Christmas is just around the corner. I know this because Halloween is a month off and around these parts, the Christmas decorations go up after the last trick-or-treater has gone home for the night. The arrival of the season (which wouldn’t surprise me if it starts this Tuesday) will come with the usual protests. Articles will be written about the War on Christmas. Facebook posts will go up about keeping Christ in Christmas, and spleens will be vented over changing school Christmas pageants to “Holiday Pageants.” And yes, we should keep Christ in Christmas. I’m not here to argue that. However, I am here to argue that perhaps for too long, American Christians have been taking their faith for granted.
It probably went under your radar, but the administration of the Putnam County School District in Tennessee announced that teachers and coaches were prohibited from leading their students and teams in prayer. This came on the heels of a letter from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State alleging “prayer and proselytizing” in the schools. This has been going on for years. An atheist group takes issue with something and threatens the school district, which caves to avoid a lawsuit.
In response, following a recent football game between Upperman and Stone Memorial high schools, the players led everyone in prayer. One person wrote on Facebook, “Satan’s power was defeated tonight, as the threat of a legal action to forbid prayer after the game was overwhelmed by player-led prayer supported by parents and fans in solidarity on Overall Field. God bless the Baxter and Stone players for their faith and courage.” While the incident makes for a good news story, I’m not sure that it constitutes a victory over Satan.
Chances are, especially in light of the church-state COVID clashes in the U.S. and in particular Canada, things like this will become more commonplace. And perhaps, American Christians could use a little tempering with fire.
I used to volunteer for a non-profit that supported persecuted Christians. As part of my volunteer duties I would visit churches and deliver presentations about persecution and hand out information. The idea was to raise awareness about the problem among U.S. Christians who are often blissfully or even willfully unaware of it. At one church, my presentation replaced the Sunday sermon. The service opened with the usual 30-minute worship concert of current and recurrent CCM songs. The young woman in front of me jumped up as soon as the music started and contorted herself into what I guess was a posture of praise: bent sideways at the waist, head cocked the other way and one hand thrust into the air. Much to my amazement, she managed to stay that way for the entire time. When it was my turn to speak, she glared at me like I was offering adult magazines and bong hits. To be fair, while most of the congregation remained stoic, they did clean me out of my literature and several signed up as volunteers. But the young lady disappeared as soon as church was over after giving me one last withering look. Perhaps I ruined what she expected to be another good day at church. At another church, people cried copiously during my presentation but blew me off after the service to eat a donut and have a cup of coffee. Or make a break for the local breakfast buffet.
I have often encountered a nervous avoidance among Christians when it comes to the subject of persecution. I suppose that may be because stories of persecution are at odds with the moral-therapeutic deism that has replaced theology in so many places. The idea runs counter to the notion of a “good, good father” who has a plan for your life. It isn’t the easy Christianity of “doing life together,” “boyfriend Jesus,” and the latest hits from your local Christian radio station. It isn’t a sermon that could just as easily be a motivational speech for an MLM.
But as it turns out, Christians in other parts of the world carry actual burdens. Serious ones.
While I was a volunteer I made the acquaintance of Sarah Liu, a Chinese Christian who was the editor of an underground newspaper. She was arrested one night in her pajamas, which was not unusual for her. But this time, they took her to a secret location. They tied her to a chair, whipped her feet with a hanger, and put cigarettes out on her skin. Shackled to a post in a warehouse, she was made to walk in a circle all night. In the morning she realized that she had circled the post so many times that she was walking in a trail of her own blood. She was imprisoned and forced to make Christmas lights to sell in America. Think about that when you are decorating this year. Sarah remains one of the gentlest, sweetest souls and one of the most committed believers I have ever met.
Or consider the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS on the beach in 2015 for refusing to renounce their faith. One particularly odious discernment blogger said that as members of the Coptic Church, they were not actually Christian. Well, let’s see: They were given the option of denying Christ or having their heads cut off. They chose to die. They sound like committed Christians to me, despite them not adhering to the blogger’s preferred version of faith. How many of us would offer our necks if given a similar choice?
I could keep you here all day with stories of Christians who have been shot, scalped, burned alive, sold into slavery, and mutilated in persecuting countries. Or even shoved into ovens to be cooked alive. In some countries, people are not even considered mature Christians until they have been arrested at least once.
When James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left in the coming kingdom, Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” The members of the persecuted church are drinking deep.
Are we in the USA guilty of idolatry? In the contemporary church, people equate idolatry with putting other things before God like video games, NASCAR, a home business or a favorite sports team. But as it was originally understood in the Ancient Near East, idolatry was the practice of creating a physical idol and coaxing the god of your choice to literally come down and live in it. The god would then be pampered with the expectation that the worshipper’s needs and demands would be met. Have we tried to make God in our own image? Have we created a systems that we expect God to inhabit with the expectation of Him serving us, rather than us serving him? Have we made an idol out of church?
Beyond the name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel heresy, one wonders what is becoming of the church. Have worship and sacrifice been replaced with vision-casting and worship teams? Is the sacred space nothing more than a concert venue? Has the biblical instruction of our children been usurped by pizza and games? And what place have we made for God in all of this?
I suspect that the American Church has made itself into an idol that it expects God to inhabit. Back when I was going to seminary online, I was deep into the Christian lifestyle and was listening to a famous national Christian radio network. During a pledge drive, a woman called in and gushed about how the radio station had changed her husband’s life and that now he was saved because of the jocks and their playlist. Apparently, Jesus had nothing to do with that. A church I used to attend now tosses beachballs into the congregation and sings Disney and country music songs in an effort to be attractional and get the numbers. This, as the big-business church model is burning down. Even as empires like Hillsong are starting to crack.
Perhaps American Christians have come to see faith as a moneymaker in some cases. I used to work in a Christian bookstore and we sold boxed Bible studies by a very famous Christian celebrity. The cost for one of her Bible studies was $199 at the time. You got a box with a leader’s guide, a participant guide and a DVD. It probably cost around $10 to make. $199 to learn more about a man who was happy to share his wisdom for free.
For others, it may be convenience. A place where people can feel warm and fuzzy, and cuddle with a God who will give them everything they ask for. A place where they can talk about their beards or tattoos and be secure in their salvation and the superiority of their biblical knowledge and doctrine. American Christians have never been made to even count the cost, let alone pay it. Ask for a Dietrich Bonhoeffer and you may well find a money changer. As Sarah Liu once said in a speech, “Everyone wants Jesus, but no one wants the cross.”
The time may be coming for the church in America to grow up.
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