Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The rough edges of globalization


Hannan* is hanging on, unsure what tomorrow will bring.

A doctoral student from the Middle East, she studies at a university in a major European city. Her potential is unlimited, but her resources are razor-thin. She and her husband, also a student, live off a tiny stipend they receive from their home country’s government. But political unrest has increased there, and no money has arrived for months. They’re using up what they managed to save last year; funds are almost gone.

Hannan’s husband is completing his degree, but has no immediate prospect of a job — either back home, where things are falling apart, or in Europe. How will they survive?

A local church has befriended the Muslim couple, making sure they have enough food during the lean months. Moved by the love of Christians, Hannan and her husband have begun comparing the teachings of Jesus with their own beliefs. Their church friends hope they will accept a New Testament to learn more about the gospel.

There are millions of Hannans out there. They live on the periphery of a better life, but it often lies just out of reach. They are students, immigrants and their children, refugees, migrant and contract workers. They’re looking for prosperity or at least basic economic security. They’re also looking for purpose and hope. But unlike Hannan, most of them have no one to tell them about Jesus, even if they currently live in free societies.  

To echo a common phrase among economic and sociopolitical analysts, they live on the “rough edges of globalization.”

More than 200 million people are part of this global migration, according to John Brady, IMB vice president for global strategy. Some of them quickly find opportunities in the places they come to.

But many “are being left behind,” says Brady. “When I look at the unevenness of the benefits of globalization, I see a lot of the rough edges. And sometimes those rough edges are in pockets that are just a few feet away from the very smooth edges. We’ve got to find ways to get into those pockets just outside the wealthy core of the industrial world and the information world.”

First, these migrating millions want decent jobs. “But particularly in the populations that have vast numbers of young people, we see not only underemployment but just the sheer inability to be employed, so there’s a wasting away of human potential,” Brady reports. “They don’t have jobs; they don’t have hope; they don’t have education. They feel useless.”

Left on the edge of prosperity looking in, some turn to crime. Others turn to extremism if they fall under the influence of militant ideologies. Most struggle quietly with hopelessness and despair. That’s true for people who live close to opportunity but can’t quite grasp it — and for the masses who still live far from it.

“Pressure is building in many places over the world where there’s just this booming number of young people, and we’ve got to find a way to get to them with the gospel,” Brady stresses. “It’s not easy, but it’s essential. Utopia is not going to just appear out of the economic progress of the world. It’s not going to be an economic solution, though economics is important. It’s not going to be a political solution, though politics is important. It is going to be a kingdom of God solution.”

The practical ways to apply God’s solution globally are countless. But they always involve people reaching across barriers and differences in the love of Christ to make disciples.

“I see the nations, and I see His love for them,” says Brady. “I see His desire for those people in the highways and the byways and the hedgerows, all those people who are hidden away — the neglected, the least of these, the ones who are the most unlikely folks. He wants us to be obedient in passing what we’ve got to someone else. When the blessing goes to that person and through that person to the next person, it becomes unstoppable.”

*name changed

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

First things first


The new year had barely begun when the usual round of bad news resumed: terror attacks, atrocities, massacres, war.

Some folks respond to the ugliness of world events by ignoring them. They try to create their own safe little world and pretend the big bad one doesn’t exist. Sooner or later, however, reality intrudes. Bills. Unexpected illness. Family problems. Job struggles. Life.

Even life’s pleasures become burdens if we depend on them for happiness. We create problems for ourselves by trying so hard to avoid problems. We can’t control our lives, but we never stop trying. It’s human nature, a manifestation of our need for security — and our endless temptation to usurp God’s role in decision-making.

Christians are as guilty as anyone of playing God, sometimes more so. With great fanfare, we dream up brilliant ministry plans and ask God to bless them. We consult our goals and action plans more often than we seek direction in Scripture. Doing something, anything, is easier than praying and waiting for God’s voice.

Our tendency, observes IMB President David Platt, “is to miss Christ in the middle of mission, to get so consumed in what we are doing for Him that we miss out on intimacy with Him.”

There’s a better way.

As his first full year of IMB leadership gears up, Platt is asking missionaries and staff — and anyone else interested in making the most of each brief, precious day of 2015 — to renew their commitment to seeking God’s direction. 

“Life in this world doesn’t last very long,” Platt says. “When we realize this, it changes the way we live. It’s in this light that I want to implore you in the beginning of this year to stop and think: What does it mean to trust in God when I’m not guaranteed tomorrow?” (Listen to Platt’s podcast on the topic HERE. Subscribe to his ongoing podcast through iTunes HERE or download audio files HERE.)

The Apostle James addressed the issue when he rebuked early believers for making their own plans: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:13-17 NASB).

Platt draws two basic truths from James’ words when it comes to setting priorities:

 n  Faith is humbly submissive to the sovereignty of God.

“We can become so consumed with the material realm, so consumed thinking about our plans and our strategies, [that] we become blind to spiritual realities,” Platt says. “The problem is not planning in and of itself. The problem is planning in such a way that God has no place in the plans.”

James by no means counsels “passive fatalism” or sitting back and doing nothing until God acts, Platt emphasizes. The Book of James is all about action: Its 108 verses contain more than 50 imperative commands.

“James is talking about activity and action the whole book,” Platt says. “But he’s talking about activity and action that are humbly submissive to the sovereign God of the universe, knowing that every accomplishment, every activity, literally every breath occurs only by the sovereign grace of God. … The key is a mindset that says, ‘I need the grace of God, and I am dependent on the will of God in every facet of my life.’ This is a radically different way to live in the world — particularly in the busyness and the business of our lives. … James says in the middle of it all: Submit to God. Don’t live like you’re going to be here forever. Live and plan and work like your life is short and you don’t want to waste it on worldly things. You want to spend your life humbly submissive to the sovereignty of God, and ultimately live for the glory of God. Make your life — this mist that comprises who you are for the short time you are here — count. Be finished with self-sufficiency. Live your life in radical God-dependency.”

n  Humble submission to God’s sovereignty leads to wholehearted submission to God’s will.

Sin isn’t just lying, coveting and other evil acts on a long list of don’ts. We sin when we fail to do what God has clearly told us to do: Live holy loves, love others as ourselves, and make disciples in our circle of personal relationships and among all nations. Platt:

“Holiness includes what we do in this world, how we obey in this world, so we’ve got to think, ‘What has God said to do today? He has given me today. He’s given me breath. He’s given me life. He’s given me sustenance. What has He told me to do with it?’ That’s a good question with which to approach today and this next year. If the Lord wills to give you an entire year in 2015, make the most of that mist which is here today and will be gone before you know it.”

That’s the approach Platt is taking this year — not only in his own life, but in planning and strategizing with Southern Baptist missionaries and mission leaders in their global gospel enterprise.

Rather than recycling a stale set of new year’s resolutions, why not consider it for your own life?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jesus in disguise


Christmas 1914 on the Western Front witnessed a remarkable event.

The Great War, now known as World War I, had begun. Years of unimaginable death and destruction lay ahead. Yet during the week leading up to Christmas a century ago, many German and British soldiers put down their weapons, crossed battle lines and shook hands. The informal “Christmas Truce” brought enemies together to talk of home, exchange food and cigarettes and engage in impromptu soccer games. Some even sang hymns and carols together.

In the darkest places, Christmas brings light. Enemies make peace. Old hatreds die, and mercy is born. Christ is glorified.

On the first Christmas, God willingly entered enemy territory, disguised as a helpless child, to make peace with those who had rejected Him over and over through the ages. Only a few recognized Him when He walked among us. Even fewer followed Him. He was reviled, betrayed and denied before being put to death on a Roman cross. Yet He changed everything through His life, death and resurrection.

Have you encountered the Lord in disguise?

Jesus told his disciples: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me: I was in prison, and you came to Me. … Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:35,36,40b NASB).

This Scripture passage formed the essential mission strategy of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took Jesus’ words literally. For her, every hungry person, orphan and refugee was “Jesus in His distressing disguise.” The more distressing the disguise, the greater the need for our love.

In 1946 she sensed a “second call” from God to leave her original vocation as a teacher in a Calcutta convent and go to the streets, which were filled with the refugees of communal violence, poverty and indifference. One day she stumbled over a starving woman, eaten with worms, lying in the gutter. She picked up the woman and took her to a hospital, refusing to leave until someone cared for her. City authorities eventually gave Mother Teresa an abandoned Hindu hostel, where she could take the nearly dead to die in the arms of love. Thus was born her mission to “the poorest of the poor.” In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, gradually expanding her ministry to lepers, disaster and war victims, the unborn — even affluent Westerners afflicted with loneliness and isolation, which she regarded as the worst diseases of the developed world.

Mother Teresa carefully schooled her missionaries in simple acts, like touching.
“We train ourselves to be extremely kind and gentle in touch of hand, tone of voice and in our smile so as to make the mercy of God very real and to induce [others] to turn to God with real confidence,” she said before her death in 1997.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: Have you ever encountered Jesus in a “distressing disguise”? How did you treat Him?

Maybe He showed up in your town recently, speaking a strange language and carrying all His possessions in a plastic U.N. refugee bag. Maybe He’s sitting in the county jail, with no visitors except an overworked public defender. Maybe He’s working at the convenience store near your house and has nowhere to go for Christmas.

Maybe He’s living in an Ebola-stricken area of West Africa, in a refugee camp on the Syrian border or among a spiritually lost people group never touched by His modern-day followers, wondering if anyone will come bringing light and hope.

Were Jesus’ words about visiting Him by visiting others symbolic? Perhaps. But Mother Teresa’s lovingly practical approach to the “least of them” makes a lot of sense to me. One thing is for sure: God Himself personally visited us on the first Christmas in the form of a child, walked with us as a man, died and rose for us as a Savior.

One day in eternity, He we will ask us who we visited in His name.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Creed: His glory their reward

Here’s a creed worth adopting — if you dare.

As a follower of Christ: I am called not to comfort or success but to obedience. Consequently, my life is to be defined not by what I do but by who I am.
Henceforth: I will proclaim His name without fear, follow Him without regret and serve Him without compromise.
Thus: To obey is my objective, to suffer is expected, His glory is my reward.
Therefore: To Christ alone be all power, all honor and all glory, that the world may know. Amen!

Those 83 words challenge a number of things we hold dear as modern Americans: personal independence, success, comfort, unlimited options. They comprise the creed, which is first memorized, then lived out, by students accepted into Fusion (imbstudents.org/fusion), a challenging year of mission training and action for college-age Southern Baptists.

Fusion, now in its 10th year, is a partnership between IMB and Midwestern Baptist College, the undergraduate program at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. It puts students through far more than an academic overview of missions. They spend the fall semester living and studying in a close discipleship community, participating in specialized training programs, doing ministry and evangelism in the Kansas City area and holding each other accountable to their commitment. For the spring semester, they head overseas to join IMB missionaries in various locations. Fusion teams are trained to go to the least-reached people groups, so they often travel to physically challenging or high-security areas around the world.

Wishy-washy believers need not apply. Well, they can apply, but they won’t stay wishy-washy for long.

Gwen Noonan* found that out for herself when she signed up. Noonan, now 20, entered the Fusion program in the fall of 2012. She was as an enthusiastic 18-year-old from California searching for exciting ways to serve the Lord. In Fusion training, she soon learned that God seeks more than our service; He seeks our whole being.

“During our contingency training, we were put into scenarios that felt so real even though they weren’t that I really had to ask myself whether or not the gospel is worth my life,” she said. “Is Jesus, really knowing Him, worth all that I have to go and glorify Him in the nations?”

She also learned about Karen Watson, whose words and life helped inspire the Fusion Creed. Watson, another Californian, was one of four Southern Baptist relief workers killed by unknown gunmen in Iraq in 2004. A former law enforcement officer known both for her toughness and her passion for God, Watson knew the risks of working in Iraq. She had willingly returned there shortly before her death after several previous close calls with death. 

“When God calls there are no regrets,” Watson wrote in a now-famous letter found in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death.” She left it with her pastor when she departed for the Middle East in 2003. “I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations,” Watson said in the letter. “I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.”

Fusion training confronted Noonan with spiritual reality. “Learning more about Karen’s story helped me realize His Glory really is my reward and really is worth it,” she said. “Knowing the sweetness of Jesus even in the midst of these hard things, knowing Jesus even in His sufferings, was something I would be willing to lay my life down for.”

Noonan’s commitment deepened when she went to her mission assignment overseas, which involved developing friendships with Muslims in order to share the gospel. It wasn’t easy, but she found Christ already was there.

“I went through a time of loneliness,” she remembered. “Jesus was just so faithful during that time, and He used the creed to encourage my heart. [He said] ‘I am so worth it. I have suffered for you and to obey My Father. Abide in Me and know the sweetness of laying your life down.’”

During that time Noonan, a musician, also completed a song based on the Fusion Creed that she had begun writing during training. When she returned to the United States, she recorded “The Creed” and participated in the making of a video featuring the song: https://vimeo.com/112718306.

This year, Noonan has become a Fusion “advocate,” one of the alumni who return to help prepare the next generation of Fusion trainees not only for their overseas assignments, but for a lifetime as disciples who make disciples. In January, 59 people now in Fusion training anticipate going in teams to North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia to glorify God. Noonan will lead a team of three young women back to the area where she served last year.

Her reward? His glory. 

*Name changed

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The rise and fall of walls

Walls of the mind and heart are harder to tear down than walls of brick and stone.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago brought great hopes of a new birth of spiritual and political freedom, not only in the communist orbit but around the world. In many ways, those hopes were realized. Old tyrannies began to crumble. The Cold War ended after more than a generation of East-West conflict. Churches and believers long imprisoned by persecution and fear were released into the sunlight of liberty.

The collapse of the Soviet Union followed the glorious opening in Berlin. Waves of Christian workers from the West flooded into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics to assist their brothers and sisters in the faith. An exciting era of evangelism and church planting began.

That era continues, despite the turmoil that has followed Soviet communism’s demise.

“The wall was an outward symbol of an inward reality,” Mark Edworthy, IMB strategy leader for Europe, told IMB writer Nicole Lee. “Communism had erected a spiritual barrier with its incessant denial of God’s existence and its cycle of cruelty. Spiritually, we eagerly took up a hammer and chisel to work against that greater barrier.” A quarter-century later, “we can see greater trophies than stone and mortar as the Lord has continued to build His church throughout the former Soviet sphere.”

But believers are working with urgency in Eastern Europe, Lee reported, “because no one knows how long the door to some of these countries will remain open. The ongoing war in Ukraine highlights the fact that, although the Cold War is over, communism and other secular philosophies are still at work.”  
The social and economic chaos of the immediate post-Soviet years led to yearning in Russia, at least for a “strong hand” at the helm, which has resulted in new tensions with the West in recent years. Those tensions are pushing the world to the “brink of a new Cold War,” warned former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a Nov. 8 event in Berlin marking the Wall’s fall. Gorbachev, whose reforms helped hasten the end of the Soviet empire, criticized global powers for failing to work together to end conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Ukraine.

For now, open ministry continues.
“We really don’t see any comprehensive political pressure that hinders the advance of the gospel. Materialism and consumerism have replaced communism,” said one Christian worker based in Russia. Still, he added, “Our time might be short. Have we planted an apostolic burden among Russian church leaders? There are some who [are passionate about reaching the lost], but we need many more.”

The message is one that has been repeated again and again throughout history: There are no guarantees except for the presence and sovereignty of the Lord. Walls may fall, while others rise. In the political realm, the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing occurred in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down. Yet the Chinese church, which suffered one of its darkest hours during the savage persecution of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, continues to grow in size, vitality and passion for global mission.
“God may seem silent on occasion. At other times, people simply don’t trouble to hear his voice,” writes Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, in Christianity Today. “As an example, we might look at the experience of China, which over the past two millennia has remained the world’s most populous nation. The story of Chinese Christianity is a recurrent cycle of mighty boom years followed by what seemed like total annihilation at the time, an obliteration so absolute that on each occasion, it was quite clear that the church could never rise again. That cycle has occurred five times to date since the ninth century. On each occasion, the Chinese church has reemerged far more powerful than at its previous peak. Each successive ‘nevermore’ proved to be strictly temporary.”

Today, the very existence of the church in the Middle East, the cradle of the Christian faith, seems threatened by the advance of Islamic extremists. But God will not leave Himself without a witness. 

“Even when institutional churches vanish, believers persist in many different forms,” Jenkins writes. “As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the frustrated Soviet minister of education, complained in 1928, ‘Religion is like a nail: The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood.’ Sometimes it goes in so deep, you can’t even see it.”

One day that nail reappears, stronger than ever.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quarantine fear


There’s a disease on the move that’s even deadlier than Ebola.

It is invisible and highly contagious. It spreads with lightning speed and paralyzes its victims. It turns people, communities and nations against each other.


The disease is fear.

Anxiety and dread seem to permeate our nation — and many of our churches — at the moment. Threats abound: Ebola, ISIS, mindless violence, multiplying enemies. There’s a general sense that the world is spinning out of control and no one knows what to do about it — certainly not the institutions and experts we once looked to for guidance. 

“The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear,” observes David Brooks of The New York Times. “It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.”


Some threats are real; others are the product of hysteria and saturation coverage of death and destruction. But we aren’t sure which is which. So we hunker down behind locked doors and dire predictions of worst-case scenarios.  


“There is no doubt that we will stop this [Ebola] outbreak, end the deaths, and, if done right, build the tools to prevent another large outbreak like this,” writes epidemiologist Larry Brilliant in The Wall Street Journal. “But it won’t be easy. Fear, panic and politics have gripped Americans, with the potential to do untold damage to our nation and the global economy. Our real enemy is a hybrid of the virus of Ebola and the virus of fear. As the famous World War II British poster reads, we need to keep calm and carry on.”


Easier said than done. Instant media spread facts and knowledge as well as rumors, misinformation and doubt. Many Americans now apparently fear anyone coming from Africa, even if they arrive from countries nowhere near the West African region affected by the Ebola outbreak. Some African immigrants who came to America years or decades ago report being ostracized or treated with suspicion since the Ebola scare began.

Eighteen Oklahoma high school students reportedly stayed away from class recently when their parents heard rumors on social media about three students who had just returned from a mission trip to Ethiopia, thousands of miles from the Ebola zone. “Our students were not exposed to Ebola,” Inola School Superintendent Kent Holbrook assured a local TV news reporter. “There was no person that was sick on the trip. There was no person sick [in] Ethiopia while they were there. There was no person [sick] on the plane.”

T.J. Helling, a local youth pastor who helped organize the mission trip, told the TV reporter the three students “did more in the last 10 days [during the mission trip] than most people do in their lifetime for other people. We need to remember that we’re here to encourage them and support them, not beat them down.”

I called First Baptist Church of Inola, where the three students attend, and talked to an adult member there. She said the fear in the community “shows that the world is lost. But our reaction to the fear shows Christ in us. I’m telling our students, ‘It’s easy to show love and grace to a kid in Ethiopia on a mission trip, but you need to show the same grace to the kids you see every day at school who are fearful of death. God may be building character in you.’

“The church can’t react in fear,” she added — at home or abroad.

Amen, sister. First Baptist of Inola is an example for us all in these uncertain days.

Fear is real. Don’t deny it or mock others who feel it, even when their fear seems irrational. That would make us hypocrites, because we all struggle with it. A friend of mine who did Southern Baptist mission work for many years in the Middle East currently mobilizes churches in the United States. He regularly interacts with Christians and church groups who fear all Muslims, fear everything happening in the Middle East, fear even the thought of going there — or befriending someone coming here from the Muslim world.


“I acknowledge the fear. It’s real; I get that,” said my friend. “But we’ve got to look at it through God’s eyes. If God can turn a terrorist named Saul into [the Apostle] Paul, He can turn some of the hearts of the people in ISIS. Jesus is the only solution.”


Jesus calls us to look at the world through His eyes — and to look at Him, not the dangers and troubles that terrify us. Matthew 14 describes the night He came to the disciples walking on water:

When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matt. 14:26-31 NASB)


If bold, impetuous Peter, who walked with Christ Himself, experienced fear when He looked at the world, don’t be surprised if you do. Acknowledge it. Confess it to the Lord. Then look into His eyes, not at the fearful circumstances of our times. Step out of your safe, cramped boat. Befriend a lonely immigrant. Cross a border — and challenge some friends to go with you.


Jesus is already there, even in the darkest places, waiting for you to follow.


(To explore ways to follow Jesus into a dark world, visit http://imb.org/go/serving.aspx)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Darkness and light in the Middle East


Sometimes the tears, the tragedies, the sheer horror of it all overwhelm Christian workers trying to help refugees fleeing war and terror in Syria and Iraq.

Jayson Keath,* a Christian strategy leader based in the Middle East, recently visited a Syrian refugee family now living in a country inundated with traumatized Syrians. One of the small children in the family was missing a finger — severed by a slammed car door as they rushed to escape the violence in their homeland. The parents had to knock the child unconscious so pursuing Syrian soldiers wouldn’t hear his screams of agony.

“It wasn’t so much their pain that gutted me,” Keath says. “It was the void of hope in every face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or felt darkness so strongly.”

Can the situation on the ground in Syria and northern Iraq get any worse? Much worse — as illustrated by ISIS (Islamic State) militants and their genocidal campaign of conquest across the region. The rise of ISIS amid the rubble of two failing states offers evidence of something larger, according to one despairing Arab observer.

“Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” wrote Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese journalist and Washington bureau chief of the Al-Arabiya satellite news network, in a recent commentary for Politico titled “The Barbarians Within our Gates.” 

“The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago,” Melhem asserted. “Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism. …  Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?”

Melhem speaks for millions of disillusioned people across the Middle East and Northern Africa who feel caught between larger forces struggling for power. Is there any hope for them?

Yes, says Keath. And he wants Christians watching the struggle from outside the region to know the other side of the story. Hope that was hidden from many in earlier, quieter times is being introduced to people searching desperately for it now.

“The world is captivated by the crisis that has been generated by the movements of ISIS in northern Iraq, the plight of the Yazidis and other minorities,” Keath says. “The world is watching, and all they’re seeing is the advance of evil — sheer, utter evil. But there are two realities at work. There is the advance of evil. There is an evil one who is not only lurking but is actively trying to kill and maim and destroy and keep eyes blinded to the light of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

 “But there’s also the advance of the Gospel. Everywhere we see these things happening, we see the Gospel advancing in ways that we did not imagine before.”

 As the visible Christian church in the Middle East faces threats, attacks and persecution from many directions, a new church is being born among Muslims deciding to follow Christ as Lord after seeing Him in dreams and visions, reading the Word of God and seeking out other believers.

And not just Muslims, adds Keath. Members of traditional Christian groups on the run from ISIS and other extremists in Syria are finding shelter, aid and friendship among evangelical believers in the region — and hearing the whole Gospel as they never have before.

 “Now they’re meeting in discipleship and growing,” he says. “Maybe God is moving in a way to lead those in the ancient church back to Christ, because that is happening. There are others — Orthodox from Syria and in another country bordering Syria that have come to faith in Jesus for the first time. There are multiple people groups that we’re talking about; there’s Sunni, there’s Shia, there’s Alawite, there’s Bedouin, there’s Orthodox, there’s Assyrians and Kurds. We can find believers now from all of these people groups that have come to faith as a result of the Syrian crisis. … Yes, the world needs to respond to the crisis, but there are enormous opportunities to confront people with the Gospel of Christ who have never been confronted with it before. All these people groups that I just listed, we never had access to them before [in Syria]. …

“The same thing is happening in Iraq right now. It’s not just the Yazidis and Christian minorities and other minorities; it’s the Sunni Muslims who are fleeing Mosul and other areas who are coming out by the hundreds of thousands. We have had no engagement of Iraqi Sunnis — and now we have an opportunity to do that. It’s not just the immediate response; it’s ‘Lord, what space are you creating for the Gospel to go forth, and how do we steward that opportunity?’”

With new opportunities come new and increasing risks across the region. But risks won’t stop the work God has begun.

 “We will not accept that we cannot engage in these countries,” Keath says. “It’s just a matter of what is our presence and what does that strategy look like? How do we continue to see Gospel penetration in these countries? Yes, there will be strategic shifts. [But] the Gospel is going to continue to advance.

 “God is moving; the nations are stirring. It’s going to happen. It may not involve us every time, but it’s going to happen. It is happening.”

 (To learn more and join what God is doing amid the turmoil of the Syrian refugee crisis, visit: http://namepeoples.imb.org/landing/4syria)

*Name changed