Thursday, October 19, 2006

An Article All Church Leaders Should Read

The following outstanding article came across my desk today from Rick Warren's weekly Ministry Toolbox email. I am presently reading Ronald Boyd-MacMillan's latest book, Faith That Endures and finding it one of the most significant books that I have read in the last year. This article demonstrates the same careful thinking and I recommend that you forward this to your pastor and/or church staff.

Introduce your congregation to the persecuted church
by Ronald Boyd-MacMillan

All pastors want to help their church members understand the persecuted church.

We all want to learn something of the secret of the world's largest-ever revival in China, or be inspired by the heroic endurance of thousands of Eritrean brothers and sisters, literally cooking to death in metal shipping containers parked in the steaming jungle, all because they refuse to give up their right to read the Bible and pray. If we connect our churches with that kind of fire-filled faith, it may rub off on us.

So how do we do it?

I thought about this a long time and had a five-point plan (nicely alliterated too) to recommend to you to make this happen. But then, two huge flaws reared up to torpedo this strategy.

First, give a pastor another task list, and they'll start to whimper. Might even push them over the edge. As a British government insider said recently, "Our strategy was to keep announcing targets, initiatives, plans, which always generated headlines and made it seem like we're always on top of things. [The] problem was, we kept announcing so many new plans we never gave the first plans any time to work, and the result was chaos." Similarly, churches are suffocating from a surfeit of initiatives. What an insult it would be to reduce the persecuted church to yet another task on an already crowded roster.

Second - and here's the biggest rub - pastors can only lead their churches into realizations that they embody themselves. Since most pastors don't understand the persecuted church, the task is doomed to failure.

So what discovery is the pastor going to radiate about persecution that enables them - and their church - to understand the persecuted church?

Here's my suggestion: Congregations will understand the persecuted church only when their pastor becomes one of the persecuted church!

OK, belay those images of pastors led away in chains from hospitals for threatening abortion doctors or jailed for insulting political figures or pouring out anti-atheistic venom on talk shows. It's deeper and bigger than that, as a couple of them found out on a visit to China.

There's a house church in Beijing I take my friends to visit. The members are all young professionals, about 20 of them, and they meet in a huge, darkened, open-plan office at midnight once a week. At the beginning of each meeting, the leader goes around and asks each member this question: What are your wounds for Christ this week?

On one occasion, I had brought three American friends, and the same question - through translation - was put to each of them. They replied, "Oh, we are not wounded or persecuted, you see, we live in America, where we have religious freedom, and we are so grateful for that!"
This reply was greeted with uncomprehending silence by the Chinese house church. Then a young woman spoke up and without a trace of irony asked, "You mean, they don't let the Devil into America?"

The house church leader patiently explained to the visitors the biblical understanding of persecution: "In the Bible, to be persecuted means to be pursued by the enemies of Christ. When we become a Christian, his enemies become our enemies, and we are pitched into a battle with the world and the Devil, and this fight will draw wounds. So it doesn't matter whether you are in China or America, the fight is the same, only the degree of suffering may differ. You're going to get pursued - that's persecution."

"But we thought persecution was legal discrimination, or being put into jail for one's faith" said one of the visitors. The house church leader replied, "That's the extreme tip of it. Look, we may not sit on the same thorn, but we all sit on the same branch."

Still the visitors did not look convinced. Another Chinese member said, "If you don't have wounds for Christ, how do you know you are alive in Christ? Wounds bring joy, because then you know you are making a difference."

This struck a chord with the visitors, two of whom were pastors. As preachers, they knew that nothing communicates like joy. That's why persecuted churches are growing churches - they are alive in Christ, and they know it because they have wounds!

But how do you take that back to Madison, Wis., or Fort Lauderdale, Fla.? It sounds good. It's good theology. But how does it work? How does a pastor become one of the persecuted - in a society that is often indifferent to the exercise of religion?

The two pastors explained their confusion to the house church. One woman said to them, "Was Paul persecuted because he was a Christian? No, he was persecuted because he was a witnessing Christian. He went to the synagogues and preached there, and then he got into trouble. So find the source of resistance to the Gospel in your local area and when you apply the Gospel, watch the fight begin." The house church pastor put it this way, "Confront the defining evil in your area or your society - that will bring persecution. For us, the evil is obvious; for you, it may be more subtle."

One pastor went back to his church in an inner city area. He became convicted that the youth gangs were the defining evil in the area, especially as they were going on killing sprees and starting to become drug pushers. He began prayer meetings and outreaches to the gangs. He even became a chaplain to a particularly violent gang. After a while, he saw fruit, but he also got a visit from a local gun runner, "Leave the kids alone, or else - you're bad for business," he said. One night, six months later, a bullet came through the window as the church baptized five converted gang leaders. The reaction of the pastor could have come from the mouth of the Chinese house church leader. He said, "It was a beautiful bullet, because now we knew we were making a difference."

That pastor had joined the persecuted church and led his congregation into a greater awareness of the worldwide persecuted church. They wanted to know about their brothers and sisters in Eritrea, China, North Korea, and Iran not just because the Christians there needed their prayers and their money, but because they were one in the same battle. Christians in the West need the insights and prayers of suffering Christians around the world to fight their own battles better.

The other pastor returned to his church in a very upscale, business district. After praying with his elders, they came up with the defining evil of the area, which they called "The Lie - Get rich; be free." This was the besetting idol, they felt, and began to model an alternative lifestyle in the community that reversed consumerist expectations. The pastor confesses, "I've had more persecution from the congregation than from the community to be honest, so it's a long-term thing, but I have to say this - I feel so much better, because I'm not such a hypocrite in the pulpit anymore."

Pastors, here's your challenge: If you want your congregations to understand the persecuted church, then become a persecuted pastor.

Embody your message. Fight the battle against besetting evils in a concrete, not an abstract way. Let the wounds show. And watch your congregation catch the fire, and understand the persecuted church in the best way possible - by joining it!

Brother Andrew always says, "Persecution is an honor you have to deserve." If we do, we will live in the joy of the eighth beatitude:

"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you deeper into God's Kingdom." (Matt. 5:10 MSG)

Deeper into God's Kingdom? Isn't that why we are pastors? To take the people deeper into God's Kingdom? Let the persecuted help with that! Take up their challenge, and join them!

1 comment:

Comfort said...

I like the bit about persecution coming from within the congregation. Many wrong teachings have crep into the Body of Christ in societies where there relative freedom to practice Christianity. Sometimes, one finds it hard to distinguish between the prayers of an idol worshiper and that of a Christian.(raining curses on the 'enemy', another human being who may even be a fellow 'believer'). Living and preaching Jesus' lifestyle always bring much persecution, even from some so-called men of God who are preaching another gospel. May we receive grace to remain true to Jesus. This will certainly bring some form of wounds for Him, even from within the church.