SBC Life Articles

The Unfinished Task: Loving the Lost

The Arab Muslims of the Sudan: Could they be the "poster kids" for lostness?

Baptist representative Mike Sanford has good reason to think so. Based on Mike's description, one could easily conclude that the home of this people group in west central Africa is one of the most closed to the gospel of any place on earth.

To begin with, only a handful of Christian believers exist among approximately 25 million people living in the north, east, and west parts of Sudan, Africa's largest country. Some groups have no believers at all – since becoming a Christian is against the law for Muslims there, says Sanford (not his real name).

Additionally, these Sudanese Arabs, which form one of the largest unreached people groups, never question their religious heritage, he says. When asked if they ever wonder if the Koran is true or if they ever think about truths presented in the Bible, they quickly bellow, "No!"

"Muslims love to talk about God and religion, so dialogue is not an issue," Sanford explains. "Questioning is the issue."

Several Muslim groups in Sudan, like the Beja and the Nubians, have no written language, and until now have had no Bible, Jesus film, tract, or radio broadcast in their own language. Others are virtually inaccessible to the gospel because of their remote location or tight government security, Sanford says. Travel is highly restricted and always requires a permit, with some areas, like the Nuba Mountains, prohibiting any travel at all.

Fear of opening the door to anything that questions Islam is staggering.

Sanford describes speaking with a young man who worked alone at a remote, desert "tea shack" (rest stop) in the north of Sudan. After determining that the boy could read, Sanford offered him a Bible in Arabic to occupy him at this lonely outpost. "The boy asked our Sudanese driver if he should take the Bible, and the driver said 'no'," Sanford recalls. The mere presence of this man kept the boy from accepting Sanford's offer of God's Word, he says.

Sanford began planting his life into this despairing milieu almost a decade ago. He left his work as a Baptist leader in the U.S. when he learned that 2 million people in eastern Sudan had never heard about Jesus.

"How could I not go? I was drawn because of (the Sudanese) lostness and the darkness that could only be broken by Christ," he says.

That Christless darkness is exemplified by the Koran's teaching that Jesus was not crucified – rejecting the cross and the real nature of the person of Jesus, Sanford says.

A Muslim friend asserted to Sanford that Muslims actually treat Jesus better than Christians do. "In Islam they have a god who would never let Jesus die on a cross," the man contended. Sanford says living among a people who teach, preach, and believe that the cross has no value keeps him passionately focused on telling others.

To accomplish this, Sanford and his family live not in Sudan but in a neighboring country – "sitting on the edge" of this closed Arabic area where the gospel cannot be shared publicly. He may work with two or three Sudanese converts who have become strong witnesses and evangelists. These, then, become the ones to reach their own country. Sanford has discipled two men who, in turn, have started seven Sudanese Christian "centers", reaching a number of Muslims.

"As Muslim-background believers, they have success in teaching and preaching. They are able to move freely without undue attention drawn upon themselves. As a foreigner, I would immediately bring attention and suspicion on Sudanese that I might want to visit." Some Sudanese have been beaten and tortured because Westerners have visited them and prompted security officials to interrogate, Sanford says.

"Sudan is not a place where a foreigner can drive up to a village and start preaching under a tree," he says. "Our work must be done with as little attention as possible for the sake of the few Muslim believers, rather than for our safety."

Some U.S. Christians can enter Sudan through relationships with the Christian church in the south of Sudan and remain problem-free as long as they minister only to those southern Christians, Sanford says. In other areas of the country, the situation for Christian workers is more serious.

Sanford and others who love the Sudanese see hope as the Holy Spirit leads these Arab Muslims to experience dreams and visions of Jesus that cause them to question. He says these Sudanese "will only come to Christ as the Holy Spirit draws them."

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions provides funds that Sanford and other workers use in developing and carrying out strategy to reach Sudanese Muslims and for converts to reach other parts of Sudan. LMCO funds buy cassette tapes, videos, and Bibles for use in Sudan (an audiotape with Beja music and stories about Jesus is now available for this group with no written language) and paid language helpers for Sanford and other workers to improve their Arabic.

Other purchases: medicine and food for needy Sudanese, cookies and crayons for children of Muslim converts, Bible classes for converts themselves, and high-tech digital recorders to collect Bible stories for distribution later by cassette or radio.

Sanford acknowledges that work in Sudan is discouraging when only one or two persons come to Christ compared to every 1,000 that respond in "harvest-field" places like Brazil, Tanzania, or Kenya.

He says he's reassured when realizing that "the harvest fields were not always harvest fields," with conversions once occurring more slowly, like those among the Sudanese now.

He likens the work in Sudan to someone drilling a hole in a hard surface.

"As you start to drill, the bit may dance atop the hard surface for a moment before finding a small niche and eventually digging in, straining to make a small hole," he says. "The harvest fields today are a result of people who faithfully kept 'drilling and drilling' until today we see hundreds responding to Christ. In Sudan, we are making little holes that will be followed by bigger ones, until one day we will see the glory of the Lord break through and hundreds respond."

His goal for the near future is to have personnel like himself assigned to each of the major people groups of Sudan, and to have Baptist workers on site, engaging these people and training their leaders. A related goal: to have Christians from other countries engaging these Sudanese, since many of them can more easily access Sudan than American Christians can. From these efforts, Sanford envisions bodies of believers emerging across all of Muslim Sudan.

Sanford's work among these that he describes as "poster children for lostness" is a reminder to Southern Baptists that God's activity assures that no such place exists as a "closed country."


Extending God's Kingdom Around the World

During the Week of Prayer for International Missions and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, Nov. 28 – Dec. 5, Southern Baptist congregations across the country focused their prayers, thoughts and gifts on the cause of extending God's kingdom around the world. This year's theme – The Unfinished Task: Loving the Lost – emphasizes the love Christ and His people feel for world's lost multitudes and the way they translate that love into action. The goal for this year's offering is $125 million. The International Mission Board draws 35 percent of its income from the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists' unified budget. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering provides 48 percent.

    About the Author

  • Kay Moore