The father rejoiced! The hospital released his baby after the child spending several weeks hovering between life and death in an intensive care unit. His baby would join him and his wife at home alive and well. The hospital release came a day after a small group of Christian students prayed over the child. The father was so amazed, he immediately began telling everyone he knew about the miraculous power of Jesus and his followers.
In response to this event, the father “started a Bible study. He changed his WhatsApp picture and Facebook profile picture to something related to Jesus Christ, telling all his family members [about Jesus]." His wife, within a week, said, "Oh yeah, we’ve started to call him the follower of Jesus,” explained Azzam*, administrator of OM Near East Field's church planting school.
The small group of Christian students from North Africa had overcome the cultural and religious divide between Christians and Muslims. This divide can make ministry in the region difficult, and ministry leaders often need extensive training to overcome the differences in a constructive way.
“When you jump from a Christian culture to a Muslim culture, there’s a lot that you can learn,” Azzam* said.
As OM focuses on church planting among the least-reached people groups around the world, they continue to prepare Arab missionaries to go into the mission field through the church planting school in OM’s Near East Field.
“We have a region that has the vision to serve Christ, to give their lives to Christ [more] than ever before. At the same time, we have needy places that are needy like never before,” Azzam explained, referencing least-reached provinces of Iraq.
Out of its 18 provinces, only six provinces are believed to have any churches. One of these provinces has a population of approximately two million people, but it only has one church with approximately 40 believers, according to Azzam.
The church plating training school "comes at a time of great need. More people [are] willing to go, and one of the needs is training,” Azzam said.
OM’s church planting school prepares Arabs who have a specific call to go into the least-reached areas of Iraq for the purpose of developing new vibrant communities of Jesus followers. The programme centers on three objectives: bridging cultural differences, opening conversations about religion and learning to work in ministry teams.
To meet these objectives, the students undergo a year-long training. The first three months are classroom-based, with lectures each morning taught by experienced ministry leaders. In the afternoons, students go into the local area to make relationships with people and talk to them about Jesus.
“Many of [the people we visit] have the wrong ideas about Christianity. So, through this school, we learn how to make relationships with them, and through this relationship [share] the gospel,” said Eisa*, a current student in the school.
The students also take trips to visit Syrian refugee camps. This helps them gain a deeper understanding of how to face culture shock on a practical level. Iraq is 95 per cent Muslim and less than 1 per cent evangelical Christian, according to Operation World, so understanding how to operate in a similar environment remains essential for the student’s training, say the leaders.
“We do visits to Syrian refugee camps with them and help them to discover culture, a different language,” said Hayda*, a leader in the school.
“We know how to make relationships with people who have many problems and they are hurting. So first we have a relationship with them and…then you tell them about the work of God, and it will start to touch them,” said Mahir*, a current student of the school.
In addition to learning culture and religion, the students also learn how to work on church planting ministry teams. Azzam explains that many of these students have served within their home church. Learning to work with others in a new environment can present its own challenges. By going on visits and ministering together, the students are challlenged to work together to develop vibrant and reproducing fellowships in a foreign context.
“We need teams, especially if people are going to go to places where there are no churches, which is really where we want to send them,” Azzam said. “So [they learn] these issues of how to resolve conflict, how we care for ourselves, and how we work on a team.”
Once students have completed the first three months, they will take a short exposure trip to Iraq before joining a local team for nine months. This will help them learn how to implement their knowledge into their daily operations before heading to Iraq for four years.
In order to go to Iraq, the students need funds, and finding support to send a missionary to the field long term has repeatedly proven to be one of the greatest challenges. As a result, OM has partnerships with global organisations and churches to help fund living expenses for these students. The local Iraqi churches have also stepped up to help as well.
“We see the Iraqi church wanting to do what they can to make the way for other Arab [ministry workers] to come," Azzam* said. "It’s also been a real joy to see how, in a way, we have this global world praying, [and] some people [contribute] financially, and [it] sort of funnels through our little team and then it gets released out to Iraq again.”
“There are people that come from this school, and they are working in the [mission] field," said Nadir*, a leader in the church planting school. “There has been loads of people in this area who have never heard the gospel, and through the school, there has been much more outreach happening on a much wider scale.”
Pray for the students, some of whom have given up good jobs and left their families for the sake of the gospel. Ask for God to provide visas for long-term residency for church planters in Iraq.
OM communications intern Jana Eller is a student studying journalism and missions and loves to see how God is moving among the nations. She is always up for spontaneous adventures and exploring new things.