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Pioneering path for others, church sends nucleus to C. Asia

CENTRAL ASIA (BP)–The darkness that lay beneath the smiling surface of life in her adopted city almost overwhelmed Elizabeth* last year.

At the halfway point of her two-year assignment in largely Muslim Central Asia, the Southern Baptist worker was confronted by the lostness of the small city where she lives. She witnessed the brutal beating of a female friend by the friend’s brother — a common occurrence in this part of the world. She experienced terrifying nightmares. She listened as a deranged neighbor in her building raged night after night, beating his fists against an iron hallway door steps away from her apartment.

“My eyes finally opened to the real spiritual darkness you can sense in those situations,” Elizabeth says. “I’ve struggled a lot with fear, and without the team’s support, there’s no way I could have worked through that.”

Who is this team? Her church family, 4,000-member First Baptist Woodway in Waco, Texas. And the team is not only the faithful folks back in Waco who prayed for her, but also the five other International Mission Board missionaries from Woodway who came with her in 2003 to live out their faith among the people of this Central Asian city

In both Texas and her adopted home, Elizabeth says, “I have people who say, ‘We’re going to pray through this, and you’re going to get through it.’”

Elizabeth tearfully shared her struggle when the missionary team met for worship one evening at the home of Raoul* and Maria*, a married couple on the team. Joined by three other single team members, Silas*, Jake* and Sarah*, they encouraged Elizabeth, lifted her in prayer — and related their own hardships and victories.

Raoul asked for prayer as he built relationships with a powerful local lawyer, who is sick and lonely, and with a group of younger men who had welcomed Raoul into their circle. Jake reported striking up a religious dialogue with a group of serious young Islamic students who want to place Islam’s holy book, the Koran, in every home in the country. He sought wisdom on how best to build on his contact with them.

Sarah told about a Muslim friend who had asked about the hardest part of her life. How could she find the right way to tell her friend “the hardest part of being here is the darkness and the fact that people don’t have Christ”? Everyone on the team related similar dilemmas.

They talked and sang, prayed and worshiped, confessed sins to each other, listened to teaching, studied God’s Word. They are a church — one of only two such small fellowships in the city of 80,000 people.

But that will change soon, they hope. That’s why they came.


Teams are the big trend in missions these days — regional teams, people-group teams, skill-based teams. The International Mission Board now builds much of its strategy around teams. But a missionary team mobilized by a single church and assigned to a single location by a mission board remains a rarity. If First Baptist Woodway’s experience so far in Central Asia is a guide, it may become a model for many other churches.

Paul*, the IMB strategy coordinator for the region where the Woodway team works, is sold on the idea. He coordinates other workers who come as individuals or couples to join teams formed on the field. Some thrive; others stumble over relational issues.

“We began to talk about how to build stronger, healthier teams,” he says. “Then we asked ourselves, what if teams came here healthy, instead of us bringing them here from different places and backgrounds, throwing them together and saying, ‘You’re family now, so get along’?”

Unity in the spiritual family may seem pretty basic, but ask any pastor what divides churches. Ask any missionary what causes more problems on overseas fields than tight budgets or local opposition.

Mission leaders at Woodway committed the church in the 1990s to make an impact in Central Asia and North Africa. The church had been sending short-term volunteers to Paul’s area for several years. It eagerly joined in the conversation about church-based mission teams.

Paul dreamed of expanding church-planting efforts beyond the large city where he is based to numerous small- and medium-sized cities in the region — most without churches of any kind, and few Christian believers.

In cooperation with Paul — and after much prayer and multiple visits — Woodway leaders selected the city where their first long-term team would settle. It’s a college town, similar in size and character to Waco (home to Baylor University), where foreigners could live and work in education- and travel-related fields without attracting undue attention.

The eventual team members emerged from a home group at Woodway dedicated to praying for Central Asia and spreading the Gospel there. They made a concerted commitment to the task. They met for worship and trained for more than a year, participated in multiple volunteer trips to the area and worked through personality issues. All this came before going through the application and orientation process for the IMB International Service Corps program and moving overseas.

They spent the first year in their adopted city learning the language, dealing with culture shock, making friends and living as a Christian community. They lived in a place that hasn’t seen a church of any kind in a century, among people who get their impressions of Christianity from Hollywood, occasional glimpses of robed and bearded Orthodox priests on television —- and misinformation from social leaders hostile to the Gospel.

“Basically, the idea was to transplant the fellowship we enjoyed in Waco to this place, like a cell extraction with people we already know and love and trust,” Raoul says. “What we’ve done is live out our normal Christian lives in a context where the Christian life is completely abnormal. It’s forcing the people here to figure out what to do with us.”

A few people have begun to seek what it is that makes these newcomers so radically different.

This year the team began contacting spiritual seekers and a few Christian believers in the area who have identified themselves by signing up for Bible correspondence courses advertised in national newspapers. The team’s goal: to gather believers into at least one core group — the nucleus of an indigenous church that will multiply in turn.

Throughout the assignment, the team members have involved folks back at Woodway — from preschoolers to senior adults — in learning about the city, praying for its people and visiting the area.

A second long-term team from Woodway arrived in the country last fall to study language and culture before moving to the small city and another city in the region. Members of the original team have returned home to share their experiences and help mobilize still more teams.

“It’s made a huge impact on our church,” says Marie Burke*, Woodway’s former global mission coordinator. “In sending teams overseas, we feel like we’re honoring who God created us to be.”
* Names changed for security reasons. For more information about the missionary team approach pioneered by First Baptist Woodway in Central Asia, e-mail your questions to [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges