Persecution and suffering have been relatively foreign to the Christian experience of most westerners in the last 100 to 150 years (that is a soft date, don’t take it too literally). Sure, people have paid a price for speaking the truth at times. Men and women have been opposed for their convictions. However, in a culture that has been shaped by a Judeo-Christian worldview in many ways (not all by any means), and has made a priority of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, few have truly been required to suffer for what they believe.
In some ways I think this can be seen as a tremendous blessing. I think God has used it for the furtherance of His kingdom. I think we can be grateful for such freedom and liberty and protection from unjust religious oppression. A proper value for human life and religious expression, which are good things, are behind this and should be commended in my opinion. On another level, however, it seems to me more curse than blessing at times. This same cultural climate has produced a weak and milktoast church in many ways. We know little of sacrifice. We know little of true commitment. We know little of hope in a better life to come since life is pretty good for us right here right now. We know little of suffering. And if suffering is a crucial part of the Christian experience (as I believe it is biblically), we must admit that our faith doesn’t need the Constitution of the United States in order to prosper. We find a certain degree of false security in such provisions.
I don’t think one cultural context is necessarily better than the other, but I do think we must be cautious to recognize the dangers that we face as Christians in the particular context we find ourselves. Hence, I believe we should be mindful of the kind of faith our brothers and sisters in persecuted lands do possess. I believe it can prove helpful for us. For this reason, I would like to offer a few suggestions regarding what I have learned, and believe we all need to learn, from the persecuted church.
Statistics tell us that more Christians have been martyred for their faith in the 20th century than all 18 centuries previously, combined. This is a rather eye-opening piece of information. Most of us in America are so disconnected from what is happening spiritually in the rest of the world that we would never imagine that it could be so. We have many brothers and sisters that suffer greatly for their faith in Christ. We must listen to them.
So what should we learn from our persecuted brothers and sisters? There are probably a host of things. But here are a few I think are valuable for us.
First, hostility and hatred do not thwart the advance of God’s kingdom. Most of the places that the church is growing most rapidly are the same places experiencing the greatest persecution. The protection of first amendment rights is not essential for the advance of the gospel. Most of us in America are scared and intimidated by rejection and hostility. We whine and complain when people come against us (just like everybody else in this culture). This is not only to be expected (Jesus told His disciples that all men would hate them on behalf of Him), but should never be cause for discouragement or quitting. Peter and John left the prison rejoicing after being counted worthy to be beaten for testifying to the name of Jesus Christ in Acts 4. We have got to get over people not liking us or people getting mad at us for what we believe.
Second, we would do well to remember that Christianity is not about stuff. Worldly stuff that is. Our persecuted brothers and sisters have their homes, their property, their jobs, their families, etc…, everything that is theirs, at times taken from them. If Christianity is about getting stuff, i.e. materialistic gain, then these brothers and sisters don’t love God very much. God did not come to fill our bank accounts or give us new cars. He came to reconcile us to Himself and give us hope for an inheritance that will not perish (by the way, let it be recognized how incredible this idea really is. Inheritance means something handed down to us from our fathers. If this is the case, the Bible tells us that what we get is everything that is Gods. And that inheritance never fades. It never dries up. It lasts forever. Everything that is rightfully Jesus’ as God’s Son becomes ours. That, my friends, is an overwhelming thought). Less in this life sets our hope on a better life to come. We need to forget about stuff. It’s going to burn up. It has no value.
Third, church is not all about methods and programs. I believe that if national persecution broke out next week here in America, 95% of the books in our Christian bookstores would become instantly irrelevant. No one would be buying books about becoming a better you or how to throw effective block parties to reach their community. Everything would change. Our persecuted brothers and sisters don’t have any use for that stuff. Now, I understand that cultural contexts shape the kinds of ways we go about reaching people. I’m not saying some of those things have no value for us here where we live. My point is that we tend to rely far too heavily on methods and means and man to accomplish the advance of the kingdom and the salvation of sinners. We have become far too confident in our own abilities. That’s why we don’t pray. The persecuted church, without exception, is a praying church. Why? Because God is all they have to trust in. Unfortunately, we spend little time praying in America because we don’t put our trust in Him nearly as much as we do in our methods. We have to stop trusting in methods and strategies and catchy vision statements. The New Testament gives us a simple answer regarding how the kingdom of God advances (simple does not necessarily mean easy however. There is an important difference between the two.). The church grows when God’s people preach, pray, suffer, and live holy lives. This doesn’t sound very “strategic” but it seems to work for our brothers and sisters.
Fourth, Christian worship is not all about performance value. Again, I am not trying to condemn everything about how we do church here in America. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to seek excellence and quality in what you do. I do, however, think we need to recognize how performance driven Christian worship has become in our culture. The persecuted church doesn’t waste time trying to entertain people. I doubt anyone leading the singing in their churches ever competed on American Idol Iran. Popular pastors are not ones that tell the funniest stores. Paul talks about one person bringing a hymn, another a spiritual song, another a proverb, another a testimony. There is a refreshing sense of community, sincerity and informality in this sort of approach. I have been a part of services like this. It’s not the only way to do it, but it certainly is edifying and I think a healthy corrective for much of the performance drivenness that can be found in most of our church culture.
Fifth, you don’t have to have big buildings to grow. Again, I don’t want to be overly critical here nor dismiss how different contexts merit different approaches. But I often shudder to think what God would say about our multi-million dollar church facilities and campuses. Is this the best stewardship of our financial resources? Is this critical to seeing our churches really continue to grow and prosper? Is God impressed by these? Our brothers and sisters in persecuted lands sneak in and out of houses and fields. And people keep getting saved. And more churches keep popping up. I think we would do well to remember what we should trust in for kingdom growth and expansion.
Sixth, we must learn from their courage and boldness. Most of these brothers and sisters live day to day, unaware of what sacrifice tomorrow may hold. What price there may be to pay. we must honor their courage by learning from their example. They have so much for us to see in this regard.
I think I’ll stop there. There’s probably enough there to get under someone’s skin. Certainly I’m not saying we have to do everything the way that things are done by our persecuted brothers and sisters. I simply think it is worth our time to maintain perspective on some of the dangers we face in the church here in our culture. Like any church, the persecuted church is not a perfect church by any means. They deal with their own weaknesses. Yet, we would do well to learn from them. They have much to teach us about faithfulness in laboring effectively for the advance of God’s kingdom. May we be humble enough to acknowledge some of our weaknesses and learn from them.