Then he went about among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.
In AD 100, the worldwide total number of Christians might have been about 25,000. For the next two centuries, Christianity was an an illegal religion, and endured several waves of violent persecution. It had no trained clergy, nor any church buildings as we know them. But in the early 300’s, when Christianity was finally legalized, the number of Christians was about 20 million.
In 1949, there were about 2 million Christians in China. Under Mao, the state killed or imprisoned every senior Christian leader and banned all meetings of Christians. After Mao had died, and China was somewhat liberalized in the early 1980s, Westerners began to visit it. They were stunned to find that the number of Christians-after 30 years of oppression!-was at least 60 million.
These statistics come from The Forgotten Ways, a book by the Australian Alan Hirsch. From these and other historical lessons Hirsh argues that the Church flourishes in adversity and stagnates, or even decays, in periods of calm and comfort. Whenever it has the luxury to do so, the church ceases to be a movement and becomes an establishment. It spends less of its energy changing lives and more of it doing institutional maintenance.
That’s not a happy thought, but the history of the church in America (and especially Europe) doesn’t provide a very good argument against Hirsch. Our Presbyterian denomination has shrunk about 3% in the last 25 years, while the U.S. population has grown by nearly a quarter. Other denominations have declined as well. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has shrunk nearly 10%-from 86% to 76%.
We like to think our institutional trappings are a help to us. We have a place of our own to gather, with classrooms and restrooms and musical instruments and anything else we might need. But restrooms have plumbing and classrooms need painting. With the best will in the world, we find ourselves distracted by it all. Our focus subtly shifts from changing lives to maintaining the institution.
So what are we to do? Advocate for greater religious oppression? Well, you can do that, but I like not being persecuted for my faith!
Jesus gives us the answer. Look at the gospels to see how he avoided the problems of institutional maintenance. He moved around. Even when he was popular, he kept moving. But he didn’t just move around with his disciples. He kept them moving too. Even then, we see the kind of problem Hirsch identified, with the disciples arguing among themselves about who was most important (e.g., Mark 9:33 and then again in 9:38). Maybe that’s why he sent them out without him on missionary trips.
After the Resurrection, Jesus sent out his disciples on the greatest trip of all, the one we’re still supposed to be on. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
So let’s lift our gaze a little higher. When we’re talking with our neighbors, let’s see that conversation as the encounter between the church and the world God is redeeming. When we bump into a friend at the grocery store or the community center, let’s remember that’s a place we can be disciples, too. Let’s remember the church isn’t a building or even what we do there. The church is the people of God, moving through history loving God and everyone whom God loves.