Sometimes when speaking at churches here in the U.S., I show pictures of our ministry from West Africa. Some are photos of people who live, dress and look different from us. I tell the churches, “These are believers. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Someday, you’ll meet them. We’re all going to be together in Heaven, and you’re going to spend eternity with these folks.”
Though it may be hard to relate to them because they live in a distant land and different culture, many of them are enduring incredible hardships worthy of our attention. Some are persecuted for their faith, and are facing these difficulties for the cause of Christ.
We have a responsibility to come alongside them, support them and treat them as family.
But how? What can the church in America do to best assist and be a blessing to our persecuted and imprisoned brothers and sisters around the world?
Here are three ways:
In the American and Western church, we enjoy a fairly comfortable lifestyle. We have a tendency to look at persecution as an unusual thing, as abnormal. But it’s actually common around the world.
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We must understand that persecution is expected to be normal for Christians—all Christians—so it’s important that we avoid viewing the issue as being exclusive to “them” and not to “us.”
Jesus made this point repeatedly.
In John 15:20, He said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
And He made it clear that we’re better off—from a Kingdom perspective—if we are persecuted.
He proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
Jesus emphasized that being reviled for our faith is an advantageous part of our heritage as believers: “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
I don’t think Jesus was speaking in code here; He was speaking pretty clearly.
Even so, I would still be surprised if someone showed up at my house and persecuted me for being a believer. The same may be true for you.
So how do we normalize what, for us, isn’t normal based on our experience?
It’s really about changing our mindset. We need to take Jesus at His word, and take the opportunities He gives us to better understand this, by connecting with previously persecuted believers who’ve come to the U.S., when the occasions arise. This kind of friendship would be eye-opening and potentially heart-changing.
This is the obvious one, but it calls for intentionality and commitment.
We’re told in Scripture to “remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also” (Hebrews 13:3).
The context of the passage is that these are people not in prison for wrongdoing, but instead for following Jesus and consequently are facing some very difficult things. That verse tells us “don’t forget them,” but the truth is that it’s easy to forget.
In terms of specific prayer, three great resources are Voice of the Martyrs (persecution.com), Open Doors (opendoorsusa.org) and One Million Praying (onemillionpraying.org).
Our prayers really matter.
We might say, “If God is sovereign why does He need my prayers?” But He commands us repeatedly to pray, so we disobey if we don’t. And He says “don’t forget them,” so we certainly can’t forget them.
It is important to realize that Christ’s church in the world is much bigger than we can fathom, and understanding this will broaden our perspective of God at work. A good start is to know that persecution can take many different forms, with so many different consequences.
There are places where you can’t even admit you’re a Christian without facing outright imprisonment or killing.
But there are other places where you’d face real ostracism, including where I’ve worked as a missionary among the Fulani people in West Africa. For most Fulani, to be Fulani is to be Muslim. And because identity in many non-Western cultures is wrapped up in one’s community, someone from that group who considers the claims of Christ must think about what it will cost him.
If a man comes to Christ, the community could make life difficult for him in some dramatic ways. His father-in-law might take his wife back, and the family might take the children away.
The goal in those cases is not to harm the person, but to make life so difficult for them that they will return to Islam.
Most societies around the world are communal-based, unlike our more individualistic Western world. To be rejected and cut off from the community is, in some ways, almost a fate worse than death. That’s not an exaggeration.
For believers who are determined to stand, it’s a whole lot easier to have even one other believer to stand with them to help them resist the pressures to go back.
Though we may not have the privilege of standing alongside them physically, we can intentionally stand with them spiritually as we seek to unite with the heart of God for these members of our family in Christ whose lives truly are set apart for Him. ©2017 Jon Banke
Scripture quotations are used by permission from The Holy Bible, New King James version.
Jon Banke is the deputy personnel director for SIM-USA. he and his family previously served 18 years as missionaries in Bénin and Niger. SIM is a century-old catalyst for global mission with about 4,000 ministry workers representing more than 65 nationalities now serving on six continents. In many of these places, SIM supports and cares for those persecuted for their faith in Christ.