I was in a city I cannot name in a country that I cannot name either — not because I would be in danger but because the Christians who live there would be.
I was there to teach pastors and other church leaders how they might expand their ministries through writing curriculum, magazine articles and books in their own language for their own culture. They wanted to have indigenous writers and not be dependent on writers from other countries. They felt that they knew ways that they could publish within the laws of their country. The way to create books and articles, from idea to finished manuscript, is what they had asked me to teach.
We met in a place where the building could have been watched, but the Christians who came were willing to take that chance. We had nearly a week together. I saw in these educated and dedicated believers a faith dimension that I had not seen in other more open countries where there is no difficulty for believers to practice their faith.
The “Floating” Church
On Sunday, I worshiped at a “floating” church. A colleague, who spoke the language, and I took a taxi to a popular location and got out there. Then, when the cab was gone, we began walking to where the church meeting would be. When we left later, we followed the same routine, walking several streets away before finding a taxi cab.
But it was during that worship time that I learned how believers in difficult places adapt to their limitations. We met for worship behind a high fence in an area between the houses of two Christian families. Classes for children were held in the houses. I began to see how well organized and careful these believers were.
When announcements were given, we were told, “Next Sunday, we will meet at the house of (only first name given). The youth will meet on Thursday evening at the home of (only first name given).”
The worship, the togetherness, the depth of prayer — all was deeply moving. The soft singing was not for lack of enthusiasm but for security. The meaning of the songs and the quiet Bible message that followed were rich.
“You Don’t Have the Papers”
How did it happen that this was the only way the Christians could meet? One of the church members explained: We had a building. The papers for using that building were properly filled out and submitted to the authorities. But one Sunday morning the authorities invaded our worship service telling us that we did not have the proper papers to hold such meetings. We told them that we had filled out the proper papers and those papers were in their office, the office of the very men who were trying to break up the meeting.
We were told, “You don’t have the proper papers.”
“The papers are filled out and in your office.”
“You don’t have the proper papers.”
“No, we don’t have them with us because you have them.”
“You don’t have the proper papers; therefore, we are shutting you down.”
And so, as happens in other places too, the believers now worship at a floating church. I came to understand as well that I was accepted among them as a brother in Christ and not a suspected official of the police, because my colleague had prepared the way for me to worship with them. I was allowed there because I was safe.
Learning to Worship in Difficult Places
Throughout the world there are many believers who have learned how to worship in difficult circumstances. I know of another place where people gather for whisper prayers and whisper singing in a back room while a loud radio plays in a front room. The worshipers arrive by ones and twos, never more than that many at one time.
I’ve learned much about faithfulness from these persecuted believers. I have seen trust in God lived out and a security in the Savior that has real lives behind those words: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Those are not simply words. For persecuted Christians, those words are a way of life. Yet, in situations like this, the church is growing — often in numbers as well as in depth unknown to many of us in our own lands that are freer.
I remember being invited to speak in an Eastern European church before the fall of communism. The church was not just full, it was packed. The aisles, the window sills and any open spaces were filled with people who had come to worship. At about midpoint, without announcement because this was what they always did, those who had seats got up and changed places with those who were standing so that each person, as much as possible, would have a chance to sit. The younger people remained standing so that the older people could remain seated.
In another church, this time after the fall of communism, we met for worship in a single room attached to a family’s home. I was told that, for many years, building a church had not been permitted, but adding on to a house was permitted. So one family added a room to their house that was accessible through their kitchen. There the Christians met to worship God.
At those times and in those places, I felt very much as though I had been given a glimpse of what it was like for the early church. When I read church history, I find that it was during difficult times, far more than in comfortable times, that the church grew the most.
I would not wish on any believer the hardships I have seen others face. But I would wish that men and women of faith who live in safe places could know that there are others who can teach us much more than we now know about what obedience to Jesus can mean.
God’s Faithful People Are Everywhere
God has his faithful followers everywhere. We may not know about most of those who are living in hard places. But if we know about even a few of them, we will see dynamic Christianity as it was known by the early apostles and as it is known today among those with whom we will spend eternity in heaven, gathered before the throne and rejoicing out loud without fear. I’ve met a few. When I meet the rest, we will be together. We will be that great cloud of witnesses that we read about in Hebrews 12:1.
Then we will not be in a secret place, or a place out of sight. Then, together, we will be face to face with the One who redeemed us and who made us into one worshiping family.
Roger Palms, a former editor of Decision Magazine, is the author of 16 books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. He teaches writers in the United States and around the world.
- What can local churches in the United States learn from persecuted churches in other countries?
- Does your church grow more in difficult times or comfortable times?