New groups of Jesus followers are forming in the Caucasus region – sparked by social media Scripture advertisements and led by a growing group of national disciple makers.
It’s not always possible for Jesus followers to live amongst those who have never heard the gospel message, even when they know the language, even when they love the people. Keith*, who calls himself “a five-star deportee” from the Turkish-speaking country where he grew up, knows this first-hand, having encountered bureaucratic barriers when trying to find a place he could apply his decades of experience in discipleship.
Taking time to pray and re-evaluate after their sudden departure from the country they had considered home, Keith and his wife decided to focus on the Caucasus region, including Azerbaijan and Georgia. Then a second entry rejection left them reeling.
“I hadn't been mad [the first time], but I was kind of mad about this because I started feeling like I was being kicked around like a football from one place to another,” he recalled.
As he wrestled with the situation in prayer, he realised that his usefulness for God’s Kingdom was not location dependent. “I always thought that I had to be the one who was doing the work on the ground. That's my passion: going out and talking to people and sharing about Jesus and raising them up as disciples. That’s what I did for years,” Keith shared. “The Lord spoke to me, telling me that I would be equally if not more useful from a distance.”
Without a way to join the work physically, Keith increased his focus on another access point he had already been using: online.
Social media multiplying disciple-making
As of January 2022, Statista reported on the millions of Turkish speakers in the Caucasus region who use Facebook, including 71.89 million in Turkey as well as 5.36 and 3.54 million in Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively. In addition, the academic blog ResPublica, referencing the 2021 Caucasus Barometer survey, asserted that young people in the Caucasus use social media as their most frequent news source.
“These millions of people are spending hours a day on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok,” Keith explained. “They comment, they purchase items, but they have little to no access to the gospel. However, the internet is enabling us to access people in the privacy of their own homes and even in the privacy of their own cell phones.” Recognising this readily available online audience, Keith’s team of six national Jesus followers create gospel-centred content – producing 59-second videos and posting advertisements across several social media platforms throughout the Caucasus and Turkey.
“They want to share the gospel with people online, and we train them to engage people about Jesus online, answer their questions and drive them into conversations about Jesus in new and creative ways,” Keith said. “Our goal, though, is that everyone who comes to our website or Facebook or social media platforms requests a New Testament.”
Thanks to paid advertising, Keith said the advertisements were shown 3 million times in the past year; of those 3 million, 1 million people watched the complete video. “But I don’t think the big numbers really matter,” he clarified.
Of the 1 million, 1,500 people requested New Testaments and were able to receive a copy of the Gospel from a national believer. That number, according to Keith, holds medium value. “The important number,” he emphasised, “is that in the last 12 months, we had five new gatherings of Jesus followers start in areas where it was completely unreached in the past.”
With constant demand for new training for national disciple makers and advertising in unreached areas, Keith forecasts that number to quickly increase. “We expect to see another three to four disciple-making groups formed in least-reached areas in the next month or so,” he said. “We can’t keep up; we need workers!”
Powerful partnership with national churches
The key to this success, according to Keith, has been partnerships with existing national churches, teaching them multiplication principles so that they can become multipliers and own the work. Currently, around 20 national believers partner with Keith’s team as disciple makers – meeting with those interested in learning about Jesus and teaching them to share everything they learn with others.
“We may have had to go a little slower because we've chosen to do it this way. But actually, I think in the end, it's going to be much stronger because there's trust between us; they know that we're there to bless them, and it's not just some foreign enterprise coming in,” Keith shared. “This is not just an OM project.”
Training new disciples to follow up with the social media contacts, deliver New Testaments and make more disciples has required risk-taking. “We had some people try, and it failed. Then we tried some more people, and it failed,” Keith recalled. “We got really stuck at one point … and I had to really cry out to God at that time to clarify: ‘How do you want us to do this?’
Keith came away from that prayer time with a renewed focus on mobilising the national Church and giving them multiplication principles so that the disciple-making movement could spread beyond the contacts garnered through the social media outreach. “We need to train them so that their new disciples would actually multiply themselves amongst their own networks and families,” he said.
His team offers contextualised training and Bible studies that help people practise these principals, but the underlying formula is simple: “We tell our disciple makers that we want everyone who becomes a disciple … to love Jesus, to obey Jesus and to share Jesus,” Keith said.
From disciple to disciple maker
Jafer*, an Azerbaijani national, worked as a teacher in an Islamic school and spent time reading and researching many religious books. He wanted to know God, but he couldn’t find answers to many of his questions. Eventually, he gave up on religion entirely, including Islam.
One day, he saw an advertisement from Keith’s team on Facebook talking about Jesus and offering free New Testaments. Instead of scrolling past, Jafar was struck by a sudden thought: “If I read the Bible, my life will change.” He immediately asked the team for a New Testament.
Soon after Jafer met with a national believer and received a copy of the Gospel, he started attending a weekly worship meeting. He repented, accepted Jesus and began studying the Bible in depth. Then Jafer was baptised and started serving alongside those who had discipled him.
Today, Jafer is a disciple maker volunteering with the social media outreach team, chatting to people online and delivering New Testaments to people who request them. “In one week, we had 35 people online request New Testaments from us, and a lot of them were because Jafer was very passionate about Jesus,” Keith shared.
‘Today we have people who are hungry for Jesus’
Of the countries in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan in particular is experiencing a season of openness to the truth of Jesus Christ, Keith said. Out of more than 10 million Azerbaijanis in the country (and even more ethnic Azerbaijanis who live in Iran), he estimated that about 10,000 are believers.
Though the country is predominately Muslim, religious affiliation is nominal for many. “And so for the first time they're hearing these gospel truths after having Islam watered down and many of them turning to atheism during the Soviet era,” Keith said. “That means that we have this incredible open door to us today.”
The disciple makers Keith partners with are seeing entire families choosing to follow Jesus after receiving a New Testament. God is also moving in miraculous ways, appearing to people in dreams and visions, not only telling people to read the New Testament but also to listen to those who can disciple them. “We actually have kind of stopped reporting on the dreams of Jesus thing because it happens a bit too often,” Keith shared.
Of course, as he well knows, in-person access for his partners could change in an instant: “But today we have people who are hungry for Jesus.”
Because of the training national disciple makers reacheive from Keith's team, those who choose to follow Christ are immediately taught to share Jesus with others.
For Keith, the fruit of what God is doing in the Caucasus is both inspiring and humbling. “I needed to be forced to be in the background, so that I could really focus on training other people up,” he shared. “If it was just me, maybe I'd have a gathering of Jesus followers, which might be multiplying into another gathering, but as we're working with our many disciple makers, we're seeing so many multiples of ourselves, and I think that's what God is really doing.”
Pray for national believers who already serve as disciple makers to become more involved in training and mobilising the next generation of disciple makers. Pray for more team members with social media experience to join Keith’s team, reaching out to people with little to no gospel access in the Caucasus region and Turkey. Pray for the global Church to gain awareness of this area of the world and join in what God’s doing through praying and sending experienced disciple makers to propel the work forward.