There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (JOB 1:1-3)
Job—the man from Uz. He was kind of an ancient Near-Eastern Donald Trump. But without the red baseball cap.
Well, there might have been some other differences, too. The Bible portrays Job as good and just—a righteous and prosperous family man beset with horrendous disasters that destroy everything he holds dear—including his children, his health, and his property. At first, Job displays a kind of stoic acceptance: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (JOB 2:10)
However, as time passes—and there is no relief in sight—the man from Uz is worn down, and he begins to curse the day he was born. And through much of the rest of the biblical story, we see Job struggling to understand his situation.
“I am a laughing-stock to my friends,” he says. “I, who called upon God and he answered me, a just and blameless man, I am a laughing-stock” (JOB 12:4).
It occurs to me that Job might be a perfect symbol for the church—especially for the church in our time. What do I mean? Well …
Let’s hold in our minds two passages of Scripture. The first one is that verse which used to be commonly recited at funerals: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (JOB 1:21). And the second one is from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (MATT. 16:24).
It is a hard fact, which—sooner or later—we all learn. Life delivers hardship to each one of us, and also to the church—to congregations and to denominations. Hard times always come.
Today—in places like North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq—Christians are actively persecuted because of their faith. According to the “Open Doors” organization, each month—on average, worldwide—over 300 Christians are martyred for their faith, over 200 Christian properties are destroyed, and 772 incidents of violence are committed against followers of Jesus.1
For believers in at least 60 countries around the world, obeying Christ’s call to “deny themselves and take up their cross” can indeed cost them their lives.
And then, there’s us. Sometimes, Christians in North America do experience suffering of the “pick up your cross” variety. Martin Luther King comes immediately to mind. So does the June, 2015 attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Less high-profile—and rarely acknowledged—are the sacrifices of ordinary believers who choose conscience over career advancement, integrity over personal gain.
But when it comes to the church as a whole in our part of the world … Thankfully, our hardships rarely involve bloodshed.
And yet, the church in North America is haemorrhaging. I’m sure you know what I mean. Decreasing membership. Declining attendance. Dwindling finances.
In my own denomination—the United Church of Canada—we’re agonizingly familiar with this trend. From peak numbers of over a million in the 1960s, membership in our denomination has shrunk to well under half a million today. That’s confirmed membership. To be sure, close to two million Canadians identify themselves as United Church adherents; however, these days—across Canada, on any given Sunday—only about 139,000 United Church folk show up for worship.2 That accounts for just over 3,000 pastoral charges, which means that average attendance is about … 46. And in many of our congregations, we barely make half that number. We’re attempting to adjust to the new reality, but often it feels like we’re simply rearranging deck chairs on … Well, you get the picture.
We often think our American neighbours are far more religious than we are. Not necessarily more Christian … but definitely more religious. Yet, overall, they don’t appear to be doing all that much better than we are. Certainly that’s true of the big old mainline denominations south of the border.
Between the mid-1960s and the present day, two of the largest Protestant denominations—the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have seen a membership decline of close to 50 percent. In that same period, membership in the United Methodist Church has decreased by about 33 percent.3
How concerned should we be about those statistics? Do they foreshadow the end of the Christian Church?
Well, obviously, those numbers point to the demise of a particular kind of Christianity in the United States and Canada. But, interestingly, in the southern hemisphere—and in some of the places where Christians are most heavily sanctioned, like mainland China—the church is actually growing! Today, the Christian communities in Latin America and Africa, alone, account for over one billion people. In fact, 25 percent of the world’s Christian population now resides in Africa—and it is estimated that number will grow to 40 percent over the next 15 years. In Asia, the current Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.4
So, globally, the Church of Jesus Christ is actually more robust than it has ever been!
However, that is cold comfort to us, isn’t it? We in the North American church have lost prosperity, privilege, prestige, and comfort. And we continue to lose more and more. Especially prosperity and comfort. And in our discomfort, our faith is challenged. Some (actually, many) of us have fallen away. Bailed out. Taken off. Moved on.
So, who’s left?
Here’s where we need to reconsider the man from Uz. Yup. Consider Job. Here’s a guy who had it all. He’s blameless and upright. He has a wife and 10 kids. He has land. He has thousands of sheep and camels, hundreds of oxen and donkeys, and scores of servants. It doesn’t get much better than that.
But then he loses almost everything. He’s left sitting in an ash heap with the worst case of eczema the world has ever seen. All that remains is his wife—who tells him he should kill himself—and three friends who tell him it’s his own fault!
Job is not a happy camper. He was loyal to God—and look what happened to him! So he figures he has a right to complain. And complain he does—for nine of the next 28 chapters, all he does is lament and protest and voice his indignation before the Lord.
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth,” he says. “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (JOB 7:11).
Still, through all of this, there is one thing Job does not do: he doesn’t renounce God. He persists in faith. And as a result, the Lord eventually shows up. God and Job have a conversation, and they are reconciled. All because Job was persistent.
Who is left in the North American church? Only the persistent ones. Job is us!
Like Job, we complain and fret and protest. Just like him, we are plagued by irksome “friends” who are long on talk and short on action. Who always have a great deal to say—and much advice to give—but who never seem to actually pitch in and help.
Yet, in spite of it all—even when we’re tired, even when we’re discouraged, even when we’re fed up, even when we say we want to pack it all in—we are the ones who persist. And—like Job, in the midst of his plight—we are desperately trying to figure out what to do next. Like Job, we see our status quo dissolving, as we stumble beneath the weight of our cross. And we are choking on dust and ashes, waiting for God to show up.
But we are waiting for God. We are waiting for God because we know who he is. Because we know that he is good. And we trust that he will show up … soon.
Soon. But when? That’s a good question. And—although I’m not sure I have much more understanding than Job’s three friends—I do have a hunch about that. I find myself wondering if perhaps God will show up when we are ready to listen to what he has to say. When we are ready to stop trying to do things the way we’ve always done them, in the places where we’ve always done them—when we are willing to consider radical change—perhaps then we will hear the Lord’s voice calling to us out of the whirlwind—if we remain ones who persist.
Like the man from Uz, those who choose to persist are choosing to live. Those who persevere choose to watch and wait for the renewed life God promises to his faithful ones—even when they cannot imagine what that will look like.
May it be so for us.