WORD FROM THE PASTOR: The Future of Christianity
“Predictions can be very difficult, especially about the future,” Yogi Berra famously said. When I was a kid, they promised us flying cars. (That was about 50 years ago!) A few days ago, the news anchors were crying out: Finally! We’re getting the flying cars! And then they showed us a jet ski...that hovered. Wait a minute! They promised flying cars, not airborne jet skis! Well, I guess we have to start somewhere...
Back in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union fell, a famous thinker exulted that this was “the end of history”. Human history had reached its final form–democracy! There would be no further developments. This analyst failed to notice exactly how we had brought about the end of the USSR–by empowering and arming a radical religious movement in Afghanistan that fought against the Soviets. That movement wasn’t very interested in democracy. And the movement that we fostered and supported has now become our greatest enemy. The Soviets never murdered large numbers of people in New York or Paris! Obviously, “the end of history” did not arrive. History made a comeback in the form of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And the man who proclaimed “the end of history” is now asking people “Do you want fries with that?” (Just kidding! He actually teaches at a prestigious California university).
There is sometimes today a sense of pessimism about the future of Christianity. Our faith is persecuted in many places. Especially heartbreaking is the situation of Middle Eastern Christianity, which is hanging on by a thread in its ancestral homelands. In many other areas, too, the church is under fierce pressure. And it seems that no one really cares very much about Christians today. (I remember when the 300 girls from the school in Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram. The world was outraged! “Bring back our girls!” Then people realized...the girls were Christian! We didn’t know they were Christian! And suddenly the world muttered a great: “Never mind”). So the current historical situation of persecution doesn’t breed optimism about our faith’s future.
In free countries the problem isn’t persecution–it’s indifference. Church attendance in the United States is basically in free-fall. The percentage of Christians in our country has hit a historic low. And many analysts say that Islam will become the world’s predominant religion in the next few decades. (Don’t understand the attraction–I like dogs, alcohol, pork and popular music). Christianity will be relegated to an also-ran.
All this stuff can get pretty depressing. But we need to learn from “the end of history” that was proclaimed back in th 1980s. Whenever we are tempted to think: “Christianity is on its last legs! Our faith has no future!”, we need to remember how unpredictable the future is. The future takes some funny hops. Especially where God and His church are concerned.
In 1948, foreign missionaries were ejected from China. It looked like the end of Christianity in that massive nation. You could have sold the future of Christianity in China for a plugged nickel. But on the contrary–the native-grown church grew dramatically...even though it was persecuted.
During the Stalinist era, the Ukranian Catholic Church was wiped out. Its properties were taken away, its people were suppressed. The Ukranian Catholic Church disappeared. And then, when the Soviet Union fell...suddenly the Ukranian Catholics popped up again, asking: “Can we get our buildings back?” People thought they had been completely exterminated. Surprise!
The Christian faith is durable. You can’t kill it with a stick! There is a reason for this. Two thousand years ago, Jesus made a promise. He said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) ). When we think about that verse, we usually get caught up in the whole “does this apply to the Pope” controversy. But the more important part of that passage is the promise: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There is a divine promise that the church will survive. It is God’s church, and nothing can destroy it.
Sometimes God’s promises seem to hang by a thread. In the Old Testament, God promised that a Saviour would be born from King David’s line. There arose an evil queen named Athaliah, who was determined to exterminate David’s dynasty. (2 Kings 11). She had seized the throne in Judah, and wanted to kill all possible rivals. So every one of David’s descendants was murdered by her...except for one little baby named Jehoash, who was hidden away. God’s promise of a Saviour from David’s line was almost snuffed out. It hung by a thread–one little vulnerable baby. But it was God’s promise. And that’s a pretty powerful thread to hang from. And that one little surviving baby grew up to be king–a good king, for the Bible notes “Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (II Kings 12:2) Most importantly, he kept David’s dynasty going...until that dynasty finally delivered the Saviour who died for the sins of the world!
Is the future of Christianity hanging by a thread? So be it! It’s God’s thread, so it’s strong! I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over the demise of Christianity. “Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that church prevail, we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail”, as we sing in “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. Heck, a year or two ago the first new Christian church was built in Havana since before the revolution! That’s a wonderful sign of promise! And even though the church seems to be declining in America and Europe, it is flourishing in other regions. So let’s not be too unsettled by “predictions” about the future. The future is in the hands of God, and those are safe and strong hands indeed.
Now just where is my flying car?
God loves you and so do I!