Reflections 2020

There are years in our journey that serve as markers to events and special events in our lives. The birth years of our children mark such landmarks. The 30 plus moves we made as a family to different cities/countries allows me to recall what we were doing and where we were living.  These serve as clear reminders of the path that God has us on and His continual plan for our lives. 

2020 will be such a year.

As I reflect on our 2020 calendar I see lots of events and opportunities. Many of these activities were scheduled years in advance (one had been booked seven years ago). Everything was in neat order and plans were taking shape. This was to be an exciting year of travel both overseas and across the US. We looked forward to shaping lives through the testimonies and witness of Believers in Persecution.

But 2020 became a year of reflection as well as action. A year that screeched to a halt and caused us to slow down.

Early in the year, we were able to travel to several events (Canada, Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Michigan, North Carolina) but slowly the calendar began to look more like a preschoolers scribbled drawing as events and dates were marked out. We found ourselves looking out through screens and doing messages on Zoom, SKYPE, and other internet avenues.

Reflecting.  We could focus on all the things that have been difficult. Those we love who have suffered from the virus. Nik’s two surgeries this year. Family members who are suffering.

But these have been good days. Good days to reflect and to have part of our family near us. Looking back at 2020 we find that God has given us opportunity to reflect on what the Body of Christ really is.

This year we have heard of Believers in places of persecution who took their food and other resources they had and shared it with their neighbors who had less or nothing. We heard of men who are followers of Christ in Iranian prisons who are asking us to pray that they will be faithful to share their faith. We have heard some of them have been very sick with Covid yet their families carry on with creativity ministering within the Body of Christ.

We have reflected on our own “sheltering in place” and heard of workers and Believers who have been quarantined for weeks at a time with only short periods where one member of the family is allowed to go out and get groceries.  They share their groceries with their neighbors.

We have heard of a young believer who was beaten by his family when he shared of his new faith. Coming from the hospital he returned to his family to share more due to his love for Jesus.

We have begged God to care for a believing couple arrested and imprisoned for their faith.

We have participated in online church services. We have worshiped around our table with our son and his wife and grandson. We have worn masks and we have social distanced. Many in the family remain very ill with Covid. One female member remains in hospital after a terrible car accident.

Above all this, we have been drawn to the power of prayer and the joy we gain as we pray for our local family as well as the family of God around the world. More than ever we have been challenged with the responsibility we have to PRAY. It is hard work.

May 2020 be the year we use as a marker that launches us into a New Year when our prayers are put into action.

Somali Girl

Somali Beilevers Still Suffer

Within six months of being inside Somalia our team of 8 were feeding 50,000 souls per day, resettling refugees, attempting mobile medical clinics, and providing necessary tools and seeds in “food for work” projects that enabled rural farming families to reestablish their lives after eating even their planting seeds during the famine.

We were in-country for over 6 months before we met a female over 13 who hadn’t been “used” by men in excess of 6-8 times. Burying babies and the aged was a daily activity.

All this was attempted in the midst of a famine and war zone. Our team was less than a mile away when the horror of “Black Hawk Down” took its place in the American narrative and psyche.

To add to this terrible unreality was the gruesome and growing persecution of the few Somali believers. Of the 10 million Somalis in-country, there were an estimate of 150 Somali believers. As civil society continued to meltdown, a more conservative form of Islam infiltrated Somali culture with believers being hunted down and killed, much in the same manner one hunts and kills a rabid animal. 

Such radicals killed 4 of my best friends. These 4 brothers-in-Christ were stalked, followed, and assassinated in 45 minutes on one of the blackest days in Somali history. Their bodies were taken and thrown into latrines, garbage dumps and into the Indian Ocean where the sharks fed.

For 25 years, from 1988-2013 the believing community never had a Somali believer’s body at their own funerals.

Fast forward 23 years. Those who sought to bring life to the all People’s in Somalia during their famine and war zone had been cast out of the country. For years few believers from the West could live anywhere in-country. While the country slowly rebuilds, Somalia remains ungovernable outside of Mogadishu. Fundamentalist Islam is the order of the day while many Somalis have rejected Islam as a failed religion. 

Yet hope is once again on the rise as, increasingly, a new generation of Somalis embrace Jesus. It would be foolish to give details of numbers of believers; where they dwell, what numbers there might be, or to whom they relate. Suffice it to say that God always finds a way to make Himself known and believers from outside of Somalia remain committed to taking Jesus and His Good News to the toughest environments on earth.

Obedience is always a trait of those who are “in Christ.” And obedience to share Jesus among all peoples of the earth, giving the  access to the kingdom of God always leads to new life. The love of Christ and eternal life grows again in Somalia. 

There is nothing new or unusual in this.

Yet, as faith grows in Somalia so does persecution toward those who embrace Jesus. Evil never surrenders its territory and the lives who dwell under its current dominion. Once again Somali believers are being hunted. Once again they are being chased from their homeland. Once again they are experiencing imprisonment and beatings. Once again they are facing death.

There is nothing unusual in this.

When Peace Makes No Sense

When Peace Makes No Sense

It was my first trip into China and Samuel Lamb is smiling at me!!  The wounds of Somalia, physical, emotional, and spiritual could still be seen and felt in the rear view mirror of my soul. How could a culture fall so deep to starve, molest and kill its own peoples by the hundreds of thousands? How could wickedness hunt down believers in Jesus and kill all they find until only four were left alive?

We had so many questions and were on a journey among believers in persecution to find answers.

I was in Guangzhou, China, sitting at the feet of believers when they asked me if I wanted to meet Samuel Lamb.  (see Christian History Institute, May 5, 2020 for story).  “Is it safe for him?” I asked.

These young adult believers looked at each other and laughed.

Days later I’m sitting quietly in a corner, the only Westerner, in a crowded, upper room above a loud market.  It was packed with fifty plus souls listening to a gentle man of God who had spent decades of his life in Chinese prisons. As he taught about faith and loving one’s enemies, he said, “In this room are three security police I recognize.  They mistreated me when I was in their fine prison.  I’m so glad they are here today.”  He looked directly at these three men and continued, “I’ve wanted to see you to tell you three things; I love you. I forgive you. God has brought you here today so that you might believe in Jesus and have eternal life.”

My soul was pierced as if by a rusty spike. We were on a post-Somalia journey to find answers to scores of questions that still haunted our souls. Samuel Lamb’s offer of forgiveness to his persecutors was a shout from heaven declaring that our need, my need, was not so much answers to life’s questions.

My need was for more of Jesus.

Samuel Lamb, with scars unhealed apparent in his flesh made heaven’s case that healing comes not in knowing more of how the world works. Healing comes by being loved by Jesus and loving others as He first loved us.

Samuel Lamb was talking to the PSB (Public Security Bureau), China’s security police.  But he was looking at me.

Let’s be those people. Our world is in crisis and people are afraid.  Fear makes us hoard weird items from the grocery.  Fear causes us to lash out at government leaders and perceived political adversaries.  Fear causes hearts to pound, as we worry about jobs, house payments and that, even now, a virus might be racing through our blood stream.  Fear treads on our sleep, yells at our children, and wounds our marriages.

Fear makes us a victim.

Jesus brings peace, when peace makes no sense.

Persecution and Sheltering in Place

Ruth and I have sat with hundreds of believers in persecution in approximately 72 countries.  Sitting at their feet brings, perhaps, an interesting perspective in regard to the global reach of the Coronavirus.  There are many commonalities.  Here are a few

  • This is not something any would choose.
  • This has been forced upon us.
  • It’s bad and it’s hard.
  • It fuels our deepest fears.
  • Our need to live is the center of the universe.
  • It separates us from those we love.
  • The simple basics for living increase in value.
  • Time slows down, almost has no meaning.
  • Not everyone will survive this challenge.
  • Eternity seems more near.

Yet, there is much believers in persecution can again be our example, our teachers.

  • They cannot hoard.  Praying for their “daily bread” is a real prayer (forget the luxury of toilet paper!)
  • They choose joy where joy is in short supply.
  • They choose to witness.  They refuse to have other prisoners and their guards without an opportunity to experience Jesus’ love.
  • Witness leads to worship. They begin their own “church” by, consistently “loving their enemies.”
  • They recognize their imprisonment is hard. They do cry out to God.
  • Often they are living off the prayers of others, especially when they can no longer carry themselves.
  • They hold in tension the Sovereignty of God and the sin of humankind.

The hardest persecution is suffering by oneself. Being the only believer in their home, or worse, in prison is extremely difficult.  Their biggest enemy is fear. The fear of not seeing one’s children grow up. The utter loneliness of being separated from one’s spouse. In these days of “sheltering in place” I’m always aware that I get to shelter in place with Ruth. Worshipping with her allows all of life to become praise. Looking beyond our situation and needs allows all of life to become praise.

It was a revealingly, powerful moment.  Believers in Chinese house churches had asked me, “Has Jesus made it to other countries, or is He only known in China?”

I was floored.

I chose to talk about believers in the U.S. and Africa. Spontaneous praise; laughing, hugging, and dancing broke out.

Then they asked, “If Jesus has made it to other countries, are they persecuted like us?” I chose to tell them about believers in Somalia and other countries who often kill believers in Jesus.

To my surprise, no one said a word.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, I awoke to the sound of loud cries and sounds of distress. Thinking that security policemen had found this gathering of believers, I rushed from my bed to the inner compound.  There I witnessed approximately 170 Chinese believers, sitting and lying on the ground.  As I listened I could hear them cry in the midst of their Han Chinese language, “Somalia, Somalia, Somalia.” They were also shouting out to heaven the names of those other countries I cannot write out loud.

My interpreter came over and said, “Nik, they were so moved by your stories of believers so harshly treated in other countries that they have vowed to God to awake an hour earlier each day to pray for those who are truly persecuted.”

My tears joined theirs.

This is a time of crisis.  Use it well. Look in the mirror and see someone who is much loved by God in the midst of a pandemic. Yet also rush to look out your window upon a world where the pandemic of sin results in the imprisonment of followers of Jesus for 1 – 31 years.

Praise mixed with tears is a recipe for turning a time of crucifixion into an eternity of resurrection.

Big, Gentle Al with Little Abdi

Many people have influenced our lives. People who have taught us life changing lessons, who have mentored us and invested in our lives. Al Crow was one of our teachers.  This giant of a man went to his eternal home at 87 years of age and after 65 years of marriage.  He and his wife served for 11 years with us overseas. His sacrificial life modeled for all who knew him someone who loved and served His Lord.

Nik wrote this story about Al while we served together during our time in Somalia and will allow you to be touched by this hero in our lives.

“He came in with legs, withered by polio, twisted in obscene positions. He left in the arms of a Volunteer.

Fifteen year old Abdi Nuur was stricken by polio at an early age.  Even the best of medical care in the border areas of Somalia and Kenya could not prevent the day from coming when Abdi was reduced to crawling, dragging his paralytic legs behind him.  In the harsh semi-desert climate that constitutes the Somali people’s environment; where only the strong survive, where nomadic lifestyle and freedom of movement is the Somali calling, Abdi’s world was measured in meters not miles.

But Abdi and his sweet smile as he crawled; across the road, to the market, to see his friends, was a survivor.

Al and Nevia Crow of Washington, D.C.; he an athletic director, she a nurse, retired in the States, packed their bags to answer a call to help the Somali people.  Whey they unpacked in N.E. Kenya to minister is humorously referred to as “one of the world’s largest beaches.” Where temperatures average 90 degrees plus daily.  There’s only one drawback.

There’s no ocean!

Al, soft-spoken and with a heart finer than gold, stands way over 6’6” and weighs 220 obs.  Abdi is a world smaller and Nevia’s weight is a Somali state secret.  Al and Nevia met and fell in love with little Abdi, who was a far cry from the healthy, mobile bodies that Big Al was accustomed to working with stateside.  Somehow, someway in the midst of all the suffering and ministries they were immersed in, they were particularly moved to intercede in Abdi’s life.

Their love kicked into high gear.

They arranged transport with the United Nations, surgery “down country” with another mission organization, housing, food and care.  Getting in and out of their area of ministry is as difficult as walking into Fort Knox and loading a few bars of gold in the old pick-up.  But they persevered, got Abdi into a quality hospital where his legs were surgically straightened, preparing for the day when braces would allow him to stand upright.

Today I took Al and Abdi, with his plaster enclosed legs, to the small airport for the four hour trip home.  I watched Al lift Abdi from our house, into the car, into the airplane.  Every time Abdi winced in pain, Al winced.  The hanger was filled with people negotiating flights, arguing with porters, with baggage going to exotic sounding names like Garrissa, El Wak, and Mandera.

In walked big, Gentle Al with Little Abdi in his arms and a hush fell over the crowd, as they witnessed love beyond language, race or color.

Yesterday, my day ended at midnight and my morning began before 6 a.m. From my last trip into Somalia, I again acquired malaria and a bacterial infection.  Yesterday I was too tired to care, too sick to work.

Today I saw the hands of Christ wrapped around the plaster enclosed body of a Somali boy.  Both Abdi and I will walk a little straighter from this day on.

On Your Knees

For over 35 years you have faithfully carried us through the most challenging situations with your prayers. As Nik Ripken Ministries launch into a period of great transition, we need you more than ever to remain a full-time partner through sacrificial prayer.

Often readers of “The Insanity of God” book share with us their favorite story. A most favored account involves Believers in China who asked if people in other countries experience persecution similar to theirs. Nik shared with them concerning the serious persecution of Muslim background believers across North Africa and the Middle East.  At daybreak Nik awoke to a loud commotion, rushed to enter the courtyard, expecting to find the security police rounding up all the men and women attending this gathering.  Instead he was amazed to witness the 150 leaders of house churches from across that region laying on the ground crying and calling out to God for their believing brothers and sisters on the other side of the globe. Their response to Nik’s information challenges us to take prayer much more seriously. These Chinese believers stated,  “After having your testimony we promise God that we will get up an hour earlier each morning to pray for those who are really persecuted.”

We are excited to guide Nik Ripken Ministries as it moves forward in sharing about the Body of Christ with churches, schools, and families both on this side of the globe and among believers in persecution globally. We want to be with you and those with whom you worship with in the months ahead.  We long to return, sitting again with believers who are living in places of persecution who have mentored us for years.

Your faithful prayers and partnership are critical, as we connect you with your brothers and sisters who live in persecution. If you have a prayer list will you put Nik Ripken Ministries on it? If you have a prayer room will you add Nik Ripken Ministries in it? If you have a prayer group will you allow Nik Ripken Ministries to be a part of it?

In the days ahead we will be sharing serious prayer requests with you.  We will send specific ways you can partner with us that can only grow out of fervent prayer.

The best way to lift us up is to kneel down.


Nik and Ruth

What Do You Pray for ISIS?

As followers of Jesus, we have chosen the side of good over evil. Nowhere is this clearer than in regions of the world where persecution is the costly price Christians pay for proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — places, for instance, where ISIS is ruthlessly executing our brothers and sisters in the faith.

While the battle with evil certainly has physical manifestations, the deeper and more important war is spiritual and internal. When evil attacks, we cry out in prayer for God to help us. And what we ask God for tells us a lot about what we really want, and in what we hope.

“God, save your people!”

    Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 6:4)

    “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39)


“God, save me!” is a very normal and understandable response to the evil of persecution. We hear it from psalmists and in the first half of Jesus’s prayer in the garden before his crucifixion.

If my family or I were in prison, we would want scores of people to pray this prayer on our behalf. I would certainly pray this prayer myself. Yet we need to remember that it’s only half of what Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39, because we can quickly move to praying,

“God, punish them!”

May his days be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! (Psalm 109:8–11)

“God, punish them” is also a normal response to the evil of persecution.

Again, we hear this prayer in the Psalms, but it is not how the New Testament teaches us to pray. We in the West tend to see persecution as a violation of our human rights, and so we expect and demand from God and governments both rescue and retribution from something God may actually be using for his glory, our spiritual growth, and the spread of the gospel. In other words, sometimes God needs Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison for the salvation of Egypt and the Jews in Egypt.

This is when we must pray the second half of Jesus’s garden prayer, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). This is important, because calling on God to punish our enemies can easily be our failure to love them as Christ loved us.

Followers of Jesus must press beyond these first two prayerful responses to evil and join Jesus and Stephen in praying,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

    “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)

“Father, forgive them” recognizes that followers of Jesus see themselves both as targets of satanic attack, yet still victorious in their Savior. Both Jesus, while hanging on the cross, and Stephen, while being crushed by stones, viewed their persecutors as victims in need of forgiveness, as well as individuals responsible for their sinful actions.

This response does not come easy, we all know. Seeking forgiveness for one’s enemies is counterintuitive, unpopular, and often seen as weakness, even sometimes by Christians.

In certain streams of the church, it seems acceptable for Christians to say hostile and even hateful things about Muslims. This is a tragic distortion of the gospel. The church’s greatness cannot be wrapped up with its nation’s greatness. The church is not measured by the size of its country’s political, military, or economic power, or its form of government. The church’s greatness is measured by its love, which is the sacrificial, dying enemy-love of Calvary (John 13:35; Matthew 5:44; Romans 5:8).

To respond to evil with prayers like Jesus’s and Stephen’s requires a devotion to “a better country” (Hebrews 11:16), and a faith rooted in the promise that even the worst persecution cannot touch our indestructible lives (Luke 21:16–19; John 11:25–26).

Forgiving our enemies displays Christlike love in a world out for revenge. And the more we grow in Christlike faith and love, the more we will pray the very dangerous prayer,

“Father, forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”

    “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This is how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Is there a more dangerous prayer for our soul? Do we really embrace its implication — that whether or not we forgive our enemies, including our persecutors, reveals whether our souls are saved from or still under God’s wrath (Matthew 6:15)?

In a world governed by the ancient ethic of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” it’s quite popular to repay “evil for evil” (Matthew 5:38–39; Romans 12:17). But living by the Christian ethic of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is simply otherworldly (Matthew 5:44). It demands that we be defined by heaven on earth. Living the Lord’s Prayer in the face of hostility and persecution might be the most dangerous thing we ever attempt.

The more we see our enemies as those in desperate need of God’s grace, and the more we are willing to forgive as God forgives us, the more free we’ll be to embrace all the possible implications as we pray,

“Father, glorify yourself.”

    “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1)

“Father, glorify yourself” is what Jesus prayed just hours before the cross. He fully trusted his Father, which made him free and bold to walk full of faith into the jaws of persecution. And when we pray like this, it shows that our faith is not in governments or international human-rights declarations, but in God.

Such profound trust in God makes us as free to share Christ in Saudi Arabia as we are in South Dakota. We are as free to share our faith in North Korea as in North Carolina. No one can stop us from stepping out of airplanes, buses, and cars and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ anywhere.

Persecutors can certainly punish us for sharing our faith, but by doing so they end up helping us proclaim it all the more! If we don’t shrink back, if we don’t exit the fight at the entry-level prayers of “God, save me” and “God, punish them,” but press on to seeking our enemies’ forgiveness and God’s glory, we will know the joy of bearing spiritual fruit and seeing the kingdom come. We will live in freedom — not political freedom, but gospel freedom (John 8:32; Galatians 5:1).

Can we pray with Jesus, “Father, whatever it takes, glorify your Son through me today, that the Son and I may glorify you”?

Grow into This Grace

When ISIS or some other evil force attacks again, we will pray. The question is, what will we pray? When push comes to literal shove, what do we really want? Do we only want deliverance? Or do we want God’s glory to be revealed and our enemies to experience God’s grace even more than we want to escape from pain?

None of us likely can answer those questions as we would like. But let’s grow into God’s grace, and into these prayers, especially the last three, by praying them now, even if there is no threat of persecution. For evil will attack at some point, and we want to be as ready as possible if the glory of God, the eternal good of others, and the spread of the gospel require our lives or the lives of those we love.


2017 Copyright by Nik Ripken.  Article first appeared at http://www.desiringgod.org/

Worthless Penny, Priceless Worship


A Story from the African Church

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”Luke 21:1–4

Missionaries are not immune to pity parties, and I was having a big one.

It was so hot where we lived in South Africa that before bed, we would moisten our sheets, take a shower, and jump into bed a little wet so that we could be cool for a few hours. The dust was so prevalent that it could find its way into a sealed jar! We cooked our food outside so as not to make the house even more unbearable.

We had a generator in a nearby building to pump water up into our storage tank and to have electricity for a few hours in the mornings and evenings. We had to drive hours through the mountains from our small town to a city where we could buy groceries and eat out in one of the city’s two restaurants.

We were such an oddity that people would walk from outlying villages into our small town just to see the white people. For the first fourteen months, we had people constantly in our house sharing both lunch and evening meals. We had a 1960s telephone that we had to crank the handle in order to “book” any calls we wanted to make through the local post office. Those who booked the calls became very fond of my wife’s sandwiches, cookies, and other treats.

We were weary, hot, sleep-deprived, tired of company, out of groceries, and daily I was complaining to God about all that we had to sacrifice in order to take the gospel to this particular end of the earth. Our boys thought we were on a great adventure, but I tired of this relentless camp-out and could easily list what we had given up to serve in this place. I envied my wife’s smile as she greeted the endless stream of guests in our home and around our table.

Thankfully our next weekend of ministry was a six-hour trip into the mountains bordering South Africa and Lesotho. A home had been arranged to host us. Beds had been borrowed so that we would not have to sleep on the floor, and we were looking forward to the higher elevation with mild days and cool nights.

Small Gift, Large Amount

Typical Christian worship in these small, rural churches was at least a four-hour affair. They were so thrilled to meet us, especially our boys. Our three sons had their white skin pinched and their blonde hair rubbed repeatedly by village children. I sometimes envied our sons their freedom to run through the village with other kids as we sat for hours as honored guests in every church or home we visited.

After hours of worship one day, I was happy to announce that our mission board back home in the States had granted the churches of our host country $10,000 to provide Bibles, train leaders, and start Bible studies in homes. Our sponsoring churches would not feel the loss of this amount of money, and perhaps that contributed to my slightly cavalier presentation.

But I have no excuse. I should have known better. We knew that most of our audience made only one dollar per day — if they had a paying job. For them, $10,000 was a staggering amount of money. And in the context of apartheid, this sum was overshadowed by the fact that white Christians cared enough to give black Christians a significant gift. Given this context, $10,000 seemed like a massively sacrificial gift. Because I had placed my cultural awareness in neutral, I was not prepared for what happened following my almost throwaway announcement.

A spontaneous offering broke out — and it lasted over three hours.

The whole church began to clap and sing, with the women making a trilling sound with their tongues (called “ululation”) that I have been unable to emulate for 32 years. They began to dance in groups of four to six. With mesmerizing grace, they would dance toward the handmade altar-table at the front of the church. They would sway together in rhythm, two steps forward and one step back, slowly making their way toward the front. Moving in harmony before the offering table, hiding money in their hands, they would mimic placing their money on the table and pull it away until, at a moment known only to them, they’d slap their money on the table. It was worship at its best. There was a joy of giving that was immeasurable.

Kids began to beg money from adults. They would take whatever change they received, run to the tiny store next door, and exchange their money for even smaller coins, so that they could dance to the altar with their coins multiple times.

Worthless Gift, Inestimable Value

Caught up in the exuberance of the moment, I noticed an old woman sitting by herself, seemingly unaffected by the joy of giving that surrounded her. After nearly two hours of spontaneous offering, this woman finally stood up and started making her way to the front of the church. She was aged, with wrinkled flesh, arthritic fingers, and a look of deep concern and determination on her face. She was too crippled to dance and too focused to sing.

As she limped toward the altar, she reached into the front of her blouse and took out a knotted handkerchief. With crooked fingers and teeth, she slowly unknotted her handkerchief to reveal a small coin. When she reached the altar-table, she slowly laid her coin on the rough wood. She stood by herself for a moment and seemed to caress the coin before slowly walking back to her bench.

After hours of spontaneous offering, I went up to the front of the church with one of the leaders. I picked up the coin she had given. I had never seen such a copper coin in the seven years we’d lived in South Africa. I gave it to the leader, telling him who had given it, and asked him if he knew what it was. He stared at me before taking the coin and walking back where the old woman was still sitting. After about ten minutes, he returned with her story.

All to Jesus

What she had given was a British halfpenny. It was her life’s savings and retirement fund. It was all that she had. What she did not know was that this coin was taken out of circulation in 1967. It had no value. It could buy nothing. Knotted in a handkerchief, stored in the front of her blouse, this coin had measured her hope for the future.

Still she gave it all to Jesus.

With the leaders’ blessing, I took that halfpenny, after placing a significant offering in her honor on that scarred table, and I’ve kept that coin for almost thirty years as a reminder. After hearing her story, we wanted so much to empty our pockets to help this old lady for her retirement. The local leader asked us to leave her alone. “Don’t you cheat her out of giving everything she has to Jesus. Don’t cheapen her sacrifice. She belongs to us and we will care for her. We will tell her story of sacrifice, and it will live for generations in this village.”

Ten thousand dollars was a generous gift from believers in America. Yet a worthless, British halfpenny taught me about sacrifice and giving all to Jesus, trusting him for the days to come. I can still see that old woman in my mind’s eye today. I recall the way she limped, and the difficulty she had unknotting her handkerchief. I remember the shock I felt after learning about her sacrifice — and her trust in God for all tomorrow would hold.

I’ve often heard “You can’t out-give God.” I’m not even going to try. I can’t out-give that old woman in the mountains of South Africa and Lesotho.

2016 Copyright by Nik Ripken.  Article first appeared at desiringGod.org

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries?


Their words almost knocked me over. They hit me like a horse hoof to the gut.

When I was a young boy, I helped my father train quarter horses. And we always felt the danger of being the recipient of a wayward hoof. One day, not paying close attention, I was kicked, leaving a well-defined hoof print in the center of my stomach. Every ounce of breath left my body.

Decades later, challenging words delivered by believers from an Islamic background left me just as breathless.

Listening to Persecuted Believers

This event took place after we had visited over 45 countries, interviewing believers in persecution from backgrounds including communism, atheism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. We were learning from believers in persecution how to make Christ known and how to give birth to house churches that then would reproduce on their own.

After experiencing the devastation of Somalia, broken over the martyrdom of over 90% of Somali believers, our learning curve was acute. Believers in persecution were generous with their wisdom; they instinctively understood that investing in us gave deeper meaning to their own suffering.

Now we were returning to the world of Islam. It was in the world of Islam where most of the believers we knew and loved were killed. It was in the world of Islam where our middle son died on Easter Sunday morning of an asthma attack. Islamic environments at that time felt like the graveyard of faith.

Islamic Persecution Is Unique

We had already learned how important it was to listen. So we set aside time to listen to the believing culture inside a Muslim country, in rural and urban locations, among both young and old, both men and women, and those literate as well as oral communicators. They told us how they had heard of Jesus and his Bible for the first time. We were startled to discover that their experience was quite different from the experiences of most of the rest of the believing world.

In our earlier travels, we had learned that much persecution originates within governments and institutions of power. In the U.S.S.R. and China persecution was institutionalized. Persecutors were typically somewhere “out there,” and they employed means to find, punish, incarcerate, and kill believers.

In the world of Islam, we discovered that persecutors are typically not “out there,” but “in here.” In Islam, the persecutor often eats at your breakfast table, watches movies with you, and sleeps in your bedroom.

In earlier interviews, we had been told of parents and grandparents who would hide a believing son or daughter from the government. Within Islamic settings, however, it was the parents and grandparents who would often have incarcerated, banished, or even killed their own believing children and grandchildren.

What Makes a Good Missionary?

As we talked with persecuted believers, we discovered that they often wanted to talk not just about their own persecution, but also about us, workers from the West. As darkness settled in, after a full day of stories and interviews, I asked these believers about Western missionaries.

“What do we do well? What things do we not do well? What should we start doing? What should we stop doing? What should we pick up? What should we lay down? What makes a good missionary?”

These believers looked at each other in horror. For hours, they had related their most personal stories.

They had shared accounts of rejection by parents and siblings. They had unpacked events where they had been shamed and beaten. They had told of other believers who were forced to marry nonbelievers. They had even recalled brothers and sisters who had been brutalized before being killed for their faith. They had not held back the most intimate stories surrounding their families, faith, and persecution.

But when I ask this final question about Western missionaries, they froze.

I pushed harder. I sincerely needed to hear what they would say.

Finally, with great hesitation, one of the believers looked at me and said, “I don’t know what makes a good missionary, but I can tell you the name of the man we love.”

When he told me that man’s name, I asked him the next obvious question, “Why do you love him?”

They said, “We don’t know. We just love him.”

The Man They All Loved

I journeyed to five different places in that country. For ten long days, I interviewed believers. Each time, as I reached the end of the interview, I asked the same question: “What makes a good missionary?”

The response was identical each time: “We don’t know what makes a good missionary, but we can tell you the name of the man we love.”

Amazingly, I heard the same name in every place!

When I asked why they loved him, the answer was always the same: “We don’t know. We just love him.”

At this point, I began to feel jealous. I wondered why people hadn’t loved me this much. I found myself developing a grudge against a man I didn’t even know!

The final interview in that country ended in the same way. After another long day of interviews I asked again, “What makes a good worker from the West? What makes a good missionary?”

While I silently prayed not to hear the same answer, they said to me, “We don’t know what makes a good missionary, but we can tell you the man we love.” By now, the next sentence was predictable and expected; they mentioned that same name that I had heard over and over again.

The Missing Ingredient in Missions

By this point, I was so frustrated that I told them firmly that I was not going to leave until they told me why this worker from the West was such a wonderful man. I insisted on an answer.

Finally, one of the men leaned across the table toward me and said forcefully, “You want to know why we love him? We love him because he borrows money from us!”

I was stunned. I thought to myself, Well, I can do that, if that’s what it takes to be loved by believers in persecution.

His statement, however, hinted at something much deeper, and I pleaded with him to explain. What I heard felt like that horse-kick to the stomach. The words knocked the breath out of my body.

The man said, “When this missionary’s father died, he came to us and asked for our help. We didn’t have much, but we gathered an offering of love. We bought him a plane ticket so that he could go home to America and bury his father. This man and his family give everything they have to the poor. They struggle to pay rent and school fees, and put meat on the table. And when he has a great need, what does he do? He doesn’t go to the other Westerners for money. He comes to us. He comes to the scattered and the poor, he comes to local believers, and he asks for, and gets, our help.”

“Do you want to know why we love him? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

We Need to Need the People We Serve

I was tearfully overwhelmed. And I confessed the arrogance of Western missionaries — and my own arrogance. So much of what we do is about us and about what we can provide. We travel around the world to meet needs, not to be honest about our own, nor to become part of their body of Christ. We are the “haves,” and they are the “have-nots.”

Though our motives are not always suspect, we generally come and tell other people to “sit down and listen” while we stand and speak. We are aggressive, and we expect local people to remain passive. We bring the gospel, Bibles, and hymnbooks. We provide baptisms, discipleship, and places to meet. We choose the leaders. We care for orphans, build orphanages, rescue the broken, and care for the crippled.

And those are all wonderful things.

But here’s the challenge: What’s left for local people to do? What’s left for the Holy Spirit to provide? Where do we model how to trust God and his provision through the local body of believers? Where do local believers find their worth, their sanctified sense of signficance? What gifts and sacrifice can they bring to this enterprise of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth?

Rarely did the apostle Paul create dependency upon himself. Often in his letters, Paul expressed how desperately he needed his brothers and sisters in Christ. He called those friends by name years later. He never forgot them. When possible, he returned to be with them. When he could not go, he sent them someone else. And he faithfully wrote to them, expressing his love, encouragement, and correction. In a word, he needed them.

If I Were to Start Over

If I were to start my missionary life over, I would bury my pride and unpack some humility. I would become a brother, a friend, and a peer. I would care more about the names of my brothers and sisters on the “mission field” and less about the numbers of baptisms, people discipled, churches planted, and orphanages built.

I would take to heart the lesson of John the Baptist, saying about a local believer what John said about Jesus: I must decrease so that he can increase (John 3:30). I would invite local believers to lead in the light while I served in the shadows. I would have pressed into what it meant to really need them.

During most of my ministry in Africa, I felt that I was the apostle Paul. I now know that I often need to be a Timothy.

For those of us in the West, this image should seize our hearts: Jesus taking the cloth from around his waist and washing the feet of the disciples, saying, “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

2016 Copyright by Nik Ripken.  Article first appeared at desiringGod.org

Should We Help Believers Escape Persecution?


Let’s rewrite the biblical story found in Genesis 39–41. Let’s make it more Western. Let’s make the story fit the way most of us think about the church and the mission field.

Imagine getting this newsletter from one of your overseas workers. The newsletter says this:

Our brother, whom we love, has been arrested in Egypt and is in prison. Family whom he loved and trusted sold him into slavery and betrayed him to the authorities. We know that he has remained faithful to God, and has refused to pay bribes that would help him escape from prison. Because of his faith, he has been transferred to the dreaded central prison with the rest of the nation’s worst enemies.

How would we respond as the church? What actions would we take? Typically, the Western church would rush in to rescue Joseph. It’s a good impulse.

  • We would write and forward emails.
  • We would flood social media with appeals.
  • We would contact our political representatives.
  • We would highlight Joseph’s plight on radio and television.

The goal of our activity would be the release of Joseph from his unjust imprisonment. And we would feel justified in almost any action — perhaps even military intervention — to have Joseph set free.

The High Cost of Extraction

And maybe Joseph would be released. Followers and friends of Jesus would rejoice! We would thank God that our Joseph has been saved from prison. And we would even be satisfied that one of the conditions of his release would include Joseph’s relocation to another country where he would be safe because he’s no longer a thorn in the nation’s side.

Imagine then, years later, that a great famine hits Egypt and the surrounding countries. Because of his rescue, Joseph is not in prison when Pharaoh has strange dreams. Joseph is not there to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams concerning seven years of plenty followed by seven years of terrible drought. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt squanders the food harvested in the seven good years. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt is completely unprepared for seven years of famine.

The famine is so devastating, in fact, that Egypt does not survive.

And because Egypt does not survive . . . the Jews in Egypt do not survive, either.

And that is the end of the story.

A Better Plan for Freedom

Of course, the real story ends differently. Evidently, God knows when to leave Joseph in prison. God has a larger agenda in mind. God knows exactly what is necessary for the salvation of both Egyptians and Jews.

Do we?

Do our churches, our sending agencies, and our organizations that study persecution know when to leave Joseph in Egypt? Despite our affection for Joseph, do we understand that ultimately Joseph belongs to God, and that God can do with him whatever he desires? Is it possible for us to become emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually strong enough to know when to leave “our Joseph” with God in a seemingly dangerous place?

Advance or Extract?

Believers in persecution had much to teach my wife and me as we traveled among them for more than fifteen years. We listened to their stories. We learned that when Western workers become personally and emotionally connected to believers in persecution, extraction of these believers often becomes the main objective. In almost every case, we are desperate to get Joseph out of the hostile place, and away from persecution.

The apparent explanation for this is more than anecdotal, and less than statistical. It appears that Western workers who become emotionally attached to believers in persecution will attempt to extract about fifty percent of those believers to a safe country. This observation seems to apply to situations of persecution all around the world. In the Islamic world, the frequency of extraction seems even higher, approaching seventy percent. Imagine trying to start a church, even in the Bible Belt of America, if seventy percent of the believers were pulled out and taken to another country.

For God, conquering through persecution, rather than extracting from persecution, is the norm. The Western church typically takes the opposite approach. For us, extraction is the norm. Rescuing believers from persecution feels good. Significant funds can be raised to extract a family from persecution and resettle them in a safe country.

But if we gave as much energy and attention to spreading the gospel in hostile places as we have to extracting persecuted believers from them, the Great Commission may have already been finished by now.

The End of Extraction

Why is our view so different than God’s view? Here are some possible answers to that question:

  1. We don’t want fellow believers to suffer for Jesus in ways we are unwilling to or can’t relate to.
  2. We can’t imagine that prolonged suffering might be part of God’s plan.
  3. We do not truly believe that Jesus is worth suffering for.

And because those truths drive our actions and attitudes, we replace a biblical theology of suffering with something less challenging. As a result,

  1. We demand that persecution of followers of Jesus stop.
  2. We demand that those persecuting followers of Jesus be punished.
  3. We strive to install Western forms of democracy, human rights, and civil rights in foreign lands, believing these will usher in the kingdom of God. (Though, much to our surprise, there is no historical correlation between these Western forms and the kingdom of God!)
  4. We make emotional appeals to raise huge sums of money to rescue more believers from persecution.

What is outcome of all of our seemingly good efforts? Critical masses of believers are removed from the environments where God has planted them.

In some places, the birth of the church is halted; in other places, the multiplication of the body of Christ is hindered. New followers of Jesus (perhaps people from Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Communist backgrounds) come to believe that living in a safe, Christian country is necessary in order to live for Christ.

After long days of interviewing, we often asked followers of Jesus in persecution what they learned from Western workers. They typically looked at one another and refused to respond.

When we pressed them for an answer, they would reply, “Western workers teach us to be afraid. Western workers teach us that it’s possible to follow Jesus only in safe places.”

This is not simply a mistake. This is sin.

Not My Will, but Yours, Be Done

Before Jesus was betrayed, he prayed a prayer made up of two parts (Matthew 26:39). First, he asked his Father for the cup to pass. He prayed for the suffering to be relieved. He asked if there was a way to avoid the crucifixion. He wanted to avoid the pain and public humiliation. But then, he prayed something else. He asked that the will of the Father take precedent over his desire to avoid suffering.

Following Jesus’s example, we must pray both parts of his prayer. It’s only natural to pray for suffering to be avoided — for ourselves or for others. But it is then essential to pray that God’s will to be done, whatever the cost to us.

It seems to be our highest aim to avoid crucifixion — for ourselves and for others. We cannot imagine that God would choose to use our suffering for his purposes. It makes no sense to leave Joseph in harm’s way.

But God’s ways are not our ways. Crucifixion, suffering, imprisonment, and persecution open doors for resurrection and for gospel advancement. Those terrible things make salvation possible.

Let’s trust God with Joseph — and with our own suffering. And in our trust, let’s watch and see what God will do.


2016 Copyright by Nik Ripken.  Article first appeared at desiringGod.org