MIDDLE EAST (BP)–On a sun-washed October morning in the Middle East, Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt stood atop a roof and listened as mournful voices floated up from the valley below.
First one cry, then another and another: the voices of Muslim imams from every mosque in the city calling the faithful to Friday prayers. The prayer calls merged into a single choir of sorts, followed by an echo chamber of competing loudspeakers as the imams launched into their sermons to the 75,000 residents of the area.
Many events in the Old and New Testaments — including key moments in the lives of Moses, Elijah and Paul — took place in or near this valley.
“We’re hearing the voice of the leaders of Islam giving their Friday messages,” Hunt said as he listened (Watch a short video of Hunt at http://bpnews.net/mediaplayer.asp?id=59). “It’s the message of Muhammad, the message of the Qur’an that is dominant in an area that once was very Christian. The Apostle Paul would have made his way through these hills within probably 20 miles of this very city. We would have heard the message of Jesus Christ.
“But that voice has been silenced. We have been drowned out because we’ve allowed ourselves to be silenced. The voice of Islam has been raised because they are willing to pay the cost to make their message known, while we in our affluent culture have done less and less to make Jesus known. As never before in our lifetime, we must raise our voices even louder than the voice of Islam to make the Gospel known.”
Hunt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock, visited four countries in the Middle East and North Africa in October. Accompanying him and his wife Janet during the two-week journey were Woodstock mission staff members and six other Southern Baptist pastors and missions leaders from churches in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina.
Renowned for mentoring other pastors and steering them toward missions, Hunt never goes anywhere in ministry — particularly overseas — without taking someone with him.
“I’m trying to create platforms where guys can come here and see the many opportunities for them to join in and have personal involvement,” Hunt said. “Most people pay for what they own, and we’re trying to get pastors to buy in and take ownership [of missions]. Not only do we want to support it, we want to join the people who are doing the work.”
Hunt’s mission coordinator at Woodstock, Phil Reed*, confirmed that priority.
“We’ve probably taken 40 or 50 pastors overseas over the last 10 years,” Reed said. “Some just needed a little push” to get involved. Many of the veterans of past trips now strategically partner with missionaries around the world.
Hunt and his colleagues met with more than 30 Baptist pastors from six nations that are home to Middle Eastern peoples, visited Southern Baptist workers in the region and traveled to one of the most volatile places in North Africa.
They spent several days with the Middle Eastern pastors — teaching, mentoring and trading ideas about effective ministry. The pastors, many of them young members of a new generation of leaders, shared the challenges they face: persecution, discouragement, isolation, struggling flocks, lack of resources.
During a devotion time, one of the Middle Eastern pastors asked if others ever consider quitting the ministry. “I think about it twice a day,” he admitted with a laugh, but he was only half joking. Others nodded in recognition of his plight. He reminded them that Elijah felt like quitting, too, before the Lord gave him new strength and courage.
“If you are feeling as if you are weary, under pressure and can’t continue, God will come to strengthen you,” he promised. He and other pastors described the many ways God is working through their ministries to shine light into a dark world.
“These churches are like babies that have been abandoned,” one conference participant said. “Every time they stand up, they get knocked down. They just need a big brother to lean on.”
For a few days, Hunt and his group acted as big brothers.
“You have really supported us,” one of the Middle Eastern pastors told the visiting Americans as the conference ended. “Someone has come from the other end of the world to say, ‘You are not alone.’ That has really moved me inside. We need that.”
NO TURNING BACK
Hunt moved on to an even more challenging nation in North Africa, the home of some of the most radical Islamic groups in the world. But it also is home to a powerful, indigenous church-planting movement that is expanding rapidly despite violent resistance.
Some of the new church leaders in the region are themselves former Muslim extremists. The Americans met them in the capital city and listened to their stories.
“We met men who have known the Lord maybe five years, who sense the call to go back to their own people or their own villages, which are areas of hostility,” Hunt recounted. “They’re willing to cross any barrier to make Christ known. They’re averaging 450 to 500 people [in their churches], doing door-to-door evangelism at incredible risk.”
They are leading so many people to Christ that some Muslim evangelists in the region now copy their methods.
Live or die, there’s no turning back for these church leaders. One pastor said the government had warned him to close his church. He refused. What if they come back and arrest him?
“If that happens, God wants me to evangelize the prisons,” he declared.
“We’re not talking about the church in hiding,” Hunt said. “We’re talking about bold proclamations. It so reminds us of the New Testament and it’s so inspiring. It challenges us to make sure that we’re taking advantage of the freedom of religion in our own nation. If they’re willing to do it here, we should really take it up a notch in our own backyard.”
How can Southern Baptists help these believers? They need prayer — and they need the Old Testament in their language (a New Testament translation is available).
“There’s a great hunger here among people who have never owned their own Bible,” Hunt reported.
Before heading home, Hunt’s group visited several other locations, including Cairo, Egypt — once a Christian city, now the intellectual center of Islam.
Hunt said he was taking several messages to Southern Baptists from his trip:
-– “People who have converted out of Islam tell us it’s not that they didn’t want to know [about Jesus], it’s that there was no one here to tell them. When they hear of the resurrected life of Christ, of the joy and power He gives, they’re overwhelmed. They wonder why we waited so long to tell them. They’re really waiting. There’s far more openness here among the common people than we’d ever known. We have concentrated too much on radical Islam when the truth is that most of it is nominal at best. We’ve got to get out of our mindset that this region is not reachable. It is reachable. Christ needs to be made known.”
— “My state of Georgia has 9.7 million people. More than 5 million of those people live in metro Atlanta. And yet there are more than 3,600 Southern Baptist churches [in Georgia], not to mention all the other evangelical witnesses they have. But in these areas of lostness, we’re talking 1.6 billion people globally who have never even heard the name of Jesus. Unless we take what God has given us and make it available to these people, they will perish without the Gospel. We need to move to the last frontiers and mobilize the church in America in these last days to come to these areas.”
— “We’re really going to have to sacrifice our passion for the American dream to accommodate the sending of the Gospel financially, with our lifestyle and our time. Certainly there will have to be more money given to the Cooperative Program. But as Southern Baptists give to the Cooperative Program, it’s my sincere desire that the vast majority of the money would get to the vast majority of lostness in the world. We’re doing a lot of good things, but many would challenge whether it’s the absolute best thing. When we stand before Christ, will we have taken what He gave us and used it in the regions where it was most needed? When you’re not just taking a trip but you’re really catching His heart for the nations, you’ll give like never before. I can give personal testimony to that.”
Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent.
*Name changed for security reasons.