The current period of isolation is a gift for Christians and the church in Australia and New Zealand, according to a persecution expert at Open Doors Australia.
Murray Noble says the experience of house churches in countries where Christians are persecuted shows that faith always grows in times of hardship and isolation. Open Doors believes Christian groups in Australia and New Zealand have so much to learn from persecuted churches around the world that it has created a hub of relevant resources, House Church.
“We focus a lot in the church on growing our communities and that can happen in this time of isolation,” says Noble.
“But self-growth will also happen as we’re forced into these smaller and more intimate settings.
“And so we see a deepened faith happening wherever a house church meets.”
Learning from Sri Lanka bombings, one year on
To back up his claim that hardship is an opportunity rather than a threat to the Christian church, Noble cites the example of Zion Church in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, which was bombed last Easter.
A charity that supports Christians persecuted for their faith across the world, Open Doors has been prevented from returning to Sri Lanka to mark the one-year anniversary. But it has encouraging information about the families directly affected by last year’s bombing.
“Those 83 families are still part of the church community, so the persecution that we saw – and the hardship they experienced – has not pushed any of these families away from Christ,” he says.
“We see stories where, in the hardship, the community has grown.”
“In fact, we’ve even seen some people come to Christ as a result of the horrific attack on the church.
“[In] one family … the mother would read the Bible to her husband every night, but her husband would never come to church. He’d say he was busy at work, maybe he’d come next week.
“Then, in the Easter bombing, his wife died. The very next week, he went for the first time ever to church and he’s now a member of the congregation. So we see stories like that where, in the hardship, the community has grown.”
Noble also mentions a sermon given by Zion Church pastor Roshan Mahesan, two weeks after the church bombing. He preached on Daniel 3, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the fire and King Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth man in the fire.
“The pastor said, ‘Jesus is with us in the fire, there is a fourth man standing with us as we suffer’,” says Noble.
“If he’s with that congregation in that hardship and struggle, he’s also going to be with us as we attempt to reach out and bring people to Christ.
“As we consider going out and … sharing a link or an online church, God is with us in that.”
Unexpected opportunity to share faith
Noble calls Christians to be bold in sharing their faith this Easter, because it’s never been easier to invite someone to “church.” Noble and Open Doors have heard evidence that more people are searching for answers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People who have not talked to God or looked for God or pursued God in decades upon decades are suddenly looking for an answer to what is happening,” says Noble. “It’s an incredible opportunity because people don’t need to go into church and be intimidated by meeting the community; they can jump online and join the church services.
“There is some hardship, but this is not a time for church to be falling apart.” – Murray Noble
“Something that we’re seeing from our church engagement with individuals is that pastors are reporting higher numbers on their livestreams, on their Zoom calls.
“We’re hearing of sons whose mothers haven’t been to church in 20 years, [but] have said, ‘Can I sit in on your livestream? I’m looking for some hope.’
“There is some hardship, but this is not a time for church to be falling apart; it is a time for the church to grow.
“It is an opportunity that we could not have fabricated ourselves.”
Helping local churches
Open Doors Australia has created an online resource to help build up the local church during this “strange and difficult time,” as Noble describes it.
By signing up here for House Church by Open Doors, people can receive a weekly email with free content to help them do church in their homes.
Help offered includes a weekly video message for adults with discussion questions and a video message for kids with questions, as well as a memory verse colouring sheet.
“When it was announced that churches would have to close down because meetings of more than 100 people were closing down, we realised that we needed to step up and help the Australian and New Zealand church,” Noble explains.
“Alongside that we realised … we had these stories from our field countries who meet in house churches, and their experiences and their wisdom – and now we can bring that back to Australia and New Zealand and help the church with these lessons.”
Noble says house church and online church can be viewed as almost the same in the current situation.
“When two or more meet, then the presence of the Lord is there and so we would still say that is a church meeting … with the technology that we have, we would still say you’re still meeting in a house church, you’re meeting from home, gathering with other believers to celebrate Christ.”
Pursue deeper personal faith
The other great lesson from the hardship and isolation of the persecuted church is the opportunity to pursue a deeper personal faith.
Noble gives the example of a Chinese pastor, Wang Ming-Dao, who spent 22½ years in prison in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of that time in solitary confinement.
“It’s a gift that we have now in isolation to focus on God …” – Murray Noble
“He said that was the most faith-deepening experience of his life because he could do nothing in that cell except turn to God and talk to God. So he’d talk about in isolation building a ‘cell’ that says, ‘in this space, I will focus purely on God and build my relationship with him.’
“And now that we’re facing isolation, in a way that ‘cell’ has been built for us.
“There’s so many distractions – there’s internet, there’s TV, there’s newspapers wanting our attention – but what does it look like if we stop and build that ‘cell’ and say, ‘I want to go deep with God in that time?’
“It’s a gift that we have now in isolation to focus on God, so focus on God and share Jesus’s story at Easter, even more than you normally would because people are really searching.”
This Easter, Open Doors is also running its One With Them campaign that asks people to donate $100 to support the persecuted church.
“Because this Easter, not only is there the threat of attacks still, but in a number of countries Christians are the last to receive any resources and medical aid or emergency relief because they are Christian,” explains Noble.
“Especially with COVID-19 happening, more Christians are in need than ever before at Easter.”