Telling God’s Story in Istanbul
Thursday, 28 February 2019
What role does Lake Baldwin Church (LBC) play in fulfilling the Great Commission and sharing “The Good News for the world?” One way is LBC’s support of International Christian Community (ICC) Eurasia, and this support recently took LBC members to Istanbul, Turkey.
ICC Eurasia (http://icceurasia.com/) is a network of over 20 evangelical “international churches” strategically located in major cities in Europe and Asia. These international churches typically conduct all their activities in English, and include church-planting and pastoring, evangelism, and discipleship focused on reaching internationals (e.g. foreign students and workers), in-country nationals (the locals), and immigrants/refugees in these major cities.
LBC’s involvement with ICC Eurasia includes financial support to ICC, but it also involves much more. Imagine that you are an ICC pastor who left behind everything familiar about the United States, moved your family to a major city in Europe or Asia, and have tried to manage your family in a foreign country with little supportive infrastructure while also trying to manage a fledgling church and all of its activities. It’s easy to understand how people in this role–even when well-trained and amply funded–might quickly feel isolated, overwhelmed, and unable to see the forest for the trees! This is where LBC’s involvement in ICC makes such a unique difference. For years, LBC’s Senior Pastor Mike Tilley has served as the Chairman of ICC’s Leadership Board, and has helped develop an ICC infrastructure that provides strategic planning, mentoring, partnering, community, and accountability among the international church pastors. Part of this infrastructure is an annual conference in which the pastors gather in-person to share about their challenges and successes, to pray for and encourage one another, and to plan solutions and initiatives. This 2019 ICC pastoral Days of Prayer Retreat is what brought two LBC members to Istanbul.
As the setting for the ICC event, the city of Istanbul, Turkey, demonstrated the amazing opportunities available to the ICC in the 21st Century. Large European and Asian cities like Istanbul represent the modern version of Athens’ Mars Hill, an ancient forum where people from around the world met to exchange new ideas such as Christianity as presented by the Apostle Paul. With English as the modern world’s lingua franca, and with globalism drawing people from across the world into major cities for economic and educational opportunities, ICC pastors have a unique opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with people that would otherwise be difficult to access.
We enjoyed joining the ICC-affiliated international church and its diverse congregation for worship on the Sunday after they arrived. Later that week, they joined an ICC meeting with an affiliated Migrant Rescue office in Turkey. During the meeting, two refugee Afghani women, covered from head to foot in burqas, arrived at the Refugee Rescue office with their small children. They had paid smugglers to traffic them from Afghanistan, across Iran, and into Turkey to find a better life; but at the Turkish border, their husbands were arrested by Turkish Immigration Services, and the women now found themselves trying to fend for themselves and their children in a foreign city that they knew nothing about. Such refugees and their children are at-risk for exploitation, and need assistance. The Refugee Rescue office acts as the hands of the church, with Registered Nurses examining the refugees’ medical needs, and administrative staff helping such refugees to make contact with trusted representatives of their respective local ethnic community for shelter and support. Refugee Rescue staff said they’ve never had refugees turn down the opportunity for them to pray with them, and they always do it in Jesus’ name. If refugees speak English, they are invited to visit the international church in Istanbul.
Because Turkey borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran, there are over 3 million Syrians, 120,000 Afghans, and 30,000 Iranians living as refugees in Turkey. Many of them come to Istanbul. Many of the other ICC cities also attract large groups of such refugees in addition to other less desperate foreign visitors such as working professionals and university students. Regardless of their economic status, such city inhabitants, as well as their city hosts, desperately need to hear and believe the Good News of Who God is, what He has done for them, and the abundant and eternal life He has for them in Christ. Getting this message out through the work of the international churches is at the heart of ICC’s mission.
Istanbul also represented the challenges that ICC and its international churches face. Turkey transitioned from being the Islamic Ottoman Empire to the secular nation of Turkey in 1924, and there remains a tension between the members of Turkish society who would like to see Turkey return to a more traditional Islamic society, and those who would like Turkey to remain secular with a distinct separation between religion and the state. Whereas secular residents may be interested or indifferent to ICC’s work in Istanbul, the conservative traditionalists are not enthusiastic about it, and those in the government have tightened bureaucratic controls that limit opportunities to expand Christian influence. We met with leaders of the ICC-affiliated international church in Istanbul to help them align on a unified vision for how the church could expand its impact in Istanbul without jeopardizing its status with the government.
Even in European cities with Christian rather than Islamic backgrounds, pastors of ICC international churches face challenges. Many secular Europeans in post-Christian Europe harbor indifference or even atheistic antagonism towards evangelical christianity. ICC pastors find themselves working long hours without a deep pool of mature Christian elders and deacons to assist with the work. Burnout is common, with the average service life of an international church pastor being two years (although ICC affiliated pastors have fared much better). Families often suffer as pastors struggle to maintain a healthy work/life balance. LBC members prayed with the ICC pastors for renewed strength, encouragement, and perspective during the conference.
Turkey’s challenging balance between Islamic and secular society has not gone unnoticed by the terror group ISIS, which is able to infiltrate the country through Turkey’s mountainous borders with Iraq and Syria. Since 2015, ISIS has conducted 11 terrorist attacks in Turkey, with five of those occurring in Istanbul. In January 2017, ISIS released a video highlighting Istanbul’s major tourist sites and threatening to attack them. Two years later, members of the ICC conference visited these same sites to enjoy seeing the amazing history, and to subtly and symbolically pray in small groups for peace and spiritual revival in the city.
Whether we face careless indifference or hateful opposition in our efforts to share God’s Good News with the world, the results to the Lord, and our most powerful tool is prayerful reliance upon Him.