Do you know what I find odd? The pervasive expectation of fear and persecution in the American church. It fascinates me, because it doesn’t belong there. Particularly as someone who spent 16 years of my life outside of the church, I can’t understand it at all.
When I was a kid, my elementary school had a Halloween festival every year. But one year, we had to change the name to the Fall festival because the PTA didn’t want to associate a school event with Halloween – a pagan festival. I guess just in case the devil himself might think he would be welcome at a Halloween festival but not a Fall festival. We did all the same things, the cake walk, the pumpkin carving, the costumes, even the haunted house! So, what was the point of changing the name of the festival? We all knew what it really was.
In junior high and high school, if you were white and middle class, everyone just assumed you were a Christian. We even had a Fellowship of Christian Athletes in a public school system. Totally acceptable. Everyone called our winter break a Christmas break, students, teachers, administrators – everyone. The major Christian holiday of the year fell right in the middle of our winter break. What if you were Jewish and wanted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur? You had to ask for the day off – which you were entitled to have, but no Christian student ever had to ask for a day off from school to celebrate a religious holiday.
I went to a Christian college, where everyone knew the right answers. If you died today would you go to heaven? Yep. How do you know? Because the blood of Jesus covers my sins. Boom, aced it.
Does everyone mean the words they sing at chapel? Did everyone who shows up in the dining hall dressed for church actually go to church? What does it mean to believe in Jesus at a Christian university? What do you give up for the sake of Christ when the university culture is predominantly Christian?
When I prepared to go to Austin for graduate school, my church warned me about the dangers of attending a secular university. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, and if you’ve been a young person attending an evangelical church in the US, you’ve probably heard the same thing. The warnings about the “secular culture” and the “worldly temptations” which could “damage your faith.”
I sensed almost an expectation that my faith would be irrevocably harmed and possibly lost in the dangerous world of the secular university. Step back for a moment and consider this: you raise a child in a church environment, send them to Sunday school (back in the day), send them to Vacation Bible School in the summer, teach them the basic tenets of your faith and then send them out to college where you tell them that the temptations they face will be enough to crush the very seeds of faith that you have spent their whole lives cultivating.
Do you know what happened when I came to Austin? I found a community of Christians who had a faith that was build upon the rock. They valued their beliefs because they had to defend them, not just to their non-Christian friends, but to themselves. They found that being surrounded by a culture that did not assume they were Christian caused them to specifically define what they believed and why. They did this for themselves, so they would know where they found their identity and meaning and worth. So when their belief was challenged, they would not be shaken because their faith was build on the rock of Christ.
Now, maybe you know better than to buy into it, but if you look around at the majority of Christian culture here in America, you find a lot of fear. Fear of sending your kids to public school where they might learn that the earth is a few billion years old. What about the book of Genesis? What will that do to their faith?
Fear that your children might learn about sex in a classroom where they are also taught that birth control and condoms can help prevent pregnancy. But won’t that encourage them to have sex? It’s a slippery slope…
Fear that exposure to the biological sciences or a philosophy class, or a liberal roommate, or a Muslim classmate might cause your child to question what they have been taught. God forbid they have to think critically about their faith! What if their beliefs are challenged?
Fear that your Muslim neighbor might be a sleeper agent. Fear that your gay neighbor has some kind of “agenda.” Fear that giving more freedoms to your neighbor who is different from you might take freedoms away from you.
Why is this fear so prevalent in mainstream American Christianity? Don’t we know that perfect love casts out all fear? Don’t we remember that when we build our house on the rock it cannot be shaken by storms or torn down by tempests? Have we forgotten that our faith should be refined by fire, like precious metals?
I have found that my greatest challenges have come not from an outside force, not from a secular idea or from a non-Christian friend, but from my own heart. My faith can only be as strong as I have built it and if it wavers, it’s because I have not maintained it. The “enemy,” as it were, is inside me.
Your enemy is probably also inside of you, and all the insulation that you build up against the secular culture, your neighbors, your co-workers – whoever and whatever you have designated as the enemy in your life – it won’t protect you from the one and only one able to truly challenge your faith.