, and share a little bit more of my time at the Gospel Coalition conference. One evening, my seminary RTS, held a forum to answer the question of “How does the church move forward confidently in the gospel when the times seem so dark?” Or you could phrase it like this: what if the Culture Club (not so much the band but the common cultural consent) becomes more antagonistic toward the church?
The panel included several recognizable names (at least to me) and provided a helpful framework to think through this question.
1.) Church History-It has been just as a dark before, and the church made it through. We have a tendency to pridefully think we are living in unprecedented evil times, but Dr Mike Kruger explained that the church has been here before. In the 2nd century, the church was blasted for not being tolerant. They wouldn’t worship the pantheon of Roman gods, but claimed the God of the bible was not just one God among many they preferred to worship, but that He was in fact the one and only. People didn’t like that and considered Christians intolerant. Sound familiar? Folks at the time also didn’t like the Christian’s sexual ethic. Sound familiar? A monogamous relationship with one spouse? No temple prostitutes, homosexuality, or bath house excursions? Are you kidding me? Not a popular narrative. Yet Christians responded, “We share our food, but not our spouses.” So the charges of intolerance and restrictive sexuality have thrown at the church before. She came out okay.
2.) City of God and City of Man are not the same thing. A few centuries later, as the gospel spread and churches flourished, we saw the church enjoy not only accepted status, but in some ways, it became mainstream. In the early 300’s AD, Constantine declared Christianity legal (he did not make it the official Roman religion) and so, except for a short period, the persecution of the church by the Roman Empire became a thing of the past. For 100 years things looked good. And then the Fall of Rome came and went. The sacking of Rome in 410 AD started to sack folks’ faith. People freaked out left and right! Augustine said, “Whoah Nelly! Easy….” He reminded people in his City of God that the church is part of the City of God (Kingdom of God), not the City of Man. Civilizations will rise and fall. But God’s plan to see His church and His will advance in all spheres of life is not dependent upon a judge’s decision, or common cultural consent. Regardless of whether you think the Moral Majority and the Religious Right were a good or bad thing, the church will move forward just as it did pre and post-Constantine. The City of God is where the Church puts its hope. Euguene Peterson stated, “The church is a colony of heaven in a country of death.” We shouldn’t walk around feeling defeated. Work, pray, and petition for whatever change you feel needs to be made at the government level. But please don’t freak out, riot, or feel like the church has lost. It hasn’t and won’t. Read Revelation.
3.) Where God builds His church and sees it flourish is His prerogative. Europe has seen its heyday and now sees many empty churches. Of course there are new church plants and the gospel is going forth and churches revitalized. However, if you measure by church attendance, we’ve seen a decline. Now things may drastically turn the corner and they may once again become a great missionary sending area. But they may not. Will that happen in the United States? It could. It’s possible. I do think the church is still moving forward here in the States, though the mainline churches are in complete decline. But could there come a time when the Lord uses another area of the globe for explosive church growth? Of course, let’s not become prideful and think Jesus needs America. You could argue that he already has. South America is a hotspot. So is Africa. And how could you ignore China! China’s churches enjoy far less favorable status from the government, and yet that hasn’t stopped anything. Fortunately we are on the same team, so let’s rejoice with them.
4.) Churches may look different. If churches are afforded less freedom, then perhaps they will need to look and operate a bit differently? Will we be okay with that? Harbor Community Church currently meets in a gym. Maybe people will have to meet in houses, or in parks (we’ve done that), or on the water with boats (maybe one day Harbor will attempt that!)? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus cares about His church and He’ll grow it where He wants. And models of church may by necessity-not simply by mission-change. If America becomes a church wasteland at some point, a la, parts of Europe, you can bet somewhere else it will be thriving like crazy. It has. It is. And who knows, maybe they’ll send missionaries back here and we’ll start it up again?
In Paul’s day, there were many foes of the church-at popular cultural level as well as government level. But time and time again, he points out that our main enemies are spiritual (Eph 6), and yet we serve a King who has paraded those same spiritual enemies through the streets in victory (Eph 1, 4). Let’s not develop an Us vs. Them mentality when it comes to our unbelieving friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
Jesus is on the throne. He’ll return one day. But there is work to be done now, so let us move forward confident not in our government or cultural consent, but in Christ.
He has a phenomenal track record.