Our good mates at Soul Survivor are known best for running a series of awesome festivals each summer, packed full of great times of worship, a fair bit of mucking about and loads of teaching on living out your relationship with Jesus. But what you might not know is that for at least the past 5 years, Soul Survivor has been developing relationships with churches and Christians in Central Asia – specifically in countries where Christians are facing increasing persecution.
Because of security concerns, we can’t mention names of people involved, or even the countries where churches are based, but here we put a series of questions to one of the Soul Survivor team that has visited Central Asia on a few different occasions…
An important part of Soul Survivor’s commitment to the wider church is working together with the persecuted church. We have friends who are part of the local Church in Central Asia, so we’ve visited them several times to get to know them better, as well as helping to equip them and getting alongside them.
Part of what we tried to do was to help equip and teach the church leaders practically about the Holy Spirit. As first generation believers with no tradition or theological history, the norm has been that the pastor is regarded as someone special who, with a few “special” people, does all the “spiritual” bits like praying for individuals at meetings. They’re great on their Bible knowledge, and probably know it better than we do, but what they read in the Bible isn’t necessarily what they then see in practice. So we’ve been helping them in praying for each other, understanding intimate worship and waiting on God. The hope is that they will grow stronger in relationship with both Him and each other, despite increasing levels of persecution.
Having said that, amazing miracles are happening all the time. Reports of healings of tuberculosis and cancer happen regularly, which blows me away! So it’s not that God’s Spirit isn’t at work, but we’re simply trying to help the church in their understanding of what is happening. We want it to become naturally supernatural – just a part of everyday life.
Also in part our involvement over there is about building relationship: it’s important that they know that they’re not completely isolated but, that Christians from other parts of the world are championing them and cheering them on. Plus we’re connecting them up with other church leaders in Central Asia who are going on the same spiritual journey, so they can network and support each other.
We’re also encouraging pastors in raising up emerging young leaders and helping them find ways to get involved in their local community.
We want to equip and empower local people to lead for themselves. It isn’t about people coming in from abroad, but investing in and walking with what is happening already on the ground. So as much as possible, whenever anyone leads something we tried to have a local leader with us too. I’ve led worship with a local worship leader, which meant we could work together and learn from each other. When we work in partnership like this it allows us to eventually take a step back and let the local church do it themselves. That’s essentially how equipping works – everyone is able to learn from each other.
It is much harsher in some countries than others but throughout Central Asia persecution looks to be increasing rapidly. The governments fear civil unrest so want to keep tight control. Protestant churches are seen as cults and bunched together with all dangerous fundamentalists. In some countries it is illegal to teach faith to anyone under 18 years old – that includes your own kids at home. Anti-Christian films are shown twice a year as part of the school curriculum in one country. In another place a minimum church congregation of 200 is required with all the names and personal security details of the congregation submitted. These people often then find they lose their jobs, their children are put out of school, and their neighbours become hostile.
Yet people meeting together without permission (the underground church) is against the law. In some places it is not permitted to have a Bible in the house or on your phone, nor is the bringing in of any religious material – or printing of it in-country.
Throughout Central Asia it is illegal to tell share the gospel with the intention that people will convert. There often a huge personal costs for someone from a Muslim family who turns to Jesus.
A remarkable number of Christians in the region would probably say it’s not that bad, but they are quite amazing, and addressing people’s fear is an ongoing challenge for pastors. The main pressures would probably include the government, local police, and other religious groups (generally Islamic).
Some of our friends would even say persecution actually causes that, bringing faithfulness to the reality of the gospel, which is an incredible attitude to have!
Many pastors are the victims of unjust fines and even imprisonment. This means churches lose their leaders and other believers live in fear that the same might happen to them. But faithfulness is key. Having real living relationship with Jesus that transforms your whole life rather than just your Sundays is what gives the church its strength. Some of our friends would even say persecution actually causes that, bringing faithfulness to the reality of the gospel, which is an incredible attitude to have!
I guess I was quite scared going over there initially. The first time I went I had fears about being put in prison or worse. But in reality, the worst that would have happened to us would have been a slap on the wrist, an early trip home and not being allowed back into the country again. The real threat is for the locals, our friends we were visiting, for whom punishment would be much more severe.
In some ways I also expected to be more of a teacher than a learner, but in the end I probably learnt more from the church there than they did from me. Christians in Central Asia know their Bibles inside out, learning and studying it together. They treasure the Word in a way that I wish I did, and they love to worship. So in many ways we were just there to encourage them in all that they were already doing.
As always, it’s really important to pray for strength and faithfulness to the gospel. Also that Christians will have a missional passion for their country and choose to stay – life could be made a lot simpler for them in a safer country, where bribery is not part of the system and where there is political stability. But when many Christians choose to leave the local church suffers. Thankfully the Christians we’ve met are determined that they’re not going anywhere – Central Asia is home for them.
We can also pray that God would give the local church boldness in evangelism and that they would be protected from harm. Access to more Bibles and being able to read them in the local language is also key to the church’s survival. And we need to pray that the church really sees God’s power at work: the Christians we’ve met have a real longing to see God move in power, and to see miracles that will lead people to Jesus.
As with all countries where pressure on Christians seems to be mounting and the gospel is treated with contempt, we need to ask God to turn situations around and open doors in the way that only He can.
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.