Another bleak report came out recently. Did you see it? The decline of the Church of England continues and bodes poorly for the future of the Church across “the Pond.”
Having recently returned home from a trip to France, this kind of report was already on my mind. France may be the most secular country in the European Union, but its secularization is not a modern phenomenon. One place I visited was the Palace of the Popes. There are many theories as to why the Roman Catholic Church moved headquarters from Rome, to Avignon, in the 14th century. Whichever theory you accept, they all share roots in pre-Reformation desires to be free from the political and monetary control of the Roman Catholic Church. [The resulting “three-popes-at-the-same-time” is another interesting study from that era!] Eventually, the War of Religions, pitting the Catholic against the Reformers, would take a toll on the influence of the Church. That influence rebounded for a while, but as they say about the Palace of Versailles: “Louis XIV built it. Louis XV enjoyed it. And Louis XVI ‘paid for it!’” The Church’s power-position rolled away with the head of “Louis the Last.”
All this had me yearning for some sign of the presence of God and the existence of His church. It turns out, in spite of how bleak the reports seem to be, it wasn’t at all hard to find indicators of faith.
Some were subtle.
During our tour of the Palace, I heard a group behind us included a man who tried to take a photograph of delicate frescos. Clearly marked signs, in English, forbade this. A palace employee quickly, but politely, jumped into place to instruct him to stop. The American tourist apparently took umbrage and declared he had traveled all over the world, he had paid his entrance fees, and he could take pictures if he wanted. He even yelled at the clerk, “Go back to where you came from!” I know, that doesn’t make sense at all, so let’s conclude that we should have no illusions about where the “ugly American” reputation comes from!
This disturbing moment, however, was followed immediately by another American visitor going to the rattled Palace employee and apologizing. “We aren’t all like that. I’m so sorry. You are doing a good job.” Was he being a Christian witness?
Some were symbolic.
I continued to chew on this matter, when our bus made its way through an unnamed town, and I saw three modern crosses dominating the large hill above us. Were they someone’s Christian witness?
Some were bold.
Ultimately, I got into a conversation with a tour guide in Nice, asking her if she was able to talk about what she did on the night of the terrorist attack in 2016. She went beyond my question and talked about the Church being important to all French people at birth, confirmation, weddings, and death. Otherwise, she said most people were uninvolved in faith. But deep down, she believed that seeds of faith were just waiting to sprout. She saw the churches full for weeks after the attack, but by a year later, they were poorly attended (Remember the Boston Marathon bombing?). Everything was back to normal. Still, she boldly proclaimed, “The Church is not dead. It’s alive in a faithful core.” Maybe she’s too optimistic . . . but she was acting like that faithful core of Christians when she gave her witness!
Some were accidental.
Finally, the tour group I was in was not a Christian group. I’ve discovered a good way to break the ice with strangers, when the inevitable question pops up, “And what do YOU do?” I often respond, “I’m going to say three words that can stop the conversation . . . . I’m a minister.” Guess what? These words have never ended a conversation. Instead, they seem to disarm people and open up conversations. I heard about a church losing their pastor and being in desperate straits. I heard about a granddaughter going on a yearlong mission trip and about worries for her safety. And I heard the challenge of, “Do you believe that God would send a Chinese Buddhist, who had never heard of Christ, to hell?” Once sober, that person asked me to pray for him, while affirming his own faith struggles. And as he did so, HE gave me a Christian witness just like those others had. They just needed a little help to get going!
I find hope. Regardless of what polls show: God is real, the Church is alive, a genuine witness is present. Let’s make sure we are doing our best to be a part of the Christian witness and to bring it out from the shadows in others’ lives.