The Invisible Church

News reporting is – of necessity – very selective. Some stories are covered at length and in detail, some are accorded a brief mention, others never make it to mainstream media reports. All kinds of factors colour what is served up to readers, listeners and viewers: remoteness, sensation-value, public perceptions of interest or significance, racial, religious and cultural biases, even the simple availability of a reporter to cover a story. It is fascinating to compare the news stories covered by British news media with those from other countries, even in their English-language services. British news consumers are totally in the dark about large tracts of the globe, and are probably little concerned that that is the case. The same probably holds true in most nations.

Many stories never see the light of day. Among them are generally accounts of the pressures faced by the Christian Church in various parts of the world. Perhaps because of a pursuit of ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’, perhaps because of ignorance, perhaps because of the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the public arena, the hardships endured by many of our brothers and sisters are largely unknown outside a fairly small circle.

Iraq is constantly in the news at present. It appears that, despite continued terrorist outrages, sometimes on a considerable scale, the underlying situation is improving. But not for everyone. As Christians close to the situation will tell you, the predicament of Christians in Iraq is increasingly desperate. In Mosul in the north fanatical terrorists who control the streets are now targeting Christians. Recently twenty Christians were murdered and six homes torched. Unsurprisingly Christians are fleeing the area, leaving everything behind them. One ray of light is that the church in Kirkuk continues to meet and is able to operate a school and a clinic. In contrast, the congregation in Baghdad, which used to number about 1200, is now down to 60 or fewer. Some children’s ministry continues, but the difficulties are great. In Basra fewer than 10 elderly people now meet and all the young have left.

All this in a country where, before the war, Christians enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than in most of the neighbouring countries. The reasons for this were mainly political, but none the less the cause of the gospel was advancing. Now western forces may be – to some degree – in charge, but the church is declining rapidly. Many have fled to safer locations, others would go if they could. It would be hard to blame them.

We could multiply examples from different parts of the world. For many the cost of Christian commitment is high and in some places any Christian activity is covert. In theology we speak of the ‘invisible church’ when we refer to the whole body of true believers, whose composition is known only to the Lord. Not all are happy with the terminology – surely true believers are inevitably visible? In at least one sense, however, there is certainly an ‘invisible’ church – the church unnoticed or ignored by the media, too often unknown even to fellow believers. Success-oriented western churches have little idea what to make of believers struggling for their very existence in harsh and hostile environments, even when they do become aware of their existence. The invisible church is made up of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, for whom we are to pray and whose pain we are to feel (Hebrews 13:3). We should seek to be as well informed about their situation and needs as possible, for prayer and practical support. There is no ‘invisible’ church as far as the Lord is concerned. There should not be for his people either.

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