The headlines tell the story:
- Christian churches burnt down in Kenya
- Christians murdered, churches vandalized
- Churches Torched As Thousands Rally to Wahid's Side
- Christian churches under attack
- 3 women killed in Pakistan
- Indonesian Churches Attacked: Radical Muslim Fighting Force Poised for War
- Indonesian Muslims Again Attack Churches
We have come to this day in history. Throughout the world, Christians and churches are being attacked. Terror alerts warn of "spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy, and maximum psychological trauma." I have sat in our auditorium on Sunday mornings glancing out the large windows on either side, wondering, "What if they sent a suicide bomber or a small aircraft into full, large suburban churches here in America or another country on a Sunday morning?"
I don't mean to strike terror into the hearts of readers…of course not, but we do need to think realistically about the time in which we now live as Christians. We are quite possibly entering into a time of physical persecution of the church. This should be of no surprise. The Bible promises we will endure persecution and encourages us to persevere and be faithful, and even to delight in and boast about being persecuted for our faith.
The fact is, where true Biblical Christianity is being lived out, bombing a building cannot kill the church! The enemy can try to strike fear into the hearts of Christians so that they will not attend church services, but they cannot stop the real church from being the church. Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18). The real church is not a building, of course, but a community.
As Christians, we have no sacred places in the world: Not Rome; Not Constantinople; Not Wittenberg; Not Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Not Dallas, or Nashville, or Chicago. Biblical Christianity, as distinguished from many other world religions, is not centered on any location or building. When a Samaritan woman questioned Jesus about the correct place to worship, He corrected her: "a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23). Our sacred place is where God is present: in Christian community. Jesus said, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20).
When small groups of Christians meet in the name of Jesus ("because they are mine" in the New Living Translation) in homes, throughout neighborhoods, in businesses, in restaurants – when they are going into all the world rather than congregating in church buildings, they are the true church – a church that is next to impossible to attack.
Under circumstances of extreme persecution, where church buildings are not safe, what would small groups do?
We would, first of all, seek to know and love and praise God together. In community, we would worship Him in spirit and in truth. Under these circumstances, I doubt we would argue much over style and preferences. Living our lives together in Christian community would itself be a daily act of worship (Ro. 12:1).
We would love one another. That is how the world will know that we are His disciples – not by meeting en masse in buildings, but by how we love one another in real, authentic community.
We would dig into God's Word together, not just for the sake of Bible study (information) but for spiritual growth (transformation).
We would pray – for one another, for the world, for the church in the world, and for our enemies. Prayer is disarming!
We would serve the world around us. Neighborhood small groups would serve our neighbors, loving them and being light in the midst of a hostile, dark world.
We would spread the gospel message to neighbors and friends. Our love for one another and our world would make an impact on the world around us.
We would do everything that the church does. Because small bands of Christian community is the church as Jesus envisioned it!
Another question to consider: What if all the pastors – that is, the professional, paid, seminary-trained staff leaders – of the church were all killed? What would happen then? Would our churches then cease to exist?
This would be a terrible day in the life of the church. And yet, if this were to happen, the church just might grow and become stronger than ever before. Because the church could no longer be dependent on the "professional clergy" to do the ministry of the church, new leaders would emerge in community. The church could then actually be the church it is meant to be.
There is a story about a church in Ethiopia that went "underground" when communist rule took over. Church buildings were closed and pastors jailed. The church met in very small groups that read God's Word, and talked and prayed in whispers. When a group grew larger than just a few people, some would start meeting in another home or apartment, so as not to be noticed. After years of this, the church reopened with ten times the number of people that were part of the original church. I'm not sure about the accuracy of all the information in this story, but history has shown us over and over again the value of organism over organization.
One more question: What if all small group ministers were gunned down? (Now we're getting close to home!) What would happen to the small group ministries in those churches? How would new leaders be found and recruited and trained? How would existing leaders be supported? Who would put together the organizational charts and plan the budget? Would community die if small group pastors went home to the Lord?
If I am doing my ministry right, the small groups in our church will flourish without me. (I sure hope my boss doesn't read this!) If the church building where training events are held was obliterated, and if the professional trainers were taken away, all leadership training, equipping, development, and deployment would have to happen completely in small groups. It would happen by mentoring new leaders and multiplying the ministry of the church over and over again.
When we look at the model of Jesus and the early church, that is exactly how they did it! They grew the church without paid pastors, without small group ministers, without church buildings, without programs, without a lot of money. They did it Jesus' way: discipling, mentoring, and sending.
More than ever before, we need to get back to Jesus' way. We need to slip underneath the radar screen and focus on what cannot be bombed or shot at or terrorized. We must get back to the simplicity of discipling, mentoring, and sending … all in real community that comes together in Jesus' name. The gates of Hell shall never prevail against that church which Jesus has built!