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By David W. Virtue, DD
January 26, 2021

It is axiomatic that no one wants to suffer...either for their faith or anything else. The problem of pain is not something Americans like to dwell on. It is an intrusion into their lives, bent as we are on the good life with all that it offers. 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' is our general mantra.

These last many months pain has intruded into our lives as never before. Nearly half a million Americans have died of a disease they had never heard of a year ago. Families and friends have been torn apart over the musings of a president; church doors have closed in the face of a pandemic ripping the nation apart.

Suffering is all around us. Theologians tell us we cannot blame God, or China or the disease. We should 'lament', we should repent for our many sins and perhaps God in His mercy will deliver us. So far, God has not done that despite the anguished cries of prophetic soothsayers. We are told to listen to the scientists, and we will get over this faster. They are right, but still, it does not absolve us of our behavior as the disease bears relentlessly down on us all day in and day out, killing family, friends and neighbors.

The words of C.S Lewis ring eerily true; "But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Churches are getting a megaphone on suffering. On church practice, most priests and pastors believe the way forward is Zoom; a handful of pastors believe it is an issue of free speech and we should be allowed to gather freely together without government interference. Several pastors and priests have paid the ultimate price for their choice. So be it. But this is not what it is all about.

COVID-19 might be God's megaphone to let us suffer, not because we deserve it, we might. But because it is His megaphone to wake us up, to tell us that suffering is what the Church needs to refine it, clean it up and if necessary, start over.

Consider the following. The Church in China is 60 million strong; it is mostly evangelical with 6 percent Catholic. China is the most technologically monitored country in the world. Rod Dreher in his book Live not by Lies writes that China already has hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras in place. Xi's government hopes to soon achieve full video coverage of key public areas. Much of the footage collected by China's cameras is parsed by algorithms for security threats of one kind or another. Soon, every person who enters a public space could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body's one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources--travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases--to predict political resistance before it happens. China's government could soon achieve an unprecedented political stranglehold on more than 1 billion people.

Despite all this, Chinese Christians meet and worship, paying the price with restrictions, sometimes jail and death.

Nigeria is the most persecuted nation in Africa. Christians, many of them Anglican, are daily slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani tribesmen, yet the churches grow, converts are made and in the case of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, growth has been startling. As of 2012, there were 14 archbishops, heading 14 ecclesiastical provinces, with a total of 161 dioceses. The Church of England has two archbishops, 42 dioceses and they are watching as the Church shrivels with each passing month. Persecution in Nigeria (and the South Sudan) is strengthening the hands of evangelists and new dioceses are aborning with regularity.

At Wikipedia, this statement can be found; The Church of Nigeria shall be Bible-based, spiritually dynamic, united, disciplined, self-supporting, committed to pragmatic evangelism, social welfare and a Church that epitomizes the genuine love of Christ. How many western Anglican provinces could claim that? Almost none.

According to Open Doors, an average of 13 Christians is killed every day. That's nearly 400 Christians dying every month or nearly 5,000 a year. Just because they follow Jesus. Nobody dies for their faith in America. You might lose your job, but nobody is putting a gun to your head.

Of course, martyrdom is part of Christian history, tradition and experience. Martyrs were the reason the Early Church grew during the persecutions. Nothing matched those deaths. The apostles suffered greatly for their faith and in most cases met violent deaths on account of their bold witness.

Americans feel protected by the First Amendment, though many evangelical commentators now believe that under President Biden that could all come to a grinding halt. They believe that American Christians will feel the wrath of 'cancel church' in the wake of churches being forced to perform homosexual marriages, bless transgender relationships and more. If they refuse, they could lose their non-profit status.

As things now stand, mainline denominations are already on the skids and within a generation will be gone. The Roman Catholic Church faces hemorrhaging over (homo)sexual scandals and evangelicals have so compromised themselves with their allegiance to Donald Trump, that Nones, now the single biggest non-Christian group in America are as big as evangelicals and Catholics in the US. "Nones have been on the march for a long time now," Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University recently wrote. Nones now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016. That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious -- or nonreligious -- groupings in the country.

There is not a shred of evidence to think that will reverse any time soon.

So, what might be the best thing for the Church in America be in the future? Hold your breath. Persecution.

What would that do, what might it look like?

First, it would separate out real and true followers of Christ from the 'pay, pray and obey' crowd. It would weed out nominal Christians, the 'play the game of church crowd' that Fr. Richard Rohr once opined about. Rather than face persecution for something you really in your heart of hearts don't believe in, why not drop church altogether? These people would spend their Sundays playing and having fun. Why bother with Church if you really don't adhere to Scripture, church teachings, practicing the faith and believe in 'amendment of life.'

This, in fact, might leave a very small minority of believers who, if they are chased out of their buildings, are forced to meet clandestinely in their homes. This happened in Czechoslovakia when the Communists invaded and took over, according to author Rod Dreher.

During the 60s, I personally smuggled bibles into Czechoslovakia and Poland to vibrant home church groups. They kept the faith alive even as most people succumbed to the siren call of Communism.

If such a thing were to happen here, we would not need expensive church buildings and the costs to maintain them. We would not need archbishops or bishops, only clergy to administer the sacraments. They would appear at midnight in a home to baptize, bless, preach, give holy communion, and quietly leave.

Prosperity preachers would disappear, mega churches would dissolve, phony prophecy purveyors would be heard from no more. Religious leaders would no longer need to beg for money to keep up their lifestyles. Expensive conferences would end or meet on Zoom, presuming the authorities had not shut them down.

It was Jesus himself who said the way was narrow that leads to life and only a few find it. (Matt 7:14). Jesus never got it wrong. Never.


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