These four characteristics are the hallmarks of a healthy church thriving under persecution, Nik suggests.
Number one is how they know Jesus. Number two is the unbelievable, supernatural, intimate prayer. Number three is being able to recreate large portions of the Bible from memory. Number four is committing large portions of their indigenous music to memory.
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Memorizing the Bible
Throughout his travels, Nik Ripken has found that persecuted believers have a common practice. They memorize full books of scripture and large portions of their indigenous music with less than 10% error. Nik tells us his experience with a Soviet Union congregation who had never held a Bible. Yet they were able to recite the full books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with fewer than 6 omissions. This may seem like an incredible feat to Western Christians. Literate Christians often believe they have to carry the Bible with them in order to recall scripture accurately. However, Nik reminds us that this way of thinking is offensive to many believers in the world who see this as a sign of not knowing the book.
The Oral Gospel Tradition
The people who lived during the early decades of Christian history didn’t rely on a written Bible. Although some scrolls existed, believers shared the Old Testament primarily in oral form. Publishers did not write down The New Testament until 55 A.D. This means people first shared the stories that we have today orally among family members and congregations, from generation to generation.
The Bible is the most influential book in the world. It contains the truth that people need to hear. On one hand, the oral form of sharing the gospel allows for rapid transmission. “You don’t have to smuggle the Bible into closed countries if you are the container for it,” Nik explains. On the other hand, the literate form of the Bible preserves the truth so that generations can pass it down accurately. Both forms are valuable for different reasons.
Scripture Memorization in Moscow
Three pastors led over a thousand house churches scattered around Moscow. They took 600 young adults, unmarried from 18 to 30 years old, and brought them to Moscow for seven days. These pastors didn’t have a planned program other than to share the Word of God with these people. They met for about a week. After the event, all three pastors were arrested and sent to a Soviet prison for three years. “All of them said they would do it again,” Nik remarks. This is the way people memorized and shared scripture in the Soviet Union.
Although Nik disagrees with the idea of limiting the Word of God to a few trained clergy, he’s impressed with how well their congregations knew the scripture. In the Soviet Union, literacy wasn’t the issue. Believers could read and write, but only their pastors could hold a Bible. Nik went to one of these charismatic groups in the Soviet Union and asked how many of the congregation had touched a Bible. Not a single person said yes. Almost all the members of the congregation had seen someone preach from it, but they had never read from it themselves. When asked to recite the first four books of the New Testament, however, they were able to recite it with just 6 errors.
Unfortunately, persecution seems to create the hostile environment that leads people to know the Bible so thoroughly. Just 15 years later, Nik revisited this congregation after the fall of the Soviet Union. He found that their spiritual temperature had changed with the new democracy. “It’s so hard to be obedient to God in freedom when someone’s not trying to take your faith away from you,” Nik begins. “Fifteen years after the Soviet Union fell… they could not reproduce the books of the Bible [by memory].”
Memorizing Scripture in China
When Nik observed a group of 150 Chinese believers tearing the Bible apart, he was horrified. He had never seen anything like it before. He didn’t know what to make of it. Nik had always been taught that the Bible was sacred. He couldn’t understand why these people were tearing it apart. After talking to some of the people, Nik found out that they were distributing the pages of those books to pastors who hadn’t yet taught those words to their own congregations by memory.
International Worship Songs
In recent years, there has been a trend of churches in the West forcing their music and worship style on international believers. Nik adds that this does not work and is actually counterproductive. Western music is often unfamiliar and uncomfortable for international believers, who are then less likely to sing along and participate in worship. This practice can also be a barrier to people coming to faith, as they may feel unwelcome in a church that is not using music that is familiar to them. Forcing Western music on international believers only dilutes the power of their native words and disconnects them from their heritage.
In South Africa, they’d only known other types of missionaries. Whenever we showed up, they would stop their dancing, and they would stop their clapping, and their drums, and their finger music. They used to play some of it with their toes. The worship was so vibrant and so filled with joy. We’d show up, and they’d start singing something that was our heart song – from America – and worship would just die. And it got to be where we would say to them, with a smile on our face, if you’re going to sing our songs rather than your songs, I don’t think we’ll come again because our presence is killing your worship. And they just loved that.
According to Nik Ripken, the DNA of the resurrection thrives when believers take the Word of God and absorb it to create worship music in their own indigenous styles. We see this in African worship songs, Arabic worship music, and Chinese praise and worship songs. These international believers can take their newly created songs to any village, town, or city, and all the local people would recognize it as their style of singing and the words that come from their culture. The idioms come from their culture, and they don’t see it as a Westerner’s – or worse, a white man’s – music.
Is Music Haram in Islam?
In Islam, music is generally forbidden (“haram”) with very few exceptions. Their prohibition of music, musical instruments, and singing comes from their interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, a collection of traditions and practices that Muslims generally follow. In his Tafsir al-Sa’di (Interpretation of the Qu’ran), Islamic scholar Abdul-Rahman al-Sa’di writes that “singing and musical instruments are from Shaytan” (Satan). Music is seen as a distraction from prayer and worship and a potential source of corruption.
Nik adds that the Islamic teenagers (12-13 y.o.) have absorbed modern MTV music with sexual and aggressive overtones. They don’t understand the severity of the hate speech in these songs. As a result, Islamic teens end up weaving serious swear words into their own conversations.
If this is all they know, Nik suggests, it’s no wonder that music is forbidden in Islam.
How do you teach two billion Muslims to sing?