How should American Christians pray for the church in China? So asked the reporter from the Baptist mission board, ending his interview with a leader of the Chinese house-church movement.
His subject answered, "Stop praying for persecution in China to end." He added, "It is through persecution that the church has grown."
The leader of the underground church then added something else: "We, in fact, are praying that the American church might taste the same persecution so revival would come to the American church like we have seen in China."
James Draper, the president of the Southern Baptist bookstore chain LifeWay who recounts the incident in a column with Baptist Press, notes the irony: "We in America keep praying for God to bless us"-with success, prosperity, political clout, and booming churches-"and Christians in other nations are praying God will allow us to experience persecution so that we'll act like the blessing we were made to be."
What did the Chinese leader-who constantly faces arrest for evangelizing and worshipping-mean? It is certainly true, both in China and throughout church history, that the greatest periods of church growth have been times of persecution, or at least cultural hostility.
This happened most dramatically in the Roman Empire. After Rome fell, the European barbarians first martyred the missionaries before finally accepting their message. During the Reformation, the gospel spread like fire while those who preached it were burned at the stake.
In more recent times, though falling short of overt persecution, the church has flourished in times of cultural hostility. At the height of the Enlightenment, with its anti-supernatural rationalism, John Wesley sparked the Methodist revival and America had its Great Awakening. The age of Modernism, which was expected to eliminate religion altogether, gave us the evangelical movement. Conversely, times of cultural conformity-the late Middle Ages, today-show the church at its worst.
Persecution does not always create growth in numbers, as is evident in Islamic countries. But it does eliminate nominal believers who only go to church for cultural approval. The church members remaining, who are willing to endure suffering for their Christianity, demonstrate a faith that seems particularly real, and particularly persuasive to nonbelievers. We blithely speak of "witnessing to our faith," by which we mean just telling someone about Jesus. The Greek word for "witness" is martyr.
So, if persecution has been good for Christianity, does this mean we should cultivate martyrdom? Not at all. It was good that Rome finally legalized Christianity (though this would have unintended bad consequences). Today we should work to promote religious freedom around the world, including China. And we should resist-while we can-the assaults on that freedom in our own country. Nor should individual Christians try to turn themselves into "martyrs" through obnoxious or illegal behavior.
The Reformers made it clear that "self-chosen" suffering-as in asceticism, self-flagellation, and purposefully getting in trouble-has no spiritual value and can contribute to works righteousness and hypocrisy. But suffering that we do not want, enduring trials and tribulations out of our control, can be a refining fire, forcing us to depend ever more on Christ.
Despite the clear teachings of the Bible, many of us actually think God has abandoned us when we go through difficulties, failures, and sorrows. We expect one glorious victory after another and are disconcerted when Jesus sends us a cross to bear.
We American Christians have become so prosperous, so successful, so optimistic that we have become spiritually soft and thus ineffective. The Chinese churchman sees that we could use the bitter medicine of persecution.
So when you find yourself struggling with hardship and opposition, or, even more so, when you are exulting in your success and popularity, remember: Someone in China is praying for you.