The year is 2010. I pull into the driveway of the United Church Camp where I have been hired to be the Day Camp Coordinator for the summer. A newly minted Evangelical, I’m strung out on Jesus, want to tell the world what He’s done for all of us, and excited for this new chapter in my life. What came next was something I never would have expected.
Firstly, out of 15 staff only two of us were born again Christians the others self-identified anywhere from Buddhist to atheist to somewhere in between. Secondly, the camp director herself (although the daughter of a pastor) did not find the Christian faith to be that integral to the life of the campsite. Instead, crafts, games, and having a blast were more what she thought camp life was truly all about. Thirdly, the children who went to the camp were there more for cheap babysitting than for anything else – their parents did not really care what we were teaching them, they just needed somewhere for their kids to go while they worked full-time.
At the time, I was furious. I was in my second year at Tyndale studying Religious Education and I wanted people to be just as motivated and excited about the theology I was learning as I was. Yet, my anger soon turned to profound sadness as my heart ached for the children who were growing up in a Christless generation. Looking back, I realize I could have done things differently. Perhaps it was due to my naivety, immaturity, or lack of experience, but I just felt like everyone in the church should be on the Jesus bandwagon. Yet, even though today I probably would have been more calm and collected about the situation, it did get me thinking. It got me thinking about the state our church is presently in and where it is headed in the future. It got me thinking about whether the institutional church will even continue to exist 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. And finally, it got me thinking about whether a structured service is truly what this generation needs or if they need something more.
Below, I’d like to make the case that because we have had it easy for too long, we, as a North American society have grown apathetic about our faith. We no longer care about what people believe or how they live out their lives. There used to be a time when sin scared us. When sin was taboo and to be avoided. Today, because we have become so laizze-faire the church has fallen prey to the same temptations of lust, greed, and envy as the general society. I believe this may be the case today and indeed it may continue in this vein for quite some time, but I believe that it will eventually all come to an end. I don’t believe the church can continue to sustain itself with one foot in the culture and one foot in the Gospel – trying to please both sides. Jesus Himself said that we can’t serve two masters – we’re either going to love one and hate the other or else cling to one and despise the other. In this case, He was talking about money…but it’s actually much broader than that. We cannot love the media and the way it commodifies bodies and sells sex while also believing that God truly means sex to be an intimate expression of our love for only one other individual in the faithful and covenantal act of marriage. We cannot cling to society’s competitive pull to be the best at everything and at the top of the pyramid at any cost while also adoring Christ who taught us that the greatest person of all must first learn to be a servant. We cannot continue to thrive in an apathetic environment where we only care about ourselves and choose not to confront a sinning brother or sister for fear of being seen as judgmental while still believing the Scriptures which command us to save that erring brother or sister from hell. You see, friends, we cannot have it both ways.
Yet, even though we know we can’t have it both ways, we continue to try. We continue to watch pornography while leading Bible studies on Sunday night. We hold a jammed packed agenda book (with no time for God) in one hand while holding our Bible in the other hand. Monday to Friday we cheat and fight to get a promotion and Sunday we come rolling into the church in a Lexus.
See, I know that it can be difficult to live counter-culturally in this life-style, but if we (as a church) hope to maintain our testimony to the world then we really have no choice.
And it’s because of our lack of investment in all things eternal that the church is probably going to end up facing the following three scenarios and if they don’t think of these possibilities now then they are going to be ill-equipped to deal with them when they actually happen.
#1: The Western Church WILL Face Persecution if it Continues to Sleep
This line is actually not my own. Rather, it comes from a speaker who shared about being physically persecuted in her own country during a Tyndale chapel. For safety reasons, this individual has asked to not be publicly named and so I can give no further details of who this person is. Nevertheless, I believe this statement has much merit to it.
I DO believe that there are ways that Christians are persecuted in Canada today. Being a Christian is not always easy and we can definitely face teasing, being overlooked, or even blackmail. I believe persecution is already happening, but at the same time, we have never had to resist to the point of death.
I’m not saying that all churches fall in this camp, but as a whole, the Western Church has been silent for far too long. We have looked on while people have been marginalized and oppressed. We have contributed to racial and denominational segregation rather than trying to quell it. We have lived in relative wealth while ignoring the hurting and broken. We are guilty of these things.
We have remained silent on issues that matter. We haven’t taken a stand and been vocal about human rights, the unborn, or those with disabilities. Again, I’m not here to completely shame the Western Church. I happen to know that there are indeed many churches that have stood outside in the rain petitioning for causes, have written letters to parliament, and have advocated for those who can’t advocate for themselves. BUT as a whole, our society has not done as much as we could have in this area. And it is for that reason – because of the fact that we haven’t been as invested in our communities as we should have and because we have lived largely apathetic lives that our churches will one day face immense persecution. If we don’t start caring now and if we don’t learn to stand for Christ at the risk of losing all we have (not just saying we believe in Him, but also living out His mission incarnationally) than when the time comes, we won’t care then either.
#2: That Persecution Will Likely Come From Within The Christian Church Itself
Martin Luther King Jr. once proclaimed that “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” He was speaking, of course, to issues of racism and prejudice, but I still think this statement remains true today. In North America Sundays are indeed segregated days in many churches. For example, have you noticed that most (though certainly not all) churches have their own definite composition. When I think about the various churches I’ve been to, I can tell you that some churches attract the wealthy and unfortunately look down on those who don’t have as much. They may not say that in so many words, but it becomes obvious through their actions and lifestyle. Other churches cater to the marginalized population and subsequently the richer folks choose not to attend. In many churches children and youth are segregated from the adults, singles from the married population, and people with disabilities often not attended to with the care and attention they deserve. Furthermore, we face denominational segregation. Surveying a certain block in my hometown I saw three different churches all within walking distance of each other – a Catholic, an Orthodox, and a Baptist Church. In the small farming community I lived in for a number of years, we had close to 40 different Mennonite Churches (some of them believing that the others weren’t even truly “Mennonite”). I’ve heard Protestants bashing Catholics and Catholics dissing Protestants. I’ve seen Lutherans rejecting Orthodox and Presbyterians shaming Pentecostals. And I’ve seen Pentecostals who think that unless one is speaking in tongues they must not truly have the Holy Spirit in them.
I personally find this mentality to be very childish. I know that many Christians don’t embrace this kind of theology, but I’ve also seen it acted upon far too many times. And I believe that it is because of our inability to get along that we will eventually face persecution. That persecution will not come from the outside, it will come from within the church itself.
#3: Eventually, the Institutional Church Will Cave into This Persecution and Inevitably Cease to Exist
My church camp experience was my introduction to what laizze-faire type of Christianity looks like. There are a lot of solid United Church members just as there are solid Lutherans, Mennonites, and Evangelicals, but without taking a stand and refusing to reject the Scripture, children are just going to grow up thinking the Bible is not important. Throughout my life I have seen a progression – I’ve seen church go from being a central family activity to being pre-empted by hockey, basketball or bowling (on a regular basis). I’ve seen Bible study go from being an important weekly endeavour to being just another thing to check off a long list of activities (and hey, if something else comes up, let’s go to that instead). Eventually, I’ve seen children go from listening to their Sunday school teacher to caring less about the lesson and showing attitude throughout the teaching.
I believe the liberal Christians have a lot of stuff right. I applaud their efforts to engage in social justice, to not just talk about being the church but to truly go out and do it, and to be open-minded and embrace those different than themselves. I applaud all of this, and yet at the same time I am gravely worried. I am worried because if we fail to keep Christ at the center of our theology then the church will cease to exist. If we simply tell people they can believe whatever they want – I’ll live my life and you live yours – then church doors are going to shut. Let’s be honest, no one wants to wake up early on the only day they have off work to be told they can do as they please. They’d rather sleep in, go to the driving range, or have coffee at Tim Hortons.
The stats should wake us up. Church rates are declining at rapid speeds, many people have ceased self-identifying as Christian, and apathy towards religious matters has become the norm. We may wonder why. People have done all sorts of research and have proposed various suggestions. They’ve suggested that we aren’t doing youth ministry effectively, we aren’t embracing certain demographic groups, or the church is behind the times. All of these suggestions may be true, but I honestly believe we are missing one key fact. The reason our church rates are declining is because we have entirely forgotten what it truly means to be the church. As a society we’ve forgotten what it means to care for each other, what it means to lay aside our own wants and desires to love another, and what it means to serve. I believe that as the Body of Christ we have forgotten Christ’s very injunction to tell the world about Him and to not care what scorn or ridicule may result. I believe that it is only when we truly take time to rediscover our roots that we will be able to prevent persecution. Unless we are able to do that, the storms of persecution will come and they will come right from within our very walls.