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Encouraging the Persecuted Church

Open Doors International, the organization which produces the annual World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, assesses that there are 245 million Christians who experience high levels of persecution—one in nine Christians of our world today. That number is climbing in recent years. We often distinguish these brothers and sisters as members of the persecuted church while identifying ourselves as members of the free world church. Or as one middle eastern church leader said, “the persecuted church and the church on holidays.” But the scriptures teach that there is only one global church and when one member suffers, we all suffer. We are family.

Most do not ask us to work toward eliminating the persecution.

After forty years of ministry among the severely persecuted, I have concluded there are several ways we can encourage those who are experiencing these high levels of persecution. First, we must be aware that most do not ask us to work toward eliminating the persecution but rather to provide encouragement through the persecution. What most persecuted Christians want is to know they are not forgotten by their brothers and sisters—that they are not standing alone even when isolated.

He continued to come and personally spend time with them

We can assist in this by presence ministry. Pastor and author Dr. David Platt shared his experiences in South Sudan when Christians were experiencing violent attacks from the north of the country. They showed him with thankful hearts all the shipping containers of goods that were sent to them by other Christians from around the world. Then they repeatedly reminded him that what they appreciated most was the fact that he continued to come and personally spend time with them and encourage them. Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors International, did the same during the civil war in Lebanon. Three times the home of the head of the Bible Society was destroyed and every time Andrew went to Lebanon to spend time with him and encourage him to persevere. 

 Jesus refers to this type of ministry in Matthew 25:36, “…I was in prison and you came to visit me.” But obviously we all cannot go to every persecuted Christian in the world. Some of us cannot go to any of them. But we can support those who do. Recently Burlington-based TV evangelist, Nizar Shaheen has been encouraging suffering believers in war-torn Syria. In August of this past summer, the local churches there organized an opportunity for him to preach to a large crowd and two thousand people made decisions to follow Jesus – for many it was or will be a costly decision. The staff of Open Doors International (ODI) and Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) practice presence ministry in many countries and can do so on our behalf.

In April this year I was teaching young church leaders in Buddhist Bhutan with my colleague Dr. Jim Cunningham. One of our students shared about his imprisonment for more than one year for showing the Jesus movie in the rural areas. He commented on how encouraged he was when he learned about a ministry group that was caring for his wife and children while he was in jail. 

They almost universally say first, “Pray for us.”

When we ask persecuted Christians what we can do to encourage them, they almost universally say first, “Pray for us.” This is not just a mantra; they really mean it. They truly believe that God answers prayer. Many times, they share testimonies of palpable answers experienced. I think of my Russian Orthodox friend, Aleksandr Ogorodnikov who spent eight years in the Soviet Union’s gulags for encouraging young people to follow Jesus. My co-worker and I spent a full day with him in Moscow shortly after his release and he shared an incredible experience of being put in a freezing cell expecting to be found dead by morning. In the middle of the night he experienced a physical warmth that he could only conclude came because Christian brothers and sisters were praying for him. Years later he learned that a Filipino prayer group in Manila awakened in the night and were moved to gather together and passionately pray for him. He was convinced this was the reason God warmed his body. Today Aleksandr runs a street ministry in Moscow.

The national offices of ODI and VOM mentioned above have resources to keep you supplied on a daily basis with prayer items for persecuted believers. You can also encourage your local church to take part in the Indternational Day of Prayer for the Persecuted the first Sunday of every November. This will introduce and motivate many to pray on a regular basis throughout the year.    

It took the Chinese believers five years to carefully distribute those Bibles.  

The third way of encouraging our persecuted family is through provision of spiritual and practical needs they have. I first met persecuted believers in China in the mid-70’s just at the end of the Cultural Revolution era. Their unanimous request was for Chinese Bibles which were in short supply and the church was beginning to grow rapidly. Ultimately, I coordinated a major event called Project Pearl—the clandestine delivery of one million Chinese Bibles in one night on a beach in southern China on June 18, 1981. The Bibles weighed 232 tons and took two hours for twenty strong men to offload from a large barge pulled by a tugboat onto the beach where several thousand Chinese Christians were waiting at 9 pm. But it took the Chinese believers five years to carefully distribute those Bibles throughout the country.

A few years ago, I met on that same beach some of the Christian men who were waiting and helping on the night of delivery in 1981. One of the men was now 91-years-old and greeted us with tears. Like Simeon in the New Testament, he had prayed and asked God to let him live until he met and thanked some of the people who brought them those million Bibles.   

After Bibles, persecuted Christians ask for other Christian literature, training, socio-economic development projects and political advocacy when harassment is violent such as in Northern Nigeria today. We thus encourage our persecuted family through our presence, prayer and provision.

Check out the Office of Social Justice resources and bulletin inserts for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church here, or for more articles in this series follow this link!
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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