On a trip to communist Vietnam and China, the four-man band huddled discreetly with underground Christians in house churches and karaoke bars, hearing terrible stories of imprisonment and torture of those who risk their lives to be Christians.
Leaving their musical instruments at home, Jars of Clay went halfway around the world, not to perform on tour but to learn about an issue that has galvanized the Christian community and politicians too in recent years -- the persistence of religious persecution, especially Christian persecution, in the world today. "There's a passion for Christ that's a lot deeper over there," Jars of Clay member Dan Haseltine said last week. "In America, our first inkling is not to rely on the hand of God. But there, the word of God is very powerful to them. If the Book of Acts were still being written today, it would include the church in Vietnam and China."
Tomorrow, thousands of churches in the U.S. and worldwide will honor the fifth annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The goal of allied groups is to end harassment and abuse of Christians in about 60 countries. They claim that more Christians have died for their faith in the last 100 years than in all previous Christian centuries combined.
Jars of Clay, one of the most prominent Christian-oriented rock bands in America, has lately promoted the persecution theme on stage and in the studio. They have created a new video about Christian persecution called "The Narrow Road" and a CD-ROM of their single "This Road."
For various reasons, the issue of religious persecution has gathered steam since the mid-1990s. A climax was in 1998, when President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which made opposition to religious persecution a priority in U.S. human rights policy.
One scholar said the rapid expansion of Pentecostal Christianity in the world has been one reason for the spotlight on persecution. Pentecostal faith is usually intent on making converts and sometimes clashes with governments who want to resist religious pluralism, said Rosalind Hackett, who teaches religion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and co-edited the book Religious Persecution as a U.S. Policy Issue.
But Hackett, who is a researcher this year at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, cautioned against concluding that Christians are the only religious group being persecuted. The major religions of the world are sometimes agents of persecution, not just victims. "You can't blame people for promoting their own religious cause and fighting their fight," she said this week. "But there's no religious group in the world that doesn't get harassed in some corner of the world."
Another big reason for the rise of the persecution issue is the Internet, she said--the sheer number of Web sites and information-sharing that goes on between churches and watch groups. The information traffic is an unprecedented force of solidarity between Christians who have always taught that persecution is a perennial menace in church history but also a factor in church growth. "A housewife in rural Tennessee can now know about her sister Christian in southern Sudan," Hackett said. "The Internet gives people at the local level a great sense of relevance and immediacy."
For Jars of Clay, the experience of seeing Christians risk something for their faith--loss of a good job or a scholarship or seeing their home bulldozed as punishment for holding a worship service--is news to tell back home about the vitality of God abroad. "They asked us to pray that they'll endure," Haseltine said, referring to his Chinese and Vietnamese hosts. "When there's persecution, God shows up and the church grows."