A few years ago when I had responded to the call into ministry I was still in my last year of receiving a political science degree. I decided that rather than throwing away 3 years of work I would finish out my degree and then go to a seminary and study theology. I was telling one of my most respected international relations professors that I was going to enroll in a theology program and shoot for my master’s degree. This professor tracked me down on campus a few days later and gave me a copy of the periodical, “Faith & Foreign Policy.” I was very excited to see my two major interests collide. However, when I read the papers that were presented in this periodical I was strangely troubled. The papers were all on the theme of ending religious persecution. The reason I would say that I was strangely troubled is because while I know persecution is horrific and de-humanizing, I also know that the only church (so far) that Jesus praises is one that stands firm in the midst of strong persecution. I don’t want to see anyone jailed or killed for their faith, yet that is where the kingdom forcefully advances. I found myself living in a strange paradox, I am a humanitarian and yet I don’t want to work to end religious persecution.
The city of Sardis was built on top of cliffs. It had only been attacked successfully two times in its lifespan. A small team free-climbed the cliffs in the middle of the night and opened the gates while the city was sleeping. An attack on Sardis was rare. The church in that city was a reflection of the safety that the town enjoyed. During the time that John wrote Revelation there is no indication that imperial worship was required, neither was there persecution for being a Christian. The church in Sardis enjoyed an unusual safety within the walls of the Roman Empire.
What Jesus had to say should ring loudly in the ears of the American church. “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” It is great to be a Christian in America. You can give to your church and get a tax write off at the end of the year. There is no danger of going to jail because of what you believe. No one is going to hold a gun to your head and make you choose Jesus or not. Life is good…we are safe.
But I am reminded of Jeremiah at the temple. His message was, don’t think you’re safe just because you are at the temple, remember Shiloh? But wait what happened at Shiloh? At Shiloh the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant in a battle. The thought was, “we will be safe if we just take this into battle.” They were conquered because safety can sometimes breed apathy.
When I played baseball a lot of times we would lose the game in the ninth inning when we were up by a number of runs. We would just take the field and we thought that we already won it and taking the field was just a formality, our goal was to maintain our position. Is that what church has become in America? Taking the field in the ninth? Have we become a church primarily concerned with keeping the structure in tact? As I even write this there is a still small voice asking me when will you be ready to step out of your safe life? When will you be willing to go to uncharted territory?
So what does a good church look like? Maybe one who’s goal is not to maintain the structure of, “this is what we’ve always done,” Maybe one who is willing to innovate. Maybe a good church rejects the safety that surrounds it and goes out on a limb each and every day. Maybe a good church risks and prays. A good church is humble, always knowing that God is in control and can remove them at the blink of an eye.