As part of a Great Commission effort, I journeyed with a team from my church to Central Asia, where we taught the Word of God in a country that respects religious freedom to a group of persecuted Christians from a nearby Muslim-majority country with no such freedom. In turn, I gained a fresh, albeit sobering, perspective of the perils confronting the church worldwide today. My defining moment -- one that would take shape over the course of that week -- had begun to unfold.
Specifically, my eyes were opened wide to two types of Christians: those who face the fires of affliction for their faith in their hostile homelands and those who enjoy the freedom to worship Christ openly as citizens of the United States. Both face testings. Both are under attack by the evil one. But the points of assault are distinct. One might distinguish the two as the persecuted church and the distracted church.
As the central component of our trip, our team had prepared to lead daylong teaching sessions to roughly two dozen persecuted believers. Soon after meeting these beleaguered saints, however, I realized I would be the real student. I witnessed worship without performance, a joy that could not be measured, and a thirst for the Word that could not be quenched. They gathered for Bible study sessions early and stayed late. They asked thoughtful theological questions that demonstrated a deep knowledge of the Scriptures -- knowledge expected of, though seldom exhibited by, seasoned Saints, much less recent converts.
Then I heard their stories. I learned of secretive house church gatherings necessarily void of singing for fear of being heard by a hostile religious majority and reported for subsequent government reprisal. I learned of family members and friends who had been martyred for naming the name of Christ. I heard personal accounts of abuse and interrogation, of arrest and imprisonment.
Their responses to such affliction, shared with me upon my pressing, were humbling. Despite knowing the harmful consequences that might befall them, despite knowing that obeying God rather than man could cost them their lives, they have, with few exceptions, taken the difficult stand: a refusal to recant or to acquiesce but instead to carry their cross. Many of them, like the Apostle Paul, once zealously opposed the faith for which they now suffer. One such man, arbitrarily imprisoned earlier this year, recounted how he gave an hours-long defense of his faith, beginning with Creation and moving through Calvary, when brought before a judge. Amazingly, the exasperated judge, overcome by such faith, subsequently authorized his release.
Witnessing first-hand these lives sold out for their Savior conjured up within me nostalgia for what I had wrongly assumed a bygone era. It was as if the first century church, impassioned and afflicted, had manifested itself again two millennia later.
Contrast this persecuted church with the distracted church. The latter, broadly speaking, seems to characterize much of the church in America today. The distractions take many forms -- a harmless hobby, a favorite sports team, a full and fast-paced calendar. But what arguably has reared itself as our greatest distraction is the unbridled beast of technology, bred by innovative minds and fed by manifold riches.
Ours has become a culture of gadgets and gizmos. We have iPods and iPads, reality TV and 24/7 news. We have IM for messaging and XM for listening. We have flat screens to surf channels numbering in the multiplied hundreds and Facebook to reconnect with a list of friends sometimes eclipsing a thousand. From any and every direction, the noise never ends. Entertainment is our addiction, silence our abhorrence. One must wonder if we are, as the late Neil Postman famously observed a quarter-century ago, amusing ourselves to death.
Technology, in and of itself, is not the problem. Indeed, it should be celebrated and incentivized. But it is the good and the useful -- the technological mediums that both streamline life and open doors for advancing the Kingdom -- that have become a double-edged sword. The temptation is overindulgence at the expense of weightier matters, what Jesus listed as justice, mercy and faithfulness. Partaking is not the issue. Failure to power down or pull the plug is the problem.
Regrettably, great numbers in the church in America have fallen prey to its trappings. And I am as guilty as the next.
Such distractions do not come without cost. Time spent studying Scripture gets shorted. Prayers get abbreviated. Stillness in the presence of the Lord gets squeezed out and shouted down. Over time, negligence to these disciplines helps to cultivate a dull faith. Our distractions become the very weights that entangle us and keep us from running the race set before us with endurance, eyes fixed on the Author and Finisher of our faith.
For many believers, Christ then is relegated to the sidelines. The faith professed becomes life's footnote rather than its narrative. Christianity becomes more like just another club to which we belong rather than the definition of who we are. We become underwhelmed and apathetic.
It is in this context of personal conviction that my thoughts return to my newfound brothers and sisters in Christ an ocean and several lands away.
While they and countless others halfway around the world stand in the fiery furnace of affliction, do we bow at the altar of conformity? While they, like Stephen, look heavenward into the face of Jesus when brought before their earthly accusers, do we cower when asked of Him to whom we belong, fearful not of the sword but of a blow to our prestige or popularity? These are hard questions. For me, the conviction cuts like a knife.
Consumed by a culture of distractions, have we left our first love? Have we turned our cherished First Freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution into more bane than blessing?
Many missionaries attest that persecuted believers pity what has become of the church in America through our prosperity and liberty. That's why they are known to pray for our persecution.
This raises another series of questions: Even as we rightfully seek the universal spread of religious liberty and unfettered communication enjoyed here in the States, are we as evangelicals in America better off spiritually than those believers who live under the iron fist of persecution? Who, really, is faring best? Where is Satan finding most success in his attacks?
Perhaps the answers are different than I had originally thought.
Certainly my persecuted friends have taught me much. And prayerfully the defining moment to which they brought me doesn't become a fleeting one.
Doug Carlson is manager for administration and policy communications for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Washington D.C. office.
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