This is the second in a four part series with an M serving in Central Asia. You can read the first part here. Here we dive into how this brother works, relates to people, and shares the gospel in a culture that is hostile to it and its witnesses.
Previously you mentioned the folk Islam aspect of where you are. Can you expand that thought a little?
Under the former Soviet Union were seventy years of Communism. During this time the outward practice of Islam was destroyed, but the cultural identity as Muslims was reinforced. That's how they maintained themselves against Communism. I don't know if your readers will know this, but the "New Soviet Man" was Russian. It was supposed to be about the friendship of peoples and how we're all blending together. In spite of that the new Soviet man spoke Russian, thought in Russian, and read Russian literature. It was the Russian empire.
Most of the Muslims that I met when I first moved to another country twenty years ago couldn't have said Namaz if their lives had depended on it. They did not fast during Ramadan and knew virtually nothing about formal Islam. I was the only person I knew in the first town I moved to who had read the Koran. But, their sense of Muslim identity was extremely strong. To draw the correlation to the American South again, there are hundreds of thousands there who are "Christians," but do not read their Bible, tithe, keep the law of love or anything else remotely related to following Christ. They just haven't killed anyone, so they are Christians. It's all cultural.
One of the things that needs to be emphasized among Americans is that faith has become kind of an avocation--a hobby almost. Is it of a way of life here?
This is part of a way of life. It is what they are taught in school--the glories of the Islamic jihad against the Christian world. And for centuries our people were the vanguard of that jihad.
Interestingly though, and happily, what we face here then is an environment where we're dealing with people who are extremely friendly, who are extremely hospitable, who receive us very well. This is true all over Central Asia. The only place overseas I have ever encountered real bigotry against me personally was in Great Britain. Central Asians have always treated me with incredible kindness. This includes being among Afghans, who are one of my favorite people.
We're also in a place where it is incredibly easy to get into a conversation about religion. I mean really easy. And so, opportunities to share the gospel are abundant here. But Islam has a built-in apologetic against Christianity. They are taught here in school that the purpose of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was to change the New Testament. And that's where it happened and when it happened. It was at that point that all this stuff about Jesus being God and dying on the cross were added to what before was a document that agreed entirely with the Koran.
It's what they've been taught in school and it's what they believe.
And there are certain counter-arguments in answering Christianity that are typical. The nature of Christ, and many other Christological doctrines come to mind. That's all part of their education including the idea of Islam as the final revelation, correct?
Correct. So we're up against that, we're up against the cultural pride that comes from the fact that for centuries they were far more advanced than the West. The fact that for centuries they militarily were superior to the West is still a point of pride as well. Interestingly enough, when Islam wins in the fight against Christianity, it's a sign of God's favor; but when it goes the other way around, it's the sign of Western perfidy. Somehow, it's never the sign of God's favor when the Christian countries win. I don't know why it works that way, but it does.
Changing gears for a second, I want to talk about some of the practical side of trying to serve in Central Asia.
Well, you also have an environment where it is not legal to be an M, anywhere. Our country does not grant M visas; in fact, no Central Asian country grants M visas. Now, some will grant certain kinds of religious work visas, but any applicant must sign an explicit non-proselytization agreement.
It is legal everywhere in Central Asia to be a Christian. And, it's legal everywhere to answer questions. And, it's legal everywhere to do things that the government allows. What that means, though, is that everyone who is here has to be doing something the government allows, which means that Business as Mission is the heart of our need. Someone whose only qualification is a seminary degree has trouble living here.
What qualified you to get a visa?
Because I only have a seminary degree, I got certified in teaching English. When I first went to my initial Central Asian country, I went as an English teacher. I actually ended up setting up the English language program at the Academy of Sciences in one of the cities there.
So the opportunities, then, come relationally as you work the business.
Yes, it does. Let me just give you one example. There is a business that involves sales, and we have workers who are functioning as salespeople for their product. They are finding that the process of going around marketing their product is giving them incredible opportunities to share the gospel. Since religion here is not segregated from the rest of life, it's easy to get around to talking about it. We're seeing fruit from it. So believers here are exactly like in a fruitful, missional layperson in the States who sees all of life being ministry.
This very much lines up with a lot of the missional conversation--of being missional-incarnational in an urban context. It sounds very similar here, except you have longer work in harder soil.
Exactly. That's exactly how we operate here and it's the only way anyone can operate here. But remember: twenty years ago there were 4,000 believers here and today there are 80,000, all from Central Asia and all from a Muslim background.
And so it's all people using business to accomplish the mission.
That is correct.
And do they then gather together in congregations?
Yes, we are emphatic that since the Great Commission is to make disciples, it also requires starting churches. Biblically speaking, as much as one-on-one discipleship can be useful, it doesn't fully satisfy the definition of discipleship, because I can only grow to maturity in Christ as each part of the body of Christ does its work. So, we have not fulfilled the Great Commission if we have not planted people in functioning bodies of believers where people are actively exercising their gifts in each other's lives.