Resistence of the Cult of the Self – With Cindy McGarvie from Youth For Christ

As CEO for Youth For Christ Australia, Cindy McGarvie is often asked by young people how they are to live out their Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. In this insightful talk, Cindy unpacks vital lessons Christians can learn from the powerful witness of the early church while living under persecution in the Roman Empire.
How do we live our Christian values and allegiance to God in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian way? What comes out of us when we are hit with hard circumstances and hard times? Do we react in Christ-likeness or do we relate destructively, without evidence of the fruit of the spirit? Cindy McGarvie says we can frame our understanding of how to live in this cultural moment by studying how the early church lived their lives as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire.
From the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Cindy recounts the story of Perpetua who at the age of 21 was a Christian martyr in the 3rd century. She was a well-educated noblewoman living in Carthage, a city in Northern Africa. Perpetua was arrested as part of a group of 6 who were catechumens (people preparing for baptism) and was eventually sent to a Roman amphitheater where the Christians were killed as part of the military games.
Cindy recounts the crowds astonishment of the Christians love for one another as they faced a brutal death,
“They saw Christians who embodied uncommon allegiances. They responded with inexplicable reflexes. Their behaviour challenged the behaviours and values of the norm.”
Before her death, Perpetua’s pagan father came to visit her in the Roman prison and gave an impassioned but fruitless plea for Perpetua to renounce her Christian faith. In response to his concerns, Perpetua pointed to a vase and said “Father, do you see this vase here, can it be called by any other name than what it is?” Her father responded “No” to which Perpetua replied
“Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
Living in a New Pagan Era
Perpetua lived in a godless, pagan society. Roman culture could be described as highly superstitious and loved violence to the point of putting Christians to death. Cindy argues that if you dig beneath the surface, our culture bears similarities to the paganism in Rome. She describes the new humanistic, materialistic and nihilistic pagan culture we find ourselves in,
“Paganism is basically the gravity of the human spirit toward the line of least resistance. Religion in a fallen state. From a purpose beyond yourself to self.”
While the Romans practiced augury- divination by watching natural signs, today it’s becoming popular to practice astrology, crystals, dream catchers, Tarot cards and spells. We may not think we live in such a culture riddled with violence like the Roman Empire yet research shows that the average child watches hundreds of violent killings on screen before they reach adulthood.
Cindy draws parallels between the ancient Roman world and today’s Western culture’s derogatory treatment of women. In the Roman world, women were considered inferior to men. Today’s widespread pornography use promotes a callouosness towards women. Cindy recalls several interviews she had with young men when she was writing her book Lost Boys who battled a pornography addiction. These young men shared that their addiction to pornography made them hate women, even their own mothers, as they saw women becoming the source of their slavery to porn. Their pornography use is not uncommon, Cindy highlights,
“A Barna study said 65% of Christian men in church in the USA consume porn regularly.”
Young men before the reach adulthood are sexually broken. Cindy asks how can pronography usage be so pervasive in the church which is supposed to be the salt of the earth? What can Christians today learn from the early church so that we start becoming the light of the world?
7 Features that Made the Early Church Unique
What was it that made the Christians stand out as holy and pure in the perverse and violent Roman Empire? Cindy quotes Christian theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria (115-250 AD) who described Christians during this time as,
“God fearing old men, God beloved orphans, widows armed with gentleness and men adorned with love. They asked God for the subduing of sickness to be put to flight with the laying on of hands and the shattering of violence of demons which would be reduced to impotence by confident commands.”
There are seven characteristics Cindy highlights that distinguished the early church from the surrounding Roman pagan culture.
  1. Integrity in business: Christians were known for their high standards in business ethics including speaking plainly and honestly about products and services they were selling, charging fair and reasonable prices, refusing to engage in litigation when people treated them unethically, and not taking any oaths.
  2. Sexual discipline: In Roman culture where it was culturally acceptable for men to have sexual relations with slaves and children, Christians stood out in their commitment to lifelong continence, avoiding second marriages and not cohabitating.
  3. Men, women and children: Old women were particularly despised in Roman culture and the children ignored. In contrast, the early church considered women considered the most effective evangelists and Christians taught and trained their children actively. New believers were attracted to the way Christians loved and cared for each other.
  4. Manifestations of divine power: The early church were faced with social forces they saw as spiritually hostile to human flourishing. They looked to God for healing and the deliverance from evil spirits.
  5. Care for the poor: In the Roman Empire there were 65% of people that lived below the poverty line. Care for the poor was a fundamental practice of the early church. The practical application of charity was a powerful cause for the Christian success.
  6. Sanctity of life: Christians demonstrated a patience that prohibited taking of life or violence. Infant exposure was common in the Roman Empire, where a father could determine the destiny of their child, often abandoning their infants to die of exposure. The Christians would collect the babies that’s why there were so many orphans.
  7. Patience that does not compel: The early church fathers believed that church growth would depend not on coercion but on how believers lived their lives. How you lived your life everyday proved your beliefs were authentic. Observes Cindy,
“Christians never compelled anyone. They believed God would work by means of persuasion, that He doesn’t use violent means to obtain what He desires.”
Christianity as a Counterculture
The early Christians did not fit in with the surrounding culture but challenged it with love. Cindy notes that when Christians resist temptations faced in their culture to compromise their allegiance to Christ, some will be intrigued and drawn to the faith while others will be repelled and respond with persecution. The early church embraced the Beatitudes of Jesus and responded to hatred and hostility by becoming the salt of the earth. Cindy quotes Matthew Henry,
“The church influences the world when the church is least like the world.”
To prepare young disciples like Perpetua for inevitable persecution, Cindy observes that the early church prioritised Catechis- they did not leave discipleship to chance. Reclaiming this priority will be vital for Western church in the days ahead. Cindy quotes a 2021 Barna Study that states 69% of Americans consider themselves to be a Christian, however only 6% of the 69% had something of a functioning Christian worldview. For 18-29 year olds it was only 2%.
For the sake of our children and grandchildren Cindy’s call is adamant “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” Listen more to Cindy here.
About Cindy McGarvie

Cindy was appointed CEO of Youth for Christ Australia in June 2015. She is the author of “#Jesus Revolution: Real and Radical” and “Lost Boys: Bring Them Home.”

Cindy McGarvie has a long history working with Christian non-profit organisations. For 12 years she and her husband dedicated their lives to serving in Uganda and Tanzania with SIL International in the work of Bible translation and language development among marginalised people groups.

Cindy currently serves on the board of Wycliffe Australia.