A few years ago, I read a story that has haunted me ever since. It was a firsthand account from a young man who grew up in Nazi Germany. He considered himself a Christian and was a part of a small church that gathered every Sunday to worship together.
The church had heard rumors about what was happening to the Jewish people. But they mostly tried to ignore the stories; they felt so powerless to stop the Nazi machine.
I imagine that the church was probably pretty average. If one of us were to have shown up we probably would have been able to fit in without standing out (other than that whole not speaking German thing, that would probably be noticeable).
The only distinguishing thing about this church is that it had been built a little too close to the train tracks. And lately, the trains had been running a lot. But the problem wasn’t the train; it was the cargo.
In this little church building, the German Christians could hear the sound of Jewish people on those trains. They could hear the train whistle as it would begin to approach, immediately followed by men and women screaming for help as they went barreling toward a Nazi death camp.
These church people had hearts, so the screams tormented them. They knew they had to do something, but they believed nothing they could do would make a difference.
So over time, they learned the schedule of the train, and they planned to start singing hymns to keep from hearing the loud cries from the doomed people rushing right past their walls.
Escaping the Call
It’s easy to feel disgust at this cowardly church, but I’m relatively sure that this happens on some level every Sunday across the world. It doesn’t happen intentionally, but we have both participated in and seen worship that ignores the suffering of the world and tries to escape from God’s call for us to participate in it.
This is not a new problem. The people of God throughout the centuries have been trying to pull this one off. It’s easy for us to start thinking that if we just perform the right ceremonies or do the correct rituals, God won’t expect more of us. But from Moses to the Prophets to Jesus, God has been adamant that part of what it means to be the His people has a lot to do with engaging the world outside of whatever walls we find ourselves in.
According to recent research, millennials are leaving church at alarming rates. And maybe it’s because some of us grew up in churches like that small German one; churches that made it a habit of escaping the call of God to bear in the suffering of the world.
But maybe it’s because of something much more subtle but just as problematic. Maybe it’s because we forgot that we are the Church, and leaving the pews can be just another way of escaping.
It’s not just churches that try to escape the world. On an individual level, we spend so much of our life trying to escape into Netflix, or wine, or through our kid’s sports league, or our jobs or the internet. We numb ourselves because when we don’t, we can hear those cries, and we feel so small and helpless.
The Gates of Hell
When Jesus started the Church, He took 12 young disciples to a city known for having religious orgies to celebrate the god Pan. The city was Caesarea Philippi, and it was widely known as the “Gates of Hades” (which sounds like an incredible tourist destination).
That was where Jesus said: “I will build my Church right here, and the Gates of Hades won’t overcome it.”
Jesus went to the place where all hell was breaking loose, and He declared that the Church is a powerful force in the world. It is a force with a mission, a purpose, and it has been given authority to press into places of darkness to declare the redemption of God
It was as if He declared that “There’s nothing in the world that can keep me out of the world.”
The New Testament tells us that Jesus is “Immanuel,” which means, “God with Us.” But we tend to read that backwards, as if Immanuel really means “Us with God.” As in with God somewhere else, sometime else. But the Bible isn’t telling us a story about a distant Heaven. Unlike every other ancient religious text, the Bible ends with Heaven coming down to this earth.
Heaven isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning of the world as it was always meant to be. And the Church is, for all her flaws and warts, a colony of Heaven, a place where in her best moments we see where the world is headed.
The Church in the World
Some days the Church is living out this role, and she’s beautiful. And other days she sings louder so that she doesn’t have to hear the tortured screams around her. But Jesus still started her, claims her and has hope in her.
Church isn’t the only place to meet God, but at her best, Church is where we learn how to meet God everywhere else. Church is where we learn how to lay down our lives for the common good and the glory of God. At her best, the story of the Gospel has nothing to do with escapism. After all, it is a story about a God who comes in the flesh, and in every city, ever since, He still is.
The Gospel doesn’t tell us, “If you’re serious about Jesus you will leave this immoral place. Think about your children and protect your family from this immoral city. Flee to safety!”
The Gospel brings us to life and asks us to press into the city where we live. The Gospel invites us to step into places of injustice as people of righteousness to see what God is up to and what God can do.
So, instead of singing louder to drown out the cries of the hurting, maybe we allow those cries to transform what we sing and how we sing. The heavens sing of God’s passionate desire to restore all things, so let’s join in with our lips and lives.
Josh and Jonathan are the authors of Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don't Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News. Josh is the lead minister for Sycamore View Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Jonathan is the preaching minister at the Highland Church in Abilene, Texas.