Although last year’s census has not yet released the results for religious beliefs – it is expected that there will be a drastic decline in the number of people who identify as Christian. Part of this view is because the option of “no religion” was placed at the top of the list of options. Perhaps in the past people were less reluctant to say they had “no religion” but in our growing freedom of speech culture people are more confident to say how they feel. There may be other issues also.
The growing threat of terrorism linked to Islam, while not being Christian, does affect people’s view of religion. There is the growing debate on Same Sex Marriage where much of the public blame the church for holding back a vote in parliament.
And probably one of the biggest turn offs of people towards religion, especially Christianity is the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in institutions which people identify as “the church”.
With the decline in church attendance and the growing separation of the public from the church the task of mission is getting more and more challenging. Not just because of the growing amount of non-Christians to witness to but because of the hostility of the public towards the church. This is not unexpected for the church – far from it – as Jesus says – See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. This is not how we often see our mission work. We easily fall into the trap of thinking that the church is failing unless it is expanding throughout the world. Whereas that would be a magnificent result as it would mean more souls being saved for heaven, it is not symbolic of how the church has been received in the world throughout time. From the beginning of the church it has faced persecution and rejection.
Many of the letters in the New Testament are written in a climate of persecution and rejection to give encouragement to Christians. And with that encouragement the church continued to grow.
The church has lived with the experience of suffering for the faith as did the disciples of the first church. As we read the Book of Acts and the beginning of the Church we are introduced to a man by the name of Stephen. He tries to reason with his own people to tell them how much God loves them and what Jesus can offer to them. They block their ears and drag him into the street and stone him to death. A young man named Saul is standing there giving approval. He sees how much this pleased the people so he goes from house to house dragging Christians, men, women and children, from their homes and throws them into prison. Jesus says that this is how it is going to be in the life of the Church: He says: they will hand you over to councils and flog you; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.
So what we need to do is not to be disheartened by our seeming failure and rejection in the world but understand that this is part of the mission field we are sent into. We are not to see rejection as failure but how the world has always responded to the church. Sadly we too often judge the success of the church like the success of a business. But what the world deems as successful is not how God deems success as we are reminded so often by Paul especially in first Corinthians:
Paul says: The message of the cross is foolish God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are And just as rejection and persecution only made the Christians stronger so too it is to make us stronger and not give up our mission work. In fact, Paul says, we should rejoice that we are having this affect. He says: we should boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
People often talk about “the school of hard knocks” where a person learns skills that can’t be taught in a class room. They are skills learnt “on the job” as you make mistakes and learn from them. I remember coming out of my 5 years of study at Seminary to become a pastor. You come out thinking you have all the answers and you’re going to fix all the problems in the church and get it back on track. But nothing in the class room prepares you for sitting with a parent who loses their child in a car accident. Nothing in the class room prepares you for that call in the middle of the night to tell you someone has died. Nothing in the class room prepares you for the news that one of your parishioners marriage has just broken up.
Nothing prepares you with the words to answer why did I get cancer. These are not learnt but are handled with compassion, love and being there for them – not with answers but with hope. And that’s what mission is about – showing compassion and creating hope. Just like Jesus did when he saw the crowds and had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
What can be very disheartening is when that opposition comes from those close to us: Our friends and family.
Jesus also prepares us for that when he says that: Brother will betray brother, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents; and you will be hated by all because of my name.
There is only one success in the church that we focus on. And that has nothing to do with us as Paul tells the suffering Romans. Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The success of the church has already been achieved by Jesus and he has given us the results of that success: we have obtained access to grace of God in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. There’s that hope again that does not disappoint us. It would be lovely to see the church flourish in worldly terms but that has the danger of taking away what Christ has already achieved and instead focusing on ourselves and becoming disheartened when we don’t see “success” in what we are doing. Success in worldly terms. We are all sent out as missionaries in the world and it can be a daunting situation. I know I have been verbally abused and I know many others that have also. But we are to keep strong. And it begins with compassion as it did with Jesus. When you are rejected, don’t retaliate. Use it to pray about. When Jesus says to move on if rejected it’s not because we are condemning them but so we don’t lose heart and give up – move on to the next town.
We need to remember that the true mission is God’s. God is the one who converts the heart and as Jesus has said previously – Whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” I don’t always understand mission. It’s not like a program that if you do A plus B you’ll get C. At the end of the day it’s not about us. As St Paul says:
Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. It is the Lord’s harvest not ours and if we are disheartened then imagine how disheartened the Lord of the Harvest is. The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.