It must have seemed like a nightmare to zealous Roman officials. Worship of Caesar was a simple annual act of burning a pinch of incense to him. It was really as much an expression of loyalty and patriotism to the Empire as much as being religious. But because it did involve worshiping the Emperor as a demi-god, Christians refused to do it. Their refusal reflected on the official’s job in keeping loyalty strong and dissent squelched. But no matter what the authorities tried, it didn’t seem to work. Torture, pleading, persuasion, imprisonment, even brutal execution only seemed to make the number of Christians grow.
In recent times, Soviet Communism also tried very hard. Churches were closed, priests and deacons were forbidden to teach, many were executed or sent to the camps, a well-funded department of atheism churned out massive literature, schools taught atheism as a required study, Christians were denied many educational and employment opportunities. Yet when the Communist experiment ended after 70 years, tens of millions of faithful Christians emerged, few of them born before the Communist era.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In between the two examples above have been numerous attempts throughout the world and the centuries to kill Christianity, and they continue today with great zeal. But they have almost all failed in their mission.
We are grateful to live where we have freedom to practice and profess our Faith. Therein lies an irony. If Soviet Communism is regarded as a 70 year social science experiment, the control group would clearly be western Europe. During the Soviet period, most of Europe allowed Christians the necessary freedom to worship and express their Faith. Except for the decade or so of the Nazis, Christianity was officially supported in most places, financially, educationally and culturally. Yet at the end of the period, Christianity was as moribund in most of western Europe as it was vibrant in Russia.
Spiritual formation as a Christian leads inevitably to sharing the love and joy. The second great commandment, to love our neighbors, is as central as the first. As the cup of God’s love given us overflows, it cannot help but spill onto those around us. When you are in a strong love relationship, it is hard to keep it secret, it usually shows.
It is thus a disturbing phenomenon that support and sponsorship of the Christian Church seems to cause her decline more than persecution. In America, the biggest obstacle to Christianity, is arguably those who proclaim loudly that they represent Christianity. If you ask the average “man on the street” what the Christian message is, and the answer is other than that it is about the overwhelming love and grace of God towards his creatures, it could be the Gospel is not what is driving those Christians who are “in charge.”
Unfortunately, some have commented that the way Christians have presented the message has essentially made evangelism impossible in America for at least a generation. This means that before anyone can talk about “doing evangelism,” it is necessary to analyse the obstacles.
Many would identify these as being outside of the Church, the Christian community. And there are some;
- Movements that can be described as “secular,” or possibly “humanistic,” see a society in which there is no room for Christians. They may tolerate such people holding on to their faith in private, but they structure life in such a way that it will never be part of the communal picture. There will be no mention in the educational system, there will be no time of the week reserved for Christian observance, no holidays with Christian content, no public role for prayer, no ethics based on Christian values. These movements may not have a lot of clubs with members as such, but they are very strong and dominant philosophies which largely prevail in the western world, including the U.S.
- Subconscious atheism is very common. Militant atheism involves a small number of people probably better described as “anti-theists,” people who actively try to denounce God in an organized and determined way. They actually have a very small impact. But the much larger problem involves people who may even state a belief in God, or at least some kind of similar being. Yet they live a life of goals and viewpoints which assume the absence of God. Many might even identify themselves as “Christians,” whatever that means to them. In any event, they generally have a firm but erroneous view of what they think Christianity is, which immunizes them from any real Christian message.
Christians have often lived successfully as a minority in indifferent or even hostile societies. As mentioned above, Christianity often thrives in such adversity. Thus, while the forces of secularism must be actively opposed and refuted, they will never destroy the Church. This is because they have no serious answers to the ultimate questions of life and nothing to compare with the message of God’s unending love for us.
What is a much more serious concern is the enemy within, those elements within Christianity which distort the Gospel message. Next week’s post will address these distortions, which are making evangelism with the real good news so difficult, and even giving the term “evangelism” a bad rap.