A few of us were gathered recently to discuss the state of the church in the United States. One posed the question, “Would you rather be a missionary in a society that had freedom of religion or not?” It was an interesting query and caused a few moments of reflection.
A surprising consensus developed gradually, however. We all agreed that we would rather be missionaries in a society that had freedom of religion, but would rather be pastors in a society where the church faced regular persecution. It is far easier to scatter seed when you won’t be arrested or executed for doing so, meaning missionary work might prove more fruitful in an open society. Nevertheless, in open societies the church almost always grows complacent, compromising its integrity and mission. Persecution refines the church, however, so that those who remain show themselves to be committed disciples, as willing to suffer or die for the kingdom as the King himself was. Many of the problems facing the American church—cheap grace, sloth, consumerism, self-indulgence—would recede instantly if the cost of following Christ were made more immediately obvious through persecution.
What strikes me as interesting, though, is that the explosive growth of the church in the first century occurred in a society that was both open and hostile. The Romans had an official policy of pluralism, allowing Paul and the other apostles to proclaim whatever religion they might desire; however, the Romans also had an implicit policy against exclusivism, so that any religion that claimed pride of place faced reprisal. So Paul, Peter, and the others preached openly, and then were martyred gloriously.
Perhaps these are the ideal conditions for making genuine disciples: openness and hostility, a persecuted freedom. One may scatter seed freely—a necessary condition for explosive growth; but one may also expect persecution—formal or informal—ensuring that those who come into the fellowship of the saints have counted the cost of following a crucified Savior.
And perhaps more interesting for us in America today, these are the conditions we face in increasing measure day by day. We still have institutionalized freedom—and one suspects the Bill of Rights will not undergo many changes in the near future—but we also face increasing hostility from a cultural establishment that embraces pluralism and hates exclusivism.
Are the conditions ripe for explosive growth? Is our next revival on the horizon? Let us pray it be so!