by Nik Ripken
Acts records many instances of persecution among early believing communities. However, the record is clear. Believing communities existed.
Have you ever met a missionary who was deeply chagrined when hearing of new converts? A colleague, who shall remain nameless, and I, who thankfully have to write under a pen name, are guilty of this unmissionary-like behavior. In a meeting we heard of tweny-six “converts” from war-torn Somalia who were coming to declare their faith. Our immediate response was, “Oh, no, what are we going to do?”
This response was rooted in reality. Where was support for twenty-six new converts to be found? These converts equal almost the number of evangelicals working among this scattered and shattered people group. There is no Somali church or cohesive believing community. As Somali believers leave the umma of Islam, where are they to find shelter, food, employment, education for their children and medical care? Few people groups, countries or churches in the Horn of Africa have any residue of concern for Somalis. Donor fatigue is not a sole concern of Western aid countries.
For five years it has been apparent that westerners cannot provide the support system for a people group movement among the Somalis. Westerners are too exposed in this Muslim-dominated society. Eventually the church must be inwardly self-supporting, whatever the church looks like. Tragically, believers who have worked, some for decades, for church-based relief agencies have become prime targets for Muslim fundamentalists and, further, have seen their livelihood evaporate with the withdrawal of those same aid agencies.
Yet, who would leave believers to stand alone in times of persecution? Who can stand by and witness the slow starvation of believers? However, are believers to be continuously extracted, generation after generation, decimating the possibility of a people group movement leading to established cell groups, Bible studies and churches? What agency can provide housing, education or medical care for large numbers of extracted believers? Who among us would not become a believer for a time in order to escape Somalia, receiving expatriate support guaranteeing the lives of one’s children?
What is to be done? How is the church to be born? How do expat missionaries relate to believers before and after they are gathered into churches? The defining issue is on which side of Pentecost is the people group living?
Acts records many instances of persecution among early believing communities. However, the record is clear. Believing communities existed. When believers began to be kicked out of synagogues and the Temple, with widows and orphans disenfranchised, they had a believing community of at least three thousand to fall back on. Three thousand! It is important to note that Pentecost preceded, in this record of the early church, widespread persecution. When believers lost homes, education, jobs, marriage opportunities or burial privileges they lost them within a community that took up the slack, providing for basic human needs. This support was vital to the continued existence of the church within the matrix of persecution.
Pentecost is more than a one-time event. Pentecost is the catalyst by which the Holy Spirit takes scattered believers, multiplies them and gathers them into community. In Acts, Pentecost is repeated within each people group. What happened in Acts chapter two for Jews was repeated in Acts chapter eight for the Samaritans and among the Gentiles in Acts chapter ten. Pentecost is a people group movement of the Holy Spirit.
Persecution must be preceded by Pentecost if a viable indigenous church is to emerge and survive in hostile environments.
What made the sin of Ananias and Saphira so heinous to the Holy Spirit? Their lying and withholding support struck at the root of the church’s ability to exist within a persecutory environment. Their sin, if allowed to become normative, could have led to the demise of the early church in that location during that generation. As one projects ministry into the unreached, especially among the dangerously unresponsive, it is important to determine on which side of Pentecost one’s people group exists within the sands of time of Christian witness.
During the cold war there was a wall in Berlin. One’s worldview, depending upon which side of that wall one lived, was dramatically affected. Thankfully that wall has come down. But perspectives on opposite sides of that wall/event were indicative of people living worlds apart.
For the sake of further dialogue allow the following to be raised:
—In regard to persecution after Pentecost, martyrdom may be the life blood of the church. Persecution without Pentecost may result in the death of a people group movement towards church. Persecution can virtually kill a church in its embryonic stage. Persecution will strengthen existing churches in community.
—Methodologies needed to begin a church growth movement among a people group are different from those needed to sustain such a movement. Evangelists tend to be more risk takers than pastors in Acts.
—What starts the church before Pentecost is more fragile than what sustains the church after Pentecost.
—This article is written by a Baptist from the “buckle of the Bible Belt;” but, since our ministry takes place in countries where the men do not wear pants, it may be safe to say that “signs, miracles and wonders” are vital in beginning the church in hostile environments. They are pertinent to survival within the midst of persecution.
—Pentecost allows the church to exist among its own people, not on the fringe. It establishes community, an oasis in the midst of a harsh desert.
—Pentecost allows the church to travel. There is always a tension between widening witness and protecting the harvest. The established church is concerned with legalities, rights and apologetics. The emerging church is concerned with survival. Pentecost is the pivotal event between the two.
—Pentecost is vital to the survival of the church. Without Pentecost the church cannot care for itself. Before Pentecost, believers must be sustained outside their own cultural surroundings artificially.
—When Pentecost arrives, missionaries should prepare their exit strategy.
—Before Pentecost, believers and the gospel must go village to village, town to town. The gospel is extremely mobile and security conscious: “tell no one.” Persons targeted with the gospel include key persons (Nico-demus) who are highly regarded and self supporting. Someone must care for the scattered flock of Christ. Sometimes a high profile Pauline evangelist/missionary is forced out of a location as he or she has become the focus of persecution or resistance. This protects the emerging church and allows a more low-keyed approach.
—After Pentecost, believers and the gospel must continue village to village, town to town. The existing church must have a feeder system. Evangelists/missionaries move on to the next people group. Emphasis is on pastoral care over evangelism. The church internally cares for its own and for those marginalized by society. The church in worship becomes a sending agency. A hierarchy naturally develops. Tradition takes precedence over signs and wonders. The church grows through trial and persecution.
Pentecost happened. The Holy Spirit could take us to a specific location. The Bible narrates a specific time and group of people. Being on this side of the wall, having been raised in post-Pentecost-cultural enclaves perhaps flavors all that we believe and plan. Climb the wall and see life, persecution and the emerging church on the other side.
Nik Ripken (pseudonym) has served with his family in Africa since 1984 and holds a BA in Religion, a MDiv and a DMin. Nik currently serves as a Strategy Consultant among the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East.
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