Impressions of Istanbul image

Impressions of Istanbul

Īstanbul is good for the soul. There's something profoundly uplifting about travelling from the airport to the city centre by boat, peering through the haze above the Marmara Sea at the dreamy mosques and minarets scattered around Sultanahmet. Few things compare with the heady aromas of the Spice Bazaar, the proud pink splendour of the Aya Sofiya, or the experience of sitting on the streets sipping exceptional Turkish coffee as people smoke, drink çay and shout all around you, carry wheelbarrows of fruit past your table, and cram onto buses that make the 19 from Finsbury Park look positively spacious. In most cities, you don't find yourself accidentally playing football with a melon as you walk down the Kardiköy lanes to a cafe; nor do restaurant owners have large TV screens protruding out into the side streets so people can watch the game as they eat their lamb shish kebabs with olives; nor does the local football association punish unruly crowds by banning the men from home games; nor are the women and children fanatical enough to fill the 40,000 seater stadium anyway. Seventeen million people in an area much smaller than London could be a recipe for disaster, but from where I've been standing, it makes it one of the greatest cities on earth.

Having said that, I wasn’t there to write a travel guide, as surprising as that may seem. I went out to visit a church there, answer some tough questions in an open Q&A, teach through God’s big story for five hours on a Saturday, and preach the resurrection on the Sunday. And I can honestly say that the church was far, far more impressive than the city. There are 75 million Turks, a fifth of whom live in this city, and only five thousand of them are Christians - imagine Wembley Stadium, full of people, and only five believers - which makes Turkey the largest unreached people group on earth (in the sense of being the largest group of people in the world with no indigenous church movement amongst them). So it was overwhelming to spend time with seventy people, mostly Turkish, mostly newly or not yet converted, worshipping together in a charismatic, loving community that didn’t even exist just over a year ago. It was encouraging, moving, challenging and elevating.
There are so many significant things I saw, and fascinating conversations I had, that writing them all down here would be very self-indulgent and tedious. Most readers of this blog have seen churches in other cultures, and probably talked to missionaries about language-learning, contextualisation, the challenges of moving family, raising money, finding accommodation, and developing networks of friends and contacts (and if you haven’t, then you don’t want to hear about it from me, you want to hear about it from them). I’ve travelled a fair bit, but I still find myself asking elementary questions all the time, like “but where do you even start?”, and “it’s day three, you’re new in the city and you don’t speak Turkish: what do you do with the children?”, and “how do you find a plumber?”, and most regularly, “where do all these people come from?” So a list of my thoughts and discoveries might not be particularly edifying, especially to those of you who are doing it already, all over the world.
My trip did, however, raise one question in particular: how do we find, train and fund more people to do this stuff? I’ve travelled with parachurches, and seen schools and health centres being built in Africa, and visited missionaries working into tribal villages, but I’ve never seen anything like the local church, reaching local people in the local language and culture, and seeing lives changed by the gospel one person at a time. Yet the number of churches we are planting in unreached people groups, given Jesus’ commission to go into all nations, is still extremely small. (I’m using the word “we” specifically of Newfrontiers and of British Christianity in general, although I doubt we are the only groups to whom this applies.) How do we identify, prepare and finance people to go into the tough areas - North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, the Caucasus, the Asian steppe - and learn the language, learn the culture, preach the gospel and plant churches?
I’m not sure I have a particularly good answer to that question. In my case - and I think it’s vital to make the answer personal in some way, lest we all point the finger elsewhere - I know it involves preaching and teaching about the nations repeatedly, talking and writing about it, telling stories both of great need and great success, and building global mission into the training programmes and preaching series I’m responsible for. I suspect it means teaching on world mission and then creating contexts where people can hear from God prophetically, encouraging them to see if he is speaking to them about a particular country; call me cynical, but I’ve found that people are more likely to hear from God about things they’re theologically and emotionally committed to. Making specific appeals on behalf of specific parts of the world may also be part of it (so, “who wants to go to the Arab world?” rather than “who wants to go where?”), as will directing those who respond to the cross-cultural training courses we run as a family of churches. Plus, there’s the ongoing responsibility to persuade people, theologically, that reaching unreached people groups is not just an optional thing that some churches do and some churches don’t, but at the heart of the call upon Abraham’s family, the great commission and the purpose of God. It’s wonderful that lots of churches have links with Romania and Zimbabwe, like we do at Kings, but there are already indigenous churches reaching those nations; at some point, we need to get people into Afghanistan, and that’s made harder if everyone thinks that someone else is doing it.
That still leaves massive questions, though. How do we finance them? How do we support them, spiritually and practically, given the enormous challenges they will face? How can we make language learning, cultural adaptation and working in other nations easier for people by the way we inform, recruit and train people? How can we best equip people, given that the people most qualified to teach others are usually doing it themselves? I’m not sure. But I’m fairly certain - speaking into a Newfrontiers context for a moment - that continuing to function as one big family, rather than as lots of independent little ones, will make finding a way to answer those questions much easier. When it comes to reaching the nations, as a wise man once said, we really are more together than we are apart.
One more thing. When you know that just turning up, starting a Sunday meeting and gathering Christians automatically is impossible, it doesn’t just make you far more missional. Obviously, you have to start building friendships, telling people why you’re there, and explaining the gospel to people, or you’ll be coming back three years later with a whole bunch of Turkish words and some Baklava, but nothing on the ground. That much, I knew. But it also does wonders for unity. In my world, if someone says they’re coming to plant in Eastbourne, thoughts like ‘who do they think they are?’ and ‘what’s wrong with my church?’ and ‘are we going to lose people?’ rush through my head, before I realise that I mustn’t think like that and do my best to stop. In Īstanbul, though, the sheer joy that comes from hearing that someone else is coming to plant a church in your city is remarkable. It really does feel like everyone is on the same mission, rather than competing in the same market. Which, for a guy like me who quickly defaults away from risk-taking evangelism, is extremely challenging.
So: some impressions of Īstanbul. I hope there’s something here that’s thought-provoking, encouraging or even envisioning, but if not, then apologies for the length of the post, which is greater than I was intending. Turkish Airlines was playing Madagascar 3.

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