“But our citizenship is in heaven . . .” (Philippians 3:20).
I recently visited a number of Amish businesses in Holmes County, Ohio, to look at furniture. I was impressed by the variety and craftsmanship, saw that they did take their work seriously, and enjoyed talking to the young men and women from both Amish and old order Mennonite backgrounds. I was also impressed by the number of scriptural phrases and other Christian themes in the decorations that they had hanging around their shops. Certainly there would have been a witness to many who may have visited their businesses who were unfamiliar with the actual words of scripture. I found myself wondering, though, whether it would become old hat to many inside their businesses and organizations, and whether they might become insensitive to what was actually being said. Even more, I wondered how much someone could simply learn and repeat the accepted words and phrases and behaviors and seem to be genuine even while never having received the truth and reality into his or her heart.
But it’s not as if the young men and women that I met never had a choice. Those from an Amish background were old enough so that they might have had a chance to go through rumspringa. This would have been where they had a chance to view what the outside world had to offer and make a choice for themselves. A few months ago, when I was taking the Jet Express ferry from Put-In-Bay to Port Clinton, Ohio, I met with a group of Amish adolescents who were probably on such a foray into the outside world.
What I just wrote was in no way to criticize the Amish or Mennonites, though. Rather, I can see a tremendous parallel in the world of what we call evangelical. With our church day cares, Sunday Schools, home schools, Christian school, Christian colleges and universities and Christian seminaries, ministries and organizations, it may well be that many of our young men and women are growing up as denizens of an evangelical empire perhaps as insulated as those who grew up in an Amish school and worked in an Amish farm and business, and who view going to a college or university as their chance for an evangelical rumspringa or escape from an environment which they found suffocating and in which they had no other choices than to say the words and participate in the activities.
I personally didn’t grow up in that environment, and I don’t claim to have much of what goes on in the thoughts, emotions and motivations of those who have. Often enough, those who try to treat me as if I had – who try to push the buttons of the customary evangelical influence by preaching, lecturing, scolding and guilt trips – find that they are trying to press buttons in me which were never installed, and they get very frustrated with me. Occasionally I get some honest accounts of what it was like during private conversations with my brothers and sisters in Christ who grew up and eventually made their decisions to live as conscientious disciples of Jesus Christ – perhaps even after a time spent living apart from Christ. But the most complete account of what this is like I found in, of all places, Jeff VanVonderen’s book Good News for the Chemically Dependent. His account of how he grew up was that he found himself scripted not in following Christ in the grace of God, but in people pleasing behaviors, and thus he found himself falling into the partying lifestyle when he went to college through peer pressure.
I think that Jeff’s story of his being raised within the evangelical empire and doing all the accepted things, and then going off into the partying lifestyle is a typical face behind many of the statistics that are now being put forward. Apparently 20% coming through as denizens of the empire go on to follow Christ as adults, according to the exit polls. My own first impression when I heard these stats was: do we think that the parable of the Sower (Mark 4) did not apply to those who come up through the empire?
First, it should never be a surprise to us if false conversions are found among those who have come up as denizens of the empire but have not become citizens of the kingdom. I don’t thing these situations are less than rare, or any reason for a witch hunt for false conversions among us, but I do know of these kinds of situations. They include a pastor’s son, a Bible college student and even a fellow pastor – and they all confessed openly to playing the game before they really found the Savior by faith, and they shocked everyone around them when they truly did come to Christ.
Second, there needs to be a greater understanding among us that eternal life is the relationship with God through Jesus Christ: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3, King James Version). I don’t think that we hear enough preaching and teaching that mentions that it’s not saying the things approved within the evangelical empire and participating in the activities of the evangelical empire that save, but the heart relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. And even more, growing in Christ is growing in that relationship, not in getting better at repeating the language of the evangelical empire and taking on more ostentatious activities within the evangelical empire. Rather, here it is: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7, King James Version).
A scriptural example of someone who was showed the outward signs of godliness only when under the godly influence of another is King Joash of the southern kingdom of Judah: “And Joash did that which was right in the sight of the LORD all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (II Chronicles 24:2, King James Version). The story of how he showed all the outward signs of being faithful to God when he was under the guidance of Jehoiada, but quickly led the nation into idolatry after the death of Jehoiada under the influence of his idolatry and peers needs to be mentioned in these days.
Last, when the denizens of the evangelical empire go out to their lives in the secular world of work and university study, I personally would keep them reminded of this passage from Romans: “And that, knowing the time, that now is the high time to wake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:11-14).