Christian mission has always thrived by surging in the margins and under the radar. When we somehow get into positions of power, the wheels always come off. This is pretty much the way it’s always been. I once heard Steve Brown relate this story on the radio: “A Muslim scholar once said to a Christian, ‘I cannot find anywhere in the Qur’an that it teaches Muslims how to be a minority presence in the world. And I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament where it teaches Christians how to be a majority presence in the world.’”
Indeed, as Christianity spread throughout the first few centuries as a persecuted minority people, the conversion of Constantine paved the way for its becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the end of the fourth century. That’s quite a turnaround for some backwater sect splintering off an oppressed Palestinian Judaism. But as my old religion professor in college, M. B. Jackson, used to say, “When everyone’s a Christian, no one is.” And once Christianity became the official religion, the church lost its prophetic voice and its vibrancy.
Many religions, like Islam for example, seem to thrive on conquest and power. Christianity grows best under hardship. There are more Christians in China today, for instance, where free expression of faith is illegal, than the total population of the United States. Christianity is in decline in America, and Christendom is already in ruins in Europe, but in the East and in Africa, where it is new, a grassroots movement, and/or under persecution, it is spreading like wildfire.
I sometimes wonder if God has set the growth of Christianity to work this way to keep in the forefront of our minds the treasure and glory of heaven over and above the treasure and glory of earth. Jesus sets the tone for Christians’ quiet mission this way:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1–4)
Unlike other religions, where good works are central to success, Christianity proclaims the glory of Jesus Christ and his work, and the good works of his followers become the beautiful dust stirred up in our following him wherever he goes. Christians are not earning their salvation with their good deeds; they are working it out (Phil. 2:12).
Since Christians believe that the work of salvation is already accomplished by Jesus, and there is nothing left for them to do to contribute to this work, they are now free to unselfconsciously love and serve others without worrying about recognition or reward. They will be vindicated in heaven, even if they are violated here.
Christians are called to good works. This is how people know we are Christians. But they also know we are Christians—and not charitable Buddhists—because we don’t make good works our boast.
(This is an excerpt from Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling)