Late in 2017 I travelled through Germany. It was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
The occasion made the sadness of what I observed more poignant.
Churches draped in rainbow flags, miniscule congregations, one of the highest rates of atheism in the world, and a sort of historical but not at all spiritual appreciation of religion.
Safe to say, things have changed since the days of Martin Luther.
But as we criss-crossed between former East and West Germany, many differences became clear. And it wasn’t just the soviet-style architecture.
Speaking with one of our tour guides, I asked about the state of the church in that region.
Across former East Germany it is the same, she informed me. The number of Christians is shockingly minute. The churches are empty. The hearts of the people are hard.
Isn’t it the same across the country?
“Not quite,” she said, explaining that the problem is greater in the East and has been going on much longer. Christianity simply never recovered from the imposition of state atheism under Soviet rule.
Indeed, one year after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), 95% of the people were Protestant or Catholic.
One year before the collapse of the GDR that figure had fallen to just 30%.
Today’s numbers are worse. Germany is among the most irreligious nations on the planet.
As my journey continued through the Czech Republic and Hungary, I saw many an exhibit and heard many a story about persecution, brutality, and terror. In Hungary one could still feel the heaviness in the atmosphere – a heaviness left by decades of mass-murder, the horror of the gulags, and the imposition of state atheism.
Roughly 80% of Czechs now have no religion.
Across the Eastern Bloc, Catholic and Orthodox leaders who were not submissive to the state were denounced, publicly humiliated, and imprisoned by the thousands. Where churches were not shut down, their schools were, and children were taught atheism.
Christian churches and Jewish synagogues were often demolished or converted into museums of atheism.
Estimates put the number of Christian victims of the Soviet regime as high as 20 Million.
It wasn’t just brutality, though. The Soviets aggressively promoted atheism through academia and education. They were organised and multi-pronged in their policy efforts.
I say all that to pose this question: where was the revival?
If I could name the single most common reply I get from Christian people in this country when I speak about religious freedom it would be along the lines of, “But we shouldn’t be afraid of persecution because it brings revival.”
Some even remark that I should be “excited” by the opportunities it will bring. Others query our advocacy for religious freedom on the basis that we could be militating against God’s plan to bring growth to the church.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so confident.
We don’t have God’s crystal ball.
In fact, the evidence available to us isn’t so conclusive as we might be tempted to believe.
For one, history tells a different story. There was no revival in Eastern Europe. There was no revival in Mao's China. There was revival in relatively free Wales, Scotland, the USA, and others. Christianity saw rapid growth correlating with the opening up of China, starting with the return of missionaries.
But more than that - scripture itself gives us little reason for comfort. Many will point to the historical explosion of Christianity into the Roman world through Pentecost and the Apostles, but descriptive history, as we have seen, is of little help when history thenceforth doesn’t unfold so mechanically.
We need a principle to follow, not a moment in time to cling to. One relevant principle has been given by the Apostle Paul: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Without putting words in Paul’s mouth, prayer for a government which enables the godly, dignified life to be a quiet and peaceful life sounds a lot like prayer for religious freedom!
God is not bound by historical or cultural undulations. His activity is not tied to whether we are free or oppressed.
It was not primarily the prevailing culture of Ancient Rome which saw the church explode – it was the power of the Holy Spirit, applying the work of Jesus Christ, through the witness of the Apostles, to the hearts of those in darkness.
It was God who moved; not culture; not government.
I suspect that is why the common feature of all revivals is not an oppressive government or a toxic culture, but prayer and repentance.
Yes, God uses persecution in various (and important) ways. But persecution is a foolish place to put our hope when it comes to this matter.
Yes, scripture says that all who live godly in Christ will experience persecution. But that does not mean we wish for a society that aggressively suppresses the light of the gospel in a wholesale manner.
We should fight these things with all our might.
Fight them because they are evil. Fight them because of the cost to our neighbour. Fight them because of the cost to our children. Fight them because God hates wickedness.
And we should pray without ceasing.
Pray because Paul says we must. Pray because righteous government is a good thing. Pray because of our neighbours. Pray because of our children. Pray because we desire good to prevail.
We know that God reigns, always, and in His mercy He can intervene to stem the tide at any time.
If He doesn’t, I fear that an almost Soviet trend is dawning in Australia today.
It should not be a surprise given that the prevailing ideology of our institutions is a form of Marxism.
It follows a certain pattern: Christians are gradually put at odds with the state. The institutions and the state pull together to preach and increasingly enforce a different ideology. Churches are encouraged to be a part of it – to be reasonable and modern, to remain close to power and feel somewhat influential.
Slowly, however, the ones who won’t submit are identified and ever so gradually marginalised. Extremists only, of course. Purely those who lack nuance. Then comes the move on parachurch groups – schools, for example…
And here lies one of the more chilling commonalities between the systems: their attack on family life and the rights of parents.
During the Soviet era, a statue of the child Pavlik Morosov stood in a Moscow park. Children were brought in procession to the statue to sing hymns and recite poems to it. The myth of Pavlik profoundly impacted an entire generation.
Why? Because Pavlik was a martyr. He was (so the myth claimed) murdered by his grandfather after he denounced his parents to the State.
The Soviets taught children atheism and wedded them to the State, even if that meant turning them against their families. If things continue unabated in the West, our children will increasingly be taught a mongrel breed of self-ism, paganism, and Marxism.
And they will be taught it, and neither parents nor churches will be permitted to get in the way.
But here’s the rub: the cost will be immense. The darkness will be deep. And it is not a magic pudding for revival.
The truth is, I don’t know where our society is ultimately headed. Neither do I know the detail of how God will use the changing times that lie before us.
But I do know that right now, as things slowly get a little harder, the key themes of the New Testament are becoming more and more real to us.
We increasingly see the relevance of the calls to perseverance, boldness, conviction, and a godly life against the odds.
We marvel at the call to, amid trials, rejoice in the sufferings of Christ.
We remind ourselves, amid hopelessness, to anchor our hope in heaven.
We steel ourselves to stand firm, even amid compromise.
We search for ways to keep shining the light, no matter how dark things become.
But could we also pray for the cause of unrighteousness to be stopped in its tracks?
Surely the prayer of Paul is as relevant as each of these things? That prayer for “religious freedom”?
2019 is a crucial year. History may treat it as a defining moment for religious freedom in Australia.
For the sake of our neighbour. For the sake of the nation’s children. For the cause of the gospel. For the love of God… let us not be blunted in our stand for the truth to remain free.
And because we still enjoy the great gift of democratic freedom, that means we are uniquely able to do something Paul and Timothy couldn’t do. We can both pray and act.