- WEA General Assembly 2019
Contrary to common belief, persecution does not help the church to grow, but there are ways to make the church more resilient in enduring trial. Several of the world’s leading experts on that issue shared their views in an inspiring Friday afternoon workshop session at the World Evangelical Alliance’s General Assembly.
The primary speaker was Godfrey Yogarajah of Sri Lanka, WEA Deputy General Secretary and chair of the WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission. Yogarajah pointed out that an estimated 245 million Christians, or one of every nine believers worldwide, face a high level of persecution, and 4,300 Christians were killed because of their faith in 2018.
“Where the church has been effectively taught and discipled, it has withstood persecution,” Yogarajah stated. “So holistic discipleship is essential in building strong churches in a context of persecution.”
Yogarajah and Yamini Ravindran, legal and advocacy director for Sri Lanka’s evangelical alliance, argued that building resilience includes using the resources available to oppose persecution. “The West takes freedom for granted,” Yogarajah said, “but when you are battered and bruised, you may think that restrictions of freedom are normal. So we need to teach that this is not acceptable or how God intended us to live.”
Ravindran describes how her national alliance was able to assist a Sri Lanka congregation where a mob demolished the church, assaulted its pastor, and pressured a local aid society not to help Christians. The national alliance provided food and filed a legal action over the denial of aid from a government-registered society, winning compensation for the church members.
Even better, she explained, some of the mob leaders became ill shortly after the attack, and one of them was healed after asking the Christian pastor to pray for him. “That turned the community’s attitude around,” Ravindran said. “Today they have more Christians and a larger congregation than before.”
WEA advocacy officer Wissam al-Saliby presented evidence that there is no correlation between church growth and persecution. He also noted that raising the visibility of persecuted groups, such as by presenting their case to the United Nations, can risk provoking further mistreatment.
Al-Saliby also reminded the audience that persecution can be for the wrong reasons—like posting an ill-advised comment on Facebook—and that in other cases the persecution is based on misunderstanding. “Sometimes when a person from a Muslim family says they have become Christians, what it means to the family is that they are becoming morally loose or dress like people in the West. In these cases, it is necessary to repair the narrative of their conversion.”
The Sri Lankan alliance has distributed a digital citizenship toolkit with the goal of eliminating hate speech from social media. Ravindran also said it is helpful when churches unite to support each other and serve their community, as in one case where a joint effort to fight leprosy gained support from Buddhist neighbors.
Public statements must always be carefully constructed too. Daniel Hoffman of Middle East Concern recalled an instance when a Christian relief group responding to a large disaster claimed 50,000 conversions, generating considerable backlash in the affected country. “Using a tragedy to witness can be unethical,” Hoffman stated. “In our zeal to witness and fulfill the Great Commission, we must not jeopardize the future of the church in that nation.”
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