Looking Back: What’s “Normal” Christianity?
One of the greatest temptations is to be captivated by the moment.
When were “the good ole’ days”? And, at that, were there good days? Sure. But, in seasons of trial like we find ourselves right now, our memory often filters out negative moments in our past.
While it is true that God has providentially placed us where we are in the time we live, we should be careful to not look at our current moment with a skewed lens. For example: You might hear someone say that today is the most divided time in our country. Yes, we are divided. But because we’re easily absorbed by the “right now,” we can forget that our country endured a Civil War, the Great Depression, and so much more.
The same is true when we look at the history of the Church.
The Shifting Christian Experience in America
As Americans, we have become accustomed to Christianity being supported, welcomed, celebrated, and normal. This is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. However, I fear that we believe our experience of the Christian life in America to be normal, which can cause fear now that the cultural climate is changing.
This intense shift in America has been taking place since the turn of the century. Christianity has moved to the margins as cultural ethics regarding sexuality, marriage, institutions, and liberty have shifted. As these things shift, our idea of “normal” is eroding and we wonder: will the church survive?
The effect of this is fear. We’re scared for our kids, schools, churches, streets, and cities. We worry about our ability to live in a society that doesn’t share our worldview, under a government that discourages our worldview.
While we should have a holy fear about the shaping of culture and community, we shouldn’t let fear control us or the witness of the church. The dark side of fear drives us to anger, manipulation, and reclusion.
One of the most effective medicines to fear is memory. It allows us to step back from the zoomed-in lens of today to see all that God has done and is doing. We find that the feelings we are experiencing—suffering, marginalization, culture-shift, and weakness—are not just typical, it may be better.
Normal Christianity in the Old Testament
The Bible is full of men and women who remind us that living by faith is costly:
- One of the first faithful characters in the Bible after the fall, Abel, pleased the Lord with his sacrifices. What happened to him? His brother killed him.
- Abraham moved around much of his life and waited half of his life to receive God’s promise
- Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel were promised children but lived baren
- Joseph is one of the only biblical people who doesn’t have anything negative written about him… and he was sold by his brothers and thrown in prison
- The Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptians for hundreds of years and treated horribly
- After leading the stubborn Israelites in the wilderness, Moses ended up not ever getting to see the Promise Land
- David was almost be killed by his king and by his son
- Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet, and his people rejected his words
- The Israelites were taken over as a country twice
- Daniel was an outcast
Rarely in the Old Testament can you find a time of peace and relaxation for the people of God. The “normal” for God’s people was suffering and persecution.
Normal Christianity in the New Testament
The new testament is where the good news is, right? That’s when God ended the persecution of his people? I’m afraid not:
- John the Baptist’s head was cut off
- Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and then crucified on the cross
- Mary watched her son beaten and killed
- Stephen was stoned to death
- Most of the apostles were continuously arrested and were eventually killed because of their faith
- John was outcast to an island because of his faith
- The New Testament Church endured constant persecution
We can’t read the New Testament and conclude that Christian persecution is abnormal. In fact, Peter tells us not to be surprised when trials come. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself says,
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-13).
Normal Christianity in the Early Church
You might be wondering: What about after the book of Revelation? What was Christianity like then?
For the early church, a life without persecution wouldn’t have been understandable. The Roman government, which ruled most of the known world at that time, wasn’t interested in religious freedom. Emperors Claudius, Nero, Domitian, and Trajan all sought to destroy Christianity. Under these first-century leaders, thousands of Christians were murdered for their faith, including Paul and Peter. People spread about Christians being cannibals because they ate the body and blood of Christ in Communion. And as the Roman city burned, Nero blamed it on the Church.
The killing and persecution of Christian lasted three centuries.
It’s safe to say to be a Christian in the early Church was hard. Many died for their faith, choosing Jesus over comfort. They knew that Jesus was spat upon, beaten, and crucified; yet, he rose from the dead. They believed that Christ joined them, and he would join them in their resurrection.
Normal Christianity in the Church Today
While we might think that Christianity is on the decline, around the world, it’s not. In many nations, people around coming to Christ never like before. In fact, by 2030, China could easily have more Christians than the US. In India, there are over 25 million Christians—with a 3 percent increase each year. It’s not easy to follow Jesus in either of these places—China and India are two of the twenty-five most challenging places for Christians live, according to Open Doors.
What does this mean? It means that Christianity is on the rise where being a Christian is the hardest. This has been the case throughout church history; where Christianity is hardest, Christianity flourishes.
What Does That Mean for Us?
Once, I got to meet with a pastor of a small house church in Southeast Asia. He told me stories of having a gun held to his head, his kids having rocks thrown at him, and his house being vandalized over and over again. I also met another pastor in that area whose entire family was killed because of his ministry. Yet, both men continued in ministry. Why? Because they believe what Abraham believed, what Moses believed, what David believed, what Jeremiah believe, what the Apostles believed, and what the early church believed; Jesus is worth it.
I’m not advocating that we disregard politics or religious liberty—we should advocate for these things and work to help relieve persecution. Yet, if we live in fear of being pushed to the societal margins, we will miss God’s invitation toward faith.
What if the declining popularity of Christianity in America is not only okay but better? When I read my Bible, read church history, and look around the world, I refuse to believe the church will die.
Don’t fear friends. We are going to be more than alright. By God’s grace, we will flourish.