The Persecuted Church In America
I am not a revolutionary. I am not a rebel. I am not a protestor or an agitator or an instigator. I’m certainly not an activist or an extremist or a radical.
Then why am I standing on a stage preaching God’s Word in the midst of a city-sanctioned investigation? Why am I being secretly videotaped singing worship songs to be used as evidence in a case against my church? Why has God brought me here?
You might think I’m in China or Iran, but I’m in America — Lake Worth, Florida.
God is showing me that the landscape of the Church is shifting. Churches are emerging in the least likely places all over the world. Services are held in parks, houses, chapels, theaters, schools, and coffee bars. Men and women are coming to Christ in enormous numbers. The message of the Gospel is exploding and the Lord is on the move, in pursuit of people. He has laborers across the globe sowing and reaping the harvest.
I attended a Voice of Martyrs conference a few months ago. This organization exists to bring awareness and aid to the persecuted church in countries like Syria, Iran, and China. The location of the conference was very appropriate: a missionary plane hanger that houses small crafts, which can be flown into hostile and remote locations. There was palpable somberness in the hanger, mixed with a touch of adventure and excitement.
On my way to the conference, I prepared my heart for what I expected to feel: guilt for the lack of persecution I have faced in my own life, pity for those who have suffered for their faith, and an awkward sense of duty to respond financially.
Instead, as each speaker took the stage to share his or her stories of torture, imprisonment, oppression, and loss, I felt something I did not expect: hope. The speakers asked that we pray for them, not to avoid persecution, but to remain faithful, hopeful, and joyous in all circumstances. Their tales were unbelievable in their scope of humanity’s depravity and God’s capacity to love and redeem. As they spoke I realized the wonderful fellowship shared between the persecuted. It’s almost like an inside joke between friends that is warm and inclusive, never alienating or biting.
When they finished, my heart was full of peace, passion, and confidence in my God and His Bride. I felt proud to be called a Christian and belong to the same family as those who had died and suffered for the cause of Christ. Somewhere deep inside, I felt connected to all the followers of Christ who had come before me: the apostles, the saints, and the martyrs.
I returned from the conference and went back to my incredible job at Common Ground Church, a church plant sprouted from the rich soil of the fervent prayers and ceaseless efforts of Pastor Mike Olive and his family. It is a haven for those who are lonely, joyful, fatherless, lower class, middle class, upper class, retired, full-time, well adjusted, unique, passionate, homeless, single, married, doubtful, and faithful. It is a place, quite literally, of common ground. We’ve had the opportunity to open a full time coffee bar and be a force for good in our community, shining a light into the darkness and meeting people where they are.
Pastor Mike called a staff meeting last week to inform us that the church had been cited by a code compliance officer who was secretly recording our service on Sunday. In the official report, he saw: “people holding what appeared to be bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it.” We were given three weeks to cease and desist (our services) or face penalties. We are still in the throes of legal conversation and action; but the subject in the forefront for all of us is prayer. Prayer has kept us strong and united to other Christians in our community, country, and around the world. It has drawn us closer to God and to one another.
A little about the background of this situation: we are first a coffee shop and the church rents space for the services. We have a business license for the coffee bar but a city ordinance says we do not have the right to hold worship gatherings without a license for the church as well. We're arguing that that ordinance is unconstitutional (you can read the news release here).
A few days ago, Pastor Mike shared with the staff that our situation is the tip of the wave of persecution that will hit America over the coming decades. I believe this is true. We have long lived in relative ease and comfort in our Christian lives and have enjoyed the safety of our freedom of religion. There will be a day where being a Christ-follower will be a dangerous title to bear in America.
But this is not bad news! There is a fellowship that accompanies persecution. There is a bonding and knitting together that occurs between hearts under siege. There is a beauty to the Body of Christ that goes unseen because it has not been refined by fire. God is glorified in our suffering. We share in the suffering of Christ and become more like Him.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.…” -1 Peter 4:12-14
This leads me to my great discovery. I am not revolutionary, but Jesus was.
His message was revolutionary. His love was radical. His grace was extreme. He asks us as a body of believers to share in the fellowship of the persecuted.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Common Ground church site. Updates on this story will be published there!
// image via Common Ground