The Greatest Threat to the Church

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)

Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that binds a person to God and to others. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What is the greatest threat to the church? It is fear. Fear is debilitating. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear will destroy a church, and yet decisions are often made based upon fear. The most frequent command that appears in Scripture is “Do not be afraid!” God understands the danger of fear. Throughout the history of God’s people, they had to be continually reminded not to be afraid. Nothing has changed. We still struggle with fear.

Fear is a powerful weapon. It is easy to generate fear in others, and once it takes hold, it spreads like wildfire. People bond over fear, but this cohesion is for all the wrong reasons. Unity in fear is not for the betterment of the church. Fear causes us to circle the wagons and fend off anything that comes near. The problem with this is that while we are continually circling the wagons, we are not moving forward on our journey. While we are fending off any and all so-called threats, we often end up taking out things that are good. Fear causes a church to become stagnant. The church does not grow or mature, nor does it reach out. It simply lives in fear.

What causes this fear? This is an important question. This is the question we should be asking ourselves. We all struggle with fear. We are all afraid of something. What we cannot allow is for fear to take over. We cannot allow it to control our lives. We cannot allow fear to control our thoughts and decisions. We must be aware of our fears, and we must act based upon faith. The more we rely on our faith in Jesus Christ, the more our fears will begin to diminish.

What are we afraid of? There are many fears that fill this earth, but I want to consider some of the fears that directly affect the church. Most of these fears are not ones we would confess to, but they are evident in the way we live our lives and the decisions we make.

People – Sadly, Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is because we are afraid of people who are unlike us. We are afraid to step out of our comfort zone and get to know someone that we do not easily relate to. We are unsure about the people on the margins of society. They look different. They dress differently. They talk differently. Part of the job of the church is to tear down the barriers within society that divide us. Jesus did this, and some people didn’t like it because they were afraid.

Change – Most humans do not like change. We like to have a schedule. We like to be able to rely on certain things. We like things the way they are. We are afraid of change. The problem with this is that change is inevitable. The gospel never changes, but everything else does. There are certain parts of the church that have not changed in 2,000 years, but there are other parts that have changed drastically. We still observe the Lord’s Supper, but how it is observed has changed over the years. The early church observed it during an actual meal, whereas many congregations today drink grape juice out of little plastic containers and break off a piece of unleavened bread from a plate that is passed around. Most people in the ancient world were illiterate. They could not read the Bible for themselves. They came to worship on the first day of the week to hear the Word of God read to them. Today, nearly all people can read, and we have multiple versions of the Bible translated from Greek and Hebrew texts. Changes happen, and sometimes it is necessary to consider our traditions and practices and make changes that will be best for the church.

Perceptions – We are often afraid of how something will be perceived by others. Sometimes congregations will refuse to implement a new program or make a new change because they are afraid of looking liberal or progressive. God does not care how others might view us if we are acting on faith and doing his will. Sometimes we are afraid of offending others. Certainly, we do not want to be offensive if we can avoid it, but sometimes people are going to be offended even though the church is doing what it is supposed to do.

Future – People are afraid of what will happen in the future. Often people will try and make decisions now that will prevent other things from happening in the future. People try to control what they have no control over. We cannot worry about what people are going to do 10, 20, or 30 years from now. We need to worry about what God has placed in front of us. God will not hold what the next generation does against us, but we are responsible for what he has placed under our control. We are not promised tomorrow. We must only worry about today.

Failure – Some ideas and projects fail before they ever get off the ground because people are afraid of failure. I know how ironic that sounds but it is true. We are afraid of failure, and because of this certain ideas are doomed from the start. God does not hold it against us if we try something and fail. Noah was a failure, but in God’s eyes, he was a faithful man. We fail as Christians when we choose to do nothing at all. We fail when we are so afraid of failure that we never take the first step.

The danger of fear is that it often prevents us from doing God’s mission. Fear is a tactic Satan uses to keep us from reaching out and helping others. Satan wants us to be afraid so that we do nothing. He would be happy if churches all across the world kept on circling the wagons and never moving forward to do God’s will. We must fight back. We must fight fear with faith and put our trust in Jesus Christ.

You of little faith, why are you so fearful? In the midst of the storm, Christ is in the ship. Away with you, Fear! Let us see you, Lord Jesus, strong helper, Savior! – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

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