October 15, 2013

Do American Christians care about persecuted Christians?

by Steve Meister

I found a recent article at Persecution Blog, Do Americans Care About Persecuted Christians? both provocative and sadly accurate:

The Church is under fire. At that sentence, half the people who started reading this article just moved on to something more interesting. However, that response is troublesome. The plight of believers gets little attention on the global stage, leaving many Christians throughout North America unaware, and therefore, indifferent to what’s going on in the body of Christ. Mention persecution, and eyes glaze over.

The post quotes extensively from Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs, who explained that the average American Christian replies to persecution with “Man, that’s too bad.” In my reading, he gives 4 reasonable explanations as to why this seems to be the case:  

  1. Our media is focused on America. Nettleton says, “Our media covers things that are happening in America. In a 30-minute news program, we might get two minutes of what’s going on around the world.” That’s so true, I’ve almost entirely given up on the American news media.

Though I would want to add that our media is also biased against the persecution of Christians. If you didn’t read Ali’s article in Newsweek last year, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” you really must. She blows the cover off the obvious bias:

Over the past decade, these and similar [Islamic] groups have been remarkably successful in persuading leading public figures and journalists in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement called “Islamophobia”—a term that is meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia.

But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other. The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity—and ultimately of all religious minorities—in the Islamic world is at stake.

While we need not worry about the fate of Christianity (Matt 16:18), Ali’s main point is quite valid. If Islam is defamed, the media reports religious bigotry. When Christians are harassed or killed, it’s just “civil strife” – John 15:19 is still true. Unfortunately, if American Christians are getting their news from most American media outlets, they’re going to view the world through the lens of those who hate them.

2. Our spiritual and biblical ignorance of Christian fellowship. Again, Nettleton says: “This is our family. These are our brothers and sisters.” He’s right. In fact, this is what we’re commanded in Heb 13:3:

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

To “remember those who are in prison,” is not a proof-text for a jail chaplaincy to convicted criminals (which is not a bad thing, of course), but it’s about those who “also are in the body” with you, about remembering persecuted Christians! There’s only one Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13Eph 4:4), so when our brothers and sisters suffer, we’re suffering “with them.”

I’d guess that ignorance of these truths finds its source in the general personalization of Christianity in America – not to mention how many local churches are now sequestered into small groups. If the average American Christian can’t explain why they should care about all the members of their own local church, why would they ever care for their brethren around the world? Addressing this requires instruction from Scripture and the practice of faithful polity and membership in our churches.

3. Our understanding of “Christianity” is unbiblical. Nettleton explains, “It’s not presented as ‘this is what the Bible said was going to happen. This is what Jesus said ‘if you follow me, the world will hate you’. This is happening all around the world. Followers of Christ are being hated because they’re followers of Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, the Schuller-Hybels-Warren-Stanley philosophy has become the dominant redefinition of “Christianity” in our land. So many American Christians have been trained to think that success is gaining the applause, accolades, and admiration of the world. Despite the fact that the Lord Jesus warned His disciples that they’re among the cursed “when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26) and Paul wrote (from prison!) “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

As I’ve previously written in Am I Really Suffering for, by, and in Christ?, if professing Christians only experience love from the world, it’s probably because they really just belong to the world and not to Jesus (John 15:19Jas 4:4).

index4. Our hands feel tied. One great thing about our American culture is that we’re “doers,” we like to fix things – and we’re generally optimistic about surmounting challenges. But in this case, we feel helpless. The article explains, “Sometimes Americans avoid the discussion of the persecuted church because the news is discouraging. It’s hard to hear and yet feel helpless about changing anything.” As doers, American Christians need to learn that praying is doing! And, like the earliest Christians, responding to persecution with prayer to our “Sovereign Lord” is a good response (e.g., Acts 4:23-31; cf. 2 Cor 1:11Eph 6:18-20).

To address the apparent apathy, Nettleton also suggests:

You start by praying. you educate yourself, and then, whatever God lays on your heart as a response, you keep saying ‘yes’ to that and keep responding to that. You will find that you will enter into the ‘fellowship of suffering’…

The persecuted church is strengthened because we can encourage them, we can stand with them, and we can be a voice for them. But we’re strengthened as well because we see their faithfulness, and we see God’s faithfulness to them. And our faith is encouraged and challenged, and we find that we grow spiritually, as well.

It seems like what American Christians need is what our churches always need – faithful biblical instruction and example from our pastors and teachers.

But I’m curious, what do you think? Are there other explanations for American Christians’ apathy toward persecuted brethren? And how would you suggest we begin to address it?

Steve Meister

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Steve is the associate pastor of River City Grace Church, in Sacramento, CA.
  • David Whiting

    I think part of the reason (though not a good one, perhaps) is that I’ve gotten burned by two things. I’m a pastor who has recently preached on persecution around the world, but two things have burned me:

    1. I’ve stated exaggerated stats about how many around the world are dying. Those stats are seen everywhere, but there have been several recent articles that show those stats to be exaggerated. Now I regret stating those often published stats about how more have died in the last 100 years for their faith than in the first 1900 years of Christianity combined. And stats about how many die every year for their faith. I’m a bit embarrassed by those stats that I’ve used that now I highly doubt are true.

    2. I’ve been getting constant Facebook messages and emails from pastors around the world claiming persecution and asking for money. I’m not sure how legit they are, but they make me very skeptical.

    3. Things can become a campaign… “Free Saaid” is a great cause, but compared to other things that have happened recently, he is in prison – there isn’t a bomb that blew up his church or guns pointed at his congregation. And people have their favorite causes and people and countries. It can get overwhelming.

    I think those are three issues that I struggle with in figuring out how to handle these things.

    • Thanks for your comment, David, I think you’re highlighting some important issues. Before becoming a pastor, I worked for an international Christian organization and understand the confusion that’s created by misused statistics and inappropriate requests for the sake of donor revenue. From my experience with American organizations, as well as national groups in various countries, I believe it’s safe to say that some groups really help those who really need help. Of course, others are less helpful and still others are downright illegitimate. I think this means a few things for us.

      First, we need to resist the temptation toward apathy and cynicism. It’s very easy for us to do. But we do have real brothers and sisters in Christ who’re really persecuted and who stand in real need of our prayers and funds from our purses. Manipulative techniques from illegitimate groups doesn’t change that. When we grow apathetic, the evil one wins.

      We also need to investigate all reasonable requests and opportunities that we may encounter. We can ask organizations how they operate, how funds are used, and especially with whom they operate in any particular country. How do they hold their in-country relationships accountable to using funds and resources properly? One question I’ve found helpful is asking whether they’ve ever ceased a relationship because of inappropriate use of resources – that’ll let you know whether they’re really doing their homework. All faithful groups will be generally forthcoming with this information.

      On the use of individual testimonies (i.e., “Free Saaid”), any organization will tell you that that’s the most likely way to engage the interest of people in the broader need. We like stories and identify with them. When people hear national percentages, general trends, or even particular incidents, their eyes glaze over. But when they hear about a real story of a real Christian with a real family, it engages them more. Hopefully this isn’t exploitative or ignoring other urgent matters, but serves to raise awareness and concern overall where there was little to none before.

      Finally, we are reminded to depend on the Lord in prayer – prayer is real help (2 Cor 1:11). The situation in the world can be overwhelming for us, but not for Him. This has been His plan for the growth of His Church (John 15:19; Heb 12:3-11). Fortunately, we do not have feel responsible to fix every ill, the Lord will in His perfect time (2 Pet 3:1-10). Until then, we may trust His sovereign purposes, seek Him in prayer, and help in those opportunities that He brings our way and that we can reasonably address.

      Thanks, again, David. I hope this is helpful. Press on.

  • John Taylor

    Wait, I thought the Gospel was about me, about what Jesus has done for me, and that he is my copilot, helping me arrive at my preplanned destination of success: three happy and above average children, a comfortable home and a promising retirement plan. I mean we do have a Mission Sunday and we sponsor a child who can live on ‘pennies a day.’ I feel bad about these persecuted Christian, really I do. Now that I have felt bad, can you give me some advice on helping my church grow? We have a building expansion going on and we will need some more people to help pay for it.
    OK, I’m kidding. And, I hear you.
    My only caution is to label some of the people who have large churches as being, almost by default, as part of a message that is me and us centered, and somehow avoids the call of Christ, particularly the call that leads us to serve sacrificially those who are in the greatest need, and those who are persecuted specifically.
    My experience of Willow was that people arrive, people get included, and people get included into the mission and are sent – whether that is showing up on Saturdays to repair cars for single Moms and people under financial stress for free, or to go into Detroit and help to serve a very different community either by building up local churches or through direct engagement.
    I think you can easily get that point across without having to persecute any additional Christians.

    • Thanks, John. I appreciate the caution against “broad brush” painting. To clarify, I was not addressing “large churches.” I’ve been a member and on-staff at a large church and try not to judge any congregation by its size – some churches are large because the Lord has blessed their fidelity to His Word and others are large because of their infidelity. It’s a case by case deal with any congregation, numbers are not reliable in estimating spiritual matters.

      By referring to the “Schuller-Hybels-Warren-Stanley philosophy,” I am referencing just that, their philosophy and public teachings that have sought to reshape biblical Christianity according to the norms and expectations of our culture. At various points, each one has even explicitly stated that to be their goal – that is, to make Christianity more palatable to their surrounding culture. Though I appreciate the concern for the Lord’s servant to be “kind to everyone” (2 Tim 2:24-26), I don’t think questioning that approach nor its fruit is persecution.

      I’m glad to hear that you believe your experience to be different. May we all continue to grow in maturity and living and dying to our Lord (Rom 15:7-9; Eph 4:13-16). Blessings, John.

  • thesauros

    Hmm, my prayer life sucks. Too much, too much, too much. I’m sorry Father for caring so little for others. Please forgive me and help me to start again.

  • I think part of the problem is that honest discussion of real persecution makes complaints about middle class American “persecution” (like being ignored or mocked at work and people looking cross eyed at you if you pray before you eat in a restaurant) seem as petty as the truly are. As a pastor I try and bring up concrete examples of persecution frequently.

    • Thanks, John. I think I follow you. Are you saying that a focus on more severe suffering for Christ among our brothers around the world makes our complaints seem petty, so we avoid it? If that’s accurate, I think you may make a good point there. Considering the suffering of our brothers is humbling and we all generally like to avoid being humbled!

      On the other hand, the Bible does seem to attribute mockery and slander to the category of persecution (e.g., Matt 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23; 1 Pet 4:13-14; etc.). It seems to me that as we affirm the mockery and exclusion Christians face as persecution, we’re offering our people a point of assurance and even courage. That we’re striving for the Gospel with our brothers around the word, engaged in the same conflict (Phil 1:27-30; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7).

      This isn’t to deny the very important differences between what we face and what our brothers face. But it seems important to state that, if we’re being faithful in Christ, our sufferings are different in degree and not in kind.

      • Hi Steve you got my point exactly. And while mocking and reviling are definitely forms of persecution, biblical defined (mild though they may be) there is nothing biblical about complaining about them. Believers are commanded to rejoice when they share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). I think the broadly evangelical media is so focused on decrying how hard it is to be a christian here, they largely ignore the plight of the persecuted church. It is kind of hard to rail for two hours about a student being told to turn his t-shirt inside out at a public school if you also report on believers in Eritrea dying after being locked in shipping containers for days in the equatorial sun.

        • “There is nothing biblical about complaining about them.” Agreed! Thanks for your input, John. That’s helpful.

  • M Sellers

    What troubles me is the occasional difficulty in figuring out whether the reports of persecution I’m reading about concern actual believers or Roman Catholics labeled as believers. 99% of the time the media doesn’t differentiate. When I discover that I’ve been praying for a group of people who are not of the Body, I’m upset that I needed to have been praying for their salvation instead! Not that this is a bad thing, but my focus has been temporarily misdirected. It’s happened enough times that I’ve become wary in prayer, saying to the Lord, “IF these are believers…” He knows and I sometimes don’t.

    • I understand the concern. There are many complicating factors that make it nearly impossible to distinguish from afar – how could we discern who’s truly a Christian and who’s not from such a distance and should we withhold help and prayer until we do? Since many “Christians” are scooped-up in the big net of persecution in many countries, it seems most practical to advocate and serve the entire group.

      Faithful groups will help all who’re persecuted and minister to each individual according to their need personally, either for their encouragement in Christ or evangelizing them to come to Christ.

      If some are being persecuted for just a form of godliness (a la 2 Tim 3:5), we can pray that as relationships are built with them that they may know its power by faith in Jesus Christ.

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