Living under anti-Christian hostility is a paradox of tensions. Global Christians suffer not only as friends of God but also as enemies of the people.
A Christian brother in a difficult region recently shared with me that while Christians in his culture may endure police brutality and unjust arrest, anti-Christian hostility hasn’t necessarily been marked by the violence we see in the Middle East. Anti-Christian hostility is more social than physical. Conversion to Christ is taboo. Christians are ostracized, cast out of their families, and, in his words, seen as “worse than drug addicts.”
They answer to this hostility with what I describe as “productive perseverance working through community.” They are filled with a deep hope in Christ that drives out fear of man, and their lives are often marked by radical personal transformation and a communal discipleship that it is so attractive, others risk stigmatization to know it.
Christians there establish new families by welcoming young converts into their homes for several months. These young believers are protected from social pressure and prepared to face negative public opinion once they return to society. They also learn agricultural or trade-oriented skills as well as biblical business principles. These skills help them make a living if they can’t obtain work due to their faith. In addition, such mentoring enables these men and women to bring a life-affirming influence into the broader stream of everyday life. That witness is more than countercultural; because of its biblical orientation, it is “other-cultural.”
When we read the biblical epistles in the context of anti-Christian hostility, passages like Galatians 6:10 jump to life: “Let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (emphasis mine). Christ’s injunction in John 15 to “love one another” becomes enormous in light of the hostility believers faced in those days.
Though despised, biblical Christians in Muslim-majority cultures are often known for their compassion and care. Muslims, weary of the brutality of radical Islam, are turning to Christ in startling numbers, attracted by a community that has tangibly proven that the church is not an enemy but a friend. As a result, new communities grow even under hostility.
All this brings to light the potential power of such communities in America. Many believers have grown weary of a Christianity defined by abject loyalty to nation or politics; some would rather identify now as “Christians in America” than “American Christians.” They seek to reestablish their primary identity in Christ by shedding Western individualism and embracing genuine Christian community.
Many around the country have already been creating such communities for decades, moving quietly and maintaining biblical fidelity. For example, Chicago’s G.R.I.P. discipleship program provides loving, long-term biblical life-on-life guidance to fatherless youth, staving off self-dehumanization and countering the culture of death that has plagued the city. In Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries welcomes the marginalized into a community of mutual kinship, love and support.
In South Dallas, Bonton Farms is igniting hope by bringing discipleship and revitalization to all generations through urban farming. They work in conjunction with local churches and parachurch organizations like the Men of Nehemiah, who self-describe as “a residential, discipleship ministry for homeless and formerly incarcerated men.” For them, community and discipleship are bearing fruit for those our society abandons. In the words of one participant who greatly desired to change his life, “I was either going to find the courage to kill myself, or to find the courage to call for some help.” He called on the name of Christ, and found transformative life through this community.
These are far more than mere “relief programs” for the poor and marginalized. Residents’ former communities and family members sometimes resent – and marvel at – their transformation. And here we find similar dynamics to communities overseas: transformed lives bring stigmatization from those who don’t understand the desire for cultural or personal change.
The life and history of the church proves that there will always be those who wish to pursue a radically transformative Gospel. This presupposes a supportive community that can speak boldly into the life of such a seeker. For those who want to live counter to the prevailing culture, in spite of the social sacrifice involved, these communities become a powerful and safe haven where no previous life is beyond transformation. Perhaps all this has implications for our religious freedom struggles. When speech is restricted by popular opinion or legislation, the quiet witness of such Christian communities speaks loudly.
Many “American Christians” are unaware of such dynamic communities, and others dismiss them as radical social experiments doomed to fail. Yet partners overseas, as they face their own religious restrictions, have found that winsome fellowship helps them slowly earn the trust of their culture.
As popular opinion continues to devalue a radically transformative Gospel at home, it may take Christians in America several generations to gain any cultural capital. Though winning cultural trust is not our main concern, it can be a powerful byproduct of these kinds of persevering communities that have been built through the living testimony of one transformed person at a time.
Karen Ellis is an ambassador for International Christian Response and a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
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