It’s me again, your erstwhile missionary apprentice!
In case you didn’t know, one of my main jobs as a missionary is to help you all here at TRBC excel at fueling missions beyond just me. I’m also here to keep you informed on what God is doing in the world at the moment.
In looking at the bulletin insert we received from Open Doors, I realized we should open the discussion about who the persecuted church really is. This is an area where there are a number of misconceptions and nuances that are vital to being able to best support, pray for, and know our brothers and sisters who experience persecution.
Persecution vs. Oppression
An important distinction to make when framing the way we see the world and the persecuted church is to distinguish between what is persecution and what is oppression, or even what might simply be poverty. Persecution is when someone is oppressed for their faith, but not all oppression of Christians is actually persecution.
Also, many people are persecuted and oppressed for things that have nothing to do with their faith. For example, my pastor in Kenya is a paraplegic and was tragically beaten for being out in his courtyard instead of his house past curfew at one point. This is classic oppression but didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was a pastor.
This may seem like some tragic game of splitting hairs, but there is a point to distinguishing nuances in cases like this. When we look at stopping persecution through legislation changes, often definitions matter hugely. Additionally, misrepresenting oppression as persecution has been used by organizations and individuals manipulatively to garner sympathy and funding. As Christians, we should be careful not to fall into seeing every bad thing to befall ourselves and others as a form of persecution. Rain falls on the just and the unjust.
Defining terms can also help us get a handle on specific situations so we can determine which issues need to be tackled first. Often when planting a church for the first time, things like oppression and poverty need to be addressed alongside more so-called “spiritual” work to be effective. People need things like clean water, food, and safety to even be able to consider coming to a church in many cases, and we as Christians should care about whole people, mind, body, and soul. The Gospel is rather hollow when people’s felt needs are disregarded.
Persecution is Diverse
If you don’t still have the insert from Open Doors, you can view it as the World Watch List on their website and taking a look at it as you read will be helpful for this next point. It can be easy to think about the countries on this list as inherently bad and perceive them as bad in a homogenous sense. That is, we can think they are universally terrible or unsafe places. Some of them are worse than others, but on this list are many renowned and beautiful tourist destinations with high GNPs. In some cases, persecution only occurs in certain locations. Some promote persecution on a governmental or systemic level, and for others persecution has more to do with local traditions and religious beliefs.
The point is that persecution doesn’t fit in some neat box with obvious labels. Reading the categories of scoring from Open Doors in useful to get a full picture of the ways persecution happens. It may be that Christianity will get you thrown in jail, but perhaps it means your family refuses to speak to you. Maybe Christian businesses are boycotted, or loans are only given on unfair terms. Persecution might look like being bullied at school or fired without cause. Persecution may be some unpleasant mix of all the above. We should be aware of and praying for all those different scenarios and many others.
What Persecution Means for Missionaries
I’ll preface this by saying that I know and know of missionaries in 80% of the countries on the World Watch List. In many cases I don’t know their real names, where they actually live, or what they look like because they live under strict security measures. Dear friends of mine live in those Top Ten countries. There are an awful lot of unknowns when it comes to missions in what we call Creative Access Nations. I have to be excessively circumspect in how I am writing even now.
An important point concerning missions in countries where persecution is high is that the foreign missionaries are rarely the ones who catch the brunt of persecution. I might be given strange looks or be spat on in marketplaces, but my local church members may be beaten or cast out of their homes. In some cases, missionaries only risk deportation while their brothers and sisters face execution. One of the hardest realizations you come to in missions is that in preaching the Gospel you may be condemning others to torture and death while you risk comparatively little yourself.
What We Can Be Doing
Pray with as much information as we have (and seek to learn more). Open Doors, the Joshua Project, and Voice of the Martyrs all have great resources to learn from and pray through.
Practice good security protocols – this one is NOT optional. When we talk about missionaries and Christians in places where persecution has serious consequences, be careful about the information you share. Share no specifics online, especially not with real names, places, or clear pictures. It can get visas revoked and people imprisoned if not worse.
If the opportunity arises, go visit the persecuted church. Yes, even in those places you think are unsafe. When people give up their whole families, lives, and communities for Christ, knowing other Christians are standing in the gap, who know and care for them is truly precious.
I so wish there was a way for you to really see the World Watch List as more than numbers and rankings. I wish I could tell you the names of the friends I probably won’t see again this side of eternity. I wish you knew what hymns sounded like in their language. Those believers aren’t more spiritual or somehow more valuable Christians than you or I, but persecution is one of God’s greatest Church growth strategies for a reason, and we could learn much from those who live it.