As hostilities escalate yet again in the Middle East, Christians must ask themselves how such events affect missions in high-risk areas. For Southern Baptists in particular, whose cooperative work is centered on getting the gospel to all people in all nations, these are delicate and important questions. Regardless of the headlines, the gospel remains at the center of missions.
In the face of troubling news from places like Iran and Iraq, International Mission Board (IMB) mission field leader Don Allen* said that “God is still at work, and He is evidencing more work today than I have seen in the last three decades.”
“Don’t believe all the news,” said Allen, who has worked with teams in the Middle East region for several years guiding day-to-day operations. “God is at work in ways you cannot comprehend or see, and we hold on to that.”
According to Allen, God has a plan to reach Iranians and Iraqis. “He’s not going to let anyone thwart His plan,” he said. “Even in times of great upheaval, God is at work.”
Times of great upheaval
The nature of the current conflict is old and complicated, and it is affected by a variety of factors: multiple countries with overlapping relationships; competing sects of Islam with different interpretations and understandings of the Quran; intersecting alliances with foreign governments; and an extensive history of violent extremism, radical uprisings and armed rebellions.
Recent headlines regarding relations between the United States and Iran, as well as with its neighbor Iraq, stem from a series of events beginning in late December when an American contractor was killed on an Iraqi military base. The U.S. retaliated against the aggressors, a Shia militia group backed by the Iranian government, with airstrikes at facilities in both Syria and Iraq. Thousands of Iranian-backed Iraqis gathered at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve to protest the U.S. retaliatory strikes, which many feared would pin Iraq between its North American ally and its neighbor to the east.
Three days later on Jan. 3, President Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani, who had headed a branch of the Iranian military known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to the Pentagon, Soleimani was in the middle of planning an imminent attack against the U.S.
Soleimani’s death sparked outrage from Iranian leaders, who announced the country’s intent to withdraw from its commitments to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In retaliation, Iran fired missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. The rising tension sparked fear that open conflict might erupt between the U.S. and Iran, but in a Jan. 8 address to the nation, President Trump said Iran “appears to be standing down.”
Tensions, however, remain high. And while much is unclear regarding the future of the region, one thing is certain: this is a place filled with people who are desperately in need of the hope that only the gospel can bring.
‘We have a God better than scary’
When Jesus commanded His followers to go into all nations, making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey His commandments, He gave no caveats regarding personal safety. For thousands of years Christians have heeded the call to obey, sometimes being persecuted in their homeland for their beliefs, and other times being persecuted for entering areas where their safety was at risk.
Allen described an unrest tracing back to the Arab Spring uprisings that began nearly a decade ago as something that, surprisingly, has created greater opportunities for the spread of the gospel.
“As far as the greater scheme of what God is doing, the shaking of the whole Middle East region has not really stopped since 2011 when the Arab Spring broke out, and what we see is a continual shaking. What it’s doing at a personal level with Arabs across the region is that it’s causing them to question and seek hope where there’s not been hope offered before, to seek peace that the world can’t offer,” Allen said. “And of course you know this is the message of Jesus Christ, hope and peace and love.
“I think they look at the wars being fought – many of them Muslim on Muslim violence – and it really raises deep existential questions about who we are and what do we believe, and that’s prime area for the gospel to move forward across the region.”
Muslims in the region are desperate for hope, Allen said. Many report having dreams or visions of Jesus – often clad in white – which cause them to seek out a believer or begin reading scripture.
“We have regular stories of men and women who have dreams that stir their interest, that pique their desire. One lady dreamed she was drowning in a flood and she saw somebody with the gospel who could pull her out of that flood, and she sought her out and asked, ‘What does this mean?'” Allen said. “People have the vision and haven’t heard of Jesus, and when they hear of Jesus say, ‘That’s the man I saw in my dream!'”
According to Allen, Arabs have a greater sense than do Westerners of the spirit world because their religion and culture are so integrated.
“Americans in general, we have a lot of access to the gospel. So much access to the gospel. A lot of these places, there is no gospel access,” he said. “That’s what drives me to do dangerous things, go to dangerous places, because these people need to hear.”
Allen zeroed in on the reason he and others like him do what they do, despite safety risks in such an unstable region where the gospel is often unwelcome.
“The reason we work in these hard places and in high-risk situations is because we firmly believe the hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ, that seeing people come to faith is the peace they need. When we look at countries like these, having massive protests across the country against the regime, when we look at those kinds of protests, it’s made up not just of hundreds of thousands or millions of people, it’s made up of individuals, and each one has a name,” Allen said. “And each one has been called by God to follow Him.
“The real question is, do they know who they’re being called by? Are we being faithful to share this good news with each individual so they can hear this great, good news for themselves?”
And while the call to go and share is undeniable, Allen shared that he often encounters believers with a desire for safety that seems to be based more on fear than obedience.
“The first question I’m often asked is, ‘Is it safe?’ It’s not a bad question, but the better question is, ‘What is God telling us to do?'” Allen said. “I’ve got children, and it’s really easy to want what is safe for them. A friend of mine, Nik Ripken, who works with a lot of persecuted believers, talks about our Heavenly Father being a sending father. Could that be the model that we as parents and grandparents should model, to be the sending ones, which is just as important as going?
“It’s hard, but when we’re caught up in the reality that Jesus is worth it all, that everything I have is worthy of Him – Revelation’s vision of tens of thousands of people putting everything they have before Him and saying, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ – then it really becomes secondary what I feel, because He is worthy. He is going to do better with my child, my grandchild, than I can ever dream or think of.
“We must ask God what is our part in this series of events that is unfolding. Is it to pray? To give? To go? I’ve been really impressed with this newer generation that are willing to go to some of the hardest places on the planet to engage in lostness. We need more like that. We need grandparents and parents to release some of their children to go.
“As we think about responding to these kind of things, the temptation is to batten down the hatches and close the doors and stay at home, when in reality the only answer is if we open the doors wide and say, we will go and compel them to come to the gospel. We will go and share with them until my last dying breath.
“This is an exciting time to engage in the Middle East. A scary time, yeah, but we have a God better than scary.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rob Collingsworth is a writer for the Southern Baptist TEXAN.)