The role of persecution in movements
Do you remember the famous “child’s prayer”: “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take”? This is the epitome of a very ‘childlike’ prayer: ‘Please make every thing okay, and let nothing bad happen.”
Still, bad things do happen. Sometimes they seem to happen through natural disasters, like tornados, earthquakes and hurricanes—regular weather events in which people are caught. (Sometimes, we try to interpret these events as something other than regular or quasi-random ones.) Sometimes they happen as a consequence of our own actions, rash or sinful: if you bump into or touch a hot thing, you will probably get burned. Sometimes they happen because of someone else’s rash or sinful actions: if I get mugged in an alley, it’s the mugger’s sin, not mine (which is a bit of a theological statement in itself).
Recently, in south Asia, I was interviewing leaders of a major movement. One of the questions I asked was: over your years of ministry, what habits, disciplines, or mindsets have helped you to endure in ministry and eventually become fruitful? The question was being translated and was eventually shortened to, ‘over the years, what has helped you grow in ministry?’ (which is similar but not quite the same thing, and led to some interesting answers). One of the leaders, without pausing a second, answered: ‘Persecution.’
That kind of thing frequently showed up in the interviews-—that persecution was common, and came typically in the form of insults and arguments but physical violence was not rare. Threats, slaps, blows, beatings, and serious violence (where the victim was hospitalized) all occurred. Mostly the perpetrators were members of common society, but organized gangs of religious fundamentalists were not uncommon.
Persecution isn’t unique to this movement. It’s a prominent feature of nearly every movement I’ve examined. It has several significant effects.
First, it purifies and refines. Knowing that following Jesus will almost certainly lead to persecution makes people more likely to pause and count the cost; those who do decide to follow Jesus are more committed to the decision. Active persecution tries and tests and refines the pre-believer. As a result, most say if a new believer endures the first bit, they almost never fall away.
Second, it accelerates. People who have counted the cost tend to be more aware of the treasure they have. Because they value Jesus, they have a greater desire to share Him. Persecution can be ‘fuel to the fire’ of passion.
Third, it highlights the difference between belief systems. In Iran, many leaders have said they were thankful for Khomeini and theocratic Islam, for example, because it showed the people the difference between Christianity and Islam. In India, people see the difference between the oppressive caste system and the unity and equality people have before Christ. These differences heighten the appeal of Christianity.
Fourth, it can lead to church decline and extinction. We do need to acknowledge persecution—especially severe persecution—causes some to leave Christianity. It can lead to church decline in other ways, too: people can leave the town, the state, or even the country. For example, there is a significant decline in Christianity in the Middle East—not because people are abandoning their faith, but because they are abandoning the place. We hear ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church’ but the reality is the church in a specific location can be, and in many cases has been, stamped out.
Fifth, it can degrade church growth. Even if the church is not destroyed, little foxes spoil the vine. A place might not have ‘terrible persecution,’ yet have ‘just enough’ regulation to hamper growth. In the Internet age, when things can easily be recorded and shared, many oppressive governments are going this route.
Sixth, can be a sign of a ‘win.’ When the church is very small, it may be ignored entirely and remain underground, fearful and afraid. As it becomes bold and grows through Gospel sharing, and its numbers grow, persecution will likely pick up. This is a sign of conflict between two societies, as well as a marker of rapid growth. As Christian gets large enough, persecution slacks off again-—this is a sign of a win. As one leader from another region told me: “Many church leaders today were persecutors in the 1990s. Now, there are so many believers and churches that persecution wouldn’t work-—people know too many believers.”
Persecution for most movements is unavoidable. How can we better respond to it?
1. We need to develop a ‘theology of persecution’-—that God can use it for good. Examining Bible stories of persecution and how believers responded can help us with this. Consider each of the instances when Paul faced threats—how did he respond?
2. We need strategies shaped by persecution. Although we shouldn’t shirk from bold action, we don’t need to seek persecution out, either. In some places, movements have found that community ministries in which believers were a blessing had the side effect of short circuiting the motives and opportunities for persecution: ‘wait, don’t persecute them, they’re helping us.’
3. We need to prepare for persecution. Pre-believers should be told to count the cost first (in most places, they are all too aware). New believers should immediately be considering how they will respond to persecution Biblically.
4. The best solution to persecution is church growth. Government can only restrain evil; the sole long-term solution for persecution is the transformation of the persecutor’s heart. This will require not just evangelism and discipleship, but reconciliation and forgiveness between persecutor and persecuted. Consider how the early church responded when they heard Paul had come to faith.
The biggest danger of persecution is not the death of the body, but fear that paralyzes the spirit and prevents the bold sharing of the Gospel. We have to battle this with love, which casts out fear.