“Doing church” in the United States can look like a lot of things. Still, a handful of images undoubtedly come to mind: pulling into a parking lot and seeing “New Here, Park Here” spots located conveniently near the door; teams of individuals (usually) shaking hands with attendees and offering them water or coffee outside the auditorium; prerecorded announcements on a large video screen; having the options of engaging in a pastor’s message live or through a video at a satellite campus or online (and on any day of the week); putting a sticker on the back of a vehicle to publicly promote one’s home church to others.
The church experience many have grown accustomed to here desires to welcome people into a safe, loving, inviting and accepting environment, hoping to encourage them to “Connect, Go, Grow” or “Meet, Know and Follow Jesus.”
It would make sense, then, that Anthony*, a single guy from Minnesota, would throw that entire model out the window upon arriving in the Middle East nearly two years ago, right? Indeed. That’s because when it comes to “doing church” with one of the world’s largest unengaged people groups in the world residing right in your backyard, the blueprint for success changes.
“Since I was a teenager, I felt God pushing me toward ministry, particularly in the Middle East,” Anthony said. “Especially in the aftermath of 9-11, I felt that, since people are open to change, why aren’t we sending people over there to share the gospel.”
“God puts people right in front of my face”
Anthony arrived on the Mediterranean Sea coast in May 2019.
“Our goal has always been church planting and evangelism,” said Nathan*, Converge team leader in the Middle Eastern nation. “That’s why we came to the Middle East, to share the gospel and see churches planted and Muslims come to Christ.”
Nathan has been in the Middle East for nearly eight years, including six in his current location. He meets with Anthony several times a month.
Their focus, though, has expanded to what Nathan describes as “asking God for movements. It’s still in the church-planting function, but also doing ministry in a way that can be easily reproducible, in a way that we can see it grow, as we like to say, ‘beyond our control.’”
For Anthony, the expanded focus started with his immersing himself in the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture, a process that typically takes at least two years and involves intense daily classes. Doing so, Nathan said, allows for a more “appropriate” sharing of the gospel.
Less than a month after Anthony arrived in the city where he now lives, a local gym owner noticed him working out and offered him a job teaching CrossFit classes. Aside from a three-month lockdown earlier this year, Anthony’s classes meet 2-3 days weekly and have attracted as many as 12 people.
“God puts people right in front of my face, so I’m going to do the sensible thing and share the gospel with them,” Anthony said. “I’m not going to wonder, ‘Are you this type of person?’”
Besides satisfying a physical need of his students and himself, coaching at the gym has opened the door to conversations for Anthony beyond the exercise world.
“I’ve been able to have conversations with people outside the gym,” Anthony said. “That’s been a real goal, the reason I want to coach. It’s not just for the sake of seeing people get fit but also for their spiritual fitness. That opens up a deeper door to have their trust, so that they can know who I am, where my heart is.
“I’ve had people come up to me, people who are Muslim, say, ‘We can see your heart in the way you coach.’ You’re not just looking for the change in a person’s strength but also for the change in their heart.”
I've had people come up to me, people who are Muslim, say, 'We can see your heart in the way you coach.' You're not just looking for the change in a person's strength but also for the change in their heart.
The best way to be prepared
One of his students was curious about how an American, at a tumultuous time when many nationals wish to leave the Middle Eastern country, had ended up wanting to coach at a gym there. She began asking spiritual questions, and in September 2019, Anthony invited her to a coffee shop. There he used the parable of the Prodigal Son to share the redemptive power of Christ. They prayed and, in her words, she was reborn.
“Just to hear her say that ― ‘I’m reborn’ ― was a huge step,” he said. “I’m just blessed being able to witness this. It is the result of so many other people planting seeds, and here I’m able to reap the harvest.”
In the months since, despite COVID-19-related restrictions, Anthony has continued discipling her by meeting in person, praying and sharing links to sermons.
Anthony has also earned the respect of his boss, a Muslim whom Anthony has accompanied to several Muay Thai competitions. While Anthony believes he will one day bring the gym owner to Christ, his first steps have included showing his passion and dedication to CrossFit and physical health, and also showing respect for the customs of those he is building relationships with.
“The best way I can be prepared is if I’m listening to the voice of God,” he said. “That’s been more important than what type of workout program we are going to have, or what’s my five-year or 10-year vision. Am I Iistening to the voice of God, so that I know when a door is open to go through it?”
Just as difficult as listening, Anthony admits, was waiting. In the years following Bible college, he longed for the mission field. And as he saw it at the time, he found himself “wasting my life away” as an assistant manager at Discount Tires in Arizona. What he didn’t realize until recently is that the mission was, again, right in his backyard.
“For years, I was praying, ‘OK, Lord, why don’t you want to use me on the mission field? Lord, I’ve surrendered to you,’” he said.
“In reality, the things I’m doing on the mission field now are identical to what I was doing at Discount Tires. I was a missionary there. My location has just changed.
In reality, the things I'm doing on the mission field now are identical to what I was doing at Discount Tires. I was a missionary there. My location has just changed.
“I know it can seem more exotic to say you’re overseas, but location aside, I am still going into work every day, just being myself.”
“I don’t have to give an altar call every day”
Mitchell* oversees the Great Sea Initiative, which includes ministry in the country where Anthony and Nathan live, and made the initial visit with them before Anthony moved there full-time. The reality, Mitchell says, is that missionaries in a place like that are, more than anything, hoping to plant seeds. Seeing results can take years.
“Somebody like Anthony, his goal is there to share the gospel and find people who are receptive,” Mitchell said. “From there, forming small groups ― house gatherings ― and outreach. However, several years of a lot of hard work can result in not seeing a lot happen.”
Which could easily discourage Anthony, if not for the fruits of his spiritual labor he had already seen, in the tire business.
“There was a time when if I wasn’t going into work and sharing the gospel, it felt like I wasn’t doing God’s will. But I don’t have to be giving an altar call every day. At Discount Tire, I’ve seen I was making an impact on lives. Even when I was feeling my work was insignificant, there were so many co-workers’ lives being affected, just by me trying to live a life guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Making small inroads, he said, are what the Lord has called him to do.
Converge is asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group ― in our generation. Our global workers use their God-given skills and abilities to share God’s love in many unique ways. Learn more about how you can be a part of global ministry and how God works in and through Converge global workers.
*Names have been changed due to ministry occurring in a high-security region.
Troy Emenecker, Guest writer
Troy Emenecker is a freelance writer for Converge. He attends a Converge church in Mesa, Arizona.