Jesus’ last words to his disciples were a stirring charge to spread the gospel beyond the comfortable homelands of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, all the way to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
They quickly discovered that some of the places at the known ends of the earth were not entirely hospitable to the gospel. First century trailblazers encountered skepticism, resistance, riots, violence, persecution, imprisonment, and death.
And yet the gospel spread and the church thrived even in the most difficult places.
Christians in the 21st century are still working to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, in places unknown to those original missionaries. And today’s trailblazers are still encountering extreme resistance in some countries.
And yet the gospel continues to spread and the church still thrives in the most unexpected of places.
For 17 years in a row, North Korea has been ranked #1 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the most oppressive environments for Christianity. Even as hesitant steps are taken toward peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea, the totalitarian government of the north is still not welcoming to Christians. And yet there are thousands of Christians in North Korea, according to Dr. Yoon Kwon Chae of Korean Christian Gospel Mission.
“By the reports of foreign visitors who were thoroughly screened by the North Korean government, we are convinced of the existence of the underground churches,” Dr. Chae wrote in a recent online newsletter. “They cannot meet publicly, of course. They meet secretly and sing hymns without making sounds or by using the melody of government songs. They read the scriptures by memory and whisper sermons. We have a secretly delivered letter from a converted Christian which says, “I am no longer a Socialist, nor a Capitalist, but I am a Jesusist.”
North Korea is just one of many nations where the gospel is changing lives in spite of extreme opposition. Central Asia Christian Mission reports they have started 75 house churches in one of the most restricted nations in the world (unidentified to protect the church there). They tell of baptizing entire families who repented and turned to Christ.
China is ranked 43rd on the World Watch List, but as recently as 2000 it was listed at number 3 overall. Over the past two decades secretive house churches have spread like wildfire through much of the country. The largest Protestant or Independent Christian denomination in the world is the network of Han house churches in China, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
Firm numbers are hard to come by for a movement that operates underground, but organizations involved in supporting those house churches estimate there may be 100 million or more Christians participating. Many believers are drawn by access to the broad and diverse social network provided by the house church network, a factor that mirrors the rapid growth of the first century church. The extended Christian community also provides access to Bible-based homeschools for children, as well as medical, financial, and other support for families.
Even in countries where Christianity is the predominant religion, life for active and vocal believers can be difficult. In most Central and South American countries, around 95 percent of the population is considered to be Christian (85-90 percent Roman Catholic). But in countries like Mexico and Colombia, any Christian or church that actively evangelizes or speaks out against the pervasive criminal culture and rampant corruption is subject to persecution. Economic discrimination and outright violence are common, especially against vocal non-Catholic congregations.
And yet Christianity thrives. Places like Collegio Biblico in Eagle Pass, Texas, and Mexico Christian University in Queretaro, Mexico, continue to train Spanish speaking ministers, who are planting new churches and serving the poor throughout the country.
In Colombia, a nation in the grip of the drug cartels, eight new churches have been planted by Arizona-based Christ’s Church in the Valley, with plans for 22 more. The goal is that “these churches create spiritual transformation and community revival that will change that country. They will serve as a house of worship as well as a child development center, where all of the sponsored children go to be fed, attend school, and receive medical care.”
European countries were once the center of Christianity. By the late 20th century, this was no longer true. According to Kontakmission USA, “97.5 percent of all Europeans have no relationship with Jesus Christ.” Generations have been raised in a culture largely devoid of faith and lacking respect for the church.
Missionaries like Nick and Mallorie Burczyk have set out to reverse that trend, but it’s a slow process. The Burczyks spent their first two years in Hannover, Germany focusing on making friends in the community. Then they invited people to come to their home once a week for a meal and discussion of spiritual things. Some of those who come are already Christians, but several are not.
Those discussions tend toward a more skeptical and analytical tone than the sort of Bible studies most American Christians would expect. Having grown up in a culture that is cynical and often hostile toward the Bible, the Burczyks’ friends don’t take the usual Sunday school approach to stories from the gospels. They’re more interested in asking questions, trying to understand why the people in the stories would say and do things that seem completely opposite of what they’ve come to expect.
Interest is growing, though. Their first group includes 15-20 regulars and they’re working toward starting a second home group, as well as meeting quarterly with another home group for the purpose of worship.
That sort of growth may seem slow and small compared to church plants in America, but in such a resistant culture it’s a promising beginning.
Similar inroads are being made by believers in other post-Christian countries like France, where the number of small churches is growing steadily.
The dominant culture in the United States is well on its way to being as post-Christian as Europe. Americans are leaving behind what was once a national inclination to accept Christian beliefs and morals as the standard. This can be a positive change, resulting in a distinction between intentional followers of Christ and passive adherents to lifeless religion.
On the negative side, this seismic change has produced a sharply fractured nation politically, culturally, and spiritually. Countless niches of American society have developed a thick-skinned resistance to the gospel and a hostility toward the church.
And yet the church thrives. As in other closed or resistant countries, Christians on mission in America are becoming more creative in reaching out to societal niches that have often been ignored or rejected by the church.
The Black Sheep: Harley Davidsons for Christ is just one of several ministries dedicated to spreading the gospel to bikers. They have more than 60 chapters across 38 states.
Churches across the country are reaching out to people with addictions through the Celebrate Recovery program. Rural churches like First Christian Church in Belle, Missouri, are thriving as the entire congregation focuses on this ministry.
The church always finds a way to thrive, even in the least hospitable ends of the earth.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri.