Teaching the discipleship practices of the North Korean church (and other underground churches throughout history) to Christians in the rest of the world is central to our calling at Seoul USA/.W. So anytime someone asks me, “How can we help North Korean Christians?” my response is always, “Help them? How about letting them help us?” This always puzzles inquirers quite a bit.
That’s because our tendency is to see Christians in persecuting countries as desperately needing the help of Christians in free countries. For example, Western Christians, when learning of oppression like in North Korea, naturally turn towards petitioning God to release North Koreans from their persecution. “Grant them the freedom to worship you openly,” we might ask. And even though we rarely pray it, our minds complete the sentence, “…just like us.”
But as is so often the case, when we are commanded to remember those who are suffering or in prison as if we were suffering or in prison also, Scripture turns our concepts completely upside down – or right side up, depending on how you look at it.
A careful reading of the verse reveals a call for us to imitate, rather than pity, Christians who are suffering for the sake of the Name. The idea is that they are the seniors and we the juniors in the call to imitate Christ. Our junior status and our need to learn from someone other than ourselves becomes increasingly clear these days given that:
- the average Christian household in the United States owns nine Bibles and is actively shopping for more, yet Biblical illiteracy continues to escalate among evangelical Christians;
- the average American church spends 97 cents of every dollar it takes in on those who give it;
- church attendance in many of the “free” countries of the West is now between two and five percent, and still slipping (as it also is in the United States, where we are now below twenty percent);
- The church is growing in many places where persecution is quite intense.
So it is with no disrespect at all to the churches in countries with freedom of religion that we recognize the importance of thinking deeply about which way the “help” arrow should be turned as we contemplate our relationship to Christians in countries without freedom of religion.
(For a comprehensive consideration of this question, let me point you to my stump speech on the subject, a message called How to be as Free as a North Korean Christian.)
But just as we should not lament the life of North Korean Christians, neither should we lionize them. If we lionize them, we will be tempted not to learn from them. We will find ourselves saying things like, “I could never survive persecution like that…”
And it would be a mistake to let the matter rest there, since the Apostle Paul promises that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” When someone comes up to me after I speak at a Voice of the Martyrs regional conference and says, “Oh, I’m so thankful I don’t have to endure persecution,” I always ask, “When was the last time you proclaimed the gospel at work or to your neighbor?” And inevitably they respond, “Oh, I haven’t done that.” So persecution is not a possible future for American Christians; it is the present reality for Christians in every country throughout history who are seeking to live a godly life in Christ Jesus. And a good way to learn how to deal with it is to examine the liminal case: North Korea.
And that’s what this six-part series is all about: What can we learn about proclaiming the gospel from North Korean Christians? How, in other words, can they help us?
That is the topic of pre-eminent interest in my life, and I look forward to sharing about it with you more fully in the posts to come. Feel free to ask any question that would be helpful to you by leaving a comment below; I’ll be happy to reply. And in the meantime be sure to check out our Seoul USA website for more information about ministry in, to, from, and with North Korean Christians.