I feel I must start this post with a disclaimer that everybody already knows; I overthink everything. Now that we have that out of the way...
It's that time of the year in the America South where local churches are having their vacation bible school programs. You can see these signs on the side of the road advertising the 'theme' for this year, and since most VBS programs are a pre-packaged curriculum purchased from some church curriculum publisher warehouse, complete with promotional posters and handouts, it's not uncommon to see the same poster on the side of the road for different churches. It's not even that rare for different denominations to have the same program going on, at the same time. Secret agents are big this year, in case you were wondering.
I'm not against VBS. There is one put on by a local church that my kids attend every year even though we don't attend their church. It's the closest thing to a date night that my wife and I usually get. I'm not against VBS workers who take every night of their lives for a week or so to spend time with other people's children, including mine. They labour, unpaid, in an attempt to reach the lost and encourage the saved. I think it's probably better to have an activity like a VBS than it is to not have it.
Having said that, I think the church of Jesus Christ loses something when it becomes mainstream. It's hard to imagine the early church putting signs on the side of the road advertising their summer program. It's equally hard to imagine the early church meeting in opulent buildings with padded pews. It seems to me sometimes that the norm of biblical Christianity should be a certain amount of persecution, or at least disdain from the locals. When you lose that, you lose something that is so nebulous that I don't even have a word for it. It seems to me that 'real Christians' (like a missionary friend of mine in China right now) should be existing just on the edge of being thrown in jail for their beliefs. In those scenarios, there are no lukewarm believers because their faith actually costs them something.
I think that biblical Christianity can be the victim of it's own success and when the believers are a substantial part of the population, there is no need to hide. But with no need to hide, you lose an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Within a generation or two, you have a body of believers who, having grown up without persecution, don't see it as essential, and therefore avoid it a at all costs. A generation or two later, and you have a Joel Osteen rear his toothy head.
But back to VBS. It's equally difficult for me to imagine the early church catering specifically to the children in their midst with pre-packaged programs that try to impart biblical truths by linking them to spacemen or secret agents or safaris. Part of me recoils a bit as if God somehow isn't interesting enough to stand on his own. Do we lose something when we try to make God relevant?
I am familiar and sympathetic to the argument (advanced by my wife when I start overthinking it) that the goal of evangelism is to 'turn the world upside down' and one of the hallmarks of having some success in that area is that the local community isn't always burning us at the stake. Signs on the side of the road are progress. We've done the job and won the community so there is no longer any need to meet in a cave or in a catacomb. But I am also painfully aware that the Bible says "all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" and I just don't think I've done much suffering.
I think , even as a street preacher who takes his fair share of verbal abuse from the community, my persecution level is so low that it doesn't even register. I sincerely believe that at that judgment seat of Christ, people like me will be told that we received our rewards down here, and therefore don't receive so many up there. After all, I will drop my children off at a comfortable, climate controlled building where modestly dressed women and spirit-filled men will take time with them and teach them some bible truths. If that's not the easy life, what is?