“Pray for Leah Sharibu, the only Dapchi school girl still left in Boko Haram captivity. She refuses to renounce her Christian faith.”
“Pray for the safety of Yousef and his family in Egypt. They escaped their home just before an attack.”
“Praise the Lord for persevering believers like Sharik in Syria, who face threats from neighbors.”
My 8-year-old daughter has the job of reading prayer requests during family worship. The requests come from a monthly calendar sent by International Christian Response, a group that offers spiritual and material assistance to the persecuted church. Every evening, her small voice announces the trials and victories of God’s people around the world.
Religious persecution is a daunting problem with long-standing historical, cultural, socio-political, and spiritual entanglements. Recent Pew Research shows increased hostility against religious minorities worldwide, and between 2007 and 2017, Christians are listed at the top, with recognized persecution across 143 countries.
Reports like this can be disheartening. What can people like us do about a seemingly big and complex challenge? And why involve our children in it?
“We are not creating a ‘pure’ household into which we withdraw and retreat in order to protect ourselves from the big, bad world,” writes James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love. Rather, “we want to be intentional about the formative rhythms of the household so that it is another recalibrating space that forms us and prepares us to be launched into the world ... to bear God’s image to and for our neighbors.”
If Smith is right, then the Christian home is less of a bunker against danger and more of a training ground for those called to love God and others in a perilous world. This latter picture requires that I guide my kids’ eyes to spot neighbors near and far and also that I help them understand faith amid suffering.
In our home, that happens during family worship time, as my husband and I shepherd our children through the trials and triumphs of family members in the worldwide household of God. Yes, the global church is helped by our prayerful support, but the benefit isn’t just theirs. These mundane family prayers may prove formative for our children (and also for us) in at least three ways:
First, children learn that daunting problems call for bold prayers.
The night they learned of Asia Bibi’s flight to Canada, my children jumped up and down in their pajamas. God had answered their prayers! After being convicted of blasphemy and spending nearly a decade in prison, the Christian mother was released from death row in Pakistan and reunited with her family. My girls had prayed for her safety and were overjoyed to hear of her asylum.
As parents, it’s one thing for us to give our kids reports of Christian persecution, it’s another to frame those stories in the language of prayer needs. To pray is to be an active laborer in God’s sovereign work on earth (Matt. 6:9-10), and bringing the global church’s suffering to our family devotions helps our children see that nothing is too intimidating for the fervent prayers of the saints. God calls his people to intercede for one another, and even very young children can serve neighbors through prayer, no matter the issue and no matter the distance.
Right now, our family is praying for another Christian woman in Pakistan: Shagufta Kausar, a 45-year-old mother of four on death row for blasphemy charges. She’s held in the same exact cell formerly occupied by Asia Bibi. Remembering God’s kindness to Bibi encourages our bold prayers for Kausar and the church in Pakistan.
Second, children learn that God’s family is vast, diverse, and united.
My husband, kids, and I attend a traditional black Baptist church with a rich history of perseverance. The stories and songs of the black church reflect this history. We sing hymns like We’ll Understand It Better By and By, written by Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a former slave. The hymn’s chorus goes like this: “By and by, when the morning comes, all the saints of God are gathered home, we'll tell the story how we’ve overcome, for we’ll understand it better, by and by.”
Tindley’s song is reminiscent of Revelation’s heavenly communion of saints from all nations, tribes, and tongues (Rev. 7:9). By and by, God’s people from all corners will gather to serenade the one Hero of all of our stories. On that day, our union in Christ will not feel theoretical—as it often does these days—but will be known in its fullest measure. Our children need to see the beauty of this eschatological picture.
With that in mind, my husband and I have developed the habit of bringing at least three books to our family worship: the Bible, a hymnal, and an atlas. Our study of Scripture is followed by prayer and singing. As we sing hymns like Tindley’s, we want our kids to understand that the words apply not just to our family, not just to members of our congregation or the local churches that we pray for, but also to Leah Sharibu in Nigeria, Yousef in Egypt, Sharik in Syria, and God’s people everywhere.
“Many of us are the world’s 30 percent, rich with religious privilege,” says Karen Ellis, director at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity. “The 70 percent isn’t the portion that’s isolated from the Body of Christ; it’s the 30 percent that’s isolated from the global persevering chorus.”
When we mingle our prayers with this global persevering chorus, we display our unity in Christ and give our children a foretaste of the heavenly worship to come.
Finally, through prayer, God can connect our children’s hearts to his global church.
In her book, Praying Together, Megan Hill describes a warm scene: She is ten years old, the only child in her church’s Wednesday evening prayer meetings. For years, she attends, listens, occasionally prays along, and busily records answered prayers. “Sitting among the ordinary saints, year after year, those evenings of prayer knit my heart to Christ’s church,” writes Hill. “I learned to call upon the name of the Lord in the company of his people.”
As I consider Hill’s words, I’m inclined to wonder what sorts of people are birthed from immersion in constant prayer for Christ’s church. It very well could be the case that my husband’s and my discipleship efforts never produce children with testimonies like Hill’s. Afterall, no parenting method, however saintly, can guarantee godly offspring. Family liturgies might train behavior with no effect to the soul. But because God is pleased to use ordinary means in his work, we teach, sing, pray, and nurture our children as commanded (Ephesians 6:4), knowing that he alone can transform them.
So why encourage our children to plead for the suffering church? Because God by his grace might knit their young hearts to his and also to those of their global brothers and sisters. As my daughters pray for the saints in Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China, and Venezuela, my own prayer is for God to weave them into the grand story of his countless people in Christ (Rev. 7:9) and teach them to call upon the name of the Lord in the company of his people worldwide.
Nana Dolce has an MA in theological studies. She teaches the Bible in her local church, serves as an instructor for The Charles Simeon Trust, and writes for various ministries. Find her at motherhoodandsanctity.com and on Instagram.