I love LIFEGroups. And I would say that even if I wasn’t the LIFEGroups and missions pastor at Fellowship of the Parks. But I find myself asking some pretty intense questions as our church heads into the peak of LIFEGroup promotion season. Asking these questions of ourselves is a way to honor our brothers and sisters around the world:
What if LIFEGroups could only meet in the middle of the night as a way to avoid detection from police?
…Would I still sign up?
What if I found out that a friend from the group was killed, along with his entire family, simply because someone found out about their involvement with us?
…Would I show up to the next meeting?
Unfortunately, these aren’t hypothetical situations or ancient history. They’re specific, factual examples of what our brothers and sisters all around the world deal with right now in order to carry a title that many of us in the land of freedom take for granted: “Christian.”
The news coverage of ISIS and other extremist groups has fed a huge sense of patriotic pride for many American Christians because of the religious freedom we enjoy here. But the temptation in this is to designate part of the Church as “persecuted” while we call the other part “free.”
But what if there really isn’t a difference? What if the difference between the free Church and the persecuted Church isn’t real– or worse, a trick?
Most Christians are aware of how Jesus readied His disciples for a life of persecution. He point-blank said His followers would be hated by the world simply because of their connection to Him. This promise isn’t just a single outdated verse taken out of context by doom-and-gloom preachers. In fact, if you were to read the entire New Testament, my guess is you would be surprised by how commonly it describes persecution– and with extremely direct language. There’s not a whole lot of sugarcoating going on in Romans 8:36 where Paul refers to his fellow believers as “sheep to be slaughtered” and yet somehow still “conquerors through Him who loved us.”
You might be wondering how any of this relates to life as a Christian in America. Things are just different here, right? All of what Jesus said about His followers being persecuted was for people living in countries that aren’t advanced and free like ours, right? I honestly understand those questions and the initial disconnect you might feel, which is exactly why I wanted to write this article.
The first thing we need to understand is that persecution does not require violence and bloodshed. Being hated, slandered, rejected, reviled, or excluded doesn’t have to include weapons or forms of torture. And yet these are all words used in our scriptures in association with the worldly persecution of believers. No matter what persecution looks like case-by-case, the key is that we will be inconvenienced if we want to be followers of Jesus.
No matter where we live, when we made that humbled decision to deny ourselves and follow Christ, every one us was signing ourselves up for a rather large slap in the face. Some of us saw it coming and others didn’t, but it happened when we saw for ourselves just how staunchly opposed our previous, worldly life is to us following Jesus. Whether we realized it or not, we faced a very important choice in that moment: either dial the faith thing down so we can fit back into the world with our priorities and habits unchanged, or apply our faith further, turning the other cheek with a more-sweet-than-bitter feeling of knowing that part of being on the Way with Jesus is being a misfit to the world. If we chose the first option, the world would be our friend again. Choosing the second option, however, as I’m sure we’ve all figured out by now, only guarantees another slap in the face, and another choice to make. Who or what will we receive love from?
So where does the persecution come from on our side of the world? The great irony is that it’s… ourselves. More often than not, we are our own persecutors. What do I mean by that? Many believers in the “free Church” today only need to see the hypothetical possibility of being hated, slandered, rejected, reviled, or excluded in order to talk themselves out of getting involved with and prioritizing active, Christian community. Long before allowing any of those forms of persecution to actually be experienced, many of us willingly deactivate our own faith.
When it comes specifically to placing ourselves in Christ-centered community where we can grow into bolder, more courageous and loving followers of Jesus, many believers struggle to chisel out the time. But whether intentional Christian fellowship was illegal or if we simply placed other priorities above it– like pursuing worldly success and entertainment– our lives of faith are still being threatened. The difference is that the persecution in one scenario is merely threatened by others while the persecution in the other scenario is successfully carried out by ourselves in an ironic effort to avoid an inconvenient life in the first place. One scenario has the tendency to fan the flames of emboldened faith while the other consistently snuffs it out. It’s no wonder why the Church tends to be at its strongest wherever it’s called illegal by the local government.
And on the witness side, none of us on this side of the world have to weigh the risk of losing our job, home, or worse, when the opportunity comes to make our faith public. And yet research shows the majority of professed American Christians have little to no interest in cleverly bringing Jesus and the gospel into a secular conversation– being a “light to the world,” so to speak. What’s worse is that many times, our disinterest is rooted in a mix of fear of rejection and desire to find approval from absolutely everyone, including those who openly hate what we believe.
At some point along the way, we’ve drifted into thinking that how well we love others is proven by how much they like and approve of us. But with that measuring stick, active faith will be sidelined as soon as we’re threatened with conflict or inconvenience by a world that is really just doing its job by hating us.
Think of the power Satan has over believers if he can keep us obsessed with receiving success, entertainment, and approval from a world that hates what Jesus taught. If Satan’s goal is to simultaneously keep the people who need the gospel from seeing its power and the people who know the gospel from practicing it, it’s a brilliant plan to lead those who believe into thinking that “conquering the world” is really achieved by finding safety, wealth, and popularity right here and now. Think of the things he can prevent, even in a country where Christianity is legal. He stokes our own insecurities so that we persecute our own relationships with Christ as we try to get everyone to like us, all the while brimming with the satisfaction of thinking we are “free.”
I don’t say any of that to condone Christians who are just jerks. We have the most difficult job of all to love those who hate us, praying for them and even providing for their needs where we see the opportunity, all in order to bring glory to our amazing Creator Father.
The reality is that the entire global Church– from Texas to Mecca– is free. But it’s a freedom that will never be granted by the world, which includes our jam-packed schedules and family-centered culture just as much as it includes the secret police in North Korea. All are at odds with a life that practices what it believes.
Our freedom, rather, is found in Christ because of the victory He’s already accomplished. But if we’re not careful, we can start to attribute our freedom to our governments rather than the cross.
No matter where we live, what Jesus said about the life of His followers will be true: there will be persecution to endure.
The question for us, then, is this: are we willing to endure what persecution looks like in America? Are we willing to press through it– even embrace it– and be inconvenienced at times in order to engage with and grow in Christian community?
At the start of this article, I listed some questions that our brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world have to ask themselves when considering intimate Christian community. I thought I’d end with some of the questions we battle against in our corner of the world. By comparison to the first set, these seem downright silly, and yet we fail all the time:
What if participating in a LIFEGroup meant I had less time for myself during the week?
…Would I still sign up?
What if it felt socially awkward at first?
…Would I show up to the next meeting?
If you’d like more reading on this topic, I highly recommend a book by Tom Doyle called “Killing Christians.” It rocked my world (in a healthy way) and will surely rock yours as well. Also, in case you’re curious, here is a list of 100 verses about persecution in the Bible.
I love LIFEGroups, especially when they’re a bit inconvenient. Find one for the Fall Semester here.