Never in history have so many Christians worldwide suffered high levels of persecution – over 360 million. That number rose 20 million from 2021, as has the number of Christians killed for their faith (5,898 in 2022, up from 4,761 in 2021). The most dangerous nations to be a Christian today are Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. Yet persecution in some form is occurring in nearly every country where there are Christians.
Why? Christians practice the only faith calling into question the goodness of mankind, our control over our eternal fate, and the absolute authority of leaders. We ascribe to a standard (the law of love) human nature resists, worship a God demanding our allegiance, and believe everyone is accountable for their actions (sins). Campaigns to discredit Christians and incite violence (or other retribution) against them cast us as threats to national interests and the social order – bigots, oppressors, impediments to progress, and master manipulators. Unable to implicate Jesus, His followers become the targets.
- Yichen endures what most of us think of when we hear the word “persecution”. As an “unregistered religious group”, Christians in China are harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and forced underground into house churches. Undeterred, Yichen perseveres despite those physical threats and the prospect of declining social credit certain to damage the “creditworthiness” afforded more trusted, compliant citizens. Yichen is not alone in his bravery – Christianity has grown faster in China over the past four decades than anywhere else in the world.
- Ilma and her family suffer a more subtle yet equally ancient and prevalent form of persecution – indentured servitude. Slavery is condoned in Pakistan through insurmountable debt accumulated by millions of Christians who fail to produce arbitrary quotas in brick factories. Converts to Christianity, particularly women like Ilma, are treated as second class citizens in Pakistan (and Afghanistan…) – undereducated, underemployed, and unsafe for fear of violating blasphemy laws.
- Robert is a true disciple of Jesus Christ, not an average American churchgoer. His unwavering allegiance is to his heavenly Father, not the shifting sands of worldly culture. In a city like San Jose, Robert’s unwillingness to bow to prevailing views on gender, marriage, and preborn viability is costing him dearly. He lost his small business because word got out about his Christian faith and patrons refused to shop there anymore. His conservative values now severely limit his employment options with corporations screening applicants based on profiles and politics.
Ironically, across the globe Christians are the primary victims of the crimes we’re accused of – intolerance (to stifle our dissent) and oppression (to compel our compliance).
What Churches and Christians Do Today
The American Church’s silence on persecution is deafening. Most giving to churches in the New Testament was for persecuted, improverished Christians. Yet one survey revealed that of the 150 largest churches and 20 largest Christian denominations in the U.S., only 3 churches and 2 denominations indicated supporting the persecuted was a high priority.
- In China, believers like Yichen wouldn’t risk their freedom or lives for less than the life-saving truth of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There are no cultural, lukewarm Christians in the face of clear and present danger. Meanwhile, American churches are cautious about challenging members to step far out of their comfort zones. If pushed too hard, churchgoers are free to select a different congregation down the road with lower expectations. Discipleship thrives in persecution but diminishes in peace and prosperity. Proof of that premise is how rarely most Christians pray for and how little churches donate to help oppressed brothers and sisters overseas. Contemporary church growth models divert nearly all attention to weekend services and programs – and budgets toward facilities and staff.
- While pastors preach diversity and decry injustice here at home, few take steps to help modern-day slaves like Ilma in Pakistan where Christians are a detested minority. We claim to share Jesus’ concern for the poor and obey his mandates to serve them, but largely ignore impoverished Christians forced into hard labor with little hope of escape. How must they feel, facing such dire prospects alone, knowing how many professed believers are in America and how much wealth we possess? Disregarding their persecution will expedite and intensify our own. Investing in the persecuted and advocating for them would make more Christians aware of what awaits them – and possibly get them off the sidelines. Greater visibility could even increase the likelihood our government would do what churches cannot – take political, diplomatic, or military action against nations that persecute Christians – to protect the human rights our society claims to defend.
- The more believers bemoan the immorality of post-Christian America, the worse we make things for Robert. It’s illogical to expect those who don’t worship Jesus to follow His laws, so pursuing top-down strategies to turn the tide of American culture comes across as “forcing” our values on them. Seeking to control the 7 Mountains (government, education, etc.), rather than humbly serving at the bottom of the valleys, turns Robert’s neighbors and prospective employers against him. Persecution is often a reaction to periods where Christians gain political clout. Attaining it comes at a cost when power shifts out of our hands and non-believers resent “imposition” of Christian standards (particularly given our failure to abide by them), celebrating a return to the “freedom” of moral relativism.
Decades of viewing church as a place, worship as an event, pastors as (the only) ministers, and members as “customers” have produced passive, pensive, and private Christians rather than multiplying disciple-makers. Fearing the worst and protecting turf, we too often retreat inside the comfortable confines of a church building, more concerned about our personal safety than the welfare of those already being persecuted.
What Should Churches Be Doing?
Turning a blind eye to fellow believers treated as criminals and jailed for their faith is, at its root, a love problem. Since God is love and His greatest command is to love, would the same Christians who pay little mind to the persecuted be willing to endure it themselves? Jesus said His followers will be hated by those who reject the Gospel. Unlike Yichen, Ilma, and Robert, those who avoid confrontation and have no enemies may not be His disciples.
- Yichen and other Christ-followers in China first and foremost need our prayers, but we cannot stop there. When we see our government fail to report or intervene on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters, we should advocate for them in Washington. When journalists ignore record numbers of persecuted Christians, opting instead to write about those “persecuted” by Christians, we should take responsibility for raising awareness. When media defends personal identity and lifestyle convictions (freedom from religion) yet refuses to defend our freedom of religion, we should bring attention to that cause. When companies pretend to care deeply about racism, intolerance, and justice, but continue to do business in and with the world’s most racist, intolerant, and unjust regimes (toward Christians), we should point out that hypocrisy. Yet we must also confess our own (hypocrisy) in allowing Yichen to feel unloved and forgotten.
- Even if American believers knew about Ilma and her family enslaved in Pakistan, they would likely feel powerless to help. However, two of my friends (who didn’t know one another) have traveled there recently, risked their lives, and met Christians (mostly children saddled with their parents’ debt to brick kiln factory owners) hopelessly trapped in indentured servitude. Convicted and convinced of the need and their ability to act, both started investing and raising funds to redeem families from their “masters”. As with all poverty alleviation efforts, financial giving is never the entire answer. In this case, Ilma and her family lacked the education to find employment and the means to afford housing, requiring partnerships with other ministries to provide training, shelter, and plans to work toward self-sufficiency.
- Our society increasingly places its faith in Selfism and mankind’s goodness. No matter how kind and considerate Robert is, it’s unlikely non-Christians will accept or employ him due to his countercultural beliefs. However, hearts would soften if America’s churches and Christians better reflected God’s love by following Jesus’ example of prayer, care and (then) share. When the current obsession with self and delusion about human nature run their course, we must be positioned to provide the alternative. Unfortunately, America’s inward-focused church growth paradigm is so well entrenched that it may take persecution to dismantle its constructs and priorities – hierarchies, attendance, and facilities. When public worship is restricted and Christians disperse, only faithful followers will remain and reform into discipleship-driven, evangelistic cell groups. As with the first century Church, decentralization, infiltration, and empowerment always leads to rapid multiplication.
Yichen, Ilma, and Robert maintain a firm resolve at tremendous personal risk. If all Christians in America shared their conviction as pressures mount to renounce our faith, it would spark a revival and revitalization of a Church rapidly declining in growth, impact, influence, and public perception. If on the other hand our continued self-inflicted wounds of compromise and division expose Christians to greater persecution, then our prayer is the Lord will use what Satan intends for evil to purify and unite His Church.
It’s Your Turn…
Why else do you believe Christians and churches in America are not diligently praying, investing, rescuing, and advocating for those Jesus so dearly loves and so clearly commands us to serve?