When Western Christians hear about the persecution of believers in other parts of the world, their response sometimes comes from behind rose colored glasses that diminish the depth of the tragedy that is playing out on the other side of the globe.
1) The first misperception that occurs is the assumption that those believers who are being persecuted are heroic, and must have much stronger faith than the well-off person reading about their plight on the newest model iPhone. I suspect that there is an semi-unconscious train of thought that goes something like, “Oh, they are so brave to face this persecution. I could never face that. But since they are so brave and spiritual, they’ll be fine despite the persecution.” Of course, there are brave and heroic believers who stand up for Christ and the Gospel in many parts of the world. Praise God for their bold testimony! But there are also many normal believers, immature Christians, and nominal church goers who bear the brunt of anti-Christian violence. They don't all stand up to the threats very well. Their story flashes across global media like a shooting star and then disappears, but they still struggle and live in fear and anxiety long after you’ve clicked “Share.” And sometimes the intimidation works. They stay silent about their faith, compromise, or flee. And that brings me to my second point.
2) When Western Christian hear about religious persecution in the majority world, it is many times tinged with the silver lining that, “At least this persecution will help the church grow.” Many Christians are familiar with the oft-quote saying of the the 2nd century church father Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” In the context of the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, that was true. In the context of the Chinese church under Communism, that has been true. But in some places, it is not true. The Middle East used to be the center of global Christianity, but for the better part of a 1000 years, the church in that region has been slowly ground down and marginalized to the point of elimination in many places. In many of these modern Muslim majority nations, there are not regular, intense waves of persecution, but it has been the dull ache of a repressive society that treats religious minorities as second class citizens that has successfully destroyed the church. There is even a technical term for this state of affairs: Dhimmitude. For more about the elimination of Christianity in the Middle East, I would highly recommend Philip Jenkins’ book, “The Lost History of Christianity.” If you want a shorter read, see this article on “How Islam Conquered Christianity.”
But it is not only in the Middle East that persecution and repression have failed to produce church growth. At the start of World War II, the Protestant church in Thailand had around 9000 members. At the end of the war, it had 6000-7000 members, due to persecution and opposition by the Japanese army and Thai nationalists. During the Japanese occupation of Thailand, all public Christian worship was banned, and Christian schools, hospitals, and church buildings were seized (and repurposed) by the Japanese. Early on, there was a Thai Catholic priest who died in jail, but other than that, there were no martyrs. There was no rounding up of Christians (aside from foreign missionaries), or putting guns to their heads to recant. Many believers stayed faithful during the difficult war years, but about 30-40 percent did not. Many times, lower level pressure to compromise destroys faith more effectively than outright persecution.
The blood of the martyrs is only the seed of the church to the degree that the church is pure and godly enough for people to be willing to stand up and be martyred. If people value Christ less than the negative this-worldly consequences (or potential consequences) of publicly identifying with Him, then non-life-threatening persecution will cause many people to retreat from association with Christ and the church. That is what happened in the Thai church during the Second World War.
Whether it is opposition to the Christian faith in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or modern America, it is important to understand that persecution does not always produce a stronger church. This is important to know so that we can better understand the plight of Christians in other parts of the world, pray accordingly, and prepare ourselves and others for both direct, violent persecution, as well as the long-haul grinding pressure to compromise in the face of societal pressure.
How to we prepare ourselves for this inevitable opposition? How shall we pray for the church around the world when we hear reports of persecution? We need to remember that they may not be fine in the end, and persecution may not result in greater growth. But we can pray that these trials will be used of God to refine his church. But the phoenix will only rise from the ashes to the degree that God’s people treasure Christ and delight in Him, making the most of the time in sitting at the feet of our Lord, drinking in the words of our Lord Jesus and delighting ourselves in His grace and His precious promises. The only way that the people of God can stay strong when the treasures of this world are removed is by hanging onto the greater treasure of Christ.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1–3 ESV)