The Illinois Baptist
The Baptist Messenger (Oklahoma)
The Baptist Record (Mississippi)
Sharing the Gospel with the state's
fastest-growing religious group
By Meredith Flynn
CHICAGO (Illinois Baptist) -- Jacob and Julie Smith* fast every day until their evening meal around 8:30. The couple, who live in Chicago's west suburbs with their two sons, are observing Ramadan, the month Muslims give to prayer and fasting. But the Smiths don't adhere to Islam. They're evangelical Christians trying to respect their neighbors.
"We don't want to be cooking during the day when they're not allowed to eat," Jacob says. So instead of letting the smell of food waft down the halls in their all-Muslim apartment building, they eat a light breakfast early, skip lunch, and use the fast as a reminder to pray for the people group they came here to reach with the Gospel.
Theirs is difficult work, trying to fit into a culture where they automatically stand out. But it's important work too, especially in Illinois, where Islam is the fastest-growing religious group and the third-largest, according to a 2012 study. There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims in Chicago, Smith said, but only a handful of Christians he knows who are investing in communities like his, with the purpose to share Jesus and plant churches.
Islam is a growing influence not just in Chicagoland. Research from 2010 named Illinois "the most Muslim state" in America, with an estimated 2.8% of the population identifying with the religion. On a map outlining areas in Illinois where 5% or more of the population is Muslim, Chicago is joined by counties in western and southern Illinois.
"They're coming and they're going to continue to come," Smith says of the migration of Muslims to the U.S. "God's doing this on purpose, and that means the church needs to be engaging them on purpose."
It's a sacrificial enterprise, made more difficult by the strictness of some practices of Islam, tensions between Christians and Muslims, real-life, recent examples of Islamic extremism, and just the natural fear that comes with stepping outside your own culture. But God gives boldness when you ask for it, says Joyce Diesman, a missions volunteer who has traveled to Paris to work with Muslim women.
"You get down on your face and just say, 'Lord embolden me and give the power here that I need to just speak boldly for You.'"
Who are these people?
The Smiths moved to Chicago's west suburbs more than a year ago, and have since done their best to fit in. Along with fasting during Ramadan, they dress modestly. (Outside of the apartment, no shorts for Jacob, and long-sleeved shirts and long skirts or pants for Julie).
Their access to their neighbors varies with individual families -- some are very open, others rarely leave their apartments. And some are suspicious of this white family that moved into their neighborhood. Why are they here? Why are they learning the language? (We've changed their names in this story to help protect their identity and their ministry.)
When the Smiths began to sense God was calling them to Chicago to do cross-cultural ministry, part of the confirmation came in an opportunity in their home state, where they ministered to Egyptian families on and around a college campus. Those friendships were really the first cross-cultural work they'd ever done, Jacob says.
Engaging in any ministry that's new and unknown can be scary but, "I think when you get to know Muslims, you find that the fears that are out there are unfounded, when you get to know the individuals," he says.
In their community now, they form the majority of their friendships through English as a Second Language classes, and language exchange. They're working to learn Arabic - slowly, Jacob says.
"It is difficult to meet with people. If the Lord wasn't leading us to relationships, it would have fallen apart a long time ago." Their work is intense spiritual warfare, Jacob says. Much prayer is needed "for God to soften the ground so that we can do ministry."
Giving up a lot
Qusai Mahmud's church isn't in a neighborhood with a high Muslim population -- less than 1% or non-existent, he estimates. But the pastor of Pilsen Community Church does have first-hand knowledge of how to minister to Muslims.
Growing up in a home that was "Muslim by culture but not by practice," Mahmud's family observed Islamic holidays but very rarely visited a mosque. He first heard the Gospel 15 years ago, when his young daughter started attending the Awana children's program at a local church. After she shared the Gospel with him, Mahmud picked up a Bible given to him by his father-in-law a few years before.
"In the course of the week, I read it cover to cover. And it was maybe a couple months after that that I knew I was saved," he says. "That led me to sharing the Gospel with my brother and his wife and they got saved." Mahmud's conversion also led to the deterioration of his relationship with his father, now a devout Muslim.
"Their identity is tied into their belief system," Mahmud says. "... It's not just saying 'I'm going to follow Christ,' but you're also saying 'I'm rejecting my family, my culture, the history of my people.'
"They need to give up a lot more than we realize to follow Christ."
And that's just one cultural nuance among many. Like Muslims' dedication to their mosque and community. Mahmud says if a mosque opens in a Chicago neighborhood, within 10 years that community with be a largely Muslim area. "They will literally build their lives around the place they worship," he says.
From 2000 to 2011, the number of mosques in the U.S. rose from 1,209 to at least 2,106, according to a study sponsored by several religious groups. The research also identified 109 mosques in Illinois, the fifth-highest of all states. A few U.S. mosques have made headlines as centers of contention between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors. One in the suburb of Bridgeview has been linked to terrorism. More recent headlines, like the Boston Marathon bombings, have likely renewed fears of Muslim extremism.
But, "The vast majority of Muslims are very peaceful people that want the same things that we do," Mahmud says. "We have to remember that.
Getting beyond the stereotypes is important in order to build redemptive relationships that point to the Gospel. "We have to realize that more and more of our neighbors are Muslim," Mahmud says. "It's quickly becoming more and more popular, so we definitely need to spend a little time and learn about the culture."
Harder at home
Joyce Diesman has made five trips to Paris to build relationships with Muslim women. Working with a missionary there, she and other ladies from Illinois WMU helped with a language class (the Muslim women were learning French to survive in their new country). They also taught jewelry making, knitting, even self-defense.
They shared the Gospel too, using an Evangecube witnessing tool and reading the words in French. "I just remember the first time when the ladies walked into the class," Diesman says. You're a little nervous. As soon as they walked in, the Lord just busted the gates of my heart wide open, the minute that I saw them."
She originally wanted to go on the Paris trip because she had studied French in school and could speak some. "I didn't know God would give me a heart for Muslim people."
It's more difficult to find opportunities to interact one-on-one here at home, says Diesman, a member of Brainard Avenue Baptist in Countryside. "I found it easier for me to be bold in Paris than it is to be bold here."
But it's natural to have fears, she says. "Do you share? Do you not share? When you weigh those things against each other, the answer is very simple."
Jacob Smith quotes a statistic he heard that 86% of Muslims worldwide have never met a true follower of Jesus. He says Christians don't have to learn Arabic or change the way they dress or eat to engage the growing people group with the Gospel. "But you can love them like crazy."
"Invite them for a meal, invite them for a Bible study, invite them to go fishing with you. Whatever it is that you're doing in your own life, let them be a part of it," he says.
"They're very loving people that just don't know the truth."
This article originally appeared in the Illinois Baptist (ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist), newsjournal of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Meredith Flynn is associate editor of the Illinois Baptist.
New church plant finds place
to minister after disaster
By Dana Williamson
MOORE, Okla. (The Baptist Messenger) -- Formally less than six months old, Moore, Community Church had so established itself as a fixture in the city, that when the May 20 tornado ripped through the area, it was natural that city officials called upon the congregation to help in the face of the mass destruction.
"Our goal was to be a force in the community, thus our name," said Pastor Brandon Mata.
Mata said from the beginning, the church made it known to the city it was available to help with local events.
"We felt community had to be the heart of our church," Mata revealed. "In the 1950s, people who had need looked to the church. That's what we wanted."
As a result, church members were available to help with such events in Moore as Big Wheels National, Shop with a Cop Christmas program and an Easter Egg Hunt, where they had a chance to share the Gospel with those who came. Mata was also asked serve on a planning committee for a huge city park in the center of Moore.
"So when the tornado struck, we were already ingrained in the community, and it was natural for us to be called on to help," Mata explained. "The first thing we did was go to the community center, grab shovels and rakes and start working."
He said the first Saturday after the tornado, he was asked to organize a group of 500 to clean the cemetery.
"We ended up with 3,000. It is amazing to see denominational lines blurred as people came to serve," said Mata, adding that the church heard from people across the nation, and as far away as Hawaii, who wanted to help.
As a result, ServeMoore.com was set up to organize people to help in the tragedy.
"We hope even after the clean-up is complete, we can continue to serve the community through Serve Moore.com," Mata said.
Mata, who is employed full-time as assistant manager of a Sonic Drive-In, met his wife, Lindsay, when she was employed by "America's Drive-In." They were members of Moore, Highland, when he was called to the ministry. He began his ministry by serving as interim student minister at Highland, then became full-time in that position.
He said while he was working as student minister, he kept getting post cards from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's Church Planting Group about Discover Church Planting meetings, but would look at them, then throw them away. But one such invitation announced a meeting on Valentine's Day to be catered by Olive Garden.
"My wife and I have never made a big deal about Valentine's Day, but we decided Olive Garden sounded good, so we signed up for the meeting and took another couple with us.
Mata said they were by at least 20 years the youngest in the group.
"But we heard people whose hearts were so passionate to see the next generation come to Christ, that it stirred us," he admitted. "We were blown away by the fact we need more churches and how many lost people there are in Oklahoma."
At the end of the meeting, Mata said he asked the leadership how they got his name, and was told they ask people to give them names of people who might be good church planters, and someone gave them his name.
"To this day, I don't know who that person is," Mata said.
Bo Holland, Church Planting Specialist at the BGCO, said that Discover Church Planting is an event the Church Planting Group hosts several times a year to expose potential church planters to church planting possibilities.
"We get those names from pastors, DOMs, and other leaders who turn in names of people who they believe God may be calling to become church planters."
We never know what God will do with the seeds that are planted through Discover Church Planting, Holland explained, but over the years, we have seen a good return.
"On the way home, Lindsay and I discussed what we'd learned and knew that church planting was in our future, but somewhere down the road," Mata revealed.
Some three years later, he said, they had fallen in love with the idea of church planting, and began to seriously look at statistics.
"But we knew it wasn't yet our time," he said.
In the meantime, Mata got his students at Highland involved in Power Plant, a Southern Baptist Convention program that uses students to help plant churches.
"We went to Philadelphia, Utah and San Francisco to help plant churches," Mata said. "We wanted our students to have a vision of what church planting is. And at the same time, our pastor, David Evans, continued to preach about church planting, emphasizing that he wanted Highland to be a church that plants churches.
Mata said during a training session in San Francisco, the speaker gave an invitation, saying he felt someone in the room was called to church planting.
"The Holy Spirit spoke to me, but I didn't know what my students would think if I stood up," Mata admitted. "Then the speaker said, 'Don't worry what the person next to you is thinking.' Then I began to wonder how I would take care of my family. The speaker said, 'Don't worry about your family or finances.' He reputed everything I was thinking, but I still didn't stand up, and I felt terrible. God taught me that night if I was called to anything, I needed to step out."
Mata acknowledged he prayed for the next month, and talked to Evans, who was very supportive.
"He asked where I was being called, and I told him to this community," Mata said. "Union Association had put out statistics that said only 2 percent of its churches were reaching the generation in their 20s, 30s and 40s."
"We decided to take a year to flesh things out, but I told the church I would be leaving," Mata divulged. "This allowed the church to see that it wasn't us versus them, and it wasn't going to be a church split. Through the course of that year, our pastor preached that some would be called to lead the new church."
The new congregation, with some core families from Highland, started meeting in home Bible studies. A commissioning service was held in December 2012, and the church began meeting at a Seventh Day Adventist church in January.
Moore, Community started out with 78 people and has remained consistent through the first six months. With an emphasis on community, the church has home Bible studies throughout the week, reaching out to others with the hope the Gospel will be shared in homes all around Moore. Sunday night emphases are on strengthening families, fellowship and outreach, and fifth Sundays are special times when the whole community comes together to worship. Moore Life is the church's discipleship journey.
The church also highlights a Moore business to bless each month and is intent on opening dialogues with school principals and meeting the needs of individual students and their families.
Mata said as he is asked why another church is needed in Moore, he points to the fact that there are almost 70,000 unchurched people in the area, including those who have never met Jesus, people who have had bad experiences with the church and those disillusioned with "organized" religion.
"Most of those in Moore who fit that description are between the ages of 10 and 40," he reported. "They have never felt the need for 'church' as they know it. Some have never even heard the true story of Jesus, even though they are right in the heart of the 'Bible Belt.'"
The fact that Cleveland County is the second most unchurched county in Oklahoma helped Mata realize the need for a new church to come alongside existing churches and "communicate the timeless message of Jesus Christ without compromise in a new way for a new generation of people."
The Church Planting Group at the BGCO sure affirms the need for new churches throughout Cleveland County.
"We've developed a list of the top 30 areas across Oklahoma in need of new churches," said Holland. "South Oklahoma City, Moore, and Norman are all places in need of new congregations."
Mata said he is grateful for the support of Highland, which partners with the new congregation in activities such as sending children to summer camps. He is also thankful for the generous support of BGCO churches. Their gifts to the Cooperative Program help to fund this new work.
Mata and his wife are parents of four children, Dawson, 14; Kyleigh, 11; Mirel 5, and Lilyan, 3. Their financial support comes from the North American Mission Board and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
If you know someone who you believe God may be calling to become a church planter you can turn his name into the BGCO by simply emailing their contact information to BHolland@BGCO.org.
"We are always looking for the next Brandon," said Holland, "and we depend on help from Oklahoma Baptists to develop our list."
For more information on how your church can expand its ministry influence by helping to start a new church, visit www.oklahomachurchplanting.com.
This article appeared in The Baptist Messenger (baptistmessenger.com), newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Dana Williamson is a correspondent for The Baptist Messenger.
Church moves past 'typical'
to have impact on missions
By William H. Perkins Jr.
DUCK HILL, Miss. (The Baptist Record) -- Chas Rowland was pastor of Duck Hill Church in Montgomery County when he identified what he characterizes as a typical problem in Mississippi Baptist churches.
"Duck Hill Baptist Church is a great church. They are willing to give and give, but they were struggling to go beyond that. They did not know how to be mobilized, how to get personally involved in missions," said Rowland, who currently pastors Bovina Church in Warren County.
Rowland, a self-styled "military brat" whose father was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, decided to change that situation. He began to pray, and the Lord led him to the Missions Mobilization Department at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) in Jackson.
As the name implies, the department helps Mississippi Baptist churches move members from warming pews to winning people to Jesus with hands-on participation in missions. Ken Rhodes, longtime Mississippi Baptist pastor and associational missions director, heads the department. Although the department is several years old now, it is one of the newest departments at the convention board and was specifically started to get Mississippi Baptists on to mission fields.
Rhodes and the department's personnel worked to pair Rowland's Duck Hill congregation with an ongoing mission effort in the Finger Lakes/Watkins Glen area of western New York, between Syracuse and Rochester. The mission effort there is supported by the Send North America ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board.
Rowland, who holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from Mid-America Seminary in Memphis, recalls the rejection encountered on that mission trip. "There was outright hostility, Doors were slammed in our faces," he said.
The former youth minister at Harmony Church in New Albany returned to Duck Hill and, undeterred, led the church to organize a missions committee and begin planning a second mission trip to the area. In the summer of 2011, a team headed back to Finger Lakes on a mission trip sponsored this time by the church itself.
They decided to take a different approach on the second trip, Rowland said. They went into the community and engaged in service work, such as washing the plate glass windows of the businesses in town. It was such an unusual gesture that many of the business owners and their employees, as well as passers-by, stopped what they were doing to come over and find out what the Mississippians were up to.
The community service effort resulted in many opportunities to share the Gospel, Rowland said, and energized the team's members to witness even more. Momentum built and filled the team members with a contagious enthusiasm that spilled over into the church's local mission work when they returned to Duck Hill, he added.
"We started going into our own community, and it was awesome," Rowland said. "When I left Duck Hill Baptist Church about a year ago to answer the call to pastor Bovina Baptist Church, they were still going full throttle."
Rowland and Bovina Church are working toward repeating the spiritual success encountered by the Duck Hill Baptists. "We have started a missions committee now at Bovina, and we're praying for the Lord to lead us to our mission field," he said.
Gifts to the Margaret Lackey Offering for State Missions help fund the Missions Mobilization Department, where Rowland first discovered the resources that enabled the church he pastored to become directly involved in missions. The 2013 offering goal includes $700,000 for such efforts through the department.
"We would never have gone to New York to help plant a church, if it had not been for Margaret Lackey funding and encouragement," Rowland said.
For more information on the Margaret Lackey Offering for State Missions, visit mbcb.org and click on the Unlimited icon.
This article appeared in The Baptist Record, newsjournal of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (mbcb.org). William Perkins is editor of The Baptist Record.
EDITOR'S NOTE: From the States, published each Tuesday by Baptist Press, relays news and feature stories from state Baptist papers and other publications on initiatives by Baptist churches, associations and state conventions in evangelism, church planting and Great Commission outreach, including partnership missions. Reports about churches, associations and state conventions responding to the International Mission Board's call to embrace the world's 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups also are included in From the States, along with reports about church, associational and state convention initiatives in conjunction with the North American Mission Board's call to Southern Baptist churches to broaden their efforts in starting new churches and satellite campuses. The items appear in Baptist Press as originally published.
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