Persecuted for the Faith Series Part One: VOM’s Todd Nettleton on expectations of the ChurchOctober 5, 2017
Every first week of November, the Church comes together for an International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church. For many American Christians the reality of the global church is a distant one. Aside from breaking news or an occasional missions Sunday, we may know very little about the testimonies of Christians in restricted countries and so we have no idea how to pray alongside them. We also need to spend some time sitting at the feet of our brothers and sisters who have felt the weightiness of Jesus’ hard teachings in ways we have not. In the coming weeks, we will hear from Open Doors and The Philos Project on specifically expectations for the Church at large to care for and advocate on behalf of members undergoing persecution.
In part one, we introduce our topic with Todd Nettleton. He is the Chief of Media Relations and Message Integration for The Voice of the Martyrs and the host of The Voice of the Martyrs Radio.
What kinds of persecution do believers expect to face in different areas of the world?
Persecution looks different in different parts of the world, from what we might call discrimination in education or jobs to arrest, imprisonment and torture all the way up to Christians laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel.
Sometimes that persecution comes from the government of the country where the Christian is living. Sometimes it’s from non-government sources, be they terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or other groups or individuals within their country.
One of the things that Americans don’t often think about is that, in many countries, the first line of persecution is the Christian’s own family, which feels that by becoming a Christian their son or daughter or sister or brother has brought great shame on their entire family.
How is the view of persecution different for Christians around the world, in comparison to say, Christians in America?
This is a key question, and it is a significant difference.
For Christians living in hostile and restricted nations, they EXPECT persecution once they make the decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly. They know—even from the first moments after they come to Christ—that there will be a price for their decision. And so they enter into the faith ready for persecution to come and having already decided that the price they may pay is worth it.
Compare that to the way the gospel is often presented in America: “Come to Jesus, and He’ll make everything in your life better!” So many times in the US the call is to come to Christ for a better life here on earth, and heaven is a bonus! The gospel message in restricted nations has a different flavor: “Come to Jesus! Yes, your life here on earth is probably going to get worse. But when it does, Jesus will be right there with you, and after your suffering you’ll enter into heaven to be with Him.”
(Obviously, I’m painting with a broad brush here, but I think the difference is often dramatic.)
So when trouble comes for that Christian in a restricted nation, they think, “Yes, the trouble I knew would come is here.” Whereas many American Christians, when trouble comes, can’t understand how trouble could have come when they were walking with God, and it sometimes shakes their faith and their understanding of Who God is.
How do you see Christians around the world preparing new converts for the persecution they will undoubtedly face?
This is one of the key questions that I like to ask Christians from hostile and restricted nations when I get the chance to interview them. How did you get ready for persecution, and how are you getting other believers ready?
There are a couple of key things that I’ve heard from these believers. One of them is a conscious decision to count the cost ahead of time. And this connects to how the gospel message is presented, obviously.
What VOM workers have seen among Christians who are victorious in the face of persecution is that they have COUNTED THE COST ahead of time. They had already decided that Jesus was worth it—whatever persecution would come, no matter how fierce it would get—they had already made up their mind that Jesus was worth it.
And so, when the persecution actually did come, they didn’t have to try to decide in the midst of suffering and abuse. The decision had already been made.
Another factor in their preparation is seeing the example of other persecuted believers. Last year I interviewed a gospel worker in China. I asked him what he thought about the very first time he was arrested. And what he said was enlightening: he said that he thought about the time his grandfather had gone to prison for his Christian work, and the time his father had been detained for his Christian work, and so when he was arrested he just really felt like it was his turn! He’d seen other Christians accept and endure persecution and continue to minister and witness and serve faithfully, and so he was simply following their example.
I believe this is one of the key ministries of The Voice of the Martyrs to the American Church: we tell the stories of persecuted Christians around the world, so that American Christians can see and be inspired by their examples. We don’t have these examples in most of our American Churches, so we need the examples of brothers and sisters in other nations.
The final thing I would say about preparation is the devotion of these believers to the Bible. They read it. They memorize it. They drive deep roots into the Scriptures. So when the storms of persecution come, they have a foundation that holds true. This is one of the things that has inspired me as I’ve met these believers; I want to be a man of God’s Word, and I want every American Christian to build their life on the firm, unchanging foundation of the Bible.
With the upcoming International Day of prayer for the persecuted church, how can we pray for those undergoing persecution?
The first request of our persecuted family members is that we pray for them, so the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) is a key way that American Christians are answering their request and this important day is helping unite the Body of Christ around the world.
The challenging thing to me, and I think for many Americans, is the nature of their request. It’s not a prayer for persecution to end, or for their suffering to cease. Instead it is a prayer that they will be faithful to Christ in spite of the suffering they must endure for His sake.
There are a couple of specific ways that I would encourage readers to pray for persecuted Christians:
- That they will be encouraged, and that they will know that they are not alone and not forgotten. One of the things I often pray is that God will let the Christians for whom I am praying know, through the Holy Spirit, right at that moment that someone is praying for them. And God answers that prayer. One of the things Gracia Burnham told me when I interviewed her was that during her months as a hostage in the Philippines, her and her husband, Martin, would at times look at each other and one of them would say, “Someone is praying for us right now.” They knew!
- In addition to encouragement, we can pray for physical protection and healing. Recently one of our VOM staff members was arrested in Sudan and ended up spending 445 days in prison there. He didn’t get malaria! That in and of itself is a miracle, and a direct answer to prayers for God’s protection and for his health.
- Pray for opportunities to witness for Christ. To fellow prisoners, to guards, to judges and court officials. To whoever will listen! Earlier this year I interviewed a gospel worker in Turkey who has been detained numerous times by the police there. He told me that he gets excited when police come to arrest him, because he’s seen how God often has someone specifically for him to minister to inside the police station or detention center where they take him. He’s seen many of these people come to faith in Christ.
- Finally, I want to remind us not to forget to pray for the persecutors as well, as Jesus commanded us to do (Matt. 5:44). Pray God will soften their hearts. Pray they’ll ask questions as they are encountering Christians that will lead to gospel seeds being planted in their lives. God answers these prayers! VOM has a book called Saul to Paul, which contains the testimonies of former persecutors who are now following and witnessing for Christ, and often paying a very high price for their newfound faith.
Our hope is that every church will spend time in services November 5 specifically praying for persecuted believers, and VOM has a number of resources to help churches do this.
But it can’t be a once-a-year thing. Christians are persecuted every day of the year. Their request to us is simple, yet profound: pray for us! We must, always, answer their call.