Persecution leads to revival–that’s the common dictum. Government cracks down on church; church deepens its commitment and spiritual maturity; church grows, leaving government gnashing its teeth.
But what if the reverse is true? What if revival actually leads to persecution, not the other way around?
One can’t be around Korean Christians long without sensing the overarching importance the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 has on their self-concept and on their longings for the future. (Hope Flinchbaugh’s CT article from 2007 is still the best English language piece on the subject.) I truly believe I am at no risk of exaggeration to say that every day, somewhere in Korea–whether in morning prayer, or in a special evening prayer service, or an all-night prayer rally–Korean Christians are praying that revival will return.
On the face of it, revival would cure no small amount of anxieties and concerns on the part of church leaders here. After a meteoric century of church growth, Korean Protestant church membership has been in steady decline since 1991, with no sign of abatement.
No doubt the same could be said of the church in the rest of the world, particularly in the West. Recent events both domestic and international seem to have intensified longing in at least some evangelical quarters for revival as a kind of “only hope” for the nation, the world, and the church.
Of late, there has been an interesting coalescing of interest in revival with an awareness of Christian persecution. In 2013, Open Doors and Moody Radio partnered in a prayer event for persecuted Christians and spiritual revival in the US. Moody Radio Network Senior Producer Joseph Carlson characterized the revival/persecution relationship like so as he described the purpose of the event: “We will take this opportunity to seek God for spiritual awakening in America as we learn from and uplift our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.”
But earlier this month, Open Doors Youth’s Geoff D mused that we should consider the possibility that the causal arrow may point in the opposite direction:
In the past we see some amazing examples of revival emerging where persecution took place. In North Korea (1907) and China (1980s onwards) there are definite movements where God opened many peoples eyes. But revival is by no means an automatic result of persecution. Islam has since swamped North Africa, the very place where Tertullian once said ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ It might be more accurate to say ‘Revival leads to persecution’.
Regrettably, Geoff D offers the comment simply as an offhand remark in a quite well done piece on a different subject. But the Great Pyongyang Revival itself provides ample evidence that his hypothesis is on track. It is more than a little telling that the great missionary William Blair’s eyewitness account of the revival is titled The Korean Pentecost & The Sufferings Which Followed. As Bruce F. Hunt, Blair’s co-missionary, notes in his Introduction, Blair devotes only nine pages of the book to the revival itself; the remaining 150+ pages detail all that preceded and followed, with the entire second half of the book, Part 2, entitled “The Sufferings of the Korean Church.” At the opening of Part 2, Blair writes:
Korea was annexed by Japan on August 22, 1910. Although the leaders of the Korean church sought consistently to keep the Church free from political movements, and although the Holy Spirit cleansed and purified the Church in the great revival of 1907, many Japanese, especially police and military leaders, never understood the spiritual character of Christianity. Since their own national religion of Shinto was both religious and political, they were unable to rid themselves of the suspicion that the missionaries were political agents of their governments, and that the rapid growth of the Korean Church must be due to political reasons. (pg. 83)
In this logic, revival leads to persecution for a very understandable reason: A growing, thriving church makes existing power structures nervous. Nervous power structures respond by exerting more–and more invasive–power. Perhaps that is what Pastor Choo was prophesying about on the second day of the Pyongyang revival:
Kiel Son Choo Moksa, one of the first Korean leaders to graduate from Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary and later the pastor of First Church of Pyongyang, was asked to preach the next morning. Moffett said he literally “had himself all tied up and was struggling to get out. He said, ‘This is what revival does. It tears away your sins and sets you free.'”
On first blush we might assume that Pastor Choo was indicating that revival breaks bonds. But on greater reflection we might conclude that by the breaking of certain spiritual bonds, we should not be surprised that revival leads to more tangible physical ones.
And in this way should it surprise us that God continues to let revival tarry today? In his mercy he knows that, despite its pleadings, the church in Korea and the West is not ready for revival because we are not ready for what follows revival like night follows day: