Editor’s Note: In order to protect our missionaries serving in Turkey, the video related to this story has been password protected. To watch the Foursquare in Turkey video, please use the following password: 4sqchurch2013.
While many are still watching to see what kind of lasting change the so-called Arab Spring will bring to the Middle East, Foursquare leaders there are focused on another season: harvest, spiritually speaking.
With signs of unprecedented spiritual openness across the region, they are praying and preparing for a move of God that they say hinges in part on heightened involvement by the rest of His church around the world.
“There’s no way we can fulfill the Great Commission and leave out the least-reached area of the world,” says Sam (full name withheld for security reasons), Foursquare’s area missionary to MENACA—the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. MENACA is home to around 1.3 billion people―mostly Muslim, with minority groups of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians.
But Sam is optimistic, for he sees growing interest in the region from the Western church and signs of new life. There are regular reports of people coming to Christ in the area—where he became Foursquare’s fourth full-time worker, 18 years ago—as a result of dreams and visions, and new believers being baptized with the Holy Spirit.
“The supernatural is almost natural here,” adds Ihsan Ozbek from Turkey, where he is Foursquare’s national leader. When he surveyed members of the 150-strong church he pastors in Ankara, four out of five reported having a dream or vision before they were saved.
During the past decade, Ihsan has seen Foursquare become the largest church movement in his nation, with 10 congregations. But even in a country that holds a pivotal position in the region—a geographical, cultural and physical bridge between Europe and the East—that growth has not come without a price.
Challenges to Christianity
Though Turkey has a secular government, many of its 70-odd million people are fired by Islam or nationalism and oppose the spread of what they reject as “Western” Christianity. Three Foursquare leaders in Malatya were brutally murdered in 2007, setting the fledgling church back on its heels.
Although they have since rebounded, Foursquare numbers dwindled for a time as fear tested believers’ faith. To this day, Ihsan is shadowed 24/7 by an armed bodyguard provided by the government. The father of two teenage girls says, matter-of-factly, “It was tough, but now we are stronger.”
Despite opposition and occasional threats, Foursquare members make the most of the country’s religious freedoms. They conduct open-air evangelism in some of the big cities, and have a highly public church presence, even a Facebook page. Their radio station has one of the 20 highest audiences in the country. After several years working with Ihsan in Ankara, an American couple has recently moved to Istanbul, population 18 million. They are helping plant the first church in a part of the ancient city with 400,000 residents.
Evangelism and discipleship can be a slow process, with new believers having to come to a huge decision in following Christ. Family and friends often view turning to Jesus as disloyalty, the worst kind of slight in a culture steeped in Islam, family and tradition. Once it becomes known that a Turk has accepted Jesus, he can lose his relationships, his job, even his life.
“We had a guy who became a believer,” recalls the American leader (unnamed for security reasons). “His father was an imam (a leader in the Muslim community), and came to our church with a gun, looking for him, to kill him. Thankfully, the man wasn’t there.”
Western workers can be viewed with suspicion, too. The leader in Istanbul does not downplay the challenges and dangers, but he does not dwell on them. “We try to be wise, smart, intelligent, but we also want to see the kingdom advance, and you put yourself at risk when you try to do that,” he explains.
Because of Turkey’s official openness, most Christians outside the region aren’t aware of the scale of the challenge and the opportunity in the country, observes Ted Vail, associate director of Foursquare Missions International. Even with Foursquare’s membership topping the table, the total number of evangelical believers in Turkey would be proportional to about just 18,000 Christians in the entire United States, he points out.
The 350 or so Foursquare members account for about a tenth of all believers in the country, including the first-ever congregation for the deaf. And though they have to be mindful of security issues, The Foursquare Church in Turkey is looking beyond its own doors and borders. Members have been sent out to other countries in the region, and with Turkey being viewed in some ways as a social and political model for other Islamic nations, they could find more opportunities for influence.
“It’s pretty significant,” Sam says of Turkey, one of 10 countries in the region with a Foursquare presence. “A Muslim majority nation with a church that is sending workers out.”
Ihsan is straightforward about his church’s emphasis.
“It’s in the Bible,” he asserts. “It’s our calling. We are to share our faith, to evangelize, and to raise disciples. It’s in our genes.”
In addition to praying for his country, Ihsan invites American churches to send teams to join the outreach there. “We need everything,” he says. “Prayer, human power.”
Sam believes such investments will bear fruit. He attributes the growth he has seen in the region to Foursquare’s more intentional focus in recent years.
“For a long time, there was no real vision to reach into that part of the world, but that has been changing. Especially since 9/11, people are more aware of what is happening there,” he observes. “There is more of a burden, and people are more familiar with the concept of unreached people groups.”
By: Andy Butcher, a freelance writer living in the Orlando, Fla., area