Christianity Today (September ’16) featured the findings of a LifeWay Research survey that asked 2,000 people who do NOT attend church what would draw them to one. The results were revealing:
Skye Jethani, on the Phil Vischer Podcast, insightfully asked the following question while discussing this survey: What does it say about our deepest concerns and highest societal values that the number one draw for people to darken the doors of our churches would be a community meeting on neighborhood safety? I think it reinforces the fact that we live in a fear-mongering, paranoid culture where many feel uneasy, afraid, anxious about our safety and we are committed to providing safer environments in which to live and raise our children.
No doubt, these are troubling times. Global terror has become a threat on our own shores, in our own cities. Mass school shootings are too common. Racial tensions are high and there’s a growing lack of trust in those called to protect us (e.g., police officers). I heard a radio ad today warn me that a home burglary happens every 16 seconds and I ought to invest in home security cameras to alert my smart phone every time anyone steps onto my property.
But I have a newsflash: Threats to human safety is not a new thing! Ever since the first the crafty serpent trespassed in the Garden of Eden, human beings have been at risk for theft, personal harm, pain and suffering. We live in a fallen world.
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians addresses anxiety head on. Now, its important to remember he didn’t write from a comfortable office at the city hall calling a meeting on neighborhood safety. He wrote the following words from a dirty prison cell, probably bandaged from unjust beatings, and his own life hanging in the balance. (He would be put to death by beheading eventually.)
His audience were living in far more troubling times than we. They were facing far harsher persecutions and had far more to fear than we do. So, with this background in mind and with our own society’s epidemic of fear, anxiety and general uneasiness on the front page of our consciousness, let’s read one of Paul’s most famous passages:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4-7)
Overfamiliarity breeds unfamiliarity. We’ve read this so many times as to now gloss over it without really grasping the profound message. Don’t let this passage become watered down Christianese or an empty cliche. Let it ring out fresh today, and let its rich contents wash over your troubled, anxious, fearful and comfort-seeking soul.
In an anxious world so afraid of the uncertain future (and present!), the church of Christ are called out of the parade of paranoia and invited to march to the beat of a different drummer. (The Greek word for church is eklessia which means “the called out ones.”) The future is secure in God’s hands, we know the end of the story, and we are guarded by Christ in the present and not even death itself can touch us. Paul simply saw the world in such a way — such a Christ-saturated, gospel-shaped way — that he feared nothing, and even experienced a constant joy in the midst of trials.
- When those around him were fearing and despairing, Paul was rejoicing – always (4:4)!
- When the tragic front page headlines led others to conclude God was absent, Paul’s faith in the risen Christ convinced him that “God is near!” (4:5b).
- When the violent acts of a few disturbed people cause some to put up walls, buy guns, grow defensive and cynical, a faith like Paul’s helps one exude a “gentleness” that is evident to all (4:5a).
- When injustice leads crowds to the scene of the crime or the governor’s mansion in protest, Paul first drops to his knees in prayers of petition and requests to the God of the universe (4:6).
- When people around us are organizing neighborhood safety forums bring peace of mind, Christians ought to be teaching our kids how to “guard their hearts and minds with a robust faith in Christ” (4:7).
My biggest concern is not that unchurched people are most interested in attending a neighborhood safety forum. That makes sense. While there’s nothing wrong with hosting such a meeting, what disturbs me is when churches and believers get too swept into the societal waters themselves and begin to look and act (and worry!) like everyone else. We get ensnared in the same web of fear, obsession with security and safety, and spending our time worrying about the future that God has already secured.
Paul provides a different posture toward our world’s uncertainties:
“Joy, prayer, thanksgiving, peace—these identify Pauline spirituality. Such lives are further marked by gentle forbearance and no anxiety. The key lies with the indicative, the Lord is near—now and to come. In a post-Christian, postmodern world, which has generally lost its bearings because it has generally abandoned its God, such spirituality is very often the key to effective evangelism. In a world where fear is a much greater reality than joy, our privilege is to live out the gospel of true shalom, wholeness in every sense of that word, and to point others to its source” (IVP New Testament Commentary Series).
The world in which we live is like the boat in the storm. Our neighbors are like the 12 disciples scared silly and fearing for their lives. The church of the 21st century has an opportunity to represent the calm, confident Jesus who is so peace-filled he is able to rest even in the middle of the squall. We must arise, like Jesus, and point help others find “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (4:7).