WEEK OF PRAYER: Persecution reflects faith's authenticity
EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 2-9 with the theme of "BE His heart, His hands, His voice" from Matthew 16:24-25. Each year's Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists' 5,000 international missionaries' initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year's offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to www.imb.org/offering.
NORTHERN AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST (BP) -- Nik and Ruth Ripken* have served in some of the toughest areas of Africa. They've known believers who have been martyred for Christ. They've spoken with hundreds of Christians experiencing persecution in more than 70 countries.
After all that, they've learned something about persecution.
"The most persecuted person is a lost person who has no access to Jesus," Nik says. "Satan wants to keep people from hearing about Jesus. If he can't do that, he wants to shut you up, to silence your witness." Most American Christians fall into the second category. They experience no persecution because they tell no one about Jesus.
Yet persecution of Jesus' true followers has been normal from New Testament times to the present day. The No. 1 cause -- when people come to know Jesus. The key is how to make persecution count for God's glory, as the early Christians did.
The Ripkens learned that truth the hard way. They served in South Africa and Kenya after sensing a call from God in the early 1980s. They experienced the drama -- and trauma -- of ministry amid racial apartheid, religious and tribal tensions and other challenges. But nothing prepared them for their next place of service: Somalia. The overwhelmingly Muslim East African nation was wracked by civil war, chaos and danger in the 1990s, as it is today.
Loss and sacrifice
"We fed the hungry. We clothed the naked. We were shot at. We buried a 16-year-old son," Nik recounts, referencing the death of their son from an asthma attack in Kenya on an Easter Sunday. And they watched helplessly as nearly 150 Muslim-background followers of Christ in Somalia were martyred. Four of their closest friends died on a single, terrible day in 1994.
The horror continued, and the Ripkens and other workers were forced out in 1998. They have not been able to return.
The Ripkens realized that many of these martyrs died not just for following Christ, but for being openly identified with outside Christian agencies. Thus began their long-term effort to understand the nature of persecution and how God works through it. Trying to stop it in every case or "rescue" every believer experiencing it is a misunderstanding of religious freedom, they contend.
"We need to pray intelligently, not that persecution will increase, but that the peoples of the earth have access to Jesus -- all of them," Nik explains. "When that happens, persecution is going to be a reality. Sometimes God needs to have Joseph in Pharaoh's prison for a purpose. Historically and biblically, persecution is normal. In many places today it authenticates the faith. So persecution is not something you run toward or run away from. Persecution just is. It's what you make of it that counts."
Now based in Northern Africa and the Middle East, Nik and Ruth specialize in training and research to help the global body of Christ, including IMB workers and Southern Baptist churches, understand effective Gospel witness and church planting in environments where persecution is the norm.
Among the nations
Everywhere they go in the world, they meet Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others hungry to know about God. "Every time we send a missionary through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we're saying, 'We will not stop until every man, woman, boy and girl on earth has access to Jesus,'" Nik says. "Being His heart, His hands and His voice means we're representing Jesus among all the nations."
The nations are often much closer than we think. Immigrants arriving in America these days include people who are hard to reach with the Gospel in their home countries. Here, they can be reached by crossing the street. But you have to cross the street.
"God is giving us a second chance. He is bringing the nations to us," Nik says. "But we're running from the nations in our midst. ... Until we get over our fear, we will not welcome the lost in our midst. [Often] these people are lonely and isolated. Get out of your church. Go to their homes. Invite them to your home. Shop where they shop. We're in a free country, and yet we're not exercising our freedom to witness to the nations in our midst."
Even so, Nik emphasizes, U.S. Christians have the same spiritual freedom in other places -- even the most "closed," repressive nations on earth.
"Satan has deceived us," he says. "Witnessing is not about freedom. It's not about being in a free country. Witness is about obedience. Do I have the courage to suffer the consequences of exercising my freedom to share Jesus?"
*Names changed. Erich Bridges is IMB's global correspondent.
A book about the Ripkens, "The Insanity of God," is their true story of faith persecuted in the midst of war, opposing religions and personal loss. It will be available at major outlets beginning Jan. 1. To learn more about the Ripkens and their ministry, visit nikripken.com. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.