The region that witnessed the birth of the Church now sees its rapid decline. Large-scale and sustained emigration after centuries of tenacity has denuded the Middle East of the bulk of its Christian communities. This slow burning process rapidly accelerated along with the violence in Syria, Iraq, etc. over the last several years. For it to have endured this long, despite discrimination and persecution, is remarkable. The rise of Islamic extremism in the region increased the pressure to marginalize and even eliminate Christian presence. Orthodox Jewish pressures on Messianic Jews are also acute. Pray that the ancient Orthodox and Catholic communities might come to new life and vigour to become effective witnesses. There is an encouraging acceleration of new movements of people to Christ in the region, but not nearly large enough to offset the losses of traditional Christians.
The Middle East/West Asia.
- Protestant denominations are few and small, and many struggle with nominalism. They likewise face pressure and persecution, although in a number of countries they are growing. Interdenominational relationships have not always been smooth and gracious. Pray for unity, strength and revitalization.
- Believers from a Muslim background (BMB/MBB) are growing in number in almost every context and on an unprecedented scale. This is happening in trickles (in places such as the Arabian Peninsula) and in torrents (Iran, Iraq). Pray for:
- All who have come to Christ from such backgrounds. They have specific spiritual, social and personal needs that are different from Christians of other backgrounds. Pressures on them are usually acute - from relatives, employers and authorities - and can range from ostracism to martyrdom. For many, emigration is the only way out of impossible situations. Pray for courage in the face of opposition and for faithfulness in all situations.
- The witness of believers. There is great potential to communicate the gospel through the testimony of believers' lifestyles, through their work habits, through their marriages and through family relationships. Christian homes can demonstrate profoundly the power and love of Christ. Pray for those who have come out of a Muslim background to witness with both wisdom and fearlessness.
- Networking for Muslim-background believers. It is easy for them to slip into isolation and discouragement. Pray for the development of networks that will afford opportunities for fellowship with those of similar background. Pray for such believers to be discipled appropriately, and to find both employment and marriage partners - neither of which is easy for Muslim-background believers still living in Islamic contexts.
- Trained leadership for the churches remains a challenge. There are few in training and few institutions in the Middle East that can provide it. Many of those who study in the West find good ministry opportunities there, so few return home. Training structures for the underground and MBB churches also need to be developed further to meet the demands of these burgeoning groups.
- Missions vision is growing. Increasing numbers of Middle Eastern Christians are capturing a burden to reach out to Muslims, especially in lands closed to normal mission work - in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and others.
- The impact of Christian satellite TV and the Internet has been momentous, greater than in any other region of the world. It has been highly effective at sharing the good news in restricted access nations, at offering sound defence of the gospel in the face of Muslim accusations and at offering solid discipleship to believers.
- Indigenous evangelical Christians have multiplied to number tens of thousands in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and even Turkey, but in all of these places they face pressures from many sides - the government, Islamist groups, the Orthodox hierarchy and family members/society at large. The perception of evangelicalism as being foreign is one reason for such trouble; the hard line taken by many governments against religious extremism has unintended consequences for Christian groups. Pray for the rooting of the Christian faith in Central Asian cultural forms, for continued growth, for the positive witness of believers and for the further development of mature indigenous leadership. Pray also for Russian, Ukrainian, German, Korean and other expatriate believers who still comprise a majority of evangelicals in these lands.
- Pressures on Christians are more severe in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and especially Turkmenistan. Foreign workers have been expelled from these countries, congregations scattered and church leaders imprisoned. Pray that the remnant might stand strong and even grow amid these tribulations. In Afghanistan, despite the defeat of the Taliban as a military force, indigenous believers face great risks and must be very cautious in meeting together.
- Multi-national partnerships of expatriate believers exist for each of these nations. They have raised up intercession, mobilized mission, fostered cooperation and encouraged local believers. Pray that their continued carrying of these burdens might bring forth greater harvest in these needy regions.
- Decline and nominalism go hand in hand in several areas. For decades, the Christian population in Sri Lanka has steadily reduced as a percentage of the national total. The same problem exists among the established, traditional churches of India and Pakistan. Emigration and a lack of evangelistic vision contribute significantly to this. Pray for a reversal to this trend.
- Growth is definitely occurring, predominantly among Tribal groups, Dalits and the lowest castes. In fact, the response to the gospel is such that churches are unable to keep up with the demands of those expressing interest in or commitment to the Lord. It is likewise nearly impossible to enumerate all that is occurring, especially in India, because of the sheer scale of what transpires there, the lack of structure to much of the ministry and the socio-religious climate that keeps many within their traditional religious frameworks, even after meeting Jesus.
- Missions vision. The vast majority of Kingdom increase in this region is through the faithful witness of indigenous believers sharing the good news village by village and town by town. But the gospel has rarely jumped across ethno-linguistic or caste boundaries. This is changing as the South Asian Church increasingly commits to reach the least reached groups in its region - of which there are literally thousands. Predominantly in India but also in Nepal, Pakistan and elsewhere, ministries specifically seek to communicate, in a focused manner, the life-giving gospel to these unevangelized groups. This will take great patience and faith, since new languages, new cultures and new methods of ministry must be learned - with no guarantee of immediate response - but already, India has more national missionaries than any other nation. May other South Asian countries catch the same vision.
- Church impact is very uneven in this region, but includes a number of areas where minorities are remarkably responsive to the gospel. Large ethnic minority churches thrive in Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, while the majority populations remain rooted in Buddhism or Islam. Pray for these groups to continue to grow in the Lord and transmit the gospel to neighbouring peoples. The Philippines and Timor Leste are two of Asia's four majority Christian countries.
- Exciting growth has occurred, especially in areas previously closed or hostile to the good news. The Church is growing to unprecedented levels in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and even in some areas of Indonesia. But the breakthrough is yet to come, especially among the namesake peoples of several nations: the Thai of Thailand, the Burmese of Burma/Myanmar, the Malays of Malaysia and the Lao of Laos.
- Missions vision. In much of Southeast Asia, missions vision is limited to impacting the unreached majorities in each respective country. The sizeable Christian minorities in Singapore and Malaysia have an outstanding mission-sending record. But something special is happening in the Philippines, and to a lesser degree, in Indonesia. There are millions of economic migrants who live and work abroad as part of the Filipino diaspora. They are increasingly gaining a vision to use their presence throughout the world as an opportunity to shine the light of Jesus - even into the most difficult countries, such as those in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. As their home churches back in the Philippines begin to see themselves as sending churches for these newly realized tentmaking missionaries, the Kingdom impact on the world will be massive.
- The Church in East Asia is one of remarkably contrasting situations. In South Korea, it is a large and influential minority, an integral part of South Korean society. In North Korea, it is an underground movement hunted down and reviled by the autocratic regime. In Japan, it is insignificant in size but respected. In Taiwan, the Church is larger but still a small minority. In mainland China it is a burgeoning and increasingly important minority, while in Mongolia it is a rather new, but quickly growing element of society.
- Persecution remains particularly intense in North Korea, where Christians are targeted for extra misery and oppression from among this already-long-suffering people. The number of martyrs in North Korea will never be known this side of heaven, but countless thousands have suffered and died as a result of their faith in Jesus. In China, the intense persecution of decades past is subsiding in some regions but remains the same in others; it appears to no longer be a nationwide government policy to oppress Christians, but at the local level persecution can remain severe. Even in the more open societies of Japan, Mongolia, and South Korea, active witnessing Christians can face opposition and strong pressure to conform to societal norms.
- New challenges emerge for churches that are now multiple-generations old. With the rapid increase in material wealth in much of East Asia, Christians are presented with the challenges of materialism, affluence and the prosperity gospel - success has replaced suffering as the marker of a faithful believer. Nominalism, hedonism and the falling away of the younger generation into worldliness are relatively new issues the East Asian Church faces, issues the West has dealt with for some time.
- Missions vision. The missionary legacy of the South Korean Church is outstanding for a nation its size. It produces the second-most foreign missionaries of any country in the world; a high proportion of these are sent as long-term and highly trained workers to the unevangelized world. In China, while foreign mission sending is still very modest, the looming impact of the Back to Jerusalem vision could be historically unprecedented; as many as 100,000 church-planting evangelists have spread throughout Asia and the Middle East.
- Cultural sensitivity as well as recognizing the need for a contextualized gospel that does not assume the homogeneity of the sending culture and allows indigenous expressions of the Church to flourish.
- Maturity in missions and willingness to learn from mistakes of the past - and to not repeat them - for example in paternalism and use of funds.
- Partnerships with Western, Latino and African missionaries to be mutually beneficial whether serving together in international agencies or through interagency cooperation on fields.
- Retention of Asian missionaries who serve cross-culturally. Missionary attrition and the personal costs of ministering in the heart of the unevangelized world must all be addressed, including dealing with culture shock and culture acquisition. The provision of good member care is an essential element for the continued strength and health of mission sending from East Asia.
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Content taken or adapted from Operation World, 7th Edition (2010) and Pray for the World (2015). Both books are published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.