Joy from the Islamic World

Last week, I had the enormous privilege of being part of a Newfrontiers conference in the Middle East, in which cross-cultural teams from across the Islamic world come together for training, worship, prayer and encouragement. When the conference began a few years back, it was forty (mostly Western) cross-cultural workers. Now, there are around three hundred gathering, representing nearly thirty nations and speaking dozens of different languages. As far as I'm concerned, it represents the best of Newfrontiers: men and women who have made huge sacrifices, and dug in for the long haul, in order to see unreached peoples receive the gospel; apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers all working together; extended times of prayer and worship in multiple languages; theologically robust and spiritually fervent. Without wanting to sound sycophantic, it is none of the things Christian conferences shouldn't be (but sometimes are), and everything they should be. Here are seven reasons why, in no particular order.

1. Genuinely multiracial worship. There’s a taste of the new creation when you sing in Turkish, then English, then Arabic, and then have a prophetic word in Turkish, and then another one in Russian, led by a band that includes Iranians, Turks, Kurds and Arabs. It intensifies when you sing songs, not just in different languages, but in genuinely different musical styles: haunting violins, Arabic drums, melodic minor versions of Beautiful One, and in one memorable techno-fest, Turkish-Iranian dance tracks (which, while we’re on the subject, make Move Like This sound like All Things Bright and Beautiful). Revelation 7, at such times, does not seem far away. It’s glorious.

2. Intensive times of prayer. My prayer life, I have found, needs times of intensive corporate prayer to keep it alive; personal times are wonderful, and a great source of refreshing to me, but I struggle with intercession unless I am surrounded, on a reasonably regular basis, with those who are crying out to God urgently. And in that regard, there’s nothing like being surrounded by brothers and sisters working in the Islamic world, and hearing people pray in Albanian, Arabic, Assyrian, English, Farsi, Kurdish, Lebanese, Russian, Tajik, Turkish, Ukrainian and Urdu (not to mention those from Dagestan, Georgia, Oman, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Morocco, Bulgaria and probably some places I’ve forgotten). I doubt I will ever forget the few minutes we spent praying for one brother whose biggest issue, as he explained, was the challenge posed by ISIS in making ministry more difficult.

3. Encouragement. Stories of what God is doing in other nations, particularly those where Christians are being imprisoned or executed, are just about the most stirring things you can hear. When you sit down at dinner with someone, you simply have to ask the question, “how did you become a believer?” - encouragement is right around the corner. I had a dream of Jesus in the mountains of Dagestan. I was suicidal in a dark room in my parents’ home, when Jesus appeared to me. I tried to have my wife executed in a Sharia court because she converted to Christianity, but then Jesus came to me in a dream and baptised me. My grandfather was on his way to find a doctor, when a Christian pastor welcomed him into his home by saying, “we have an excellent doctor here”; he was healed, and immediately told his village he was now a Christian. Stuff like that.

4. Cultural insights into the scriptures. People who work in the Middle East can see a whole host of things in the scriptures which I, with my Western cultural lenses, would never notice, so it’s wonderful to hear preaching that highlights them. A message on how the gospel shines through the honour-shame dimensions of Genesis 38, for instance - you know, the oft-avoided story about Onan spilling his seed, and then Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law. Or the observation that the guy in Acts who admits to Paul that he bought his citizenship had almost certainly bribed in order to get it, and therefore owed honour to Paul as a citizen by birth. This dynamic is vital to the power relations in the story (much in the same way, as the speaker pointed out, as we need to clarify whether the doctor we’re seeing has bribed to get his qualifications or earned them!) Intriguingly, as the congregation listens to the biblical stories being told in this way, the suspense is audible: they ooh and aah, laugh and gasp, as if they have no idea what will happen next. The effect is captivating.

5. Food. Pide bread. Olives. Yoghurt. Lamb. Calamari. Chicken. Spiced rice. Baklava. Çay. Mixed omelettes. Barbecued fish. Where in the world has better food than the Middle East? (The real puzzle is liver, of course, which is thoroughly succulent and tasty in the Arab world, but in the UK always manages to taste like bowels.) Even if it wasn’t such a beautiful, temperate and hospitable region, it would still be worth travelling to the Islamic world sporadically just to see how meals should be done.

6. Children. At most Christian leadership conferences, children are notable by their absence. They are noisy, easily distracted, excessively energetic, and they don’t understand what’s really going on, so we don’t even mention them, let alone bring them along; that’s what schools and childminders are for. So it’s wonderful to be at an event where children are everywhere. A good kids’ work is provided, obviously, to make teaching sessions possible for adults and relevant for children. But kids are there at breakfast, and in the foyer before the main sessions, and after them, and at lunch, and throughout the afternoon, and prophesying in the meetings, and in the ministry time in the late afternoon session so that families can pray together, and then they’re around at dinner and into the evening. And it seems that having children everywhere does a number of important things. It stops everyone taking themselves too seriously. It helps leaders connect inspirational teaching to mundane, daily realities. It highlights the fact that families are working cross-culturally, not just parents. It shows children the scale and excitement of what they’re involved in. It energises people. It’s fun. “Let the little children come to conferences, for to such as these belongs the kingdom.”

7. Being on the front lines. This is implicit in much of the above, but the truly remarkable thing about those working in the Islamic world is this: they really are on the front lines. My town has a population of 100,000, around 1,000 of whom are part of my church community, and another 10,000 of whom are connected relationally to at least one of us. Other churches in the town have another 4,000 or so believers, who are in relationship with another 30,000 or so. And of the remaining 60,000, most have heard the Christian message in some form, whether or not they fully understood it (let alone believed it): at school, in the media, at Christmas, through family members or coworkers, online, or some other way. Things are rather different, to put it mildly, in the Islamic world. There are more Christians in Eastbourne (population 100,000) than in Turkey (population 80,000,000). British churches struggle with planning permission and car park space; Iraqi churches struggle with Islamic State. We’re trying to work out how to bring through a more diverse leadership team; Turkish churches are trying to work out how to have leadership meetings in four languages. We worry about the illiberalism of Theresa May; Iranian brothers worry about the illiberalism of the Ayatollah. As a British pastor, I know that the challenges we face each week are genuine, and difficult, and pressing, and in need of prayer and patience. But regular exposure to the guys who are, quite literally, taking the gospel to all nations, makes me realise that the front lines are elsewhere - and it reenvisions me to serve them, encourage them, give to them and pray for them.

All of which is to say: if you get invited to go, asked to pray, or encouraged to give towards what is going on in the Islamic world, take it seriously. One day, there will be worshippers around the throne from every single one of those people groups. I can’t wait.

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