They are poor, repressed and increasingly the target of political and social antagonism.
Yet Christians there remain hopeful, kind and joyful. Barely a hint of pessimism, anger or self-pity soils their conversations.
A recent visit with friends in India reminded me the church does not need the blessing of its culture to be healthy, or even to thrive. Nor do individual Christians need the validation of their culture to be hopeful.
That’s an encouraging truth for American believers who too often act as if the church’s future depends upon the next election or Supreme Court nominee.
It’s also a sobering truth as American believers wade deeper into the new reality: Religious repression is pervasive and rising.
Christians worldwide are bearing the brunt of a rising tide of government restrictions, nationalist movements and social harassment. And the U.S. is no longer a place where Christians can practice their faith without government intervention or social harassment, a recent Pew Research Center study finds.
The Pew report comes on the heels of the State Department’s annual assessment of religious freedom.
Overall, religious restrictions around the world keep trending upward. In 2016, 53 percent of countries saw growing restrictions on religion.
“The state of religious freedom is dire,” said Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, last month. “We must move religious freedom forward – we must defend it in every corner of the globe.”
The state of religious freedom may be dire. And it certainly ought to be defended. But Christians have every reason to be hopeful, optimistic and even confident. The church is strong and will grow stronger. This not a pastor’s wishful forecast, but the promise of Christ himself to his church.
Jesus likened the church to a kingdom whose growth is inevitable, whose influence is incomparably beneficial.
He also put it more bluntly: “I will build My church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
That promise, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, is being palpably fulfilled among my friends in the jungle villages of southern India.
Government restrictions on Christian orphanages and churches, social repression at the hands of Hindu neighbors, even extreme poverty, have not dampened the church’s vitality.
To the contrary, the church is prospering in the midst of hardship. Not only are new churches springing up, but believers seem joyfully detached from the false hopes of materialism, political influence and social approval.
Their optimism seems a strong echo of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians.
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair… never abandoned by God. … As God’s grace reaches more and more people … God will receive more and more glory. That is why we never give up.”
American Christians can learn much from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where repression and outright persecution are much more severe.
As we bemoan a combative culture, as we chafe against the loss of political influence, let’s be careful not to confuse our nation with the church.
Ultimately our hope is not in making America great again, but in declaring the greatness of our God to a world in need of hope.
The joy and confidence that flow from faith in Jesus Christ are this world’s only true hope.
Steve Massey is pastor of Hayden Bible Church. He can be reached at (208) 772-2511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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