It was 27 years ago when Pavel Poloz, a recent exile from Russia, observed, “In Russia, Christians are tested by hardship, but in America you are tested by freedom. And testing by freedom is much harder.”
He went on: “Nobody pressures you about your religion. So you relax and are not concentrated on Christ, on his teaching, how he wants you to live” (Moody Monthly, April 1989).
That would hurt less were it not so obviously true. The worst danger American Christians have faced for generations has not been persecution; it has been that our faith die as we sleep.
It’s nothing new. The church has always been strongest during times of persecution and weakest during times of ease. Ironically, the church thrived during the days when Roman emperors were martyring Christians; it faced a more serious threat when in A.D. 313 the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Don’t think I’m longing for persecution, just perspective. My default point of view is that of a small church pastor who not only loves the church universal but treasures the quality of relationship found in churches where people have faces and pastors live life with the flock, know them by name and need, and aren’t just beamed down from on high to a plastic screen.
I know Christ’s church will triumph. If, as the Lord has said, even the “gates of hell” will not prevail against his church, I doubt that ease and prosperity, increasing secularism, and consumer “church-lite” will prevail either.
But I do see serious challenges on the horizon, some that I suspect will be more than a serious bump in the business plan even for Religion 500-style churches.
For example, I’ve yet to meet a respected colleague in ministry who doesn’t see the loss of the World War II generation as a serious challenge. For decades, churches have been able to count on the attendance, the giving, the commitment of those amazing people. Lots of church doors have been literally kept open by the very practical commitment of a generation of folks whose genuine faith meant being at church when it wasn’t convenient and giving not just what they could spare with no sacrifice.
Thank the Lord for those who, following such an example, are picking up the baton and running the race. More had better.
Some real faith challenges are not glitzy, but they say a lot. If we fail in the everyday “rubber meets the road” faith-building disciplines such as being at church often enough we’re missed when we’re not there, and giving more than we can easily spare . . . If our commitment won’t even stretch to such baby steps, why should we think our faith would endure persecution?
As far as our local churches go, if we don’t “show up” in any real sense, it matters not at all how good our excuses are. The end is the same, and cut-rate commitment may accomplish locally what the “gates of hell” will never accomplish universally. If we falter in faith by meaning well very weakly, lots of little churches will be shutting their doors, and our land will have lost a large blessing.
I’d love to be wrong about that.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at