Under a Tree

In 1994, I was leading a group of people to a church service in Kenya. It was the first time in my life that I was looking for a congregation that did not have a church building. As we traveled down the dusty trail in our jeep, I was told to look for a very tall tree about three miles down the road. A Kenyan congregation worshiped under this tree on a weekly basis. After scouting for numerous tall trees, we finally found the one with a few people gathered underneath it. It was a liberating and new experience for me to consider that a church was not a building; it was a community of people earnestly seeking the Lord’s presence in the fresh air of the day. Within minutes, droves of people emerged from the surrounding bushes and soon drums were beating and songs filled the air. Nothing but open, blue sky was above us. The large tree we were under was there to protect us should it rain. I thought, “If the love of God is in the center of the room, who needs a building?” My perception of church was changed forever.

For the past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated his powers enacting laws removing presidential term limits making him President for life. He also initiated a campaign to destroy church buildings, removing crosses and steeples. In January, his paramilitary officers used dynamite to raze one of the largest megachurches in China, The Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province, where 50,000 Chinese worshiped on a weekly basis. In his effort to regulate the spiritual life of Chinese citizens, despite there being a law that presumably guarantees religious freedom, President Xi’s paramilitary officers have increasingly confiscated Bibles and imprisoned church leaders. Yet, in China today there more than 100 million Christians and the numbers are growing rapidly each year. Some missiologists predict at the current rate of growth, China will be 50 percent Christian by the year 2050. Obviously, President Xi feels threatened.

Half of the Christians in China today worship in homes and other clandestine places in what has become a vast network of underground churches. These believers have no church buildings, but they have the joy of the Lord in their midst. The Christians of the First Century faced a nearly identical situation. Emperor Caesar Augustus in Rome wanted people to worship him, not some other king called Jesus Christ – even though Christ’s kingdom was not of this same world. Many Christians of the First Century faced severe persecution from the Roman Empire and from entrenched Jewish leaders of the day as well. They were getting it from all sides. As a result, Christians did not begin to construct church buildings until the Third or Fourth Century AD when Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. But, in those early, dynamic years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers worshiped in homes, catacombs, lecture halls, and in the middle of open fields, too – wherever they could be free and at peace. They might even have worshiped under tall trees.

Jesus knew the dangers of relying on human structures, land, or tradition for living out faith. Jesus prayed, read Scripture and worshiped the Father wherever he traveled with his disciples, whether in a boat, sitting on a mountain of olive trees or huddled by a camp fire. He taught that no emperor, president, or human authority can prevent what we choose freely to do in our hearts. There is no human regulation that can stop our worship of God. Nowhere in the Bible is this truth more explicitly stated than when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well; “…’Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem….But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.'” (John 4:21b,23-24)

Iran is another country where the government is trying to eliminate Christianity. Beginning with a campaign in the early 1990s until today, the Ayatollah Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guard have systematically attempted to destroy or shut down every church in the country. This campaign began with the brutal murder of six innocent Protestant pastors in 1994. But, instead of eliminating Christianity, the Church has grown and flourished in underground settings. Today there are nearly 4 million believers worshiping in underground churches in Iran. Joyful new Iranian believers meet in homes and other private settings on a regular basis. And, most amazingly, members of the underground church in China are now in Iran coaching the Iranian house church leaders on how to organize themselves as a flourishing community, despite the constant pressure from an oppressive regime.

There are now more believers in the Middle East who attend underground churches than above-ground churches. Radical Muslim governments are causing younger people, especially, to reject Islam and seek other truth claims. It happens every time in history. As government authorities become more oppressive, brutal, and unjust, the beauty of the Gospel message stands out even more. A harsh communist or radical Muslim leader will never succeed in preventing Christ from reaching human hearts. Every heart yearns to be free. And, there is no greater freedom than in Christ. Please continue to pray for the underground churches in China, Iran and throughout the Middle East. These dear brothers and sisters need our support. They are in the process of changing history; nothing will stop them, certainly not dynamite nor other means of human oppression.

If you are struggling over which church to attend, or whether to attend one at all, remember not to focus on the church building or structure. Jesus claimed to be, “…the way, and the truth, and the life….” (John 14:6a) Our job is to wrestle with this claim. The only way we can come to any conclusion about this claim is to pray, read Scripture, and talk with other people about what they believe. We can do this kind of investigation anywhere. Join or start a Bible study, read Christian books, listen to Christian music, engage in meditative or contemplative prayer – on a beach, climbing a mountain, meeting in a home or beneath a tree, or having coffee with a friend. The important thing is to worship God in spirit and truth wherever you are. You may eventually worship in a church building with other believers, or you may not. Either way, God will be with you.

Remember, as Jesus said to his disciples, “…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

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Rev. Dan McNerney