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When I was young, growing up in the United Kingdom, my family and I could always count on our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Oglive, to be around. We left a spare key with her in case we got locked out. We forgot our keys quite often, and she was always there—morning, afternoon, and night—to let us in.
Mrs. Oglive never went out. She suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of crowded or public spaces. Having lived next door to her for 40 years now, I still haven't seen her venture past her doorway. She wasn't always this way. She has pictures on her mantelpiece of less anxious days, from her honeymoon with Mr. Oglive and from a day at the beach with her children. But after her husband died, Mrs. Oglive began to isolate herself. As a child, I saw opportunity in this: Her garden resembled a jungle, and I earned some pocket money by pretending to be Indiana Jones armed with a machete slicing through the undergrowth, clearing the path to her front door.
As an adult, I can only imagine the heavy cloud of fear and frustration that surrounds her. Now frail and in the twilight of life, Mrs. Oglive's curtains are almost always drawn. But now and then, I still get locked out, and as she hands me the spare key, I am glad to see she is still alive.
I see parallels between Mrs. Oglive and the contemporary church. Many Christians observe the world from behind closed curtains, bemoaning culture instead of engaging it. Many local churches are isolated from the wider community and world, bunkered up like a coterie of doomsayers, suffering from fear of an open public square with divergent viewpoints and lifestyles. Meanwhile, many onlookers have read the church its last rites, so to speak, due to its dwindling numbers, scandals, and shrinking influence in Western society.
These challenges are not unique to Western believers of today. The apostle John gives us a snapshot of a first-century church in a similar situation. Just three days after the Crucifixion—one ...