If Miley Cyrus is the poster-girl for contemporary Western culture in the eyes of some, as suggested in part two of this series, then others might regard Tim Tebow as the poster-boy for the church, especially the evangelical variety.
Columnist Chuck Klosterman certainly argues that a church hero is a problem in today's age. He says Tebow is the most "curious, complicated, downright strange" and "polarizing" athlete of our age.
Tebow, in Klosterman's words, "defies modernity" (i.e., the contemporary Western zeitgeist, or "spirit of the age") "because he makes blind faith a viable option" that threatens to "wreck" the "stable understanding of the universe" of those who see the world as numbers and statistics, especially in sports. Perhaps worst of all, Tebow "is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don't actually believe."
Why so much disdain? Tim Tebow dared to step into "Babylon" (noted in Peter's Epistles and the Book of Revelation as the world system organized without God, and often in outright defiance of Him) as a demonstrative follower of Jesus Christ and advocate for Christ's Kingdom.
He has offended the mighty establishments that define, proclaim, defend, and seek to impose the current cultural consensus on all the rest of us. The secular culture's treatment of Tebow may be a harbinger of what the early church was subjected to in Rome.
Back in the millennial days of Western society's broad consensus favoring the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the church, people watching the movie about legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne would weep and nod as they listened to a priest tell mourners at Rockne's funeral, "The spirit of Knute Rockne is reborn in the youth of today."
When the religion-tinted film premiered in 1940 in South Bend, home of Notre Dame, trains arrived packed with celebrities, President Roosevelt's son personally read a congratulatory note from his father, and eight state governors proclaimed "Knute Rockne Week." American radio was full of Kate Smith's fulsome voice singing, "God Bless America."
But now the millennial favor is fading, and tribulation is descending on the church in the form of bloody persecution in some nations, and a more subtle type in the West – ostracism, marginalization, derision, scorn, accusation of hate-mongering, and much more – as Tim Tebow's story illustrates.
Actually, however, this loss of cultural approval might be the best thing to happen to the church and Western civilization in more than a thousand years. The whole story of the early church in Rome shows why there can be hope in the darkness.
In fact, rather than lamenting the way the biblically conservative church is loathed by so much of the culture, maybe it's time to thank God. "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you," says Jesus. (Matthew 5:11-12)
The contemporary church can take encouragement from the outcome of the Roman persecutions. "No period in the history of the world was better suited to receive the infant church than the first century A.D.," writes Michael Green in Evangelism in the Early Church.
Down in the present deepening darkness of derision and scorn, a rebirth of the church can occur, just as dynamic life was nurtured in the suffering church in the womb of Rome's gloomy catacombs.
"In my opinion, the negative attitude in our country is likely to get worse before it gets better," says Rick Wade, of Probe Ministries. "But history has shown that persecution ultimately strengthens the church," he notes. Nominal Christians leave, and truly committed followers of Christ (possibly like Tebow and actor Kirk Cameron) are emboldened, writes Wade.
In the biblical cycle, as noted in part one of this series, when a society forgets God it falls into rebellion against Him and His ways, which leads to the suffering of the Refiner's fire, provoking a period of remembrance when people try to recall what they lost, sparking repentance and revival.
Maybe God is preparing His church for that age of revival and its immense harvest.
Years ago I lived on Alabama's beautiful Mobile Bay, home to a unique event, the "Jubilee." At certain times, for reasons no one understands fully, the aquatic life in the Bay suddenly runs for the shore. Someone will spot the surge of fish, and shout, "Jubilee!" The cry will go up and down the shore. People will grab washtubs, baskets, boxes, any kind of vessel that will hold the harvest. The catch will include anything and everything in Mobile Bay's waters – the tasty fish, along with sharks and other less palatable varieties. But whoever is ready to accommodate the good, the bad, and the ugly of the catch reaps the harvest.
The intensifying pressure (thlipsis) in this age of the fading of millennial favor for Christianity in the West might really be the squeezing of God's sovereign hand, preparing a church that can handle the massive harvest ahead. Romans 12 1:2 urges us to "be not conformed (thlipsis, or squeezed flat) to this world," but instead be "transformed by the renewing of your mind" to the "perfect will" of God.
There are no better words to close this series than those penned by the Apostle Peter, while suffering much worse circumstances than most Western Christians are experiencing at the moment:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14)