I stared at the phone in stunned silence.
A pastor had just told me about his experience. When he encouraged his congregation to pray for the persecuted church, he'd encountered skepticism at best. A member had even expressed doubt that the problem was "that serious."
Over time, I've heard others relate similar experiences - disbelief when presented with the fact that many believers in the world face severe persecution for their faith. There are a number of reasons why people may not understand or accept the reality of persecution. For many years, persecution was not even discussed. We assumed that other people lived and worshipped as we do in the western world. We assumed their countries permitted the same freedoms of religion. We didn't realize that they face persecution from a variety of sources - dominant non-Christian religious bodies, government, families, terrorists, and more.
But in recent years, the world has become much smaller, thanks to many different things, including advances in communication. The Body of Christ has become more open about the sufferings of believers. And persecution is more quickly and widely known as suffering believers and those who help them can spread their plight quickly and broadly through the Internet and television communication.
Others don't admit the reality of persecution because it's just too painful. Persecution of Christians is an in-your-face kind of topic. It hurts to read and hear about, and can be excruciating if you are seriously interceding.
But persecution is real - not just to some nameless Christians out there, but to our Nazarene family. Consider the stories below, which represent hundreds of stories from all over the world. We've left out names and countries to protect these Nazarenes. While their stories may make you cringe with discomfort, they may also make you sit up a little straighter with "family" pride and thank the Lord for brothers and sisters who are persevering. Consider this a tiny window into survival training for how much of the Christian world lives.
Open the "Family" Photo Album
Country #1: Career vs. Christianity
A well-known doctor, one of only three medical specialists in his country, was trained in the best educational institutions available for his specialty. Then the unthinkable happened - the doctor learned of the saving power of Jesus Christ!
After the doctor accepted Christ as his Savior, his country stripped him of his medical practice, and he could only get menial jobs. At that stage, God tapped this man on the shoulder, adding another vocation to the growing list - Nazarene pastor. The doctor/laborer/pastor was recently ordained and serves God with passion.
Country #2: God Reaches a Guerrilla
"Who's the leader here?" the man demanded as he marched into the Nazarene prayer service. Not the ordinary congregant, he was heavily-armed in military regalia. The pastor nervously extended his hand and invited the man to sit.
At the pastor's touch, the visitor's expression changed, softened. After a moment, he spoke. "Pastor, you are a man of God," he said. "When I touched your hand, I was almost forced to the floor by supernatural force. I came to kill you, but please, pastor - pray for me. It will be a great privilege one day to be a member of your church."
The man wrote his name on a piece of paper, gave it to the pastor, and left.
The pastor looked outside the church and saw a truckload of armed militia-probably guerrilla fighters who had planned to assassinate him.
That day, the church had one of the best prayer services ever. The pastor and members thanked God for keeping them safe. They were convinced that, "the LORD surrounds and protects his people" (Psalm 125:2b, NLT).
Some Christians weren't so fortunate. Statistics show that from 2003 to 2006, more than 300 evangelical churches were closed in this area, and in 2003 alone, 44 pastors were assassinated.
Country #3: From Prison to Preaching
Nothing dampens plans for an exciting district assembly like news that 25 of the delegates-including a pastor and his son-have been kidnapped by radical religious terrorists. They were beaten, stripped, and all but one of their mobile phones seized. That phone was taken after a distress call was made.
The pastor, his son, and two other leaders landed in jail, accused of forcing people to convert to Christ from other religions. For days, nothing more was known about these people or the other 21 villagers accompanying them.
Incessant prayers flew to God's throne, pleading for delivery of these people, for preservation of their lives, and for their fortified faith.
The district assembly proceeded, but the time was changed as a safety precaution. Records were set for the shortest sermon preached and the quickest reports received. The assembly concluded in less than two hours, and people evacuated the premises before the time the meeting had originally been scheduled to begin.
Heart-wrenching hours stretched into days. Nazarene leaders monitored the situation and planned possible interventions.
Finally, the four prisoners were released. We learned that the other 21 delegates - without money, food, or shelter - had somehow gotten back to their homes, hundreds of kilometers away.
When asked how his teenager had endured the persecution, the pastor responded quietly, "While we were being abused in prison, my son realized that God called him to preach. He wants to lay down his life for Christ and the Cross. He wants to share the love of Jesus with people in darkness and disbelief, such as those who captured and mistreated us. His faith has advanced more than I could have imagined."
Country #4: Steadfast Faith
Brother Alpha (not his real name) was one of the longest surviving believers among his people, and he only became a Christian in 1986! When his country suffered from civil instability, flyers were printed listing the names of known Christians. Of the people listed, only three survived. Two fled to other countries, and only Brother Alpha remained in his homeland, going into hiding.
A few years later, circumstances changed. Brother Alpha began cautious evangelism, and started several house fellowships. He was known as a wise and prudent man who led the church effectively, not putting himself or others at unnecessary risk. His home became a haven for believers, and visitors received warm hospitality from the family's meager resources.
In 2005, Brother Alpha started teaching in an extension program for pastors. Through this, he received fellowship with Christians from other ethnic backgrounds. Students in Brother Alpha's class were moved by his testimony and faith.
Brother Alpha became ill in 2005. He was so highly respected that his neighborhood, filled with people who believed another religion, collected money for his care. Sadly, Brother Alpha went to be with the Lord that year, and the students held a memorial service. At the service, many people gave offerings to benefit the family. These funds helped his widow launch a small business, and his two children were enrolled in the child sponsorship program.
The church in Brother Alpha's community celebrates his faithful witness and recognizes the crucial contribution he made among his people. At the time of his death, there were approximately 100 believers in Brother Alpha's zone, including 30 who were part of his house fellowship.
Country #5: Community Exclusion
In this country, a Bible study was established in 2001, and eventually, a Church of the Nazarene was born from it. Though this strife-torn country boasts more than 8 million people, this new church was only the fourth Nazarene congregation.
The holiness church has a rocky history in this country. Early years were filled with great persecution, as other evangelicals considered holiness teachings to be heretical. The grass-roofed church was set on fire. Leaders were jailed and labeled "anti-Christian." Nazarenes were denied embers when their fires burned out, their cattle were excluded from the community herd, and members of the church could not be buried in community cemeteries.
A succession of missionaries worked with the emerging district, and in February 2004 a person from that country was selected as district superintendent. That year persecution escalated, with other evangelicals mocking, "There will be no Nazarenes left. Their missionaries are gone."
In November and December 2004, education by extension was introduced to the area, and the district superintendent offered training in church planting principles.
The church that began in 2001 became a mother church. It recently completed a new building from local funds on ground donated by the community. Today, that area consists of 105 Nazarene congregations with 20 organized churches!
Souls are saved daily, lives are transformed. Former alcoholics and drugs addicts are recovering and some are becoming pastors. Wives are no longer beaten, and families' finances are not squandered - now the families can afford to send their children to school. That is what a spontaneous holiness church planting movement looks like!
What Can We Do for Persecuted Christians?
What can we do about persecution that takes place half a world away?
Think about the people who suffer for their faith, listen to their stories, and empathize with them. Pray for them. You don't need names to pray for the persecuted church, just a willing heart.
Tell others not only about the injustices taking place, but also about stories of faithfulness to God in the face of injustice.
Support those who are persecuted by writing government officials, working with other churches in your area, and contacting organizations involved in persecution research.
Gail L. Sawrie is editor for Nazarene Missions International (NMI), where she and Team NMI equip churches to develop a heart for missions.