I’d like to chat because two words have been on my mind for a while now, persecution and perspective. They’ve been pestering me, like an itch I can’t scratch or a fly I can’t swat away. As we begin, I’d like to bring you up to date on our situation here in good old Tompkinsville, Kentucky.
It’s May 15, that means we’re two months into the CoVid-19 pandemic of 2020 in the US. My children have been out of school since March 13, my family has learned the meaning of social distancing, and the last 8 Sundays we’ve worshipped in our living room. We’re smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic, surviving one day at a time. Overall, the experience has been a colossal inconvenience for us, but not much more than that. We’ve simply learned to deal with the extra family-time and general lack of any kind of a schedule.
However, it seems some of my friends (and acquaintances) are losing their minds. Everywhere I turn across social media, I see people complaining, bemoaning their circumstances, and waxing eloquently about the loss of individual freedom and constitutional rights. While I won’t say their worries are completely out-of-touch with reality, I’m tired of hearing them. The negativity, the grandstanding, and the end-of-the-world theories are taking a toll on me. It seems common sense has flown the coop (perhaps it already had and I just simply didn’t notice it).
Maybe it’s a product of our time. Everywhere you look people are divided. Theology, ideology, politics, and toxic fandom has driven us to our worst potential. Now we look for fights because we’re divided. With the advent of social media and biased television, now it’s easy to disagree without much repercussion. We can say hateful things, we can spread false rumors, and we can comment without much remorse because it’s easy to be heard. That doesn’t mean our opinions should be heard.
Christians should be above that, but alas, we’re not. I actually remember the first time I was shocked by a Christian’s behavior online. It was a young lady from the youth group I worked with. Pictures had been posted of her in some very revealing clothes. At first, I thought it must be a mistake, but then they weren’t taken down. I wanted to say something, but quite frankly, didn’t know how to. In a way that felt less confrontational, I taught a Bible class on proper online behavior. I showed a few pictures of someone in something similar and asked the group’s opinion. They were slow to speak up, until, the one whom the lesson was most meant for eagerly said, “those clothes are cute, I’d wear that.” Needless to say, I was lost at that moment. I encouraged the preacher to present a lesson on modesty, for which he obliged. I wrote a piece in the bulletin but made sure to address it as a problem for boys and girls (not to single her or her friends out) and I felt we had tackled the problem. Until, the very next summer, more pictures appeared.
At that point, in my defeat, I realized, this battle wasn’t over. Ever since, I’ve seen some Christians slowly begin to join the “herd” online. It’s become such a problem that now it’s hard to see much of a difference between those who are Christians and those who aren’t by their online profiles. Now, however, it’s less about photos and more about behavior.
Today, people are jerks to one another across social media. They have no filter and they seem to be looking for opportunities to disagree, to pick a fight, and to be proven right (or prove someone else wrong). I know many people who serve as catalysts for this type of behavior. As prominent preachers or teachers, they’ll put some idea out there into the digital world. Often it’s an opinion masquerading as doctrine. They don’t like the clothes the youth minister wears to deliver his message. They don’t like the ways parents or other congregations minister to their community. They don’t like the lessons a fellow brother teaches (or doesn’t teach). When they offer an opinion they know it will draw attention because of their large number of followers and then, they leave it alone.
I actually got caught up in one of those discussions once. A fairly famous preacher attacked a young man because of the clothes (i.e. skinny jeans, no jacket and tie) he wore to present a lesson. It was a cheap shot and had nothing to do with the young man’s lesson or ability. Slowly, I saw his supporters begin to bemoan the “lack of respect” young people present before God in worship. It grew like a mob of soccer hooligans and into an all-out attack upon the young people of today because a respected someone had opened the floodgates. I made the mistake of asking a question in the discussion and found my motives attacked. I was labeled by one of his cronies a troublemaker because I dared ask, “why is this necessary?”
That was my first and last venture into an online discussion with anyone.
I wanted to tell you those stories because I need your help. Lately, all I’ve wanted to do is ask “why?” every time I see one of my Christian brothers and sisters go off the rails online. I cringe when I watch them share misleading articles about God or accusatory pictures of some politician. The idea that bugs me the most is the sleaziness of it all. It’s ugly and unbecoming of anyone who wears the name Christian.
Lately, it’s manifested with the idea of persecution. Every time I see that word, it makes me hesitate to venture any further. Coincidentally, I’ve been preaching through First Peter on Sundays and last week discussed the “fiery trials” of chapter four. I made the statement that “this present inconvenience isn’t one of those fiery trials. It’s not persecution!” I asked the listeners to consider the first-century Christians who lost lives, houses, friends, and their peace-of-mind. I wondered aloud if they’d trade places with us and call the circumstances we’re enduring persecution? I answered the question with a resounding no because we’re not facing what they faced, it’s not even close.
Then, I noticed a statement from a theology professor on Twitter that summed up my feelings precisely.
I can’t possibly express my feelings in better words than those. I’ll admit it, our current situation is untenable and something has to change eventually. Like many others, I can’t wait to get back to normal, meeting 4-5 times a week with my brothers and sisters, attending camp, going on mission trips, just being the Church. But I will not dare say or believe we are being persecuted because the government asks us to avoid large gatherings?
The root of the problem is simple. Our 2020 version of Christianity is built around program and location, so missing our events and our building is devastating for some Christians. Because our location has defined too much of our Christianity, losing our location has gutted our connection to the Church.
As a child I learned a song about steeples and peoples. As a teenager I remember hearing over and over again “the Church is not the building.” Yet here we are, unable to fathom that idea when we need to appreciate it the most. There may be no greater time to revisit that song and that message.
The people are the Church, not the location, and the Church hasn’t been persecuted in America in a really long time (if ever). Unfortunately, our comfortable surroundings have given us an excuse to get lazy and far too comfortable with a country-club type atmosphere. Now that we’re in choppy waters, some are unwilling to navigate the waves. That stems from our status quo. When disagreement arises, we just leave and start new congregations rather than working through problems. In towns with more than one congregation, we compete, pilfer, and rob each other of precious resources and then sit back and complain when leaders of these congregations dare ask for anything of substance in return. We’ve turned into lazy, half-hearted Christians who can’t be bothered when life gets tough.
In a word, we’re spoiled.
And since the CoVid-19 outbreak, we’ve had to endure something we never faced before, a complication. Instead of rising to the occasion, some have used it as an opportunity to complain and bemoan a speed bump. That shouldn’t be too shocking when you consider the American aversion to waiting in line, hard work, or getting what you deserve.
Despite my tirade, I do believe this situation is teaching us something valuable. I believe it’s giving us perspective. We’re learning that some things aren’t as necessary as we once thought while we learn some things are more valuable than we ever imagined.
While it’s not always necessary to find a lesson in our trauma, it can be therapeutic. This isn’t persecution, but it’s been quite an upheaval for some. In my condemnation of the grandstanding, I don’t want to belittle those who have actually suffered because of this: those who lost jobs, security, opportunities, those who lost loved ones and the ability to see loved ones and those who missed things that can’t be replaced have truly suffered. Their circumstances make the Church’s move online look downright simple in hindsight.
Perspective is a hard thing to acquire because it takes wisdom and experience. It takes learning from something instead of just living through it. All of us are experiencing the pandemic, but are all of us learning from it? Obviously, the answer is a resounding no. Some are still complaining about inconveniences while others actually do without.
Church, we need to stop. Moving our services online isn’t persecution and we’re not suffering because of it. We can still worship, fellowship (from a distance), communicate, and be the Church. No one has stopped us from living for Christ because they can’t. So get off your couch and get to it.
This is our time to shine and instead of doing that, some of us are complaining, whining, and being a bunch of spoiled brats. Jesus didn’t die on the cross, establish the Church, and give us all these opportunities to watch us wilt in our moment of hardship.