It would take a month of blog posts just to explain the predicament of the Eritrean underground church. On the one hand, Eritrea is consistently recognized as one of the most ruthless state persecutors of Christians on earth. The ingredients you’d expect are there: Paranoid dictator who self-consciously seeks to imitate North Korea. A population that is 60 percent Muslim.
But here’s where things get weird–and sad. Eritrea is a textbook case of Christian-on-Christian persecution, a little-discussed phenomenon precisely because it’s so disturbing. As Open Doors’ World Watch 2013 report explains,
The Eritrean Orthodox Church is the largest church in the country and its members are said to spy on the activities of CBBs [Christian background believers] and independent Christians and report them.
We decided to build a week-long discipleship training program for Eritrean underground Pentecostal Christians around the four pillars of the 100 Days of Worship campaign about which we’ve been writing for the past few weeks:
- The Apostles Creed
- The Ten Commandments
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The Lord’s Supper
.These are the selfsame pillars of the very Eritrean Orthodox Church which is alleged to facilitate their persecution.
It’s a fascinating paradox that is not unique to Eritrea. Think about it: Some persecuted Christian groups–Pentecostals and Evangelicals especially–reject these four pillars as lifeless formalism: memorized mumbo-jumbo that is assumed to work like a magical incantation. The North Korean Underground Church, on the other hand, sees the pillars as indispensible tools used by the Holy Spirit to fill the church with life and truth and hope. What gives?
What we learned from the Eritrean underground Pentecostal participants in our discipleship training program is that the pillars themselves–when properly introduced as discipleship training tools rather than as memorized mumbo-jumbo–become the answer to many of the discipleship problems facing the Eritrean underground church today.
It’s worth noting that in the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the four pillars are indeed pillars in the worship service…but the worship service is conducted in the Ge’ez language, which “has been near-extinct and mostly limited to liturgical use since the 10th century.” This means that Eritreans–who speak Tigrigna–can’t use, for example, the Apostles Creed for anything other than mindless mumbo-jumbo repetition.
So when the workshop participants translated the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed–for themselves, into their own language–we found ourselves in a mighty meaningful teaching time. “What does ‘One baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ mean?” asked one Eritrean leader. “If ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ and not ‘Roman Catholic,'” asked another, “then why have we not reached out to other underground Evangelical groups to share this training and these pillars with them?”
Good questions. The right questions. Questions that lead to Christian growth, when the Holy Spirit is at hand.
So what did the participants say at the end of the training?
- “I always was wondering how to help my household to get them rooted deeply in faith, because sometimes we would share the word and worship, but it was always so superficial. But this week I learned that I have some tools that help me root them deep in faith.”
- “I am impressed with the use of the four pillars, because knowing that we face false teaching, and I think these will be the best tools to fight that false teaching.”
- “I learned a lot from the creeds, especially a better understanding of the Trinity.”
But it’s not always a 10th Century language that locks the pillars up tightly in the theological cupboard. Sometimes (as in the case of English) it’s often our own lack of experience in knowing how to use the tools that consigns them to mis-(and dis-)use. We need to translate the pillars for ourselves–not into some kind of slang vernacular, but into the life and flow of our household worship and discipleship training where they can be used by the Holy Spirit to root us deeply in faith, too.
That’s one of the primary goals of the 100 Days of Worship campaign: Follow North Korean Christians in a new apprehension of these pillars that have brought life to Christians around the world and across the ages. Yes, the pillars have also been used to construct dead formalism. But when the tools are personally “translated” into our everyday Christian lives and household worship, something else emerges–something a lot closer to the Underground Christians of North Korea than the Orthodox Church of Eritrea.
With that in mind, make sure to visit our Facebook page to learn more about or sign up for the 100 Days campaign today.