I spent a wonderful weekend in Boston working the Texas Rangers-Red Sox series. I walked around the city a bit, and part of that excursion was through a mostly out-of-my-price-range mall called Copley Place. The mall had several nice areas of plants and flowers and featured a beautiful glass atrium. I noticed several sparrows flitting about in the greenery and near the top of the atrium. Somehow these wild birds had found their way inside the posh mall. I watched them for awhile and I reflected on how "lucky" those birds were to be in a climate controlled atrium and not having to brave the New England elements. They could pick amongst the leftover food at the food court. Leftover food might be disgusting for humans but it is a feast for foragers. What a life!
And then it hit me. That is what I tend to gravitate toward in my Christian life. Preferring comfort to challenge, safety to risk. I looked at the birds in this artificial and safe environment and I decided that a shopping mall existence was a good life for them. Perhaps it was less of a challenge, but living in a climate-controlled atrium was not what birds were created to be. Those sparrows were created to fly freely. They were designed to move without hitting the glass ceiling of safety. Those birds were created to soar without restriction.
Nor did God create me to live in a climate-controlled atrium of safety. Living that kind of Christian life is so easy in America. There is a safe path of least resistance to be a Christian in this country. No resistance just might mean you aren't doing anything that threatens Satan. In basketball you don't guard the players that aren't doing anything. They pose no threat to your goal of winning the game. Sometimes I suspect I am unguarded by Satan's defense for a reason. I choose to lay back and be safe instead of boldly pursuing victory and risking failure.
Comfy Christianity is epidemic in America. We encounter a store that won't say Merry Christmas and we think we are persecuted. God help us. We send checks instead of serving. But according to most doing research we don't even do that very well.
God has called me (and you) to give and to serve. In the Civil War the wealthy paid poor men to go "serve" for them. I remember having such disdain when I read that bit of history. But don't I do the same thing in my Christian journey? I feel really good if I pay a missionary to go reach the world with the message of Jesus. I feel like I am godly if I give to the church so the "professionals" can do ministry. But God is asking me to do both: give and serve. Maybe He has not asked me to be a missionary, but certainly I am called to reach out to my neighbors, my coworkers, and my community. I was not created to live in a safe dome of climate-controlled Christianity. Jesus is not safe. Following Him will take you out of the comfort zone and into the messy world of ministry. How did the early church explode against all odds? The Church History Institute makes these points in an article on early church history:
After the Apostle Paul, we do not run across many "big names" as missionaries in the first few hundred years of Christian history. Instead the faith spread through a multitude of humble, ordinary believers whose names have been long forgotten. Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believers close-up, on a daily basis.
It is too often a tragic occurrence that careful observation of modern Christians on a close-up, daily basis is a reason to turn away from faith, not toward it. The article goes on:
And what kind of lives did they lead? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the believers: "We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."
In another place Justin points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their extraordinary forbearance when cheated and their honesty in business dealings.
Perhaps the main reason the early church exploded is contained in the lyric of a simple song we used to sing while we were on staff with Campus Crusade:
They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.
Will they know that from me? From you? Those exposed to the early church knew the people called Christians were different---very different. The article continues:
Christians became known as those who cared for the sick. Many were known for the healings that resulted from their prayers. Christians also started the first "Meals on Wheels." By the year 250, they were feeding more than 1500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.
When Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") wanted to revive pagan religion in the mid-300s, he gave a most helpful insight into how the church spread. This opponent of the faith said that Christianity "has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them."
Oh that we could adopt a "scandalous" faith that would not overlook a beggar or turn away from those who need care. Those who labor in love serving the AIDS victims in Africa are following that tradition. Is it a surprise that Christianity is growing so rapidly in Africa? God bless you. The brave followers of Jesus who carry the gospel to countries where persecution is real are following the example of the early church. God protect you.
For the rest of us, the questions are uncomfortable. Are we willing to leave the climate-controlled Christianity that is so comfy and fly outside where it is risky and dangerous? That is what we were created to be as followers of Jesus. Do we dare trust Him enough to take the chance?