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Jesus’ church will not be overcome

Why I am confident in the future of Christianity.

I am confident about the future of Christianity. I really am. This is not an attempt to sound pious by quoting passages like, “The gates of Hades will not overcome [Jesus’ church]” (Matthew 16:18), although this promise is the basis for my hope. I truly am hopeful as I survey the cultural landscape.

Cultural shifts

I see cultural shifts that seem tailor-made for the gospel to prevail. This is nothing new. The church has survived and even thrived in troubling times. When we look back upon the distressing times of the early church, the medieval corruption, and the countless persecutions around the globe, we see unique opportunities for the gospel to spread. Our time is no different.

Some opportunities are obvious. The information age has flooded our minds with more data than we can possibly process. While it is difficult to sift through all this information for the truth, it also means that we live in an open marketplace of ideas. Christian publishing is producing great resources. I buy them faster than I can read them! Not to mention all the podcasts, reels, videos, and social media posts. A person almost needs to ignore all media to avoid the gospel.

Global Christianity is booming. Immigrants are joining churches in Europe at a remarkable pace.* The Global South is quickly becoming the new center of Christianity. And there are more Lutherans in both Tanzania and Ethiopia than in the United States (lutheranworld.org/member-churches). You can find confessing Christians in Africa from every denomination who do not fall into the traps Christians elsewhere do. I am not only grateful for this but also excited about this future.

Our answers to the world’s questions

Other more obscure reasons also brighten my outlook. First, our culture is becoming more holistic. We are not just “thinking-things.” For too long, our society looked at humans only through the lenses of biology, chemistry, and physics. We are waking up to the realization that we are more than our bodies or our brains. Think about all the pseudo-spiritual products and messages that bombard us today. Christianity has the answer to this holistic desire. It starts with the incarnation. God became human and continues to come to us in physical ways through the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the ministry of the church. God also calls each of us into real-world vocations to carry out his extraordinary love in ordinary ways. Most people are looking for a deeper meaning and purpose in their everyday lives. They are attempting to put the spiritual together with the physical. We have the answer.

Second, our culture is acutely aware of suffering and injustice. At one time, we accepted the collateral damage done to the environment, workers, and family in the name of progress. Not anymore. We can disagree on how to tackle these issues, but we all agree that there are issues. The modern world promised an end to suffering through the three Ps: psychology, pill, or policies. And yet there is more suffering than ever. Modernity had no answer to the question “Why is there suffering?” It could only promise the eradication of suffering. Christianity tackles this question by seeing suffering through the lens of the cross. If God can make an awful Friday afternoon a “Good” Friday, then he can and will make our crosses work for our eternal good. We have the answer.

Third, in some ways our culture is moving away from a hyper-individualistic mindset and embracing a collective or group mindset. There are dangers if we lose the individual in the group, but we also want to celebrate the group called the body of Christ. We are constantly told that there is a loneliness epidemic. People seek belonging. In the church, individual Christians are loved unconditionally so that they may flourish as individuals. We have the answer.

Fourth, many in our culture have replaced truth and falsity (also right and wrong) with an oppressor/victim framework. While it is helpful to see how power has corrupted past and present cultures, replacing truth and morality with power leads only to a different set of victims and oppressors. People have and will continue to grow weary of this framework that lacks nuance. Christ flips the power script upside down with agape love—love that is unselfish and unconditional. We have the answer.

Finally, our culture is more pious than ever. So many people are making so many accusations on a daily basis. There is a lot of law out there. Whether people know it or not, this is an attempt at self-justification. People are trying to be righteous (that’s all self-justification means). Even if a single person could avoid all the accusations flying around and come out looking pious and pure, there would be only one person left to blame: himself or herself! Self-justification leads to a dead end; it’s exhausting. Only the gospel can relieve us from the burden of trying to make ourselves righteous. We have the answer.

A way forward

So where do we go from here? Let’s start with some repentance. The church is not perfect and will never be this side of heaven. If we blame only the world for the mess we are in, we come off as arrogant and naïve. This is an impediment to the gospel. How about some charity too? People are suffering. People are desperate, and desperate people do desperate things. Our initial reaction cannot be defensive (These people are attacking my way of life!) but rather sympathetic (These people are sinners just like me and need the gospel just like me).

We also need to understand that God rules in two kingdoms. His left-handed kingdom is how he rules the world through governments. His right-handed kingdom is how he rules in our hearts. We never want to mix the two. Only the gospel changes hearts, not governments’ laws. The world has only law. If we ask the world to do the work of the church, we end up with only law. Our hope is not in people, or in the culture, government, political party, or movement. Our hope is in Christ.

Finally, and most important, we need to preach the gospel. I am not trying to sound pious. I really mean it. There is a difference between preaching the gospel and preaching about the gospel. Preaching about the gospel tells the story of the gospel: the who, what, where, when, and even why. This is good but not good enough. Preaching the gospel is when the gospel is for you. It is not an abstract theory. We are not thinking-things who only learn about the gospel so we can take a test. Rather we are bombarded with God’s law that shatters our self-piety and our hopeless faith in culture, politics, nation-states, and movements. Then we are comforted with the hope found only in Christ. A hope for us.

Sometimes the pendulum swings one way and then overcorrects and swings too far the other way. So be it. It’s a messy world. Maybe we got too complacent in the United States. Maybe we ignored some sins while preaching thunder and lightning against others. Maybe the time has come when Christianity in the United States will not be the default culture. Maybe the church will be challenged. So be it. It might be a good thing. I know it will be because “the gates of Hades” will not overcome Jesus’ church. This is why I am confident.

*theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/05/european-churches-growing-flock-muslim-refugees-converting-christianity

View Michael Berg’s entire presentation from the WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership at lutheranleadership.com.

Author: Michael Berg
Volume 110, Number 8
Issue: August 2023

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This entry is part 2 of 16 in the series lutheran leadership

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