Bridging the Gap: How Western Observers Can Help the Persecuted Church
By Akshaya James
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 75% of the world population, or approximately 5.5 billion people, live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high hostilities, most of them being persecuted Christians. These numbers point to a dark reality and I, personally, was shocked at the lack of attention that this global crisis receives. In this article, I will be discussing the negative aspects of western individualism, a contoured knowledge of persecution, and the subliminal effects of the prosperity gospel in Christian suffering.
When I joined ICC as a campus volunteer, my main goal was to figure out the disconnect between these numbers and the Western Church. Let’s start by explaining individualism, or the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant. Individualism seems to be the lifestyle that many of us are brought up to live. This is visible in the pursuit of the American dream, the increase in the self-care movement, and even something as simple as your goals being entirely focused on you. Individualism is not terrible per se, but there are many negative aspects.
In other countries, we see that the principle of collectivism is taught, or the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it. I didn’t understand the extent of this until I sat in a pew in a southern Indian church. I would enter the sanctuary multiple times with hopes that God had a specific word for me, and left time and time again with the beautiful reminder to lay my life down and pick up my cross. I would leave these services with a motive to love God and love his people, rather than a message of “God loves me, so love myself more.”
Unfortunately, this is what is taught in mainstream church services in the US, where I would be given specific points to be a better version of myself. The truth of the matter is, in countries like the United States where individualism is a primary lifestyle, we are constantly reminded in our churches how to improve ourselves. Whereas, in other countries, Christians are taught to be a reflection of Jesus, a model of servanthood and putting others before yourself. With that being said, how can we truly acknowledge our brothers and sisters across the globe if our eyes aren’t fixed on the main reason we are Christian, to love God and love his people?
Another reason for this disconnect is the contoured version of persecution. In America we more commonly see opposition to Christianity, but rarely see persecution. Persecution is hostility shown to a Christian individual or community because of their faith activity or faith identity. Persecution has many layers; whether it comes in the form of forced conversions, lengthy jail sentences, or martyrdom, choosing Jesus is costly.
I once heard a famous preacher give a sermon on persecution. A lot of what was said was true, but to better contextualize it for the American audience, the preacher went on to say “…persecution begins when you are a little girl and wondering where you fit in, persecution begins when you watch your parents beating each other, persecution begins when you have an addiction, persecution begins when you have a teen pregnancy…” It is easy to associate persecution with events that occurred in the New Testament or become desensitized to it because we don’t personally go through it. However, redefining persecution to make it more contextual for our circumstances is harmful, especially when we have members of our own Body struggling to live because of it. Our contorted perception of persecution is harmful to the Body of Christ, and has ostracized the persecuted Church.
Finally, I want to touch on the Prosperity Gospel, also known as the Health and Wealth Gospel, something that most Christians are told to stay away from. It points to a gospel, where when you follow Jesus, life improves in all aspects of your life. This obviously is not the case. Life sometimes gets harder, but God gives us the grace to sustain our circumstances. Nevertheless, as vivid as that statement is, we don’t really preach the beauty of suffering. Think about it: when was the last time you sat at church and they gave a sermon on suffering? Your answer will probably make you realize that it isn’t often mentioned. We hear sermons of suffering as the victory that God is bringing, or the light at the end of the tunnel, but very rarely on the human emotion of suffering. I understand it isn’t a hot topic, but our lack of attention to it shows the subliminal effects of the Prosperity Gospel on Christian suffering.
This is dangerous because there are Christians unable to know God deeper because they don’t see Him as the God of the highs and lows, just the highs. Additionally, if we are unable to relate to the persecuted church because of the lack of attention this topic really gets, how can we really understand or care about our suffering body if it isn’t understood entirely? This misconception of Christian suffering has blinded us to the realities others face.
The list can go on about why the Western Church isn’t as involved to end this fight. At ICC, our main mission is to act as the bridge between believers in free countries and believers in persecuted ones. As a volunteer, you can think of yourself as a gatekeeper for this bridge. Through your help this bridge can carry encouragement, prayers, news updates and so much more. In looking at the world today, I see that there is a great need for awareness. Your voice on this issue is powerful; not only are you raising awareness about the persecuted church but you are showing your community an issue that is worthy of a cause.
If you want to get more involved in ICC’s mission, feel free to visit our website to take action.