Q&A with Ruth & Nik Ripken
Ruth and Nik Ripken bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight about believers all over the world. Join us in this Q&A session as we ask them questions about living abroad as a missionary serving among the persecuted church.
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Can I, in my comfortable Western church, develop the same radical devotion to Christ?
[3:01] If you understand the depth that you’re coming from. The two hindrances to the kingdom of God are racism and consumerism. I grew up so poor that I heard my father say, “I’d rather be poor and go to heaven than be rich and go to hell.”
When I got to Africa, my number one adjustment wasn’t the language, culture, or food. I was able to provide my wife and boys with adequate shelter, adequate food, a couple hours’ drive to medical care, and clean water. She homeschooled. I realized, within the first couple years, I’m in the top 5% of the richest people in Africa. I am the rich young ruler that Jesus commands to go out and sell everything that I have and come to serve him.
When believers in persecution come to America, and Ruth and I keep up with ten of them… after ten years, approximately, only one of them is still practicing their faith in America. And they’ve got scars on their back from being beaten. They have calluses on their wrists and ankles from being chained. They have emotional and physical scars that clearly demonstrate that they were willing to die for Christ, and then somebody rescued them and brought them to America.
And a couple things happened. They looked at the commitment of Christians around them, and said, “This is the Christianity I was willing to die for?” But they also would say things like, “Why would I sell everything to find the pearl of great price, when everybody has a bucket of pearls? Why would I need to go and sell all that I’ve got to buy the field that I’ve discovered treasure in when I already own the houses and fields?”
Racism and consumerism are the two biggest hindrances to the kingdom of God, and that defines the American church which is a multi-billion dollar industry. The answer is yes, but it’s a matter of choice and obedience.
My coming to Christ gives me the opportunity to share Christ with others. When I watch someone else give their life to Jesus, it authenticates our own faith. But the opposite is true. The less that you see lives changed, and you’re just surrounding yourself with institutional Christianity, and you’re not seeing families come to Christ, and people baptized… it’s very difficult to authenticate your faith when you don’t see it being reproduced in others who are so far from Jesus. The answer has to be yes.
[8:01] I think it has to be a yes, because Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow him. Whether we’re living on this side of the globe, or alongside our brothers and sisters in persecution, we all have that command to pick up our cross and follow.
Yes, it may be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay comfortable. You can do things outside the wall of your church that can help you do something that is very uncomfortable to you so that you can experience a boldness that Christ gives when you’re walking alongside people who don’t know Christ.
As Nik was saying, watching someone turn their life over to Christ… that can radically change you, and you’ll never be the same.
[9:44] I think that when I described America the way I did, I didn’t do so to be ugly but to let people know it’s a hard job.
When people are begging you to tell them about Christ, and they’re coming to Christ literally by thousands in some of the places we’ve served, that just does something. Your soul is singing all the time when you’re from a culture where 93% of people baptized were born in the church.
While we rejoice over those that are true salvations, it’s still very difficult to watch as a lot of these baptisms become teenagers and high school students. We see them no longer continuing their faith.
What is your top advice for strong marriage on the field?
[20:39] Before you go to the field, buy some presents for your wife that you can gift to her on birthdays, Valentine’s day, and special days. Buy some things, even intimate wear. Buy special things and do that secretly. Then, when you have those times and it’s just you, or things get hard, giving your wife gifts not only makes her know that I’m thinking about her in that moment but that I was thinking about her three or four years ago on that furlough.
Now I have a big problem. Everywhere I go in this world, I buy Ruth gifts… anniversary presents, Christmas presents, and birthday presents. I bring them home, and I lose them – I hide them, and I can’t remember. She finds them when we move to somewhere else. So a whole lot of good that one did me.
[22:47] Make it an adventure. The two of you are on an adventure, and each day is a gift. Don’t get tired of loving your husband, but do things together that allow you to minister together but also have fun together. Make your children, if you have children, part of that together. When you’re tired, don’t say things that you regret. Be cautious. It can wear you down. You might snap and say things… bite your tongue sometimes. Make sure you do devotions together. Make sure you pray together. Those are things that are very important.
One of the things I love about my husband is that I love to listen to him pray. I have loved this from the day I met him. When I hear him pray, I hear his heart. That allows me to connect to him and to his Lord. I get to experience that. Praying together, doing life together. For many weeks, we would be apart… spending time in prayer even when we’re apart, knowing our routine of praying before we go to bed at night and praying in the mornings.
Those were important to continue for ourselves and for our boys. They needed to know that this was something Dad expected of them. As Dad would go off into Somalia or around the globe, our boys would step up. They would continue the process of being the men of the house by protecting me, helping me, and doing all those things they watched their dad model.
The best way you can teach your children about marriage is to allow yourselves to love each other in front of them. They see you loving, they see you doing life together, and that is a thing I hope we’ve gifted our boys with.
[25:30] I find that when I’ve been gone for weeks at a time, sometimes months at a time, that’s when it’s hard to keep my marriage fresh. There’s always coming home and celebrating that. Ruth would set up a weekend where we could immediately go away and have someone take care of the boys.
You have to be creative about it. You have to premeditatively take things with you. Make sure you have each other on your heart.
When you have temptation, run from it. It’s not only what you do; it’s what you don’t do.
It was intensely marriage-oriented and parent-oriented because we were all that we had.
Intimacy at night starts with the breakfast table.
Are there any new books in the works?
[45:32] It’s going to be a children’s book. It will go and cover the children 8 years of age up to 13 years of age. Especially in Eastern Europe and China, the government does horrible things in schools to the children of Christians and religious leaders. I think that might not be a very long book, but it will be an illustrated book about what it’s like to stand in the middle of your gym in middle school with your principal and administrator standing beside you. He leads the entire school to make fun of you because you’re the children of the pastor or the leading local Christians.
What is it like to be made to stay after school and go to the principal’s office? Around the walls of the principal office are the administrators and your teachers ridiculing you because your dad and mom are Christians, or your dad’s the pastor or Christian leader. What would our children do if they were the only Christians in their school, and the leaders of their school led their friends to make fun of them? It’s for parents to read with their children and talk about what it would be like if your faith cost you this.
Then I’ve got a book in me that I’ll probably publish right before I die. I’ve got here a list of stories that missionaries never tell. Every missionary has airplane stories, toilet stories, funny stories of underdressed people in the village – all this kind of stuff that goes on. We’ve got some of the funniest stories on Earth, but people don’t expect it from the Ripkens. We’re probably going to write a book on the things that missionaries will never tell you, but we’re going to tell them. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
How much has transition affected your family life?
[50:12] Of course it did, but I don’t think it affected it in a negative way. I think it was a real positive… it was always an adventure. We’ve moved quickly several times where we had to just sell everything and move. That was stressful, but it was always fun when we got to the new place. In one place, we even built a house. That was really good for us. The boys always seemed to find friends to play with, and we would always try to walk the neighborhood to see what was going on, where the shops were, and where things were.
Some of the difficulties were when we moved and Dad was traveling so much. We were living in a smaller part of Nairobi and we ended up having to haul water. That was difficult.
The boys always stepped up and helped. When we lived in South Africa, we lived on a generator. Our oldest learned to fix the generator and the water pump. It never failed that when Dad would travel, things would break.
[51:57] We had one time where we moved… I helped move us, but the moment we put the boxes in the house, there was a crisis in Somalia. I had to go in for about a month, and she had to unpack the whole house and set it up. For the next four years, I couldn’t find anything. I was lost in my own house.
But you know what? Children feed off their parents. If the parents get all stressed out, which we do from time to time, then we need to go to our children and apologize. That is really important. Just say, “I yelled today.”
[56:44] Moving 38 times has helped me realize I don’t need to have all this stuff. Then I don’t have to pack and move it.
Parenting & Corporal Punishment
[52:43] I found, in 38 years in and out of Sub-Saharan Africa, we never saw a child spanked but one time. We were driving in Malawi out in the bush, and all of a sudden our oldest son said, “Dad, look!” The way his voice was, I thought someone was being murdered. We looked in the distance and a male was spanking his child. It never happens. They never touch their children.
What Africa taught me is that most of the time when I spanked my children… I was having a bad day. Africans don’t discipline their children. What do we discipline our children over? They don’t eat all their food, or they don’t put all their clothes away? We’ve never met a rural African kid that doesn’t go to bed hungry. All these street urchins are at deadly risk, and they’re going to eat everything they get. When they wash their clothes in rural places, they don’t have clothes on because they have one set of clothes. If they have a toy, they made it.
We punish our kids because of the stuff we give them.
Think of all the things we discipline our children for. They are not old enough to handle the material wealth we give them. Our children don’t put their clothes away, they don’t put their toys away, they are disrespectful. It’s just that we don’t do things with them, take them places, and spend that quality time with them. We give them so much stuff that they can’t handle it. They have to work for hours just to put their toys away and fold their clothes and put them in the right drawer.
In the places we lived for 35 years, we saw a child punished one time by spanking because they don’t have to discipline their children because they don’t burden them with the stuff we throw at our children. So I told my kids, I’m not going to give you anything else. I’m going to give you a Hot Wheels for Christmas and a lollipop for your birthday. And they said, Dad, that’s not going to work.
It’s harder not to give stuff to our grandchildren. We do set limits on it, and how much we’re going to spend. There’s no evidence in the Bible that Christmas is about us giving gifts to each other. I’m sure we can find out in history where that started. It’s something that Christians have incorporated into their church life that’s not biblical… not in the way that we do it.
Do you miss living overseas?
[58:31] This has been the hardest time for Ruth to have me as a husband. I have been miserable. But listen, it’s all my responsibility. We went from going to 80 countries internationally, on the go, just learning and being with God’s people all over the planet. We came home, ran smack into COVID-19 and two serious back surgeries. It’s not just adjusting to America which is hard enough. We went from going 100 miles per hour in countries all over the world to not leaving our home.
As you know, we booked speaking events two years in advance. For almost two years, we couldn’t do any of those. Health limits what we can do.
Coming back to a place that’s 80% white, visiting but one church that has a person of color in it… coming back to the consumerism, materialism, and racism. I’m sure pastors have left the ministry by the thousands because people were fighting over masks and shots. We come from a continent that’s dying of malaria by the hundreds of thousands, and they can’t even afford an aspirin. I can understand non-believers doing this, but walking in and finding pastors leave their churches because they thought they had a mature church. Watching it fall apart because of masks and shots… Ruth and I were not prepared for that.
How do you plant churches in places with existing hostile churches?
[1:02:32] The hardest place on the planet to witness is Judea. Billions of dollars are being used each year to subsidize the existing church in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and India. Christian businessmen tell us that it’s less expensive to send local people to reach their Hindu, Buddhists, and communists neighbors. The issue is that it’s not happening for the most part.
People will evangelize and plant local churches if you pay them. If you’re a businessman, here’s what we ask you to do. If there’s somebody you want to support, go be with that person, walk with that person, and visit with that person. Let them make a business plan and give you a financial accounting at the end of the year. Go when they’re expecting you, and go when they’re not expecting you.
It breaks my heart that 90% of all baptisms reported by local people supported by Westerners… you can discount. I often say to Christian businessmen, “if you ran your business the way you’re giving to the Christian mission world, how many years would your business last?” And they say, “Oh, it’d die in one year.” Why would you do less with God’s kingdom and God’s resources?
There are real reasons, especially in Islam, why local Christians don’t reach out to the next people group around them. You have the racism bit, but… when they reach out to their neighbors of other races and religions, the government and security police will often say… “We’re going to close you down. We’re going to take your church building away.”
The persecutors love to have local Christians funded by outsiders because they can turn it off in one night. They can stop it from coming through the banks; they can stop it from coming through the mail.
[1:10:57] In many places, Christian girls are kidnapped and married off to a Muslim man and they are never seen again by their parents. When they have children, the grandparents have no clue. I think that it’s real, and these parents struggle with the reality that they will never see their daughter again.
[1:12:47] They say, “Be thankful that one of your daughters is a Muslim.” How many generations does that have to happen for you to say no more?
They say, “Converts have fooled us in the past. We’ve seen them come to Christ. We’ve helped their children get into better schools… we’ve helped them get a job, an apartment, a house. They’ll stay with Christianity until they get every material blessing they can from the church. Then they just go back to their majority religion. […] It’s not cost-effective to reach these people. We have to spend hundreds of dollars in these countries to see one Muslim or Hindu come to Christ, and then they end up going back to Islam and taking whatever we shared with them. […] You don’t know what our neighbors are like.”
The big thing is fear.
[1:17:14] We’ve got to be willing to bring anybody and everybody into the house of God. Indigenous church planting means that they don’t have to become Western to become Christian. But if you take that and you push it to the extreme [where] they are required to worship in their own ethnicity, language, and locations – that’s what we call apartheid. Indigenous church planting is the norm for every mission agency that I’ve known. If you push it to the extreme, that’s apartheid. It’s closer to that than we would care to admit.
Foreign Language Errors
[1:22:07] She said, “Just go to the store. Get some sugar for me, and I’ll bake a cake.” […] It’s one thing to tell a joke. It’s another thing to be the joke.
That’s it for this Q&A session on the Witness & Persecution podcast with Nik & Ruth Ripken.