Recently one of my coworkers was in the Middle East to attend a conference for Syrian Christians. These conferences, which VOM sponsors, are designed to encourage and train Syrian Church leaders, who have been ministering in the midst of war for the past three years, in addition to the heavy persecution they face as gospel workers in a Muslim nation.
One evening several of the pastors and church leaders gathered in a group for a “breakout” discussion; the topic at hand was the story of Ananias from Acts 9. For these believers, some of whom live and minister in the city of Damascus in which the story took place, the discussion was both deeply personal and very current.
You remember the story: Saul was on his way to Damascus to hunt down Christ’s followers there and arrest them. Instead he encountered the very Christ he was persecuting and his life was changed forever. He goes into Damascus, his eyes blinded but his heart finally seeing clearly.
The Lord sends a messenger to meet, encourage and disciple this brand new believer: a man named Ananias. But it isn’t an assignment Ananias wants:
Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (Acts 9:13-14)
Ananias had heard of this Saul; he knew he was a threat to the church and a man to be avoided. If Saul were to find him, it might cost Ananias his freedom, or even his life!
Yet God said go and meet him, and Ananias set aside his fear and hesitation and answered the call of God.
As our Syrian brothers and sisters discussed this story, they translated it into their modern situation. What if a known radical Muslim member of ISIS or Al Nusra Front called up their church and said, “I’ve had an encounter with Christ. I need someone to come and bring me a Bible and help me learn more about Him”? How would they respond?
Around the table the discussion went, each person answering with honesty. “I would be very afraid,” some said. “How would I know if his conversion was real or if it was just a trap?”
They discussed the risks of working among radical Muslims; they discussed questions they might ask the caller to try to determine if his intentions were genuine or not.
And at the end, these bold believers came to a conclusion: Of course we would be afraid, but we have to be faithful to Christ. If we have opportunity to bear His love and witness for Him, we must go, even if it is dangerous; even if we are afraid.
I am challenged and encouraged by the faithfulness of my Syrian brothers and sisters. They know the risks. They know the dangers. Yet they continue to serve God in the midst of a war zone and terrorist threats. They continue to answer His call, just as Ananias did.
Our prayer is that as they do God will take many more Sauls in Syria and turn them into Pauls who will carry His message to their nation and even to the broader world. Will you join in that prayer?
YOUR TURN: Has God ever lain on your heart to do something that, from your perspective, didn’t make any sense? Share your story in the comments to this post.
Todd Nettleton has served with The Voice of the Martyrs for 16 years. He’s travelled to more than 20 restricted and hostile nations and interviewed hundreds of believers who’ve faced persecution for their Christian witness. As VOM’s principle media spokesperson, Todd has done more than 2,000 interviews with media outlets ranging from Moody Radio to the BBC and Los Angeles Times. He is the principle author of Restricted Nations: North Korea and was part of the writing team for four other VOM books.
Photo credit: Conversion of Saint Paul by Parmigianino (1503-1540)
Imagine waking up one morning to find a red spray-painted symbol on the front of your house identifying you as a Christian. The Arabic letter “N” (nun), from the Arabic word nasara (meaning “Nazarene” to indicate Christians), was recently painted on homes of Christians in the city of Mosul, Iraq, by an organized terrorist group called IS (Islamic State). Then on July 17, the terrorists gave area Christians an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a high tax, leave the area or die.
The Voice of the Martyrs is now actively serving Iraqi Christian families forced to flee from the terrorists (some with only the clothes on their backs). You can help by making a donation to help our Iraqi brothers and sisters.
VOM is also releasing a new T-shirt to allow you to show your support, boldly proclaiming that you are also “N”!
Show your support for persecuted Iraqi Christians by purchasing the i-am-n T-shirt. The T-shirts cost $20 each (including free shipping), and $10 of the purchase price will be used directly to help persecuted Iraqi Christians. The front of the shirt features an Arabic “N” similar to the symbol that the organized terrorist group IS (Islamic State) is spray painting on the homes of Christians. The back of the T-shirt features the Arabic “N” along with the Web address www.i-am-n.com.
Recent remarks by Indian political figures have underscored a growing Hindus-only attitude in India. And while the situation for Christians there may grow more difficult, it’s encouraging to know that God can and is working in the hearts of those who are active persecutors of Christians. And VOM workers in the region see the potential upcoming events not as something to be feared, but as motivation to reach more people with Christ’s love.
“Ranjay” was an area leader for the Shiv Sena, a radical political group in India which, like the Hindu nationalist RSS group, seeks to establish India as an entirely Hindu country in which no other religious or political organization is welcome. One of Ranjay’s roles was to inform on the Naxalites, a Maoist insurgent group operating in India. After providing information which led to the arrests of a large group of Naxalites, Ranjay learned that he had been given no credit and his reward money was stolen by the police officer he had helped.
Angered and frustrated that he had been cheated, he began doing some soul-searching. As an alcoholic and heavy drug user, nothing seemed to bring satisfaction. It was about this time that he was invited to a prayer meeting.
At the meeting, Ranjay assumed it was a Hindu prayer meeting because a woman in attendance was worshipping a picture of Jesus as though it was one of Hinduism’s 30 million gods. At the meeting, a pastor handed him a New Testament.
“I have read Hindu scriptures, and they left me empty. Why should I believe this book will be any different?” Ranjay asked the man, who told him that the Christian Scriptures contained living words that would change his life. Desperate, Ranjay took the New Testament, and began immediately reading when he got home.
When he read the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Ranjay was struck by Jesus’ claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He kept thumbing through pages, next landing on Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Within three weeks, Ranjay had committed his life to Christ and was completely drug free.
He immediately began talking about Christ with others. Now that he understood the true nature of Christ, he wanted to help correct the woman who had been worshipping Jesus’ image. He returned to the home where the prayer meeting had been held and shared the Gospel with the woman who had been worshipping the picture of Jesus. After sharing Christ’s true message with her, the woman was born again into new life in Christ.
Today, Pastor Ranjay maintains his passion to share the message with others and is known for his fearlessness. He has distributed more than 3,000 tracts and over 1,700 New Testaments in his area.Once one who sought out Christians to persecute them, now he must hide from those who want to persecute him. The recent election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP party has only intensified the risk of persecution for Christians, but especially for those who openly share the gospel.
The BJP party is the political party backed by the RSS movement. RSS members are some of the chief persecutors of Christians in India because of their commitment to pursuing a purely Hindu nation. Christians are often forced from their homes, jailed, beaten, or even killed by RSS members.
In spite of the prospect of greater difficulties for Christians in India, VOM workers there have shared that Indian Christians are not worried. As one VOM partner said, “God is in control, not Congress Party or BJP.”
Those who work with persecuted Christians realize we have a lot to learn from them. One of the lessons recently impressed on my mind by the underground church in China is their tenacity to carry out the task of global evangelism. At a recent gathering of mission leaders, mission teachers, and missionaries I heard a presentation by a Korean missionary who works with the underground church in China to prepare missionaries who will be sent out by the Chinese underground church. His main role is to help train Chinese missionaries who will be sent cross-culturally within China and also into neighboring countries in Asia and beyond. He said that there is no shortage of candidates from the underground churches desiring to go out as missionaries.
Some of the motivation to go out as missionaries stems from missionary movements within the Chinese underground church. The “Back to Jerusalem” missionary movement, which began in the 1980s, is a movement to send missionaries to all the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim people who live between China and Jerusalem, for example. Similar indigenous missionary movements continue to inspire and motivate Chinese Christians to serve as missionaries and have so for a century.
As the Korean missionary spoke, I was struck by the profundity of it—that in spite of being under restrictions, harassed, and sometimes persecuted, the underground church is looking beyond its borders to carry the gospel cross-culturally. It is recruiting, training and sending out missionaries. Apparently this is not new. Scott W. Sunquist, Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and Professor of World Christianity at Fuller Seminary, wrote that even though the early Jesus movement [the early church] was fragmented and persecuted, it managed to retain its zeal for missions.
An article titled “The Chinese Church: The Next Superpower in World Mission?” by Kevin Xiyi Yao reports that Operation World lists 20,000 cross-cultural missionaries from mainland China. This is probably a very conservative figure since it is hard to gather all the information from the underground church. The article also reports that a survey done by a Korean missiologist reveals that 90% of urban and rural ministers in China are concerned about missions. Over 40% of believers in urban churches are preparing to participate in mission. The writer says: “Chinese Christians have ample experience of persecution and suffering, and they are more ready to endure harsh conditions.” I would doubt whether the countries these missionaries are going to will welcome them with open arms. Their experience helps prepare them for difficult assignments.
As the missionary movement slowly dies in the West, those persecuted Christians with just about everything going against them (from the Western viewpoint) are picking up the mantle and seeking to fulfill God’s mandate—against all odds. How ready are we to accept the difficult assignment? Does our present situation make this prospect unlikely? What are we going to do about it?
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.