In this post I want to share the salvation testimony of a Central Asian Muslim in order to illustrate my last post concerning Unreached People Groups. Due to the sensitive political and religious nature of the country this brother lives in I have changed his name and left his location unspecified for his safety.
Soon after Esther and I were married I had a chance to take a trip to Central Asia. We were living in China at the time and had met some leaders of a short-term mission organization. They were interested in expanding their ministry into a particular country in that region. Since I had been living in Asia for several years and was familiar with the customs of that region, our new friends asked me to come along and help them get around.
The city we were headed to was located in a country ruled by a communist-styled regime. Those in power are of Russian ancestry and use the Russian language. Though the Russians are in charge they are by no means the majority. The country is home to many unreached people groups, mostly of Turkish and Persian descent. Due to the ancestry of these people, their appearance, language, culture and religion are not what you would guess when picturing someone from Russia in your mind’s eye. They look identical to someone you would meet from Iran or Turkey and speak peculiar dialects of Turkish and Persian. As far as their religious background goes, they are almost 100% Muslim. Even those among them that have worked their way up the political ladder of the Russian regime and find themselves members of the ruling party, are not atheists like their Russian counterparts but are sincerely Muslim in their worldview.
This country has a reputation similar to the classic American Wild West. Russians living in neighboring countries feel it is a dangerous and mysterious place. In recent history this city has experienced riots due to ethnic tension. The native Turkish inhabitants resent Russian rule and at times have taken to the streets. This didn’t last long for the government has a strong military always on alert due to the longstanding enmity that the local population fosters towards the ruling party.
We were only in the city a few days but God did something in my heart on that brief trip. One day we came back to our hotel and heard strange sounding music coming from the hotel restaurant. It wasn’t strange in the sense that it was unpleasant, just that it was not a style of music I had ever heard before. So I took a few minutes to look into the restaurant and see what was going on. I saw young men and women dressed in colorful sequined outfits twirling around in step with the music. As I watched this performance I began to cry. It wasn’t that the music and dance were so moving or that I am artistically inclined enough to recognize such things had they been so. What moved me was the thought that came to my mind by the Spirit of God, “This particular style of music and dance is not used to worship Christ.” I realized that this unique local dance had no Christian expression, because the local population had only a tiny number of believers. To make things worse, most of the locals that believe in Christ are secret believers due to the fear of persecution. It was on that day that I knew that one day I would return to this Gospel-starved city to preach God’s Word.
After returning from my trip I shared the burden God gave me for this people with Esther. She too was affected by the situation of this people, and we both agreed that one day we would move to that region to preach the Gospel. Soon after I returned from Central Asia we had some trouble with the police in China due to our “illegal religious activities.” This trouble caused us to begin our adventures in Central Asia sooner than we had expected. Our Muslim neighbors in China (note: China has more Muslims than any Arab country) felt it was their duty to inform the local police department that we had been “spreading our religion.” This incident caused us to realize that we could no longer be effective in that city. Any future outreach there would be stunted by the suspicious glances of the police and the eternal vigilance of our Muslim neighbors. So we packed up our things in obedience to the command of Christ, “Shook the dust off our feet” and “fled to the next city.” For us, there was no doubt which city that was to be.
Below I would like to narrate how we met a young college student named Abdullah and had the great privilege of leading him to Christ. But I want to start off by making it clear that Abdullah was an unreached member of an unreached people group. He had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and unless God had brought us into his life, he would likely still be ignorant of the truth today. When we arrived in his city, laborers had already been hard at work translating the Bible into his language. But at that point they had only finished the books of Genesis, Exodus, the Gospel and epistles of John and a few other selected epistles. And of course this partial translation of the Bible was not in regular circulation, but was in the hands of a small number of missionaries that were in charge of distributing it to the other missionaries as they had need. This book, along with all missionary activity, was highly illegal and it had to be translated and distributed with the utmost secrecy.
It took about one year from our first meeting until Abdullah accepted Christ. In order to get to that blessed result, many obstacles had to be overcome as the following testimony will bear out. As I share Abdullah’s road to salvation I would like to highlight some of those obstacles that are not unique to him but are shared by millions of people in the unreached nations of the world.
Since Abdullah had grown up in a Muslim society he had already heard of the “prophet” Jesus. He had learned that Jesus was a prophet who preached Islam, was opposed to anything Christians, or “their book” had to say about him. According to Islamic understanding, Jesus hadn’t died but had ascended directly to heaven, and would one day return for the purpose of destroying all crucifixes and killing all pigs. After finishing this task he would presumably die and be laid to rest next to Mohammad. Then on the Day of Judgment Mohammad would be raised from the dead before all others, being the most eminent leader among all of the prophets. Abdullah had grown up hearing such things. No one he knew had ever questioned or challenged the common Islamic understanding of Jesus, so he had no reason to doubt anything he had heard through the years, or imagine Jesus in any other light than as a prophet who taught the same message as Mohammad. The true foundation of Jesus Christ could only be laid by carefully dismantling falsehood and replacing it with the truth. As with all ministers, pioneer missionaries are called not only to plant, but also to tear down!
In America we are used to handing a short Gospel tract to someone, confronting their lifestyle and then inviting them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” This method cannot be effectively employed among the unreached. When we go on outreach in America we are entering into others’ labors. The Gospel permeates our society. Even self-proclaimed atheists like I was understand the basic Gospel message. We are like first century Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Our society is ready and prepared for the Gospel.
The city of Lystra in the book of Acts gives us a good picture of how difficult it is to present the Gospel message to those that are filled with false assumptions about God. In Acts chapter 14 we see Paul and Barnabas boldly proclaiming the Gospel. God even grants them the power to heal a crippled man as a confirmation of their message. Nevertheless, the Gospel preached once or twice and even miracles were not enough to bring the people to a clear understanding of the Gospel. The people believed that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and the Apostles had great trouble keeping the people from offering sacrifices to them. Yet, within a few verses, the crowd had turned against them and stoned Paul, leaving him for dead. The people in Lystra were unreached, and a simple altar call was not going to suffice. We know God is not limited. Of course He can do a quick work that is outside of our ability to understand or predict. But we must be prepared for the labor of uprooting false ideas and planting truth as we head out to minister to the unreached nations of the world.
After being married for less than 6 months, Esther and I found ourselves settling into a yet another city located in one of the unreached regions of Asia. We solved our visa dilemma by applying to one of the local universities as language students. Due to the fact that English was spoken by many educated people, I wasn’t destined to make much progress in the local dialect. Nevertheless, during my first semester I was gung-ho to put another linguistic notch on my belt by mastering the local Turkish dialect. In looking for a place to study I found that the classrooms of the main teaching building were open in the evenings to give students a place to study. I went to the building and hunted down a mostly vacant room in which to embark on my studious pursuits. But, as anyone who has learned a new language from scratch must admit, getting started is the hardest part, and finding a reason not to, is as easy as pie! So after about 15 minutes of studying I found the chairs uncomfortable and the lights too dim. This led me to search for another room with better accommodations. Entering my second choice, I found the chairs were the same. Entering the third, I concluded that Russian universities are frugal when it comes to buying light bulbs. So, after spending more time window shopping for a room than actually studying I decided to head home.
I was just exiting the school’s main gate when a young Turkish college student came up from behind me and asked, “Can I help you?” He had seen me come into the room he was studying in and quickly go out again. Thinking maybe I was lost and seeing a great chance to practice his thus-far useless English ability, he chased after me to make my acquaintance. I told him that I didn’t need any help but was happy to meet him. We talked briefly, exchanged phone numbers and made a plan to meet in the near future.
Within a week I found myself eating ice cream with Abdullah in a tea house not far from my apartment. At that time he was only 18 years old and was in his sophomore year at university. He was from the southern part of the country where the Turkish population was more concentrated and isolated. So being in the capital city which would be considered backwards in the minds of Westerners was like being in a brave new world. In one year he had been transformed from a simple country bumpkin into a “sophisticated urbanite,” at least from the perspective of those back in his hometown. But from his first conversation with me he was challenged to open his mind to ideas and things he had never imagined existed.
In that first conversation we talked about everything from life in America to the best method for learning “real American English.” When the topic turned to history I did my best to lead us into something related to the Gospel. So I began to talk about the transformation of the Pagan Roman Empire into the “Christian” Roman Empire. My intention was to explain the difference between real Christianity and Christianity that was “in name only.” Of course this point was way over his head since he had never heard the Gospel or met a Christian. He had no idea what a true or false Christian was, and couldn’t possibly grasp my lofty point. My point, which might have been useful when speaking to a nominal Christian in America, had absolutely no meaning in Abdullah’s situation. But God uses what he wants, and talking about the evolution of the Roman Empire had a strangely profound effect on his mind, though not at all the affect I intended.
He imagined from my commentary on Roman history that I was in some way trying to glorify the power of my religion; when in fact I was trying to point out that official Christianity was not the real and personal life of faith that God calls Christians to live. This apparent attempt at making Christianity look so powerful had the effect of making me look ridiculous in his mind. He later told me that he thought I was making it all up and trying to trick him. He didn’t at all like the feeling that I was trying to push false religion on him, especially by means of rewriting world history to suit my own fancy. This negative feeling would have made him decide to never see me again, but he felt the chance to practice English was worth the annoyance of practicing that language to the tune of falsehoods.
But God is in control, and He can help us get passed the misunderstandings with which darkness covers the hearts and ears of the unreached. That very week his history teacher told the class the exact story I had told Abdullah about the shifting policy of the Roman Empire with the rise of the emperor Constantine. This confirmation did two things in Abdullah’s mind. In the first place, it helped him understand that I was not a person easily given to editing history to push my own agenda. And two it impressed upon him the great power of the Christian religion. Though it was not at all my intention to make such a proposition, God still saw fit to impress that truth upon this young man’s heart.
Over the next 6 months we became good friends. So much so, that we gave him a key to our apartment. We had the glorious luxury of a washing machine and we allowed him to take advantage of that rare treasure. He would often stay in our extra room on weekends and soon he lived with us full time. Through the time he spent in our home he began to see for the first time in his life how Christians lived. He took note of our relationship as a young couple and after our first son was born, he started to see what a Christian family was all about. He saw this lifestyle and wanted to live like we did. But in his heart he didn’t want anything to do with the Gospel. He wanted the Christian life, but not Christ. At this season in his life he started to struggle seriously with the claims of the Gospel.
During this season he would ask me questions that are usually asked by disciples. “How do I control my thoughts, and not think evil,” he would ask. From such questions I would share with him from the Bible what we should do and the grace that was needed to do it. I remember one time he came to me truly discouraged. He said to me that when he was in our home he never lied. He said that there was a freedom and honesty in our house. While in our home he was determined to live a completely honest life, but as soon as he got around his classmates, he found himself lying about so many things. He felt that in his society lies were so natural and honesty seemed out of place. He couldn’t understand why he could be honest in our home but not in his dorm room.
I explained to him that our home was filled with the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Truth. We are members of the Kingdom of God and we walk in the Light. So when he was in our home he was coming in contact with the things of God’s Kingdom and the influence of it was affecting his behavior. But since he was not a child of the Light when he went out from our influence he lived according to the ways of darkness. I impressed upon him the connection between the life that we live and the Christ that lives in us.
Later, after his conversion to Christ, he told me that the season leading up to his acceptance of Jesus as his Lord and Savior was filled with great inner struggle. He shared that during that season if he heard me in my room praying he would always put his headphones on and turn up the music up full blast in an attempt to protect himself from the spiritual influence of my prayers. He also shared how he tried to staunchly stand against any Christian influence by secretly disrespecting the Bible. When he saw a Bible lying on the floor he would consciously step over it. In his culture you can never step over any one, or anything, deserving of respect. Even stepping over someone’s foot is considered a great affront. So when he saw the opportunity to secretly desecrate the Bible, he would take it. This was his vain attempt at showing the Holy Spirit that he would not bow his knee to Christ. But God’s Spirit was more relentless than his determination to never become a Christian.
As time went on Abdullah became more and more open to the Gospel. But warnings from his world-wise father made him nervous about his continued relationship with us. One night we were sitting in my living room when Abdullah asked why I was living in such a backwards and forsaken part of the world. I told him that he already knew my way of life and the motives of my heart. He said that he thought he did but his father had warned him that maybe I was in his country for political reasons, and that he should be wary of me. I immediately knew what was in his mind. He thought I was a C.I.A agent, and that I was somehow going to get him in trouble for treason! It made me laugh, but I knew that this is a common assumption of many people in unreached regions of the world. I assured him that I had no secrets from him and that he knew my goals in life. He was much relieved and said that he had told his father as much. Such anecdotes are quite humorous but they go far to illustrate the various barriers of fear that have been erected by the Devil to keep people in unreached areas of the world from hearing the Gospel. Politics might be separate from religion, but Satan will use even politics to distance people from the life giving Message of Christ.
One winter break I could see that Abdullah had already chosen to follow Christ or was at least leaning strongly in that direction. During the break he went to visit his family in the south. It was during this time that we started to hear some rumors that the police had caught wind of our activities. We had been sharing with many people and several of them were at the point of decision. One of these young men called Abdullah while he was at home and frantically told him that all their names were on a list at the police station, and that Abdullah’s name was on top of the list! Abdullah’s imagination started to go wild. He imagined a virtual inquisition going on and he thought upon his return to the capital he would be arrested. He made the decision to follow Christ even while his mind was in the throes of this wild rumor. He had only one request for God. He asked God that if he was going to be killed for believing in Jesus that the end would come quickly. He later said that he felt strong enough to handle death, but was terribly afraid of being tortured. The rumors were just that, rumors. And even if there was such a list of inquisition, the worst that would happen to this small group of disciples who as yet had no influence and posed no threat to the status quo of that society, would have been that they would be brought into the police station and intimidated. They would have been instructed to cut off contact with the foreigners, and that would have been it. But it really doesn’t matter what the reality was at that point; Abdullah’s decision to follow Christ was made in light of possible torture and death.
I don’t share this to glorify Abdullah; this is what almost any sincere convert would decide in that situation. I share it to glorify God! God is able to find a soul that has never heard the Gospel, and after he did hear, was determined never to believe, and bring that individual to the point of absolute commitment to Christ. This is the greatest and most wonderful of miracles!
The road that led to Abdullah’s, and a few others’ conversion lasted about one year. For five months I only ate one meal a day every Monday through Friday. I spent hours in prayer daily, praying with one goal in mind, souls. I decided in my heart that I would not stop fasting until I had at least two disciples to train in the things of the God. This determination didn’t come as much from my inner zeal as it did from the word God spoke to me in that season. While seeking Him and asking how to go about reaching the lost in that city God said, “You must bear fruit!” That simple imperative set my heart on a determined quest to be fruitful and multiply. I knew that until I had new believers to disciple, I had nothing to work with. I praise God that he heard me! At the same time Abdullah decided to follow Christ, two others made the same decision. They were all baptized the same week, unceremoniously, in the same public swimming pool.
After Abdullah accepted Christ, he faced many trials as any new convert does. His family started pressuring him to return to his Muslim faith, or at very least, keep his new faith in the closet. He faced the fears that come with being a Christian in country ruled by a paranoid political party. He faced pressure from false brethren telling him to cut off communication with all foreigners, especially me. And he faced the temptations of busyness, lethargy and just plain old sin. But in spite of everything, he continued to grow in his relationship with Christ.
Not only did he continue to grow, but he soon became more fruitful than me in his outreach to the people that surrounded him. He was able to communicate the Gospel in the local dialect and from the perspective of one who fully understands the difficulties faced in that society. It had taken me a year of excessive labor, prayer and outreach to get the few disciples I had, but within a few months he had led three young men to Christ, and had the ears of several more open to consider the claims of Christ.
The Gospel is spread the best by locals. But without the foreign laborer coming in to bridge the impasse of ignorance, there are no locals that have the Gospel to preach. Pioneer missions is about going to the unreached nations of the world and sparking the Gospel fire, so that it can spread and become a Gospel wildfire!