Trent Matthews and Pastor Matthew Bixler recently returned from the Acts 29 Europe “Elect Exiles” conference in Belgrade, Serbia. It was a wonderful time of worship, making new friends, hearing about and celebrating how the gospel is changing lives across Europe, and exploring ways for Grace Church to continue to support our brothers and sisters overseas as well as send out our people to serve alongside them. The “Back from Belgrade” series is a collection of stories, reflections, and responses to what they heard and saw in Belgrade from May 7 – 9.
I love traveling overseas to meet and spend time with fellow Christians. It never ceases to amaze me how encouraging and joy-filled these experiences are. There is just something about connecting with people whose homes and lives are completely different from my own yet centered around the same core – a love for and devotion to Christ.
That said, I always return challenged by how easy I have it here in the States, especially in Texas. Our trip to Belgrade was no exception to this trend, and once again the realization hit me like a punch in the gut!
Not only is life easy here generally, but our faith is costless and unchallenged. In fact, it’s so easy to be a Christian here that I often find myself slipping back into complacent, willful ignorance - forgetting about the daily struggles faced by other Christians throughout the world. Yes, I realize that we see increasing opposition in some pockets and isolated instances, but for the most part it is easy to be a Christian in America. Broadly speaking, the worst thing I might experience as a result of sharing my faith with a neighbor is avoidance or indifference (and amicable indifference at that).
We cannot continue to live in ignorance with respect to what other Christians face every day.
I was so thankful to be pushed back out of my comfort zone from the outset of the conference. Our fellow Texan, Pastor Matt Chandler, preached through 1 Peter throughout the conference. Much of the content of Peter’s letter focuses on the hope and joy found in suffering for the faith and facing persecution in various forms. I’m glad that Matt preached these passages boldly, but, given our lack of suffering and persecution, I didn’t envy him. This was a room filled with many people who are daily and weekly facing hardships and opposition that we in the States cannot imagine and would probably not tolerate. Here’s a taste of what I’m referring to…
Over the course of a couple days we met lots of people, such as a pair of church-planters from Germany who cannot afford to draw a salary from their church, so they work elsewhere to earn a living. How many of us would work for free? We heard from another pastor in Poland, where 50% of the people who convert to Christianity end up recanting their faith after a few years because of the extreme pressure placed on them by family members and the culture at large. Would we endure such discouragement? Another pastor from Russia told us of how during the Soviet era multiple generations of his family had been murdered and exiled to Siberia because they were Christians. But now, after growing up in exile, he has returned to Moscow to plant churches and share Christ. Would we move back to such a place?
Perhaps most dramatically, we paused the conference on Tuesday morning to pray for a pastor from Turkey and his church – a bomb had just exploded in their building (thankfully, he did not report any injuries). I was speechless as he told us that this wasn’t anything to be surprised about in his church’s context. Not only is each Christian disowned by their family when they convert, but they face verbal abuse, threats of violence, and vandalism on an increasingly regular basis. He told us, “We are seeing people come to faith, we baptized a woman last week, we’re the only church and light of the gospel in our city, we’re not going anywhere.” He went on to quote Romans 14:8, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Wow!
His words humbled me and filled me with joy. Mind you, he didn’t speak English, so he needed a translator. His translator was another Turkish pastor who faces similar circumstances. A pastor who has seen friends be kidnapped and murdered, whose church must receive ongoing police protection, and who has expressed thankfulness during times of increased threats because, as he puts it, “Now there are more police at guarding us and they have to listen to me preach the gospel.” Frankly, these circumstances and the kinds of attitudes displayed by these Turkish brothers are pretty unfathomable to American Christians.
There is just something about connecting with people whose homes and lives are completely different from my own yet centered around the same core – a love for and devotion to Christ.
Yes, Grace Church, this is what costly faith looks like today.
So now what?
I think that’s probably the question you’re asking yourself as you read this. What do I do? How should I respond? What can we do?
For now, why not reflect on that question and try to answer it for yourself? I will address this in the next installment of this series, but for now I want to leave it here. We cannot continue to live in ignorance with respect to what other Christians face every day. We need to wake up and realize that we have it easy in so many ways.
Let us pray for our brothers and sisters whose faith is far costlier than our own. I encourage you to read through 1 Peter and pray that the promises expressed there would be a comfort and source of hope to our friends elsewhere.
Matthew Bixler is an elder at Grace Church. One of his passions and roles within the church is to see God’s people trained, mobilized and deployed for to proclaim the gospel and plant churches in Waco and around the world.
Trent Matthews, along with his wife Tori, are members of Grace Church and are preparing to move overseas to take part in planting Peak Trinity Church in Bakewell, England.