Perspectives on the Suffering Church
Apr. 7, 2013
In every region of the world, Christians experience suffering. At a recent gathering of the AGWM leadership team, Communications Director Randy Hurst talked with the six regional directors — Mike McClaflin, Africa; Russ Turney, Asia Pacific; Omar Beiler, Eurasia; Paul Trementozzi, Europe; Richard Nicholson, Latin America and the Caribbean; and Ron Maddux, Northern Asia — to gain their perspectives of the suffering church in their respective regions.
Hurst: How would you characterize suffering in your specific region?
McClaflin: I am convinced that more suffering is taking place in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Much of it is not religiously based but stems largely from government corruption and conflict between people groups. Corruption has caused people to become so destitute they are willing to inflict suffering on others just to obtain what they need to survive. Whether the conflict is rooted in religion or tribal animosity, the result is mayhem and incredible need.
Turney: When I think of suffering, several countries in Asia Pacific immediately come to mind. Indonesia, for example, is plagued by both religious conflict and frequent natural disasters. Floods and tsunamis are a constant threat. These disasters cause people to be displaced and suffer tremendous need. In North Korea, people suffer from lack of sufficient farmland to grow adequate food supplies. People in countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar suffer due to religious and political struggles.
Hurst: What about areas where violence is not as pervasive? Does suffering still exist there?
Trementozzi: In Europe, believers are not often killed for their faith, but they face discrimination. People are tolerant of believers, but they will not go out of their way to help them. Churches have difficulty acquiring property, and believers often have a hard time getting permission to develop and implement new ways to share the gospel. In several European nations, missionaries struggle to get visas, and authorities offer little to no help in the process.
Nicholson: Over the years, some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have “strait-jacketed” the church, and believers still do not have the freedom to preach in open-air meetings, build new churches, and import Bibles. In other countries, governments have barred believers from trying to make contact with certain unreached people groups. At times believers are excluded from certain privileges, such as tax exemptions and the right to own property. Missionaries have also been told they cannot minister in certain countries if the national fellowship is not a certain size.
Hurst: What is AG World Missions doing to assist the suffering church in your region?
Maddux: Suffering comes in a lot of different ways. In Northern Asia, many people suffer because of poverty. People in remote areas don’t have adequate food, clothing and shelter. In response, we are focusing on ministries of compassion and demonstrating the love of God to those who are suffering. Every demonstration has to be accompanied by a verbal declaration of God’s love. Along with acts of compassion, we tell people that God loves them, gave His Son for them, and offers them salvation and eternal life. If our goal is simply to relieve suffering in this world, we are offering only a short-term solution. We have to provide a compassionate response that will save people from an eternity away from God.
Beiler: In some areas of Eurasia, the church is small, fragile and fledgling. Over the years, missionaries sometimes left these areas when persecution intensified against the church. As a result, we stamped this pattern of behavior in believers’ spiritual DNA. Today these believers sometimes are not proclaimers; they are underground and unknown. Each time trouble or persecution comes, the church goes deeper underground. Our goal is to seek out these believers and model a new response to dealing with difficulty. New personnel are saying, “We don’t want to run. We’ll stay, and we’ll keep coming. We are committed to turning the tide in these difficult places.”
Hurst: The attitude of subjecting yourself to suffering and laying your life on the line seems contradictory to today’s American social values. How do we answer those who don’t believe Christians should suffer?
McClaflin: I believe we are entering an era in which suffering will become the norm. The issue believers have to work through is how they will face this suffering. This requires a twofold response. First, we must have a unique sense of lostness and eternity that is far more intense than what is currently evident in the United States. Second, we must be willing to suffer because Jesus is King and Lord of our lives, and we know that without Him mankind is destined for eternity in hell.
Beiler: Even now in Eurasia, a missionary is living out his faith in a spiritually difficult nation as he struggles with terminal cancer. People have questioned why he doesn’t come home and seek advanced medical treatment rather than suffering and dying in another country. That missionary would tell you that Jesus called him to the people in that country, and he is committed to living out his faith there. He says, “I spent years trying to show these people how to live; now I will teach them how to die. ?I will put my body in the soil as a seed for the church as Jesus taught me to do.”
Hurst: How does God use suffering to strengthen and expand His Church?
Turney: Believers in a gospel-resistant nation in Asia Pacific have reported that last year alone, 800 people came to Christ after their neighbors told them of miraculous healings or provision that took place when believers prayed. Suffering people are desperate for answers. When they see the power of God revealed through miracles, they are open to the gospel.
In another country, suffering has given the church strength and resiliency. Several years ago, following a time of intense persecution, believers in an Asia Pacific nation began organizing a national fellowship. The church leaders they chose were required to have spent time in prison for their faith. Suffering and imprisonment were indications of spiritual maturity. Over the years, a strong fellowship has emerged in that nation.
Nicholson: In Latin America and the Caribbean, believers who held tightly to their faith during times of pressure and intimidation have developed tremendous strength and maturity. They have learned to rely on the Holy Spirit as the bedrock of all they do. They are thoroughly Pentecostal and allow the Spirit to move in whatever circumstance they face. When churches eliminate the work of the Holy Spirit and His ability to move as He wills, they begin a downward spiral. Without the Holy Spirit, a church cannot survive when tough times come. The power of the Holy Spirit gives believers spiritual maturity and empowers the church to grow in any circumstance.
Hurst: It is natural to pray that suffering believers will be delivered, but is this always the best way to pray?
Trementozzi: Europe is filled with Christian cathedrals, but they are largely seen as antiquities that have no relevance in present-day society. Most Europeans view them as connections between faith and politics, representations of a time when religion dictated people’s lives. Europe as a whole has been lulled into spiritual sleep. My prayer is that the church will awaken, identify with the pain that many of our fellow brothers and sisters are enduring around the world, and connect with them in spirit and in action.
Maddux: Our tendency is to pray that God will relieve people’s suffering, and I believe this is the right thing to do. However, we don’t always know what form relief from suffering will have. God sets people free in a variety of ways. He may give believers physical deliverance or He may give them personal liberty to endure a specific situation. The best way we can pray is to ask God to keep people, sustain them, and work out His plan in their lives. We don’t know what God’s plan is for a particular moment, person or situation, but we can always pray that God’s work will be done.
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