What America Can Learn from the Persecuted Church

November 13 is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP). The global persecuted Body of Christ has always been dear to my heart. I prayed for the Russian underground church back in the 1970s when I was in college, and God continues to lay the needs of His children around the world on my prayer list.

As an adult, I am grateful for ministries that continue to reach out to these struggling saints.

I was privileged to speak, last month, to Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA.
The Orange County resident is an advocate for the millions of Christians around the world who are denied religious freedom and basic human rights. He and his co-author, David Hegg, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, Calif., wrote The Privilege of Persecution (and Other Things the Global Church Knows That We Don't).(1) It's a book that every member of the Body of Christ in America~ especially church leaders ~ should read.

In their book, Moeller and Hegg want Christians to understand that they aren't wagging a finger at the American church ~ they love the American church ~ but they do have a message about ways the global suffering church is healthier than their Western counterparts.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Dr. Moeller.

Dawn: I read and enjoyed your book, and I learned so much about ways the American church differs from the persecuted church. Why do you say the persecuted church has the "privilege of persecution" ~ your title for the book? That isn't a concept most Americans can understand, I would think.

Dr. Moeller: I didn't originate the title. It came from a Latin American pastor. After their church had suffered persecution, he said, "We're privileged to be persecuted." He shared with me Philippians 1:29 where Paul is writing to the Philippians who saw him persecuted in jail, and he wrote to them as followers of Jesus, saying, "For to you it has been given the privilege not only of trusting in Christ, but of suffering for Him as well."

That was a process I needed to investigate. What does that say to us here in America where we have it so comfortable in so many ways, and how can we understand suffering and persecution as a blessing from God ~ something God wants to use to build in us.

Dawn: In your book, you spoke of revival versus reformation. Why do you think the church in America needs reformation?

Dr. Moeller: Revival means something needs to be brought back to life. We see the power of the Holy Spirit moving across the world to revive churches, particularly in Egypt and the Middle East. Many of these churches are historical, 2,000-year-old churches that do need revival. They're dead inside, but they are being revived.

In America, our need is to be reformed. If you remember, the nature of the Reformation was to get back to the Word of God, to re-establish the authority of the Word of God; and unfortunately, in too many of our churches ~ and I say this as a member, a leader, a former pastor in American churches ~ too many of our congregations are looking for a self-help recipe. They are using the Bible to bolster some of their good ideas, more or less. I like to say, it's "fortune cookie Bible verses." We say, "Here's my point, and by the way, here's a Bible verse that goes along with it" ~ sort of like a fortune cookie ~ and "it helps me with my next point, which is this...."

I think that when we get back to what the Reformation did in Europe, to return the church to its roots, founded on the Word of God ~ if we do that in America, I think we will see revival. We will see renewal in our churches.

Dawn: In your book, you speak of the persecuted church's reverence for the things of God, especially the Word of God; and you say Westerners often treat the Bible like just another self-help book, rather than what God wants to do through His Word.

Dr. Moeller: There's nothing wrong with self-help, but I don't think that really is the focus that God wants us to have. The Bible is not about improving my life. God doesn't desire to improve my life; He needs to resurrect my life. We're not broken people looking to be healed as much as we are dead people looking to be revived. That's the message of the persecuted church. If they were looking for a better life, they would leave the church. They would leave Christianity.... it doesn't bless you materially or anything like that. There's a different dynamic going on there.

Dawn: You say, "We are rarely in the position to choose our trials, but we can choose how we react in the midst of them." What can we learn from the global church about this?

Dr. Moeller: The human tendency for revenge when someone takes advantage of us or persecutes us or harasses us can be overcome in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I get frustrated when somebody cuts me off on the freeway, and candidly, it kinds of boils in me that he did that to me; but then I have to step back and say, "Wait a minute." People I know, people I am friends with, have had their homes burned, have had their livelihoods taken away and their kids denied education. Sometimes they have been tortured and imprisoned. And they can forgive.

A friend of mine in Columbia was blinded in a horrific attack by a left-wing force that killed many of his friends. He was blinded almost completely ... and he struggled to put himself through school. He became an evangelist and he went back to evangelize in the prison ~ those "narco" guerrillas who had blinded him and murdered his friends. I asked him, "Alex, how could you do that?" He looked at me and said, "Carl, without forgiveness, there is no Christian life."

Dawn: That's powerful, and so true.

Dr. Moeller: Yes. That's when I realized, "Wow. That's a choice. That is a choice to do something that can only be empowered supernaturally." And my friend is right, of course, absolutely right. Jesus looked at [the thieves] while He was on the cross, and said, "Father, forgive them." Stephen said the same thing while he was being stoned.

Dawn: That concept is so hard in our country, where it's all about our rights.

Dr. Moeller: Absolutely, Dawn. It's been inspirational for me to hang with people and be friends of people like that. It empowers me in my daily choices, and it makes me a stronger Christian because of the inspiration from these brothers and sisters.

Dawn: You talk about choices in another area in your book, too ~ about how America has so many choices, and that this overabundance of choices even affects the church. How do we relate to God when we're distracted by so many choices in the West?

Dr. Moeller: That is, in essence, the story we told about the persecuted pastor who said, "We pray for you. We've learned to live under persecution. You've not yet learned to live under prosperity as a Christian body."

Prosperity is its own form of persecution, its own form of spiritual attack, and we have to recognize it as such. We can't embrace prosperity in the way our culture does, because then we're giving in to the enemy. It's a very subtle attack, but it's, nonetheless, an attack; and I do believe Christians, in a broad sense, face that attack internally. It's our responsibility to respond to it as the persecuted church responds to persecution externally. It's an internal process.

Dawn: And I would think that pastors and other authority figures in the church need to take the lead in that.

Dr. Moeller: Yes, and unfortunately, too many of our leaders succumb to the same value system that the world has; and I say that to my chagrin, because there's nothing like being among the persecuted who have nothing, but who give everything. We have all the material stuff, but we don't have the real joy.

Dawn: Big learning curve there.

Dr. Moeller: Yeah!

Dawn: I'm concerned about the younger generation, too. I think they're reacting to the church not always being relational and authentic. I see this in some of my younger friends. They want to serve God, but they don't want to commit to the church in any significant way. Maybe they're not seeing something relevant and authentic there. Maybe they're not seeing a strong sense of community. Dr. Moeller, what can the persecuted church teach us about reaching this generation?

Dr. Moeller: The culture we live in is so distracted and busy, and it fights against the things that God wants to do in our lives. Jesus, if you read the Gospels, is always asking His disciples to come away with Him. He needed to get away and pray ~ to get away from those distractions.

And I think one of the things we face in our culture, with our churches moving to look even more like the culture, is that our churches are places with distractions and interferences. I'm trying to be sensitive here, because I realize that we do live in a post-Christian culture, and especially in Southern California we do need to address the questions of "How do people come to God? and "Why would they come to church?" So I'm not opposing all of that.

But I think there are two things that I remember from my childhood that I think are desperately lacking in our churches today. I mentioned one: the primacy of the Word. I remember every Bible that I saw when I was growing up had the word "Holy" in front of the word "Bible." Now we have people's names ~ the "so-and-so Bible."

And the second thing is, when people came into church, they didn't come into a ministry center or the auditorium. They came into the "sanctuary" ~ the holy place ~ and there was a worshipful attitude. I'm not talking about musical style. You can definitely have upbeat music and drums and guitars. That's not what I'm saying. But you come in with an attitude of reverence, of coming into the inner sanctum of the presence of God. You come into a different thing than if you come into an "auditorium" ~ more like you would come into a Broadway show. The persecuted church, they don't come in to a show. They come in worship to meet God in the inner sanctum.

Dawn: We talk flippantly about having hope in America, but what is the hope that believers in the global church have?

Dr. Moeller: Wow. That's a great question. Their hope is Jesus Christ! They don't put their trust in materialism and earthly possessions. It used to be a lot easier for us as Americans to relate to that.

In times past, America was also a place where people had to struggle to make ends meet. My grandparents lived through The Great Depression, and much of what they experienced and told me about was "making do" with what they could, and their faith was real. They looked forward to the day when their every need would be met... their lives would be hidden in Christ for eternity. They didn't believe or hope that this life would be the answer to all their needs.

I think the persecuted church looks at it that way. They, generally speaking, don't hold out a lot of hope that somehow the Iranian government is going to completely turn around at the next election and that's going to be their salvation. It's when they finally come to see Jesus face to face ~ they have the Blessed Hope.

Dawn: You talked about simpler, smaller churches with a greater sense of community ~ and I'm not sure that is going to happen in America with all of our mega-churches ~ so what's the answer for us to be more like the persecuted church?

Dr. Moeller: I'm certainly not advocating for us to go out and do things to become persecuted, or to make people mad at us. That's not biblical. And I don't think we're advocating any particular size of church. But what we are advocating is a return to some of these basic ideas. Not to build the church off of marketing, but to build the church off the leading of the Holy Spirit, the primacy of God's Word, the preaching of God's Word and the authority of that, and the generosity that comes from being completely, 100 percent given over to Christ.

You don't need to have slick marketing campaigns to entice people to give, if people are sold out to the cause. When I was in one pastor's home in southern Mexico, he had nothing; but he gave us the equivalent of two thirds of his monthly salary, not thinking about where their food for that next week was going to come from. We didn't let him do that without making sure he had his resouces covered ~ but imagine for a second what it would be like for us in America to do that for a stranger: to bring a stranger into our home and spend two thirds of our take-home pay on a lavish banquet.

That's the kind of thing that we need to get back to in America. It' s not about the size of our churches. It's about the authenticity of our faith.

Dawn: We do need to remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in the global church ~ the persecuted church. You've given us much to think about, Dr. Moeller. Thank you.

Dr. Moeller: My pleasure.

[Note: Photo of the Bible in the pulpit is by Rev. Chris Fryou, Covington Presbyterian Church website, Waldheim, La.

(1) Dr. Carl Moeller and David Hegg, The privilege of Persecution (And Other Things the Global Church Knows That We Don't), (Moody Publishers, 2011).

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