The Persecuted Church

This is Memorial Day weekend, one of the most significant holidays that our country observes.  A time for us to remember those who have given their lives so that we might enjoy the freedoms that we do in this country.  It is an especially significant time for those of you in the military who know personally some of your comrades who have given their lives.

            And it seemed to me that this is an appropriate time for us to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy in this country – including the freedom to gather and worship like we’re doing right now.  But it’s also a good time for us to reflect on our brothers and sisters around the world who are not fortunate enough to enjoy the same freedoms that we do in this country.

            And in order to do that, I want to do something a little bit different with you, something I don’t think I’ve ever done in all my years of preaching.  This morning, I want to tell you a story.  I’ll do a little bit of preaching, but mostly I just want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. 

            By way of introduction, the Bible has a lot to say about how this world will treat the disciples of Jesus Christ.  Paul went so far as to say in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  And Jesus said to his followers, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18).   

            Most of us here in this room have never experienced that kind of hatred, and certainly not because of our faith in Jesus Christ!  But God’s Word makes it clear that persecution has always been a part of the story of God’s people.  God’s prophets were persecuted, so were Jesus and his followers, and the story of the early church in the book of Acts is mostly a story of persecution.  

            If you look at the New Testament, you’ll find that it was written largely by persecuted Christians, written for persecuted Christians, and written to give instructions on how to walk with God in some very difficult circumstances.  

            And this morning, I want us to take a look at the persecuted church today.  Around the world, we see church buildings burned to the ground.  We hear of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are hassled, mistreated, jailed, beaten and even killed.

            But, at the same time, we also hear stories about the great things that God’s people are doing during those times of persecution.  We hear stories of forgiveness, stories of courage.  We hear about people with a radical love and a faith that won’t die.  And so, I want us to take a closer look at the persecuted church this morning, but in a very personal way.

            Because, you see, our perspective on events that take place around the world is shaped by our own experiences.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  Two months ago, on March 10th, there was a plane crash.  Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down, killing all 157 people on board.  It’s one of the deadliest airline crashes in all of history, but my guess is that most of you, when you heard about that tragedy on the news, didn’t even give it a moment’s thought.  Because it was Ethiopian Airlines, and you don’t know anybody in Ethiopia.

            But, suppose the news had reported that there were fifteen Americans who died in that crash, I would imagine that you probably would have paid a little bit of attention.  And if the news had reported that there were some Fayetteville residents on that plane when it crashed, you would have paid careful attention and you would have wanted to know more details.  You would have regarded that crash as a terrible disaster.

            And, furthermore, if you knew any of those Fayetteville residents who were killed, or if some of those victims were your relatives, now you’re going to pay even more attention to that news report, and you’re going to want to gather as much information about it as you possibly can.  Your perspective on this crash changes based on its relationship to your own personal experiences.  Does that make sense?

            And I think the same thing is true when it comes to persecuted Christians.  You and I, we’re not persecuted, our family and friends aren’t persecuted, we don’t even know any Americans who are brutally persecuted.  So, when we hear on the news these reports about Christians being persecuted, we don’t even pay any attention.

            We hear statistics like “245 million Christians are being persecuted around the world this year”, but we aren’t moved by that.  It’s just a number, a number of people that we don’t know and we don’t feel any connection with.  Even when I tell you that 1 out of every 9 Christians in this world experiences high levels of persecution, that doesn’t move you.

            Every year, more than 4,000 Christians are killed for their faith.  Every year, 1200 churches are burned to the ground.  Every year, 2600 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.  It’s all just a bunch of numbers, and let’s be honest, we aren’t very moved by those numbers.

            And I get that, because I’m the same way.  But, about a week ago, something happened that changed my perspective, and that’s the story that I’d like to share with you this morning.

            Most of you know that I correspond regularly by e-mail with a friend by the name of Max.  Here’s a picture of Max.  Now, I’ve never met Max in person, but we have been corresponding with each other over the past four years or so, and over that time, we have shared more than 1,000 emails with each other, so I feel like I know Max pretty well.

            Max is a Christian who lives in China.  He grew up in a home where he was told that there is no God, but he was taught about Jesus by some American missionaries who traveled to China, most of them from Harding University.  Shortly after that, Max was baptized into Christ and ever since then, he has tried to faithfully serve Jesus Christ. 

            I’ve told you before that Max loves to study the Bible.  Just about every week, he’ll send me an e-mail asking some Bible question about something he’s been thinking about.  But a couple of weeks ago, on May 9th, he sent me this message:

            “I am struggling about a decision. About a month [ago], I took a job offer. My boss would take me to Nigeria for a business trip and I will be his interpreter. He plans to build a factory there and do business. I told him I am a Christian and need to go to church on Sundays.  He said, “Okay. I think that there are churches there.”….However, I got to know that we will go to Kaduna and the factory will be built there.  I searched and found that it is the most dangerous place in the whole Nigeria.  Christians being killed.  Terrorists.  Kidnap.  I was frightened for a few days.  But later I still decided to go.  I wanted to go to Africa.  I wanted to grab this opportunity.  The heavier struggle is church life.  Now I can’t go out to a church freely. I have to stay inside on Sundays for months alone.  And I am wondering if it is pleasing to God….I am not clear whether it is absolutely not wise or pleasing to God, according to Bible, to take such a job which doesn’t allow a person to go to church on Sundays.”

            When I got that e-mail, I did a little research and I learned that Max was right — Kaduna, Nigeria is indeed one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians.  I contacted several people I know who live in Nigeria, and they confirmed that this is indeed the case.

            On Thursday, May 16, Max wrote me again.  At this point, he was in Nigeria, in the city of Kano.  He said, “Thanks be to the loving God and thank you for praying for me.  I might walk alone this Sunday for an hour to a local church that I found after I searched online…I wondered, what if a bomb explodes during the service and I die?  I never had this terrifying feeling before.  You don’t know the specific situation of a country or an area. You just don’t know and you struggle.  Maybe I won’t go. Yeah, better not to go.”

            On Saturday, May 18, Max copied me on an e-mail he sent to Efe, one of my contacts in Nigeria.  He said, “I Googled your church and I planned to go there tomorrow morning alone.  Walk there and it takes one hour and a half.  I can even run.  No problem for me. Walking can let me see more of Kano….The problem is, is it safe for me to walk to your church?  This afternoon I went out alone. I went to a local market nearby…I kept going and visited some villages that were not far from the roads…I told my adventure to my Nigerian friend Suni…and he warned me it was risky, stop doing that…He told me it is risky, someone may kidnap me and that one month ago, a foreigner (an engineer) was shot and died around 7 in the morning….Still I am wonder[ing], is it risky for me to walk…to your church?  Your Chinese brother in Him…”

            Now, I want you to think about this.  Here’s a Christian who is trying to make a decision on whether or not to go to church the next morning.  If he goes, he has to walk for an hour and a half in an area where Christians are being persecuted, and he runs the risk of being kidnapped, beaten or killed.  And he’s having a tough time deciding whether he should go or not.  I know some Christians here in America who have a tough time deciding whether to go to church if it’s raining.  I can’t imagine facing that level of persecution with the amount of faith and commitment that Max has.

            As I said, I got that e-mail from Max last weekend, on Saturday.  A couple of days later, I saw this news report – “Gunmen Raid Church In Kaduna During Choir Rehearsal, Kill 1, Abduct 17 Others.”  This happened last Sunday.  The article records one witness who said, “As we were in the church, the armed men numbering over 20 just surrounded the church and started shooting.  Everybody was terrified but there was no how we could run because they had already surrounded the church.”

            It shouldn’t surprise you to know that I read that article with great interest.  If I had seen it a few weeks ago, I would have ignored it.  But not now.  This is no longer just a number.  This is in the vicinity of where my friend is living right now.  A Christian friend who must deal with the possibility of persecution to an even greater extent than he does back in his home in China.  A friend who must make a decision every Sunday for the next several months, “Do I go to church today and risk the very real chance of being beaten, kidnapped or killed?”

            That’s a choice that you and I have never had to make and by the grace of God, we probably never will.  But, every Sunday, 245 million Christians have to make that decision.  And for the first time in my life, I’ve very moved by that.

            Let me tell you about a few of those places.  There’s a group called Open Doors and they keep careful track of persecuted Christians.  Every year, they put out a list of the 50 countries in the world where it is most difficult to be a Christian.  Let me tell you about a few of those countries.

            The number 1 most dangerous country for Christians, for the past 18 years, is North Korea.  What’s it like being a Christian in North Korea?  Picture a professional football stadium for the big game on Sunday, filled to capacity.  That’s roughly the number of Christians in labor camps in North Korea.  Their only crime is believing in Jesus.  If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot, their families will share their fate as well.

            There are no parents in North Korea reading Bible stories to their young children.  Even the ones who are Christians can’t afford to do that for fear their children may say something and reveal their beliefs to the authorities.  Christian fellowship looks much different in North Korea.  There can be no worship services.  There can be no gathering.  It might look like this: picture a Christian walking into a park and taking a seat on a bench. And then over some period of time, scanning the park to see if maybe there’s another believer to visit with for just a moment.

            And yet, even in the midst of this persecution, Open Doors estimates there are 300,000 believers in North Korea. They’re worshiping God wherever and however they can.  They’re continuing to follow God, no matter what the cost.

            Pakistan is number 5 on the list of the most dangerous countries for Christians to live in.  Blasphemy laws have been put in place which can be used to throw any Christian into jail for a real or perceived slight against Islam.  Any accuser can claim something derogatory was said about Islam or Muhammad, and the person accused can then be arrested and sentenced to death. 

            You may have seen on the news recently that Asia Bibi was allowed to leave Pakistan and go to Canada.  She is a Christian mother of five who had been in prison for 10 years for alleged blasphemy.  It all started because she got a drink of water from a well that was used by Muslim women.  They demanded that she convert to Islam and she refused.  She said, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?”  As a result of that statement, a mob showed up at her house, beating her and members of her family before she was taken away by the police.  She was tried and found guilty of blasphemy against Islam, was sentenced to be hanged and spent 10 years in solitary confinement before finally being released.

            Women and children are abducted in Pakistan at an alarming rate, with some of them sexually abused, forced to married Muslim men and forced to convert to Islam.  But faith in Christ is visible even in the midst of this persecution. Christians in Pakistan are standing up for Jesus, regardless of the cost, and are sharing the gospel.

            Eritrea is number 7 on the list of the most dangerous countries for Christians to live in.  It is one of the most closed countries in the world.  It’s often called the “North Korea of Africa” because of its brutal dictatorship.  No church can operate in that country without government direction. This year, government security forces have conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions. There may be more than 1,000 Christians imprisoned in metal shipping containers, where they can be left in scorching heat for years. 

            A large number of Eritreans are fleeing their nation to surrounding countries or to Europe.  But Christians aren’t giving up.  Even Christians who have had to flee are hoping to one day return to Eritrea and help restore the church.  One Christian in a nearby country told Open Doors, “I believe the Church will be a strong power to change society, play its part in development. We want to evangelize the many unreached ethnic groups, train good pastors that can lead the church, defend the faith, influence society with Biblical worldview and values.”

            And then there’s Nigeria where Max is right now, which is number 14 on the list of the most dangerous countries for Christians to live in.  In recent years, it was Boko Haram, a militant Muslim group that was the primary force attacking and killing Christians.  One of the most public atrocities was the kidnapping of 276 school girls in 2014.   Now, five years later, 112 of these girls still haven’t come home.  Over the past ten years, Boko Haram has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, and over 2 million people have been displaced due to the destruction of their communities.

            More recently, it is the militant Muslim Fulani herders who have been attacking Christian villages and killing Christians.  Over the past few years, these attacks have grown more violent and more regular. 

            Nigeria has a huge population of Christian widows.  When attacking church buildings, preachers and elders are targeted. When attacking homes, fathers and sons are targeted.  Over time, this has left the country with a lot of widows.  And yet, the Nigerian church continues to follow Jesus and serve him.  Churches are running trauma counseling centers, helping to distribute relief aid and helping to rebuild villages that have been attacked.  The faith of those Christians has not died out.

            When I hear all of these stories about the persecuted church today, I think about Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia in Revelation 3.  He said, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8).

            Philadelphia was a place in Asia Minor where the church was going through brutal persecution.  In verse 9, Jesus said there was “a synagogue of Satan” there.  But Jesus assured those Christians that they weren’t suffering in vain — and their pain wasn’t escaping his notice.  Imagine hearing these words from Jesus:  “You have kept my word.”  “You have not denied my name.”

            In Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, Jesus spoke to six other churches as well, most of whom were going through the same kind of intense persecution.  But Jesus had a lot of positive things to say about those churches, commending them for things like:

  • Good works
  • Patient endurance
  • Patiently suffering for Jesus without quitting
  • Not growing weary
  • Being faithful until death
  • Remaining loyal to Jesus
  • Not denying faith in Jesus
  • Love
  • Faith
  • Service
  • Keeping Jesus’ word

            Which all sounds a lot like those Christians around the world today who are being persecuted.   When you look at all those qualities, they seem to fall into four categories:

            1.         Standing firm on God’s Word

            2.         Living to please God

            3.         Trusting that God’s promises are true

            4.         Working diligently for God’s kingdom.

            Those are the kinds of things that we sometimes struggle with here in this country, where we don’t face that level of persecution and we don’t have any excuse other than our own lack of commitment.  I have trouble even imagining what it’s like to have the level of commitment and faith that these Christians do in places where it is so difficult to follow Jesus.

            When we think of the Persecuted Church, we might think of:

  • a church in hiding
  • a church in desperation
  • a church on the run
  • a church being squeezed and crushed, to the point of extinction

            But from what we know, perhaps we should see it differently.  The first few verses of Acts chapter 8 tell us about how the church was persecuted after Stephen became the first martyr. All the believers — except the apostles — left Jerusalem and scattered in all directions. And in Acts 8:4, we see these beautiful words: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” So, when we think of the persecuted church, we need to imagine a church that is:

  • Standing firm on God’s Word
  • Living to please God
  • Trusting that God’s promises are true
  • Working diligently for God’s kingdom

            It is a church that is persecuted, but it is a church that is victorious because of its faith in Jesus Christ.  There are 245 million Christians in the world today who can say, along with the apostle Paul, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.  We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed…Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9,11, NLT)

            So, let’s bring the lesson home to us.  What about us?  What can we do?  What should we do?   And perhaps we learn best what to do when we read about what Nehemiah did when he realized how bad things were in Jerusalem.  “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:4). 

            As we close, allow me to suggest a few things that we can do:

  • Pay attention to news about suffering Christians, and make a commitment that you won’t just ignore it whenever you see it
  • Pray for our persecuted church family to stand strong in their faith.  Pray for their courage.  Pray that they will be strong enough to stand up for Christ when things get tough.
  • We also need to pray that they will grow in their love, that God would help them to forgive and bless their enemies
  • Write notes of encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  If you would like to have any e-mail addresses, I’ll be glad to share some with you.

            This weekend, we remember those who gave our lives to give us our freedom.  But, may we never take this freedom for granted.  May we never use our freedom as an excuse to be lazy.  And may we always remember and pray for our brothers and sisters whose faith is tested on a daily basis.

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