Socio-political and religious factors have complicated the lives of even ordinary believers living in rural areas. In Africa, many believers face the brunt of intense persecution. In some Asian countries, Christians suffer abject poverty and oppression.
Persecution in the book of Acts
The book of Acts is one of my favourite books in the Bible that I frequently meditate upon. The scenario was similar for the small band of the growing Christian community of the first century AD. The ‘followers of the way’ who lived in fear and hiding till the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 2), soon became objects of jealousy, hatred and violent persecution (Acts 4, 5) – the climax being the murders of Stephen and James in Jerusalem (Acts 7, 12). The missionary journeys by Barnabas, Paul and Silas were marked by hostility, stoning and beatings – that concluded with the imprisonment of Paul (Acts 13-19, 21-28).
The Resilience of the Early Church
Yet the church grew and multiplied – from Jerusalem to Samaria and Judea, and then to Ethiopia and the whole of Asia Minor. Acts 2, 4, 13, and 14 clearly portray the high-quality spiritual and community life of the early Christians. They continued to witness for Christ – even when they were scattered (Acts 8), as the world marvelled at their character, calling them “Christians” (Acts 11).
Lessons for us today
How was it possible? How could the early church show such resilience amidst its increasing challenges? This question will help us to dig deeper into the Book of Acts, as we seek biblical guidelines to build resilience among our churches today.
- Praying Together. The Lord told them to wait for a few days (1:5) – but they started praying together as they waited (v.10-12) – and it became a habit of the early church (2:1; 3:1; 4:24; 6:4; 12:12; 13:2). Just like a bunch of ants holding on to each other to survive together, these early Christians continued this lifestyle all along. The arrival of the Holy Spirit did not stop them, but only empowered them to pray ‘in the Spirit’!
2. Staying Together. The Early Church did not live in a ‘commune’. However, their group prayers sustained and strengthened their fellowship. They were transformed into a caring community – wherein they shared their belongings with each other so that nobody lacked anything (2:44,45; 4:32-37). The new church in Antioch sent help to the Jerusalem believers (11:28-30). The support was mutual and spontaneous – as one body of Christ.
3. Witnessing Together. The growing hostilities did not deter the church from its witness. Peter and the Apostles stood together (2:14) as they witnessed the curious and potentially hostile Jerusalem crowd – and they never looked back! Soon every Christian started witnessing (4:31) and even those who were scattered took the Gospel to new territories (8:4, 5; 11:19, 20). The whole church witnessed for Christ, persecutions notwithstanding!
4. Rejoicing Together. Early churches had a dynamic spirituality! It was possible because of the active presence of God that was experienced and practised through regular prayer times, gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, supernatural signs and wonders, as well as worship and witnessing (2:42-47; 13:1-3). It was a joyful community, and the Lord Himself brought new people to its fold. Paul and Silas could sing from inside the prison (16:25). It was so spontaneous – and powerful! (v.26.30). The Divine connection was so evident!
5. Leading Together. There was a culture of continued leadership development. When you do things together, it is possible! Starting from Mathias (1:21-26), finding new leaders was not a problem, because the simple structure of the early churches produced and nurtured new leaders (Acts 6:3-6; 9:10, 22; 13:1; 16; 18:26). Because of the focused priorities of the senior leaders, there was need and scope for the emerging leaders. James and Stephen’s deaths, or the scattering of the believers, did not deter anyone, as the next-level leaders like Barnabas and Philip took leading roles in worship (church ministry) and witnessing (mission) – like many nameless disciples (11:19,20). The first missionary journey is an example of the prevailing leadership development model of those early churches (13:1, 2; 14:21-23). It was not a one-man army, as the Lord raised leaders for different segments – and used them effectively.
Churches in the Global South must become resilient. They must grow in fellowship – and this is surely possible if they pray, share and witness together, and experience and exhibit the presence of God. Further, We need church leaders at various levels to shepherd His precious flock. Let us look to the Great Shepherd for grace!