The Right Words For Airport Security

Our trip back to the US a few days ago went pretty well. The security personnel at our Central Asian city’s airport gave us some trouble due to our daughter’s diabetic supplies and devices. But it wasn’t too bad. I was reminded of the last time we had flown out of that same airport. That time I had a suitcase full of Bibles in the local language.

There’s a city in the US which contains a large immigrant population of our focus people group. A new church plant had been started there among them, the first one in all of North America that we are aware of. But they couldn’t get ahold of Bibles in the correct language. The updated Bible translation had recently been printed in Korea and the only available copies were now stored and distributed in our corner of Central Asia. Hence the request for us to bring back a suitcase full of Bibles.

We made it through a couple layers of security without any trouble, but at the final suitcase scanner I got nervous. The officer had indicated that I was to open the particular bag full of Bibles and a few homeschool books. And while it’s not illegal to possess Bibles in the local language or to distribute them in some limited ways, the laws are vague enough that an Islamic – or simply grumpy – official could decide on a whim to confiscate them or to get us in trouble.

“What are these?” the officer asked me, making a sweeping gesture at the large pile of books in the suitcase.

I chuckled nervously, “We love books, as you can see… Um, these are books for our kids’ education… and… those… are Bibles in your language.” There was no hiding it. He could clearly see the dozens of books with Holy Injil (Gospel) printed on their spines.

I held my breath as the official picked up one of the Bibles and flipped through it. I couldn’t read his expression.

Suddenly, I blurted out, “You want to know something crazy? We’re traveling to America and bringing all these Bibles from here to there. The members of your people group there who want to find them or buy them there can’t find any at all – they’re simply not available anywhere! So we’re hauling all these over to help them. Isn’t that crazy that you can’t find a Bible in your language in America? That’s not right. Thankfully we can get them here and can help them out by bringing these to them.”

The officer grunted and nodded, setting the Bible back in the suitcase.

“You tell them when you get to America,” he said in a serious tone and with a look of conviction, “you tell them that that’s not right. They should be printing and selling these Bibles there as well! Bless your hands for carrying these over to our people there. Can you believe that, guys?” He said, shifting from me to his colleagues. “You can’t buy these Bibles in America, so we have to send them from here over to there. What a world!”

And with that he motioned for me to zip up the suitcase and be on our way.

We gathered up our various bags and children and made our way to the check-in counter. I was relieved that security hadn’t give us any real trouble. I reflected on the conversation and smiled. How kind of the Lord to put those particular comments into my brain at just the right time. The conversation could have gone very differently. I only regretted forgetting to offer a Bible to the security officer on the spot.

In passages like Matthew 10:16-20, Jesus promises that we shouldn’t be anxious about what we’ll say when we’re dragged before governors and kings for his sake – that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say. I haven’t yet had to go before governors or kings for Jesus’ sake. But I do wonder about conversations like that one with the airport security officer. The right words came at just the right time, without planning beforehand what I would say. Perhaps this was a small taste of the Holy Spirit’s particular help in these kinds of situations.

I tend to get very nervous while speaking under pressure. So this promise from Matthew 10 is very relevant for me. My natural self under questioning is likely to kick into fight, flight, or freeze mode – most likely the latter two. The color will drain from my face and the language part of my brain is likely to shut down. And yet I won’t have to rely on my natural self if I am ever brought in front of the authorities for questioning. The Holy Spirit will give me the words to say. He will give my local brothers and sisters the words to say.

What an encouraging and practical promise.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

North Korea, Persecution, and Insider Movements

I listened to this podcast while driving to another city yesterday in order to attend a training. I thought it looked good. I had no idea just how good it would prove to be. Without exaggerating, this is one of the most thought-provoking, emboldening, and sobering things I have listened to all year.

Turns out the history of missions and the Church in Korea has a lot of lessons for those seeking to plant churches among unreached Muslim people groups today. James Cha, the man interviewed, himself draws these connections regarding compromise, persecution, and God’s purposes in even the worst kinds of suffering.

My American parents were supported by the second largest church in Korea when they went to the mission field in 1989. At that time, the pastor of that huge church told them that Koreans were not quite ready yet to send their own cross-cultural workers. But they were praying in order to get ready. Now, in 2021, they have over 16,000 foreign missionaries on the field. Listening to their spiritual heritage gives me a deeper appreciation for how God has worked to reach that nation, and how he is now using them to reach so many others. What a legacy. And what a tragedy considering the ongoing suffering of North Koreans. May God be merciful and grant the reunification of the North and South so long prayed for.

Could it be that my persecuted minority focus group might some day respond to the gospel and be a huge sending force like the Koreans are? May it be.

Listen to the podcast here.

Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

A Proverb on Central Asian Friendship

The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.

Afghan Oral Tradition

This proverb comes from Afghanistan. I came upon it years ago in a book by Dr. Christy Wilson, and I’ve never forgotten it. It resonates with my own experiences with Central Asians, who have often stunned me with their sacrificial hospitality and friendship.

My family does not live in Afghanistan. But tonight, as the capital, Kabul, falls to the Taliban, we are grieving for what this will mean for the local believers there – indeed what is has already meant for them and for many faithful gospel workers who have invested so much in that land.

Regimes will fall. Evil may temporarily win. But true gospel friendship – and the friendship of Christ himself – will outlast all of it. And every ounce of suffering for Christ will count, will be remembered, and will result in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

On the other hand, every action taken by the Taliban against an Afghan believer is an action taken against a friend of God, a brother or sister of the Messiah himself. He sees it all. And sooner or later, his justice is coming.

Photo by The Chuqur Studio on Unsplash

Now I Understand Why You Were Always Talking About Church

“Hey *Hama! I just came from the tea house. Your brother-in-law is in there telling everyone that you are a Christian and that he’s going to kill you!”

Hama and I were hanging out at his favorite intersection in the bazaar when his friend came up and made this announcement.

“Hama?” I asked, “What’s he talking about?”

Hama went on to fill me in on the situation. By this point he and his wife had both been believers for eight years, and were getting serious about their faith again after some years of struggle without steady discipleship. I had been gone in the US finishing up school and starting a family, but a year before our return I had visited and connected them with a new missionary family. This discipleship from these workers – who would later become dear teammates – was bearing good fruit.

As one simple expression of their faith, that year they had put up a Christmas tree, and their six-year-old son had made a cross ornament. However, a photo of him smiling in front of the tree with his ornament had made the rounds among *Tara’s family, Hama’s wife. Her relations, I came to learn, were by far the more conservative and Islamic side. We had made it through the round of persecution brought by Hama’s family eight years previous. Now it was her family’s turn. Far from the somewhat sincere six month shunning that Hama experienced, this persecution would get very serious very fast. It would ultimately lead to them having to flee the country.

The open death threat made that day was a turning point. The same man who had made this threat was a known killer, having murdered prisoners and political opponents in crimes that were documented online by Amnesty International. Usually Hama laughed off threats. But now that his wife’s older brother, a killer, was making them, he was visibly worried.

A few weeks later they were taken to court. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal in our country and the family had accused Hama of forcing his wife to convert. They begged for prayer. To our amazement, the judge sided with them, believed their stories of genuine conversion to Christianity, and even let them swear on a Bible – in fact this was his idea. “They are Christians, didn’t you hear their confession? Show some respect and get these people a Bible to swear by!” Afterward Hama called me in tears from a police station, believing that even with the favorable judge, he was about to be hauled off to prison. Minutes later, he was let go as a free man. We celebrated God’s favor on them in this very scary situation.

But the harassment and threats continued. Tara’s brother showed up drunk one day and destroyed their kitchen, attacking Hama as well. Plans were being hatched to take their son away from them so he could be “raised right.” Our team grew nervous as a video circulated of Tara’s brother bragging about his past murders and making threats against Hama – and anyone connected to him.

To make matters worse, Hama was out of a job. The foreign company he had worked for had departed in scandal and debt, leaving Hama to clean up the mess. The financial pressure added to the persecution to make him feel like there was no way out. Hama began to sink into some dangerous depression.

So many of our locals who claim faith then quickly flee to the West, claiming persecution. Many of them are making up or inflating these claims. Our team was desperate not to contribute to the “faith-drain” that had become a regular fixture of the work in our area. But we were coming to terms with a very complex and potentially dangerous situation – and Hama and Tara were out of options. One night we asked them to pray for absolute clarity on whether the Spirit was indicating they should stay or flee, since both are biblical options. They came back with their answer. It was time to flee.

We started reaching out to friends and organizations that work with the persecuted. The responses were less than encouraging. “We don’t have an avenue for situations like this for your country. We thought your organization would have something in place.” Thankfully, a plan was eventually patched together for a visa, emergency tickets, housing in a neighboring country, and a basic budget for necessities. We might never be able to pull it off again, but at least for this dear family, God had provided a good plan of escape.

Unfortunately, Hama and Tara were only able to experience our initial attempts at gathering a new church plant together. In fact, we had been hoping they’d be one of our anchor families. But they had never quite understood why we kept emphasizing church and the gathering of believers so much. They had not committed and shown up as we had been desperately praying they would. This was typical for local believers, but extra tragic in their situation because it meant there were so few they could rely on when their natural support network turned against them.

Our teammates were the ones to drive them to the airport. I was grateful they were carrying out this last step, heartbroken as I was that my best friend was now leaving. On the way to the airport they shared this:

“Now we understand why you were always talking about church. Our physical family has abandoned us and attacked us. We were alone, except for you all, our believing friends. What would we have done without our believing family? This must be why church is needed.”

I grieved when I heard these words reported. Hama and Tara had largely missed out on what could have been theirs if they had been able to understand sooner why church is so important. But at least at the eleventh hour they had understood.

This realization made all the difference in their temporary country of asylum. They plugged into a good church and for two solid years experienced the joys of spiritual family – they really got it, and on telephone conversations they would actually scold us for not pushing our local friends more when it came to prioritizing the church! For our part, we would just listen, shake our heads, and smile.

That’s what we’ve been trying to say all along.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Answered Prayers and Their Reckoning

There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.

We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.

None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.

Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.

No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.

Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.

Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.

As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.

If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.

Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Love Bade Him Welcome

This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.

My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.

We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.

“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”

“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”

I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.

We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.

“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”

Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.

I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).

We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.

Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.

“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”

Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”

We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.

“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.

“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”

We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.

The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.

We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.

“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.

Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Daniel MacDonald on Unsplash

Please Don’t Call It An Interview

For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.

“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.

“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.

“Yes…”

“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.

“How so?”

“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”

I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”

Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”

I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”

Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”

“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”

“Really? Why?”

Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”

“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”

“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”

“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”

“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”

I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.

Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”

Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.

For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.

And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.

*names changed for security

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

An Island in the Mountains

Instead of a revitalization of Mesopotamian and Iranian Christianity, the devastation of the fanatical Muslim Tamerlane (ruled 1370-1405) greatly intensified the destruction wrought by Ghazan and Oljaitu. After the loss of their churches and monasteries, the surviving Nestorians sought refuge in the remote mountains of Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) and Hakkari (in south-eastern Turkey), for only in the shadows of rugged mountains can a persecuted spirit live on in freedom. And so the one-time ‘Christian sea’ of Mesopotamia and Iran was transformed into a small, inaccessible island, surrounded by the wide ocean of Islam.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6

If you are looking for ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, always look to the mountains. Groups survive there that tend to disappear down on the plains. They are a sort of time capsule, preserving ways of life that most have assumed are long gone.

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When Death Threats Led to Belly Laughs

*Frank and *Patty were refugees from a neighboring country, but from the same people group we were focusing on. Already being political and social refugees, they added one more reason for their government to arrest them when they became followers of Jesus. We were initially cautious, waiting to see if their faith was genuine, but over time they proved to be some of the most faithful in our fledgling church plant – genuine pillars of consistency and faith.

Frank was a renaissance man, just as skilled in discussing ancient history books as he was in electrical and construction work. He was also hilarious, always ready for wordplay and practical jokes. Patty was barely literate, but a hard worker, hospitable, with a fiery temper and loyal spirit. Together with their daughter, they seemed to be a genuine household conversation, all three of them showing evidence of new life in the same season, and all three undergoing baptism together in weather so cold we joked God was preparing them to someday be missionaries to Siberia. You know it’s bad when those baptized shriek from the shock of the frigid water as they go under! But they came up alright, and after they stopped shivering, went on to laugh about their baptism waters of icy death.

Like many believers in our context, their faith for a season was demonstrated in front of their neighbors as an open secret. They showed that they were now followers of Jesus without yet stating it explicitly. To some extant, until something is verbalized in Central Asia, it is not yet acknowledged as fully real and threatening. Believers tend to witness in this way to their families for a while, talking about Jesus, reading their Bibles openly, and attending meetings with other believers. But when the direct questions come, “Have you left Islam and become a Christian?!” – that’s when the honor-shame persecution mechanisms kick in. Once it is spoken of in the bazaar, it has become reality, whether it is true or not.

One night, their neighbor took his gun and decided it was time for the truth to come out. He and his wife aggressively confronted Frank and Patty outside their house. They demanded to know if they had truly become apostates. Patty calmly and openly confessed that yes, they had indeed become true Christians and believers in Jesus. The neighbor and his wife proceeded to get even more aggressive, shouting and threatening and beginning to lay their hands on Frank and Patty.

The neighbor waved his gun in one hand and gripped Frank’s throat in the other, yelling into his face. Frank and his daughter kept their eyes on Patty, knowing that there was great danger in her fiery nature exploding on these neighbors. It had always been her personality to fight back even in response to small provocations, which here could lead to a dangerous escalation… and possibly to their deaths. So they desperately prayed. In their retelling of the situation, here’s what they said:

“We knew that she would start yelling and fighting back, but to our amazement, she was totally calm in the face of being attacked. We thought, ‘Patty has died and who is this new woman who takes this abuse so calmly?'” Frank said as his daughter laughed.

“It’s true!” his daughter chimed in. “Mom had never acted like that before!”

Patti was smiling, but you could see in her eyes that she was also deeply impacted by her experience that night.

“I have never experienced such a peace as Jesus gave me that night. It was totally different from anything I had known. I normally would have fought back! My family knows this. But instead I was so calm…” Patty said.

“It was a miracle,” their daughter said, smiling at her mom.

Frank, never one to miss the opportunity to joke around, said, “And we had just studied about persecution from Matthew 10 in the church meeting a few days before!” Rolling his eyes back and grabbing his neck with his hand, shaking his head to model what his neighbor had done, he couldn’t help but laugh.

“I just keep thinking as his hand was on my neck like this, ‘Now what was that second point of the sermon? It would sure come in handy right about now! I know it was about something important in the face of persecution…'”

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, all of us couldn’t help but laugh together. What had happened was a miracle, or rather, the evidence of a miracle. The new birth had radically changed this family. Patti was calm in the face of an attack. Frank was making jokes about the death threats. Yes, they had had to flee afterward and had lost their housing – and also Frank’s job, tied as it was to the property their housing was on. Yet there they were, full of joy and laughing to the point of tears.

Sure, we often have to laugh about things like this in Central Asia as a way to cope with life in a region so full of tragedy. Haha, remember that time when you almost got blown up? But there was something else going on that evening. It was as if God’s face was shining on our friends. They had lost so much (again), yet they were full of joy, belly-laughing in the genuine blessedness that can sometimes be experienced by the persecuted.

The promises of Matthew were coming true.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10–12 ESV)

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:19–20 ESV)

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

*The names in this story have been changed for security

The Heart-Breaking Complexities of Persecution

Many of us have simplistic understandings of persecution in the beginning. We latch onto radical ideas like “persecution purifies the church” and “the blood of the martyrs is seed” and perhaps we even long for persecution to come to our own churches so that we can experience these things. The reality is woefully more complicated.

The scriptures call persecution blessing when it is for Jesus and the gospel’s sake (Matt 5:10). But they also command us to pray for peaceful, quiet lives, free from persecution (1 Tim 2:2). They hold up examples of how God worked mightily through persecution (Acts 11:19), and tell us that it is inevitable for the godly (1 Tim 3:12), then they offer us warnings which reflect the first century believers who were getting persecuted because of their own sin, not because of Jesus (1 Pet 2:20). Even then it was complicated. The presence of persecution is not the fix-all some think it is. It actually makes the normal life and mission of the church very difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Here’s why I ask that you pray that God end persecution in places like Central Asia and that you also pray that if he doesn’t, he will grant the strength for believers to endure faithfully.

When we look at the history of the Church, we see a mixed result in contexts of persecution. Sometimes the church thrives and spreads like wildfire. Other times it is exterminated. Persecution led to the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman empire. But next door in the Parthian/Sassanian/Islamic empires, it led to its eventual death. While we have examples like the house church movement in China, we also have examples like the Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation. While some who fled west ended up surviving, those who fled east were never able to find refuge and were entirely killed off. Or what of the almost immediate extinction of Christianity in North Africa after the rise of Islam? Ever heard of the ancient church of Socotra? It existed for hundreds of years before finally disappearing. How do we make sense of these histories alongside of the heroic stories of Christian witness under Roman paganism or under communism? If we read church history we inescapably find that sometimes God allows persecution to be a spur for revival, but other times God allows it to be that which kills off an entire movement.

I started to get a taste for the complexities of persecution when it started happening to my own Middle Eastern/Central Asian friends. For a number of years I worked with refugees in the US. I was thrilled to find out that many of the Iranian refugees being resettled in my city were religious asylum-seekers. I had heard tales of the underground movement to Christ taking place in Iran. These refugee claimed to have left Islam, experienced persecution, and to have become Christians. The UN had now granted them a new life in the West. But my experiences with most of these Iranians were very disheartening. In the beginning they showed some desire to study the Bible and join a church, but the vast majority stopped showing interest after they figured out that the government wasn’t watching them and making sure they were attending church and staying true to their claim of being Christians. Once they realized it was not advantageous to be a Christian in America, they quickly abandoned their faith and lost themselves in materialism, drug use, or homosexuality. One close friend still possessed the blindfold put on him when he was imprisoned for being a leader-in-training in an Iranian house church. But this experience made him feel superior to other Christians and he balked at the idea of submitting himself to the accountability of a Christian community. So many Iranians quickly abandoned their faith after arriving in the West that the Iranian community passed around comics about it on social media. It was becoming well-known that (alongside a few who were genuine in their faith) a vast multitude was using Jesus to get a visa and then abandoning him as soon as they could.

My friends who came to faith after arriving in the US and I began to develop a serious skepticism towards refugees who showed up as formerly-Muslim Christian refugees. So many of them ended up falling away, consumed by the temptations and freedoms of the West. I started to learn that there were many ungodly reasons that people would identify with Jesus, even in contexts of persecution. Some identified as Christians out of a hatred of Islam, not out of a love for Jesus. Some did it as a way to stick it to their oppressive government or to display their attraction to Western culture. Some did it for promises of a salary and tickets to attend Christian conferences. Again, many did it simply as the ticket to a better life.

The UN was and is on to this dynamic. Their interviewers (most of them pagan) devise many kinds of methods to try to discern whether someone has truly become a Christian or not. But lacking spiritual eyes themselves, they are inept at recognizing the new birth. Instead, they rely heavily on signed baptism certificates, which has created an underground industry of sorts, where “seekers” approach churches or missionaries in the Middle East in pursuit of the coveted piece of paper. Some churches issue these freely, deciding that it’s not worth the effort to walk with someone until they can truly vouch for their faith. Others, like me and my coworkers, refuse to issue these certificates on principle, much to the consternation of local believers who, because of the UN requirement, believe we’re somehow denying them something integral to Christianity.

The presence of historic ethnic Christians in our part of the world also complicates the picture. The historic churches of the East lost the gospel a long time ago and have fallen into a system of religious patrilineage. This means you automatically inherit the faith of your father; you really have no other option. “I’m a Honda, you’re a Toyota, we can’t change that,” is how one ethnic Christian responded to one of my friends who had come to faith out of Islam. Ethnic Christians in the Middle East and Central Asia believe they are Christians because of their blood and because of their infant baptism. They cannot tell you what the gospel is. The overwhelming majority do not know that they must be born again and believe the gospel for themselves. This message has been buried under centuries of tradition, religiosity, and syncretism. If any do come to faith and begin to read the Bible for themselves, they are persecuted by their own community, just as might happen to a Muslim coming to faith. When the term “Christian” is used in our part of the world, it means a certain ethnicity, not a faith that transcends ethnicity. Therefore, missionaries had to come up with a tragic new term: CBBs, Christian-Background Believers.

Unfortunately, evangelical organizations that serve the persecuted and mobilize prayer do not deal with this distinction publicly at all. I’ll read reports written by evangelical Westerners about thousands of Christians experiencing persecution in a certain parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, when the reality is the number of true Christians is in the hundreds, if that. Where are they finding these thousands of supposed Christians? There are no “Christian villages,” unless they are referring to the ethnic Christian villages where they run off those who become born again for going against the traditions of their fathers. Is it tragic that ethnic minority Christians are experiencing persecution? Absolutely. But if you don’t tell your audience that they’re not actually believers, that many actually despise evangelicals, they will fail to pray as they should – that God would be merciful and save them out of their dead Christianity, alongside of ending the persecution. Many who have been killed and proclaimed martyrs by these evangelical organizations sadly never knew Jesus. They trusted in their father’s blood instead of Christ’s. This is worthy of great lament.

When our friends from a Muslim background believe, they often experience moderate persecution. By this I mean they lose jobs, get kicked out of their homes, and lose marriage prospects. Occasionally they experience severe persecution and are physically beaten, experience house arrest, or credible death threats. We know of two or three among our people group that have died for their faith. But even in the midst of these tragic things, those experiencing persecution are often brand new in their faith, and it becomes awfully hard to discern whether their father beat them because of Jesus or because they were simply disrespectful punks in taking their dad’s car to church when he told them not to. Many experience persecution because of brave, but reckless attacks against Islam. If they would focus on Jesus and the gospel more and stop talking so much about Mohammad’s child bride, their relatives might not get so angry and violent. Diving into the real causes of persecution and whether or not someone is inflating their story is woefully difficult – not to mention hurtful to those whose claims are legitimate. But what else is to be done? So many have been played by those who knew how to spin a good tale.

We want to err on the side of mercy, but if Westerners are too quick to intervene they can actually make it worse, facilitating a “believer drain” that prevents the local church from being able to take root. Once persecution escalates, a missionary or pastor find themselves in a minefield of less than ideal options. Each case can become all-consuming and difficult decisions must be made about if/when to intervene, when to wait and pray, how to provide emergency housing, whether to facilitate a way out of the country (which entails visas, tickets, housing, food) – and all of this when other local believers are divided and skeptical about the situation themselves. In a place without a network of local churches, a need exists to develop a persecution infrastructure that can respond when first-generation believers lose their housing, their jobs, or are in physical danger. But the logistics, money, and time needed to pull something like this off is daunting. So proactive persecution response tends to get put on the back burner until the next crisis, when the missionary is faced once again with the bad choice of doing nothing or harboring a new believer secretly in their own home.

While some local believers are set free from their fear by experiencing public persecution, others buckle, compromise, and even apostatize. One young man whose baptism I attended immediately recanted his faith after his father found out, threatened him with death, and then bribed him with the cash value of their house to return to Islam. They then both proceeded to hold his younger brother, a genuine believer, at knife-point while threatening his life. Another promising leader-in-training experienced brutal persecution from his coworkers and tribe, and managed to make it through with his faith intact, but the experience caused him to abandon the small church he had committed to help lead. Out of fear, many local believers have committed to never gather with other locals for worship, but only with foreigners – thus making church planting impossible.

Persecution is woefully complicated. And yet God uses persecution for the advance of his church. Does this mean I should pray for more persecution? No, just as I shouldn’t pray for more physical suffering because God uses that for my sanctification. Should we pray for “stronger backs to endure” as Brother Yun says? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for the persecution to stop as well. It’s a both/and, a fiery furnace type of prayer where we call on God for deliverance because he is able, and we proclaim that he will sustain us even if not.

We must never let persecution stop the spread of the gospel, and this requires a dogged commitment to be faithful unto death. Persecution can be a form of blessing, which purifies our faith. Yet seasons of peace are also a blessing, one which the Bible commands us to seek, where the church has time to do the deep work of discipleship, leadership development, and the sending of missionaries. The blood of the martyrs is seed, but let’s not make that formulaic. The seed will inevitably sprout, but that might or might not happen in this age; It will with all certainty happen in the age to come.

In the meantime, pray for the persecuted Church. And pray for those of us who are trying to plant churches in contexts of persecution. We are not sufficient for these things. Yet we pray to a Lord who is. He alone can untangle the heart-breaking complexities of persecution and weave them into glory.

Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash

Book sources:

Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

Yun, The Heavenly Man

Baumer, The Church of the East

Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity