Updated: 28.07.2016 (now with web links)
This reﬂection is both out of date and up to date at the same time – I apologise for the paradox!
Out of date because a number of the issues raised have been on my mind for some time, yet up to date due to the unfolding events in Russia.
As I write, a number of news outlets, including the BBC, are reporting on an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency and into “allegations made by the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory.” This investigation has found that “Russia’s sports ministry ‘directed, controlled and oversaw’ (the) manipulation of urine samples provided by its athletes”, and that Russian athletes beneﬁtted from the disappearance of positive doping samples.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee) are due to meet in the coming days to decide their response. All very interesting, all very current, and, as one might expect, all over the Press.
However, what many news outlets are entirely overlooking are the other events currently unfolding in Russia, and which concern this blog piece.
One of the few mainstream, as opposed to speciﬁcally Christian, newspapers to note the other events is the Wall Street Journal; and in an opinion piece, entitled “Putin’s War on Prayer”, they bring to our attention “a new antiterrorism law that proscribes missionary activity and private worship” – a law which Protestant leaders in Russia have described as one which “brings us back to a shameful past.”
This law, which has now come into effect, blocks the sharing of faith in any place other than a government-sanctioned place of worship. As the Christian Post reports, “under the new law, any kind of discussion about God with non-believers would be considered missionary activity and punishable by law, and religious activities even in homes will not be allowed.”
Furthermore, “every citizen is required to report religious activity to the authorities, or face punishment him or herself.”
For those who grew up through the 1970’s and are familiar with reports of the Underground Church in Eastern Europe, the reports are ominously familiar.
So much for the up to date aspect of this article.
What has also been on my mind, but for much longer, is the more general question of how the Church in the West relates to the question of persecution, and more speciﬁcally, whether or not it has any idea what it might do if a similar turn of events took place here.
I emphasise, ﬁrst, however, that I do not think that the Church in the West is currently facing persecution. Yes, some disputes have highlighted the question of religious freedom and the extent to which the State is moving against this, and other articles on this site have discussed the matter here, and here, but to equate these concerns with the long term imprisonment, torture and execution of believers is not reasonable.
There is, therefore, neither any reason to panic nor overstate the problems we face.
But it is also true to say that our churches are not exactly packed, nor are we held in much esteem in the nation. Indeed, the distinct lack of popular debate about the validity of belief in God (have you noticed how the heat of debate and attacks from New Atheism have decreased?) probably has more to do with the ‘new normal’ – an attitude of non-belief in society – as it has to do with a waning of Atheism – certainly there there are no great signs of revival of Biblical Christianity in the West.
And the decline of religion/belief is not conﬁned to the Church of England (see the above link); a conversation at the weekend conﬁrmed what I already knew and continued to expect, that membership in my own mainstream (signiﬁcantly evangelical) denomination continues to decline as well.
We have, of course known this for quite some time – hence the reason for websites like this one and the many other valiant apologetics blogs, ministries and writing which has supported the wider Church in defending and in shoring up our faith.
What has also intrigued me, however, is the way in which much of our Church lives continue on as if nothing else has changed; in other words, we still tend to think in terms of the Church as an organisation which plays a central role in our society and order our living accordingly. And so, for example, we continue to discuss the need for ‘church growth’ and evangelism as if it was 1980, focusing on an event and programme driven approach to both while relishing the small allowances we have made in terms of how we might adapt our message to an unchurched world (the ‘world’, of course, has always been unchurched!)
And we continue to think of our role as that of defending moral standards; but would it surprise a 21st Century Christian to know that our ever-so-pressing questions of sexuality, marriage and the family were being discussed in the 1960’s, and form a signiﬁcant part of the content matter of ‘The Letters of Francis Schaeffer’? There is little in those letters which is not relevant today.
In short, there is nothing new about the experience of our debates, and while morality and evangelism are most deﬁnitely an important part of Church life, the point is that we are continuing to do what we have always done as if nothing else had changed – and the point about that, is that we still consider ourselves to be fulﬁlling the central, formative and inﬂuential role in society we once did.
But we’re not! we are a Church in exile, and I suggest our view of ourselves would beneﬁt from a review.
And if it is also true that the ﬁrst ﬂush of New Atheist ire towards the Church has subsided somewhat, and I think it has, then that concerns me more than the heat of debate.
Likewise, if we pause to consider some of our other ‘pressing’ discussions and ‘battles’ of the last 30 years, what do we discover? (I speak of the popular experience of the average Church member.)
Well, we have ‘fought’ over the style of music we play on a Sunday morning (they weren’t called ‘worship wars’ for nothing); we have fought over the instruments we use; fought over the clothes we should wear; fought over the use, or otherwise, of technology; fought over versions of the Bible; and we’re still ﬁghting about our view of the ‘End Times’.
And while all of this continues our children could be forgiven for thinking that a paid-in-full summer mission trip to a hot-and-sunny-clime is a sacriﬁce, challenge or hardship akin to Paul’s shipwreck off Crete – not to mention an electrical power failure before the weekly service begins!
My aim, then, is to encourage a thought experiment. The Church in the West is not facing persecution – but what if it was? How would that affect our thinking and our living? And even if we are not to face persecution any time soon, how would a thought experiment about it help us towards greater empathy with our brothers and sisters who face persecution on a daily basis? How would a thought experiment about persecution affect our attitude to our brothers and sisters for whom Christian apologetics is not a matter of ‘argument’ but of life and death?