Ultimately it is the church on the ground, the local community of believers, that is the critical expression of Christ’s love and power in the world; individuals who have personally placed their faith in Him. This “bride of Christ” must be the final basis for evaluation of our efforts in evangelism. For simplicity in the article I have included Arabic, Turkic — Turkey, and Farsi — Iran in my use of the term MENA — Middle East and North Africa).
In the region, the historic church is being decimated for many reasons. And, the emerging fellowships of Muslim background believers (MBBs) are under intense persecution and are led by committed, yet often untrained, mostly lay leaders.
Scripture, early church history, examples of explosive growth of the church elsewhere demonstrate that it is the local body of believers – living, working, and testifying together — that has been critical to the growth of the Church.
The MENA region is where all history began and where it will end. The region’s socio/political climate has the highest ‘front page index’ of any region in the world (how frequently stories are on the front page and how long they remain there).
In this setting, hundreds of hours per month of evangelical media/communications output along with dozens of digitally-based strategies are largely focused on evangelism. (1)
In simple terms, consider “evangelism” as the First Mile. Then, the emerging and existing church’s capacity to develop leadership, grow and multiply as the Last Mile.
(See Appendix 1)
State of the Church
The Church of the Middle East is the oldest, most durable church in the world, having survived isolation and persecution for 1900+ years. However, over the last 100 years the size of the historic, visible church (all those self-identifying as Christian) has been in steady decline. In the early 1900’s it was estimated that there were roughly 20 million Christians in the region. Current estimates are at about 12 million. and projections suggest that by 2025 that number may be as low as 6 million. Persecution, economic pressure, educational and employment discrimination, and migration have all played a part. More recently, war has been a huge factor.
Ten years ago, Iraq’s Christian population was about 1.5 million. Today it’s estimated at 500,000. In neighboring Syria it’s estimated that about 500,000 Christians remain of the 1.1 million that existed prior to the current war. The rest? Somewhere in refugee camps, killed or have fled the country.
The MENA Culture and Its Implications
The region has been a zone of constant conflict (135 wars since 1919 in which over 3 million Middle Easterners have died.). Youth as a percentage of the total population is highest in the world, educational options are low, unemployment is high, tribalism and sectarian conflict provide the breeding ground for radical fundamentalism. The hopes embodied in the “Arab Spring” turned first to disappointment and, now, to despair.
Three thousand years of “tribal culture” riddles the region in which a person’s decisions and actions reflect on the entire family. In turn, the family’s relationship is interwoven with others in their community – whether a small village high in the mountains of Morocco or in a teeming Egyptian city.
Syria and Iraq, so tragically visible in the world’s media, are classic examples. While in Iraq 30 or so tribes may be considered most influential, anthropologists suggest there are 150 identifiable tribes in the country. In Syria, an estimated 70% of the population identifies with one of the over 40+ of the country’s identifiable tribes.
In this traditional setting, community and relationships are everything. The classic Western approach to individual, if not individualistic, decision and action regarding salvation is a foreign idea.
Despite, (possibly because of,) all of these factors across the region, there is currently a very special context for sharing the Good News.
Hopelessness Breeds New Levels of Openness
Only the person with an intense sense of need will seriously consider a radical alternative to traditional norms. In the MENA region, there are few alternatives. Other than taking up a gun with ISIS, the truly radical alternative to the hopelessness of the MENA region’s despair is Jesus.
That despair is reflected in media response. Collective feedback from dozens of media ministries serving the greater MENA region indicate a staggering number of contacts are being made by Muslims every month (not necessarily “unique” contacts, as the same individual may contact multiple ministries, frequently through different channels, often more than once in a single month). They are asking questions, wanting to talk, or requesting materials about Jesus and Christianity. “Openness” appears to be highest in recent history.
Media Perspective And The Church
Christian/evangelical media presence in the Middle East has grown in parallel with the explosion of available media channels and the dramatic drop in cost for many digital forms of communication (as contrasted with terrestrial or satellite broadcasting, for example). Then there’s been the sheer growth and active media engagement of the Western and non-Western believers.
Many Godly, deeply committed individuals have and continue to produce high-value media content for the MENA region – frequently at considerable risk and sacrifice. The challenge is not of good intent and, frequently, very positive outcomes – in the First Mile. The challenge is how to re-orient these remarkable Kingdom assets – seeing at growing percentage of output focused on the Last Mile.
Many suggest that because of media efforts there has developed a kind of ‘phantom’ church, not just in the Middle East, but around the world. These are individuals who have become convinced of and, because of media content and the work of the Holy Spirit, have made a commitment to Christ despite a socially hostile setting. Typically, due to family and or wider community pressure, countless media responders have not ‘declared’ their faith publicly. They are likely reflected in the gap between what is being seen in media response and what is being experienced on the ground (see case history below).
Those suggesting this phenomenon indicate that, in many cases, there is little if any viable local fellowship with whom the new believer can find safety, encouragement, and identity. Going it all alone is not only lonely, but in many cases, a dangerous journey!
On The Ground – What Are The Outcomes of Current Media Efforts?
The sobering fact is that, almost daily, from the MENA media ministries there is river of information regarding huge levels of response. Digital analytics of these ministries and the occasional “secular” research attest to this fact.
Yet the gap between media response and what happens on the ground presents a serious challenge. Consider this: a respected evangelistic web site in the region reported the following statistics:2
- 1,579,664 “Unique Visitors” in a 12-month period
- 13,860 Individuals “Requesting Info”
- 112,471 “Indicated Decisions” by Individuals
However, in the primary region of the web site’s influence there was little change in the scale or vitality of the local church. So, what is happening in this and similar cases all across the region?
It may be helpful to reflect initially on the Biblical model of the process of evangelism — sowing, watering, reaping, and discipling.3 (Also see Appendix 2) Consider a media user (radio listener, TV program viewer, evangelistic web site visitor, etc.) saying “I want to follow Jesus” as the First Mile of the spiritual journey.
Then think of the Last Mile as what it takes to go from that initial step to personal discipleship and engaging in a healthy fellowship with other believers. Then, there is the strengthening of leadership of local fellowships, becoming with others a community witness to Christ, and possibly even more radical – replicating or multiplying their fellowship of believers
First Mile metrics such as initial or even sustained response by enquirers to media, while important, no matter how sliced and diced, are not the most critical indicators of success. The Last Mile, on-the-ground, is where the real outcomes must be measured. And, developing means for effectively evaluating impact on the Last Mile will be challenging. Far more difficult than generating response and relevant metrics in the First Mile.
A candid assessment of the state of the church (historic and ‘evangelical’) in the MENA region suggests that despite massive investment/deployment of resources in media and “follow-up” for the last 40 years, there has been, at best, modest (if any) real change. With possibly the exception of Yemen, Algeria, Iran, and northern Iraq — each with very special, heavily influential collateral factors — the state of the visible church in the MENA region is little different.
Why Are We Where We Are?
I would suggest a substantial part of the reason for this profoundly serious disconnect between ‘inputs’ and ‘outcomes’ is due to four reasons:
- Understanding of the essential nature of Gospel as it is reflected in both individual and community witness. The highly individualistic West has increasingly become a place where “community” is hardly known much less valued and regularly experienced. Western Christianity has increasingly reflected this culture in our largely individualistic approach to salvation. Consider most Western churches when asked to describe their local fellowship speak primarily about quantitative numbers: staff size, budget, members/attendees, number of baptisms, etc. Sadly, you rarely find talk about qualities of the fellowship: levels of serious discipleship (“apprentices to Jesus” to use the Dallas Willard expression), sense of real Kingdom engagement in each other’s lives, and engagement in the community, etc. Means for evaluating these critical indicators are largely non-existent. Even more so in a region like MENA.
- There is strong evidence that the extraordinary spread of the Gospel in the first three hundred years following Christ’s death and resurrection was due, in significant part, to the community witness of believers in their very hostile, polytheistic settings.4 This was reflected not only in the strength and maturity of individual believers and their local fellowship but was critical to the replication of local fellowships (church growth, etc.).
- A quote from a leader of one of the on-line fellowships is worth noting: “We rejoice when family members come to faith. It’s good for us to hear that, and it encourages us to share with our families.” (emphasis mine).5 It may be good to keep in mind that virtually all Islamic communities, from West Africa to SE Asia are traditional, community-based cultures.
- A well-intentioned yet misguided belief in/understanding of the role and power of media specifically where the change proposed is in a social setting hostile to the change. Dozens of studies on a wide range of efforts by media in support of change affirm the media’s strengths and weaknesses.6 While this topic deserves detailed, prayerful consideration by MENA related media leadership, let me simply summarize.
Studies consistently show that when calling for change in a socially hostile context, media are most effective at the early stages of information and awareness. Later, once a positive decision is considered, the media can provide educational support and affirmation for the new ‘convert.’ But, at the critical points of motivation, conviction, and action, media have, at best, modest influence.7
See Appendix 2.0 for a simple diagram illustrating this.
In suggesting this line of thinking I am in no way devaluing the unique work of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts to both consider and follow Christ. Yet that individual must then walk out into the hostile community with implications for relationships — with their own family, friends, employers, and powerful traditional religious community leadership.
The majority of media in the MENA region for the last 50 years have been sponsored and/or guided by western agencies and their staff. Recent years have seen a welcome increase in the number of MENA nationals as both initiators and as the face and voice of media, but also able to influence policy.
However, despite the growing number of national personnel, committed, well-intentioned media leaders are influenced, often unconsciously, by the western, highly individualistic understanding of conversion, spiritual maturity, and the nature and role of the local church in society. With that understanding comes a natural emphasis in media strategy related to the First Mile.
In the West, family and wider social implications of the Gospel in an individual’s decisions are rarely considered as significant barriers to a personal faith in Christ. Possibly later considerations, of course, but not always immediately relevant. No one in a typical MENA social setting can possibly consider Christ without those implications.
Then, this further consideration: Western sponsors (media ministry ‘home offices’ or funders) have a disproportionate influence on strategy. Having little or no experience with a “community” demonstrated Christianity, their own individualized understanding of the Gospel message focuses heavily on the First Mile – reported decisions for Christ.
In this setting, hard-pressed for solid data (metrics) on media impact, many sponsors were thrilled with the dawn of the digital age and resources such as Google Analytics. “At last we have some ‘hard data’.” But, it only took a few years for sponsors to realize that as the different media reported the metrics differently and there was no common vocabulary, things were pretty much as they had been. Funders want numbers. The Last Mile will call for a sharply different approach to evaluation.
All of this, I believe, points to one thing: the inescapable reality that evangelical communications must consider the “community” of believers on the ground as the most credible and effective witness to the winsome power and attractiveness of Jesus.
Individual stories from around the world testify to the power of local fellowships’ ability to, as a collective body, serve, influence, and affect the nature of the society in which they exist. They do this while being an explicit witness to the essential message of the saving power of Christ in the individual life.
- The implications of Sat 7, whose consistently-stated primary mission is to be a voice for and provide support/encouragement of the life, witness, and service of the church in the MENA region deserves specific consideration and analysis.
- As reported in Lausanne Media Plenary: Missiology and Strategic Alliances for Global Outreach through the Media, 20 Nov 2013 https://www.lausanne.org/content/missiology-and-strategic-alliances-for-global-outreach-through-the-media
- See: Matthew 13:1-23, John 4:35-38, I Corinthians 3:4-9, etc.
- Careful consideration suggests that the Pauline epistles were written first to communities of people. Individuals making up the communities, to be sure. But, the sweeping message constantly is how the community of believers is seen by those on “the outside.” Author Paul Banks, takes up this theme in his book, Paul’s Idea of Community: Baker Academic, 1994. Further light is shed on the matter in the remarkable analysis of the nature and growth of the early church from North Africa and around the Mediterranean rim to Spain by Rodney Stark in his book, The Cities of God: Harper One, 2007. The book’s subtitle is telling: “The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.”
- As reported in visionSynergy UPDATE 09-2016
- I have written extensively on this topic. A sample of these papers exploring key elements in this discussion is Media & The Evangelism Processhttps://goo.gl/dWNFCs .
- Sample quotes:
“Media influence is greatest in informing people and creating initial attitudes; it is least effective in changing attitudes and ingrained behaviors”
“Persuasive mass media functions far more frequently as an agent of reinforcement than as an agent of change.”
“The social aegis under which the message comes, the receiver’s social relationship to the sender, the perceived social consequences of accepting it or acting upon it must be put together with an understanding of the symbolic and structural nature of the message, the conditions under which it is received, the abilities of the receiver and his innate and learned responses.”9 (emphasis mine)
All quotes from: Role of mass media in development: which media; what approach?, by Levi Zeleza Manda http://www.academia.edu/2530414/Role_of_media_in_development_which_media_what_approach
(1) Building The Witnessing, Growing MENA Church: Essentials For The Complete Journey
This diagram is relevant for all media being used for evangelism/church planting. From broadcasting to web-based, digital platforms, to more individualized social media. As the related diagram indicates, each has its strength. The critical need is the integration of these media and particularly with the on-the-ground force that can address the community, relationally-based cultural dynamics of the Middle East.
(2) Relative Roles/Impact of Different Forms of Communication