LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- The streets of the ancient city of Lahore, Pakistan, anchor majestic buildings in a blend of Islamic, Persian, Turkish and Indian architecture. Known as the cultural capital of Pakistan, Lahore is the country's second-largest city and the capital of the influential Punjab province.
It is in this rich setting IMB worker Worth Ballinger* sees "great opportunities to reach those that are Christian by name only, as well as interact with the lost and encourage believers to reach out to them."
Ballinger, alongside colleagues and Lahore's Christian community, works to strengthen disciples and plant churches, a significant challenge in such a diverse city. While Punjabi Muslims are most prevalent -- with a shared language that strengthens their social group -- all of Pakistan's major demographic groups can be found among Lahore's 10 million people.
Approximately 95 percent of the city is Muslim, while the remaining population is a mix of Christian and other religions. "There's actually a big Christian minority -- big for Pakistan," Ballinger says.
Despite the Christian presence in Lahore, persecution is a reality for new believers stemming from a wave of extremism that has swept across the region in recent years. Muslim-background believers, wary of constant surveillance, tend to lead quiet lives for fear of persecution.
Muslims who convert to Christianity could be disowned by their families, divorced by their spouses, forced to flee the region or even killed. Less extreme persecution comes in the form of verbal torment: Muslims call Christians the derogatory term "sweeper." Children even tease their classmates with this slur.
Christian-background believers also face challenges. A great awakening in the Punjab in the early 1900s saw about 100,000 Hindus become believers. Although many churches began from the genuine faith that marked the early movement, subsequent generations lacked sustained discipleship and leadership development. Now, many who call themselves Christian do not have a personal relationship with Jesus.
"Many of them are not aware of what it means to personally decide to follow Christ," Ballinger explains. "Instead, they are born into 'Christian' families. ... It has more to do with ethnicity or culture than faith."
Ballinger adds, " born into these Christian families will become Muslim because they think it will help them in status, just quit dealing with persecution."
Yet despite many obstacles, God is at work in Lahore.
After moving to Lahore with his wife Aleta* and their children, Ballinger faced discouragement and asked God to remind him why he was working in this difficult city. That same day Ballinger met a Muslim man who had received a copy of the "JESUS" film and wanted to know more about Christianity.
Ballinger gladly shared the Gospel with the man. Over time and despite persecution from his family, the man came to accept Christ.
"To see how God can use whomever He calls ... a pretty amazing thing for us," Ballinger says. "There's nothing like it. There's nothing close to being able to walk in step with the Lord and see Him guide each day and use you, and people's lives be impacted."
*Names changed. Laura Fielding is a writer for the International Mission Board.
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