We called an emergency members’ meeting in response to concerns about Ali.* By all accounts, Ali was our most faithful church member. In a few years’ time we’d grown very close. Other pastors saw promise in him, and we were actively grooming him for leadership. However, some of Ali’s recent words and actions were concerning; new evidence suggested he was funneling information about us to the local police.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but church meetings in a Muslim-majority context can look a little different—especially when everyone in the room fears persecution. The church planter might wish to focus on establishing unity and developing strategy, but fear can infect and dominate the agenda.
In this particular meeting, I remember how legitimate concerns quickly sparked accusation and speculation. We met in secret. Phones were on the table and powered off. As discussion developed, hushed voices grew from gentle whisper to strained, back-of-the-throat exasperation. Some in the room, myself included, became convinced that Ali was not to be trusted. He should no longer be allowed to attend our gatherings. We may need to change locations.
Fear poisons mission because fear divides and silences. But there is a fear that actually fuels missions—and we should pray to God for more of it in our day.
Fear Can Stifle Mission
We know how fear can stifle mission from the earliest record of the church. According to the book of Acts, following the unimaginable conversion of Saul, all the disciples in Jerusalem were terrified by his presence in their assembly (Acts 9:26). Only Barnabas was willing to trust the former persecutor; he vouched for him before the apostles. But I doubt Barnabas’s testimony instantly doused everyone’s anxiety.
Such distrust is rampant in the Muslim world among followers of Jesus. In my experience, it’s common for local churches to doubt the conversion testimony of new believers. Suspicion, fueled by fear, can easily lead to division that ultimately stunts growth. But this is not a new problem. It’s as old as the church.
“Instead of viewing fear as the gospel’s greatest enemy, perhaps we should ask God to give us more of it—the kind of fear that fuels his mission.”
And fear does more than divide. It also hinders evangelism. The greatest challenge we faced when discipling believers from a Muslim background was overcoming their fear of suffering. Without fail, brand new or prospective believers, Bible open and sitting across the table from me, would say, “Yes, but I can’t tell my father.” With certainty in their eyes, they’d insist, “He’ll kill me.” Their fear, legitimate or not, kept many believers from speaking the gospel. And it kept many seekers from believing it.
Again, we should recognize that this isn’t a new struggle. Paul, according to Acts, faced repeated persecution (often from fellow Jews) wherever he went. Reading of his first missionary journey throughout Galatia, the story can sound like a playlist on repeat. Everywhere Paul went his gospel proclamation was met with anger and aggression, and he usually had to run for his life.
Later, when Paul arrives in Corinth, the same plotline seems to unfold. He preaches. Jews oppose him. We expect, almost subconsciously, the next step to be persecution that sends Paul scurrying for the exits.
But then God speaks. In a night vision, he says, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10 ESV). Without this hope, Paul could have easily given in to fear, the kind of fear that silences witness.
But Proper Fear Promotes Mission
You’ll understand my surprise, then, while recently preparing to teach church leaders overseas on the book of Acts, that I found fear playing a positive role. Luke, writing his history of initial gospel expansion, presents fear as integral to the spread of the gospel and the health of the church. Twice, in summary statements which describe the early believers and punctuate gospel expansion, Luke includes fear as an essential element in the first assemblies (Acts 2:43; 9:31).
But how, we might ask, could fear be good for the church? If fear of persecution leads to distrust and stifles evangelism, how could it be beneficial to the spread of the gospel? Here, too, I think the book of Acts provides an answer. Luke records how Ananias and Saphira, through greedy deception, had lied to the apostles—and to God! In response, God struck them dead at the feet of Peter. Luke tells us twice that the result was “great fear” coming on all who heard about it, on believers and unbelievers in Jerusalem (Acts 5:5, 11).
This fear is clearly beneficial. Not the fear of persecutors, but a proper fear of the Lord. It’s a trembling before God in recognition of his judgment. In the case of Ali, we ultimately decided to pursue corrective discipline and temporarily remove him from our gatherings. That decision, though extremely difficult, brought unity and purity to the church. But such discipline can have another positive influence. As Peter would later write, God’s judgment inside the church inspires fear for those outside the church. Because if this kind of judgment happens now to the family of God, think of what will happen to those outside it (1 Pet. 4:17). And this kind of healthy fear, the fear of the Lord, compels us to persuade others with the gospel (2 Cor. 5:11).
“Fear can bring unity inside the church and openness to the gospel outside it. And appropriate fear of God and for others can also open our mouths in evangelism.”
But fear in Acts isn’t merely in response to God’s judgment. Positive fear also emerges through various demonstrations of God’s power. In one such instance, Luke tells us that Paul was doing many extraordinary miracles in Ephesus. Meanwhile, Jewish exorcists mimicked the work of Paul by invoking the name of Jesus. But when they tried to command demonic powers, a spirit attacked the exorcists and overpowered them saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” The result was that fear came upon all the residents of Ephesus, and the name of Jesus was extolled (Acts 19:15–16).
Here, again, fear plays a prominent role in the advance of the gospel. Jesus’s name is magnified as people observe (or later hear) about demonstrations of power in his name. The same can happen still today, as God’s authority is evidenced in powerful miracles and transformed lives. In such circumstances, awe can grip a whole community.
So, fear isn’t inherently negative. It doesn’t necessarily divide or silence. Fear can bring unity inside the church and openness to the gospel outside it. And appropriate fear of God and for others can also open our mouths in evangelism. As Luke’s account clearly demonstrates, fear can be a positive motivator in the church’s mission. In fact, it was in the middle of perplexing persecution that Luke makes this stunning observation: the church grew and multiplied through the fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31).
So, instead of viewing fear as the gospel’s greatest enemy, perhaps we should ask God to give us more of it—the kind of fear that fuels his mission.
Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia, where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International. And he is the author of Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Land (TGC).