By Steadman Harrison,* CEO of Global Outreach International
January 2017 – Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. Ask most American Christians with a heart for missions, and they will be quick to share that we need to take the good news of the gospel to these countries. They would agree that we have a responsibility to plant churches. They would say that these are foreign lands dominated by Islam and that the vast majority of the people living in the Middle East have never met a Christian. To all of this I would say, Yes, and …
What I have learned from my time in the Middle East is that we need a shift of perspective that will reshape and recharge how we go about taking the gospel to these neighbors.
Driving around some of the great capital cities like Beirut and Amman, the first thing that caught my attention was the number of Christian churches. In Beirut, Lebanon, my taxi driver explained how the local mosques and churches had grown in size and beauty over the years as if in competition – bigger buildings, higher towers, increasing artistry. In many cases these church buildings would dwarf most of the local churches dotting the street corners of towns across America. And these weren’t only Coptic, Orthodox, and Catholic buildings.
“Yes, that was a Baptist Church we just passed on the corner and there is another,” explained my recent host. Hospitals, schools, and a range of churches are actively at work each day in many of these capital cities, each bearing the most significant symbol of our Christian faith – the cross.
Shifting western perspective
It was in a conversation with a Syrian Christian that the shift of perspective really came alive. With passion and broken-heartedness my new friend shared how painful it is to see the Christian church diminished, fading, and shrinking in cities like Damascus, where it has been alive for nearly 2,000 years.
The primary difference of perspective is that the American sees the church in the Middle East as a seed to be planted. We share a mental model of a church in its infancy. Our Christian family members in the Middle East hold another view. They see their church and their Christian heritage in the Middle East as an endangered legacy.
Understanding this reality changes our motivation and the means through which we take the gospel and the good news to this important part of the world. Our mission motive must be to undergird and support the church that is alive and active in the Middle East.
As we journey from the West and pray for these neighbors from a distance, we need to come alongside and around our brothers and sisters in Christ who are daily ambassadors and bridges for the gospel in their communities. They speak the language (most frequently Arabic), they understand the culture (both the hospitality and the rhythm of story and debate that are part of neighborly conversations), and they have the ability to translate into their context the good news about Jesus and the life that comes through following Him.
This most recent visit to the Middle East woke me up to my own misunderstanding of reality. The Christian church really has been there for almost 2,000 years. Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, and we can imagine Him motioning with His hands. He was sending the 11 disciples out to spread the gospel.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus told them (Acts 1: 8, HCSB). Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt. These are the modern countries where Jesus sent His earliest followers to plant churches and establish the truth about all He had commanded them.
Saul was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus – yes, that same Damascus! The scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he was sent out by Ananias, a disciple living there in one of the earliest Christian churches in the area we know today as Syria.
Standing in eastern shadows
Too often we see ourselves reaching into the Middle East with something “new.” We go to plant a seed in the desert in hopes that it will survive the heat. We miss the fact that we are standing in the shadow of a 2,000-year-old olive tree under which the earliest of missionaries once stood. We owe our testimony, our modern witness in the West, to those disciples and followers of Jesus who faithfully planted churches throughout the region of the Middle East as they were instructed to do.
Jesus explained that our faith was to be like a candle set on a lamp stand or a city on a hill whose light could not be hidden. The cities he referenced and brought to life in the minds of His disciples were cities like Jerusalem and Ajloun, Bethlehem and Amman. The church is still burning bright in these cities. The light has been shining in the darkness from these hilltops since long before the first candles were lit in towns like Boston and Charleston, New York, and Atlanta. We need to help safeguard the legacy and add fuel to the flame.
As the region has suffered instability on nearly every front, refugees are moving across borders. One local pastor shared how his church had prayed for years that God would open a door for the gospel so that they could do more work in Syria, a country that was previously closed and insulated. He reflected on the fact that the church had imagined the door swinging into Syria! God answered their prayers and the door swung open the other way, and thousands of Syrian refugees poured across the borders on every side. The challenges these refugees have faced are tragic, and the trauma is real. But the open door for the gospel is a huge answer to prayer.
Jesus sent His disciples out into the Middle East, and their obedience to that Great Commission makes our knowledge of the truth possible today. Let us consider how we can stand arm in arm with a church whose legacy is being threatened. May the light of Christ shine brightly in the Middle East until He returns and calls
His church home.
*Steadman Harrison, CEO of Global Outreach International (globaloutreach.org), has spent years on mission fields abroad. His insights on the church in the Middle East are both instructive and challenging. Headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, GO is a sending agency with more than 200 missionaries in some 40 nations.
West to East
Churches around the world must seek ways to fan the flames and safeguard the light of the church in the Middle East through:
▶ Praying faithfully
▶ Educating the Western church
▶ Initiating pastor training
▶ Creating discipleship platforms
▶ Providing appropriate resources
▶ Visiting Middle Eastern pastors
Pray for and seek creative ways that you and your church can be partners in the gospel with Christians who represent the earliest roots of our Christian faith. For more information and insight, visit globaloutreach.org, your denominational missions arm, and other Christian missions outreaches.