A Church in an Undisclosed Location: Slowly and Waveringly Maturing

Article
12.12.2016

There are many parts of the world where it’s hard to see a big picture of God’s work among the nations because of widespread opposition. Yet even in these sensitive areas, the Lord is at work. Pray for our brothers and sisters who live isolated from other churches.

Here is the story of one church in one of the least reached corners of the world slowly and waveringly growing into maturity by the grace of God.

* * * * *

With a loud “click” the exterior sound system from the local mosque turned on at its highest volume. My wife and I had just moved our family to the Islamic world. We’d just fallen in bed, exhausted from our journey, when we heard that distinctive “click.” It was the first call to prayer of the day, a marker of everyday life in a Muslim land.

A CHURCH COUNTING THE COST OF THE GOSPEL

Unreached people often live in places filled with all sorts of obstacles to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. My new North African friends viewed Christians as drunkards, sexually promiscuous, and lovers of pork, “the defiling meat.” Hollywood movies and the loose-living tourists who visited their beaches supported these stereotypes.

Eight months later, when we first met some of the handful of believers among the millions of Muslims in this country, I learned the underlying reasons for this view of Christians: these new believers had stepped out of the rituals and strict codes that bring merit to the individual and family. Their families didn’t object to Christian beliefs so much as how they abandoned Islamic duties.

For example, when one sister stopped observing the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, her mother asked, “Why aren’t you fasting?” When she heard her daughter’s answer, the mother began to cry and wail. “Are you now going to sleep with every man who asks you?”

This mother believed that because her daughter had abandoned Ramadan, then she’d also abandoned all forms of morality. Further, she thought there was no way our sister in Christ could gain enough merit to escape hell.

Over 1 billion Muslims are trapped in this system that teaches salvation by works. The free gift of the gospel stands in stark contrast to Islam; consequently, it collides with the entire system of life in this culture, where the years, weeks, and even days are governed by rituals that are not only religious, but also function as the society’s relational glue.

The immediate cost of conversion is greater for my Muslim friends than it was for me. But for these believers I met, Christ is worth it.

A CHURCH FIGHTING PRIDE

Our part of the world speaks a dialect of Arabic as different from Modern Standard Arabic as Latin is from Spanish. Yet my Muslim friends urged me to learn Modern Standard Arabic in order to better understand Islam. They were proud that both the Quran and their rote prayers were in an elevated language not easily understood by even native Arabic speakers.

Perhaps more significantly, the Christians thought something similar. They didn’t want tools like the “Jesus Film” in the local dialect. Given their context where all religious ideas are expressed in high lofty language, they thought putting the good news into common language would degrade the message.

A CHURCH EXPERIENCING PERSECUTION, PRESERVATION, & PURE WORSHIP

We struggled through the issue of more easily understood language when a translation specialist suggested we replace the term “Son of God” in our Bible translation with a less confrontational substitute. He felt we shouldn’t “cut off the ears” of Muslims by using a term that evoked such negative responses.

In the middle of these discussions, my local brother and partner in ministry was travelling out of the country, but never made it out of the airport. The authorities had arrested him because of his faith. I spent the next day learning what it was like for the early church to spread the gospel without the protection of the law. Meanwhile, the police chief made clear that what the country did with one of their own was none of my business.

The following week, our doorbell rang. Seconds later my son ran back from the gate shouting, “He’s here! Our brother is here!” Miraculously, he’d been released from prison.

That day he said, “This was a good thing for me. Through long days and nights in a windowless detention room and interrogation, I knew the presence of the Lord in power.” After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, “It’s time for me to be bold. My people must hear the gospel.”

From this moment forward there were no questions about the use of “Son of God.” Local believers were emboldened by his evangelistic efforts, proving once again that in the face of persecution, God clarifies issues and strengthens his people.

Though the Lord was saving and strengthening his people, we soon faced another challenge: the indigenous church had no elders, or any kind of local leadership.

A CHURCH FINDING ELDERS

For several years two men had stood out as clearly qualified for leadership. But their recognition was delayed, largely because other missionaries felt I was overstepping my bounds in pressing the church to formally recognize these men as elders.

But in the meantime, the local believers came to the conclusion that they needed elders in order to really be a church. After discussing what the group and the two men believed, this local church joined with several foreign workers to lay hands on and pray for these men in order to set them apart as the first indigenous elders.

CONCLUSION

Through numerous challenges, the Lord has continued to establish his church in the midst of harsh opposition to the gospel. There is now a bold witness where there had been none.

A few months later, I visited the ruins of an ancient coliseum in a North African city. In the center of the ruins, there’s a memorial in honor of two young women and three men who refused to deny their faith by sacrificing an offering to idols the city worshiped back then. Thrown to wild animals and gladiators, Perpetua, Felicitas, Saturus, Saturninus, and Revocatus were executed for their refusal and their exclusive faith in our Lord Jesus.[1]

The government that killed them is now gone. But the church is still here.

In many unreached places of our time, Christians are embracing both suffering and hope as they embrace Jesus Christ. Despite the difficulties, they―and we―can confidently stand on the truth John declared, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Robin Daniel, This Holy Seed (Tamarisk, 2nd ed., 2011) p. 34.