The Seed Amidst the Thorns: Church Planting in North Africa and the Middle East

Gospel ministry in the Islamic world is uniquely challenging—but far from impossible.

Most readers will recall that Jesus once told a parable about a sower sowing seed.

In this parable, four different kinds of soil are described. Three soils spoil the yield, while the fourth soil is fruitful. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a superficial survey of the ground—both physical and spiritual—might incline us to identify this region as the thorny ground of which Jesus spoke. Thorns of persecution, Islam, political instability, and poverty appear to threaten to choke out the seed of the church before it can take root, bear fruit, and flourish.

Yet the work that the Lord is doing in this region demonstrates that we are often poor estimators of soil quality. In fact, we do well to remember that Jesus never tasked us with identifying soil types. As your brothers and sisters throughout MENA are seeing, the Lord is at work growing his church despite the apparent obstacles presented by the environment around it.

Nonetheless, the unique contours of the MENA region do bear influence on the shape of the work of church planting. The following four realities present themselves as obstacles that church planters need to take into account as they strategically make disciples in hostile territory. My hope is that in listing them here, we will find ourselves better equipped to pray for the Lord to provide wisdom, strategy, and courage to those who are working in this region.

1. Fatigue, Instability, and Poverty

Around the year 2011, the MENA region experienced what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Viewed as a series of popular uprisings which effectively toppled several long-standing regimes, it promised freedom and the end of tyrannical dictatorships throughout the whole region. However, most Arabs in the region today laugh disparagingly at the now dashed hopes indicated by the moniker “Arab Spring.” What has come of these uprisings in many of the countries is instability, radical Islam, and plummeting economies.

Churches have had to navigate the economic and political situations in a number of ways. Many pastors have foregone their salary, choosing to be bi-vocational instead of asking their impoverished church members to support them financially. Others have had to respond to quickly-changing laws pertaining to churches in order to maintain their recognized legal status.

In the midst of this instability, again, the churches of the MENA region have responded creatively. Many new churches choose not to purchase or maintain a church building. They have opted to find other clandestine locations to gather, thus making their presence less conspicuous and persecution less likely. These churches often gather in smaller numbers in homes, public spaces, and meeting halls. As they grow the need to develop new leaders increases. Pray for good, biblical training and equipping of leaders to keep up with the growth of these networks of building-less churches.

2. Fear, Danger, Security

The MENA region includes countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, from Ethiopia to Syria. Nearly every one of these countries has a violent track record of persecuting evangelical Christians. In contrast with countries like China, however, persecution is not simply from the top-down. In MENA, Christians involved in sharing the gospel face the dual threat of being observed and persecuted by the government and by their neighbors.

Despite the very real dangers, some of the boldest Christians I have ever met are found in this region. For instance, after the Arab Spring, while I was living in a country known for killing Christians and burning churches regularly, I encountered a group of local believers on the streets handing out New Testaments and Jesus Films during a Muslim holiday. Fearful for my friend, I said, “What are you doing? You cannot share so openly like this!” To which he responded, “It’s a new day here; we do not yet know what we cannot do!”

Despite the very real dangers, some of the boldest Christians I have ever met are found in this region.

Regardless of whether or not such open sharing is wise, one characteristic of church planting in MENA is that creativity and sensitivity is required in the work of evangelism. Oftentimes, believers are encouraged to make lists of their friends and neighbors who need to hear the gospel. Then, after circling the ten names who they think are least likely to kill them, they are encouraged to prayerfully seek out opportunities to share with those on their lists. Evangelism here is an embodied statement of how much one values the gospel, because sharing it could cost one’s life.

3. Islam, Orthodoxy, and Syncretism

When one thinks of the MENA region, Islam is probably the first barrier to gospel growth that comes to mind. It is certainly a real, and ever-present threat to the church and Christians throughout the region. However, in some parts of MENA, other Christian groups also provide a barrier to the spread of the gospel. Established churches like the Orthodox church often bristle at the idea of evangelical church planting. New churches are viewed as threats to ecclesial power and authority. And such movements are seen as competition. Evangelical churches are faced with the temptation to make theological and missiological concessions in search of self-preservation rather than biblical fidelity.

Likewise, syncretism of all kinds is an ever-present danger. The prosperity gospel, existing indigenous religions, and extreme contextualization approaches all threatened to obscure and pervert the biblical gospel. As a result, church planting in the region needs to guard against exchanging the gospel and its call for separatism, self-help techniques, over-contextualization, or lifeless traditions. Of course, these dangers are not wholly unique to MENA. Rather, taking slightly different forms in different contexts, they are common to all churches—including the church in the US.

4. Prayer, Worship, and Faith

Not all of the elements that make church planting in MENA unique are caused by threats from the outside. Rather, some of the ways our brothers and sisters in this region have encouraged me most are ways that they live out their biblical faith in worship. The prayer life of Arab Christians is one such encouragement.

Syncretism of all kinds is an ever-present danger.

I saw this most beautifully during a time of emergency law in one MENA country in which I was living. A curfew had been put in place that required people to be off the streets by seven o’clock. Responding to this as an opportunity, a number of young believers in the city committed to using the 7 pm to 7 am curfew as a chance to lock themselves in churches in order to spend the whole night praying for the country.

Likewise, the very language of believers in this region is saturated with worship-centered expressions of their unbending faith despite difficult circumstances. The churches in the Middle East have seen the Lord’s faithfulness to maintain his church through centuries of persecution, famine, and disaster, and their vernacular has absorbed their confidence in the Lord’s ability to keep them. One phrase that illustrates this confidence well is the decidedly-Christian statement used during times of stress, concern, disaster, and terror: “Rabina Mawgood” (Our God is present.)

Blossoming Briars

From a human standpoint, the MENA region presents a bleak landscape with little chance of producing a harvest. Yet from amidst the thorns and briars set against it, the Lord is bringing his church into bloom and producing kingdom fruit.

Join me in praying that these precious brothers and sisters throughout MENA would remain committed to bold-yet-wise preaching of the biblical gospel in the church and the streets. Pray that they would be disciples who make disciples. And pray that they would continue to see the Lord as their faithfully present God who is protecting and completing the good work that he has begun in these churches. May God continue to be glorified on the lips of those throughout MENA!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 6, 2019.

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