Everyone loves a good success story. A leading CEO goes from rags to riches. A rookie hits a home run that wins the game. A drug addict kicks the habit and now gives back to his community. A cancer patient is declared cancer-free.
The odds in each of these cases were anything but promising as poverty, mediocrity, despair and even death were the obviously high. Then something happened to turn the life around, change the trajectory. They defeated the odds.
Stories of overcoming are worth sharing. They get written up in local newspapers, interviewed on radios, recorded in books. Why? Because they inspire others and celebrate triumph, hard work or medical miracles.
This reminds me of one story that gets little coverage, though the odds against success have been overwhelming, and the reason for success is nothing short of miraculous.
It’s the success story of the Church.
I know, you’re probably thinking that the Church is not really a success story, as reports of declining numbers, closed doors and scandals fill the news. I beg to differ.
Go back to the beginning with me for a moment — not a hundred years ago, not even 500 years ago, but over 2,000 years ago. Start with the simple question: Does anything we deal with in today’s world have a shelf life of 2,000 years? If you say “the Pyramids”, I will remind you that they are only stone. I’m talking about something that’s made up of living human beings.
That’s what we have to start with in the Church — A two-thousand-year history of continuous gathering of individuals who proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s the first amazing odd-beating fact. It’s never stopped. It may have changed in make-up, language, location, style, but it continues on, year after year.
The second odd that has been beaten by this unique group is that it can meet in openly hostile environments just as well as in sympathetic ones. In fact, from the outset, the Church went counter-culture to an idolatrous worldview and faced great persecution in the Roman Empire of its beginnings. The Church still perseveres in oppressive countries like China or North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Libya. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”* The Church continues despite the opposition.
The third odd is that the Church survives despite no obvious connection among its adherents except for a common faith in Christ. This is what confounded the people in the first century as much as it continues to today. Jews and Greeks, Medes, Egyptians, Libyans, Cretans and Arabs were all drawn to this message of Good News that first day of Pentecost, and God is still calling the nations today. Churches are made up of people of diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds, languages and cultures. People are gathered together on a regular basis with others not from their own family, while drawing closer to them more than their own relatives. What is the odds in that? To love a brother in Christ more than your own flesh and blood?
Finally, the most amazing odd-defying stat in this success story is that of the pervasive nature of the Church today. Think about it. It started with a mismatched group of twelve men in a backwater country in the Middle East. There is absolutely no reason it should have survived or spread, and yet today, the Church is truly universal, with groups of believers meeting openly or secretly (though not in the eyes of God) in every nation of the world.
Though there are many who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and there is much to be done to see the Church thrive and spread, we need to be reminded that in following him, amazing things happen. Of course, Jesus knew the secret to the success, when he proclaimed that the gates of hell would not overcome His Church. When a group is established on the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God,* nothing can hold them back.
Those are odds worth betting on, because they’ve already been defeated!
Grace and Peace
*Matthew 18:20 (NIV).