Above: To deepen their faith, Christian women in Myanmar gather for a “Women of Worth” training supported by Open Doors.
Arizona church answers the biblical call to strengthen the worldwide church
For Charles Wise, a lay leader in St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona, this realization has led him on a journey to awaken others in his church and denomination to the need and opportunity to support the 245-plus million global Christians who are living and sharing the gospel in countries where they’re persecuted for following Jesus.
As a result, Wise initiated and leads the Worldwide Christian Support Task Force at the multi-ethnic church of more than 1,000 members.
Beginnings of a Long-Term Vision
Wise, who spent 42 years as a college professor, first awakened to the Church’s need to get involved in Christian persecution through news headlines.
“I saw various reports in major media about acts of persecution, but I never heard anything about this in church,” he tells Open Doors, a worldwide community of Christians committed to supporting persecuted believers in more than 60 countries. “I started asking various ministers about this. The usual reaction was, ‘That’s important, but we don’t focus on that.’
“I thought that was anomalous given the admonition of Paul and others in the Bible for Christians to support each other. A basic principle of Christians is that we’re engaged with Christians around the world.”
When he moved from the Midwest to Arizona and began looking for a local congregation, Wise, whose background also includes international work, knew one of the major factors in his decision. The church he would be part of would have a willingness to engage with the stories of persecuted Christians.
“I made up my mind I was going to talk with the leadership to see if they had an interest. I wanted to know if there was room for something like this in their missions focus.”
A conversation with Rev. Sharon Ragland quickly gave Wise his answer. Yes, there was room—but he would be the one who would need to lead it. Reverend Ragland also readily agreed to serve on the Task Force has been a critical leader in it since the beginning. Lay leaders Maryann Nuckolls, and Morgan Hunter have led key initiatives of the Task Force.
Strengthening the Worldwide Church
Since 2014, St. Mark’s UMC has educated their congregation about what’s happening in countries where Christians are persecuted.
“The reaction is always shock—people don’t know about this,” Wise says. “When you tell them the specifics of what’s happening to Christians today, they’re blown away.”
More importantly, the church focuses on the role the Body of Christ plays in strengthening the Church (Rev. 3:2). To date, members from various ministry groups at St. Mark’s UMC, including prayer and missions, serve on the Task Force that continues to make strides in its mission to strengthen the Church worldwide so that these followers of Jesus can, in turn, make disciples where they are.
The Task Force started as the Worldwide Christian Persecution Task Force but after realizing the need to focus on the positive and highlight the support element (versus persecution), the name was changed.
“We sense there’s a reaction you get when you consistently communicate difficult stories,” he explains. “So we don’t want to constantly talk about how people are being killed or tortured.”
To that end, St. Mark’s UMC consistently looks for stories of how persecuted Christians have achieved resilience in the face of adversity, as well as how they have been supported.
“We want to articulate this in a way that resonates with people,” he explains, adding that the Task Force’s mission statement and objectives align with this approach:
- Continually updating the congregation and the surrounding community about where and how
persecutionof Christians is occurring;
- Involving and assisting members of the congregation in supporting Christians who are under pressure by communicating encouragement to them;
- Providing mission support to persecuted Christians who are in need as a result of practicing their faith;
- Advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians to governments and international organizations.
Mobilizing for Awareness and Engagement
To communicate the stories and the Kingdom-building opportunity the congregation has to be the Church, the Task Force leads numerous initiatives, focusing on six countries on Open Doors’ annual World Watch List: Egypt, Myanmar, India, Syria, Mexico
The Task Force created the Christian Support Prayer Chain that church members can join to receive emails with specific prayer alerts. The ministry also regularly contributes articles to the church’s newsletter and periodically offers updates during worship services. Often, the congregation specifically prays for persecuted believers.
Other special initiatives have included annual participation in Open Doors’ International Day of Prayer (IDOP), including a focused worship service, sign-ups for Open Doors’ email prayer alerts and information tables. This January, the church took an even deeper dive, offering Open Doors’ four-week small group Bible study called The Ripple Effect.
And Wise leads the Task Force to mobilize financial support for persecuted Christians. Last year, the Task Force worked with the church’s Missions Committee to donate half of the Thanksgiving offering to supporting women in Egypt. This year, the Missions Committee has allocated funds from the
Expanding the Vision
Wise’s vision for seeing the Church come alongside persecuted Christians continues to expand beyond his local congregation to United Methodist churches in his region and in the United Methodist Church worldwide.
At the denomination’s last Southwest Conference, the Task Force presented a proposal to amend the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, stating that “the United Methodist Church stands against persecution of Christians and stands with persecuted believers worldwide.” The Southwest Conference adopted the amendment; and it will be presented to the international General Conference when it convenes in two years.
“I think it’s anomalous that we have a major American Christian denomination with no formal statement about this worldwide plague of Christian persecution and support for persecuted Christians,” Wise asserts.
He hopes to see other UMC churches addressing persecution and supporting Christians in their individual contexts. He knows that some church leaders will want to be a part, while others will dismiss it, saying their agenda is too full. But he also knows his role and trusts God to work in the hearts of pastors and churches.
“I figure we’ve done our part if we tell them about it,” Wise says, adding that they’re starting with church leaders in the Tucson area in an Open Doors Pastors/Leaders Intelligence Briefing on March 11. They have invited church leaders from the city and surrounding area to join the conversation as they hear directly from persecuted Christians.
5 Tips for Starting Your Own Support Force
For lay leaders and pastors who may want to follow St. Mark’s UMC’s lead, Wise offers specific pointers for both education and engagement:
- If you’re a pastor, educate yourself about modern-day persecution and the need to strengthen Christians worldwide. Pick two to four countries of interest and start following them. You can search the Open Doors website for these countries and also set up Google Alerts for the countries as well as an alert using the keyword “Christian persecution.” You’ll quickly start to get a big-picture view of what’s happening.
- Include Christian persecution in any prayer updates or regular prayer during worship. Wise went to the church’s Associate Pastor Stuart Salvatierra and asked him to include persecuted Christians in his pastoral prayer each weekend. “I just said, ‘Can you say that we want to pray for our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in other countries around the world?’” Now often, St. Mark’s congregation is reminded to pray.
- Look for smaller things you can regularly infuse into your church’s worship service. “A pastor will only preach one to two times a year on persecution,” Wise says, “but we can bring it to people’s minds on a regular basis.”
- Preach about it. If a pastor really wants to engage the church, one of the best ways is through their words, teaching about it during worship and including stories and information.
- Make sure the church understands the opportunity they have to bring hope and restoration through both prayer and support—to come alongside these believers who are making disciples and building the Kingdom. Says Wise: “We essentially want to say to the members of our congregation, ‘This is a Good News story, and you can be part of it.’”
On March 11, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church will host a Pastors/Leaders Intelligence Briefing where church leaders will hear direct reports from persecuted Christians. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or hosting a gathering at your church, please contact Andrew Richards at [email protected]