Massive cultural change is taking place in the western world, and it is going against Christians. The mocking portrayal of Christians and churches on television entertainement programs shows where the future is going. In a violent country this could lead to nasty persecution once people realise that Christians are a weak minority. There might be a lot of revenge to implement.
Christians should not grumble. The change has come, because they have failed to preach the gospel. They are the cause of the problem they are grumbling about, because it is evidence that they have failed to their job.
Many Christians believe that Christianity spreads best while Christians are being persecuted. This is a nice thought, but it is not universally true. Christians can respond to persecution in four distinct ways.
The church often responds to persecution by accommodating with the political powers. It survives, but it becomes irrelevant. It finds a place of safety by retreating from the public square and becoming a cultural ghetto isolated from the rest of society. When it is stops being a threat to the dominant cutlure, it can be ignored. The Coptic Church in Egypt is an example.
In many situations, the church has been wiped out by persecution. That has happened in many places at different times throughout history. The city of Carthage was a strong Christian centre in the early days of the church, but there is no church there now. Augustine was an important leader and theologian in Africa during the fifth century. The church in Algeria where he was based is long gone, destroyed by a hostile culture.
The church often responds to persecution by taking up weapons and fighting back. This happened in many places during the Reformation. Persecution led to war between the political authorities and Christian leaders and their followers. Often Christians were on both sides of these destructive and violent wars. Unfortunately, when Christians engage in war, the gospel suffers.
If Christians in the United States are persecuted in the future, the violent, warring military spirit is so strong, that there is a high risk that they will respond to persecution by getting out their guns and starting to fight. A fight between Christian warlords and their followers would be disastrous for the gospel.
The church can respond to persecution by becoming stronger and growing. The New Testament Church was strengthened by persecution.
The fourth option is the best option, but we cannot just take it for granted. We must not just assume that it will happen.
Persecution is not a trivial issue. Even if those who are prepared survive and are strengthened, and the gospel spreads rapidly, there will be huge collateral damage for Christians who are not prepared. The pain of those who are confused and do not understand what is happening will be terrible. We cannot be glib about their situation.
What are the conditions under which persecution strengthens the church?
The Church will survive better if Christians are prepared. Those who just presume that persecution will make them stronger without taking actions to prepare will be caught out.
The Holy Spirit must be free to move. The Church in Acts 5,6 grew stronger when facing persecution, because he was able to work signs and wonders in public places (not just at the front of a church meeting).
Christians who have learned to walk in the Spirit will deal with persecution better. Peter and Paul got out of prison in quite different ways. Peter got up and followed the angel (Acts 11:6-11). Paul stayed in prison when the earthquake blew the doors opened and preached to the jailor (Acts 16:26-28). They took very different actions, but because they did what the Spirit had told them to do, they both got out of jail. Survival during persecution depends on hearing the Spirit speaking, and obeying, whatever the circumstances.
Christians must be living close enough together that they can support each other. This was the situation in China. The population was so concentrated that Christians could still interact with each other, despite the persecution. It will be different for American Christians isolated in their suburbs with no gas in the tank.
Christians with strong relationships with other Christians in their neighbourhood will cope with persecution much better, because they will know who they can trust. They will be willing to sacrifice for each other. Peter wrote to Christians who faced persecution and advised them how to prepare.
Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:7-8).Those who have learned to love one another when times are good will be better equipped to love and support each other if times get tough. I hope that persecution does not come to the church in the West, but if it does, I expect that those who have prepared by building strong relationships with one another to cope the best.
Churches that depend on professional leaders and activities in church buildings will be vulnerable. If the pastors are arrested and the church doors locked, as happened in China, their flocks will be confused and not know what to do. Christians focussed on one leader and one building will struggle. To survive during persecution, the church will need to be organised as a network, which can continue to function, even if some parts of the network are taken out.
Integrity will be critical during persecution. Daniel's enemies struggled to find a fault with which to accuse him
The administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent (Dan 6:4).Daniel had not been corrupt or negligent in his duties, so they decided the only way to get at him was to charge with something to do with this religion (Dan 6:5). So they trapped him with a law against praying.
Looking at the recent history of church leaders in the United States, a persecuting government would not have much trouble coming up with charges of corruption or negligence against them. Dealing with persecution will be much easier, if all they can charge you with is praying.
The response to persecution probably depends on where the culture has been and how familiar people are with the gospel. People in America turned back to God during the Great Depression, because there was a strong residual faith, so it was natural for them to turn to God in a crisis. The Global Financial Crisis produced a different response, although some people faced serious economic losses. A Christian culture can deteriorate to a point where turning back to God in a crisis stops being the natural thing to do. If people have forgotten God, they will not even think of calling out to him.
Christians who are focussed on self-fulfilment will struggle during persecution. The book of Revelations speaks of those who overcame,
because they did not love their lives to the death (Rev 12:11),These Christians did not love their own lives. Their love for Jesus was so great that they were willing to die for him. It will be too late to develop that love when persecution comes. It is hard to see how a therapeutic church living in narcissistic culture with a rescue gospel and a rapture hope would not love their lives unto death, if they faced that choice.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew that God could rescue them from the fiery furnace, but they did not care whether he would do that or not. They just wanted to honor him, because they loved him (Dan 3:17-18).
During persecution, Christians must know that God can be trusted. Jeremiah experienced years of hostility and rejection from his people, but he did not sink into self-pity and bitterness. Instead he turned his trials into love for God and compassion for his people. So when the king persecuted him by throwing him into a muddy well, he knew that he could trust God (Jer 38).
Those who have learned to love their enemies will be better placed to deal with persecution. Peter explained the correct way to respond to persecution.
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing (1 Pet 3:9).This will be hard to learn when persecution strikes. Wise Christians should learn to do these things during the good times when it is easier. We can miss these opportunities, if we respond to insults with self-justification and indignation.
Persecution usually comes from governments, but Peter explains that it is actually a spiritual attack.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:8-9).
These Christians were being persecuted, but Peter wanted them to understand that the attack came from the powers of evil. Christians round the world undergoing the same kind of attacks are also under attack from the enemy. They should respond by resisting him and standing firm in their faith. We need to learn how to stand strong in our faith and resist the devil and love those who hurt us. We resist the spiritual powers, not the political powers.
Christians who follow a good-time prosperity gospel will be poorly equipped to cope with persecution. Paul prayed that he would share in the sufferings of Jesus (Phil 3:10). This prayer is out of fashion these days, but those who have suffered for the gospel will cope better with real persecution when it comes.
Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Pet 4:13).I notice that American church leaders tend to yell back, when they are criticised by the modern news media. There is a lot of self-justification and not much rejoicing in the suffering of Jesus.
Having said all this, the church should not focus on preparing for persecution. That would probably lead to retreat from the world and create negative attitudes to people. Rather we should focus on serving Jesus and preparing for the victory of his kingdom. Fortunately, the Christians who obey Jesus and walk in the Spirit and seek the victory of the Kingdom, will also be prepared for persecution, if it should come.
In my book called Being Church Where We Live, I describe a different way of being church. The aim is to develop a model that can support the victory of the gospel and coming of the Kingdom of God. A bonus with this approach is that it is also persecution proof should that happen.