Two years ago, John* and Nancy* joined a small team during the Syrian and Iraqi crisis. Suddenly in charge of maintaining relationships with local ministry leaders they had just met and managing multiple project budgets from OM’s Syrian and Iraqi relief fund, the couple spent more time behind their computer screens, communicating with donors, and in their vehicle, commuting between project sites, than they did connecting with the least-reached people in their community.
Although there’s no clear conclusion to the conflicts raking the region, and food distributions continue to be a lifeline for refugees and internally displaced people in the Near East, John and Nancy decided to start re-arranging their ministry priorities after attending a church planting training last fall.
“For me, it’s now a turning point,” John stated. “We [want to] implement what is actually on our hearts: to focus more on church planting.”
The needs of the surrounding communities will not disappear soon, and John and Nancy want to continue extending the love of Jesus to people from all backgrounds. However, they hope to focus less on what they give materially, through on-the-ground partnerships and OM, and more on “how far we get in a conversation [about God].”
Ben*, who completes John and Nancy’s three-person team, said the trio usually tries to visit around ten families a week. Sometimes they are church connections; others are contacts from distributions or “friends of friends of friends, way in the corners of [the city], living in half-finished buildings,” he described.
However, between trainings and project responsibilities, the team has struggled to establish routine church planting practices. Sometimes it takes a month to visit a family twice, Ben admitted. Often people move and contacts are lost.
With confusion trumping consistency, relationship breakthroughs are rare, “but there is everyday life, and God answers also in small matters,” John stated.
“When we think of encouragement, we think always of big things, but that He keeps us here and safe and also that when you wake up in the morning that you can be joyful, I think that’s a great encouragement,” he added.
One morning, John and Nancy were praying for their neighbours at their kitchen table. “They are very friendly in the street,” John explained, but “the doors [to their homes] do not open easily.”
“Almost not at all,” Nancy interjected.
“Lord, bring people to us,” John prayed. Then the phone rang.
“Normally I wouldn’t take it, but somehow I felt I had to answer,” John explained. The caller was a man the couple had gotten to know in the past, but they hadn’t been able to arrange subsequent get-togethers.
On the phone, the man invited John and Nancy to a picnic with his family. “Thank you, Lord,” John thought. “We just need to pray and sometimes You answer that quickly.”
After the picnic, the family told John and Nancy they wanted to have more contact. By building the relationship, “I feel it’s easier to find an entrance for a [spiritual] conversation,” John stated. “I feel encouraged to share.”
Another time, when John and Nancy were flying back into their host country, they talked to the man sitting in their row. Shivan*, they learnt, was an agriculturalist, so they told him about a recent training they had taken on different farming methods.
“We also shared about God. We were talking the whole flight,” Nancy recalled.
When the plane landed, they exchanged contact information.
The first time Shivan visited John and Nancy with his two sons, he asked the couple for jobs. Although John and Nancy could not provide employment, the men enjoyed a meal at their home and listened to John share his testimony of faith.
Then they invited John and Nancy to visit their farm over a weekend.
That encounter provided little opportunity for meaningful conversation, but it further established the relationship between the families. Later, John and Nancy learnt that Shivan planned to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Before he left, he wanted to meet the couple again.
When they got together at a nearby restaurant, Shivan said, “I was so happy that you could take time so we could meet. I feel relaxed with you.”
During the meal, John explained who Jesus is: that He died on the cross and rose again to forgive sins. Shivan listened.
Before they left the restaurant, John told Shivan he would pray for his medical needs.
“I believe that I can be healed,” Shivan affirmed.
After Shivan returned from Europe months later, he was still very ill and announced to John and Nancy, “I want to be buried as a Christian, not as a Muslim.”
“There is more to that [decision],” John stressed. He invited Shivan to watch the Jesus film.
“Shivan was moved by it, and at the end of the film, he prayed along with the evangelist,” Nancy said. “Still, we want to be sure that this was a real confession and not a ‘deal’ to be healed. We want to see him become a new creation in Christ and to go alongside him in studying the Bible. Hopefully, he will bring some friends along.”
While walking around the mall on an afternoon, Ben noticed a local man intently looking at him.
“Hello! Where are you from?” Alan* greeted him.
After a few minutes of introductions, Alan invited Ben to have lunch at his house. “Oh, I’m meeting some friends. Maybe next week,” Ben said.
A week later, Ben did visit Alan, whose wife had prepared a large meal for the single guest. After a few minutes, Alan’s wife took off her headscarf and joined the men to eat, both abnormal actions for the culture.
“I don’t really like Islam,” Alan began. “When my wife goes on the street, and she’s not wearing hijab [headscarf], everybody looks at her. Why do they look at her? I’m an atheist; I don’t really believe.”
“OK,” Ben answered, unsure of where the conversation was headed.
“What do you do?” Alan asked.
“I work with the church here.”
“You’re a Christian? I’d like to come to church sometime.”
The conversation continued. Ben told Alan he’d studied theology, and Alan asked him questions from the Qu’ran. “I never heard a Muslim ask me questions about their own religion,” Ben noted.
A week later, Ben was busy with a short-term team when Alan called to ask about church again. He couldn’t take Alan to a service that day, but told him about an evening conference the church was hosting.
In fact, Alan showed up at the conference, and, because Ben was managing the children’s programme, he went inside by himself. Two hours later, he came outside carrying a Bible.
“I keep asking you for a Bible, but it’s OK, I bought my own. Look at this!” he told Ben, holding up a New Testament in his language. “Is this the real Bible? I heard there are many versions. Is this good?” he asked.
“Yes, this is good,” Ben assured him.
“He was so happy,” Ben remembered. Immediately, Alan wanted to know when Ben could meet to read the Bible with him.
“I was like, ‘Three weeks?’” Ben remembered, amused by Alan’s unusual persistence. “I’m super busy. This is how it is in this country—there are so many other things going on. You don’t even have time to meet people at the moment.”
Pray that John, Nancy and Ben would continue to be intentional in sharing the gospel with people in their community and that they would find time to build relationships. Pray that God leads the team to people whom He has prepared and who have a desire to know Him. Pray for more people, especially administrators and evangelists, to join the team.
Nicole James is an international writer for OM, passionate about publishing stories of God’s work among the nations and telling people about the wonderful things He is doing around the world.