by Walid Zailaa
In a Middle East where corruption has become an integral part of the social fabric, where oppression has become the language of the strong, where poverty has taken its toll on the majority; in a Middle East where everything is permissible to everyone, where leadership is a sign of power and authority, and where mission is about receiving more than giving, the church is the only hope we have left. In order for the church to be effective in its community, in light of the escalating turmoil, it needs to embrace a different mindset with regard to education, leadership formation, and mission.
At the beginning of His ministry, some of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who decided to leave their profession and livelihood behind to follow their master into the field of ministry. The popular belief that has long been perceived about the fishermen whom Jesus called is directly linked to the idea of illiteracy. This notion has ignored other parts of this profession, such the necessity of working hard, of working in teams, and of relying on God daily, to solely focus on the educational aspect of those who decided to be fishermen by vocation. Equating the calling of the fishermen with illiteracy has kept the ministry field accessible to anyone without taking into consideration their educational background. Under the pretense that Jesus’ disciples were fishermen with low or no education at all, a large part of the evangelical community is being led by individuals who have never been exposed to any kind of theological education whatsoever, which makes me sometimes question their motivation. The whole mindset of “fishermen” made me think of our daily life. This is to say that whenever we or members of our family need anything, we look for experts in the field, be it a doctor, an engineer, an electrician, a plumber, and the list goes on; but, strangely enough, when it comes to God’s ministry anyone can lead His people, preach His word, and teach in His name. The church needs to be aware of the vitality of its role in the midst of the distressed Middle Eastern context today and strive to move beyond itself to grow seeds of hope in its local community. Unfortunately, this will never take place properly without experts in the fields of theology, missiology, ecclesiology, or Christian leadership. I am amazed how the Sudanese church has been raising its voice in the last two years, requesting from ABTS help in theologically training its emerging leaders for local ministry. I pray and hope that other churches in the MENA follow suit. Ultimately, let us not forget that the fishermen whom Jesus called received the best education possible before going into the field of ministry.
In the last decade, thousands of books, lectures, seminars and webinars have discussed the meaning of the terms leadership and mission. It is nearly impossible to find one meaning that fits all. Nevertheless, almost everyone agrees that there is a common factor that holds the two terms in perspective. Our geographical location and the era we live in shape our understanding of leadership and mission. For years, in our Middle Eastern context, Christian leadership remained synonymous with ‘authority’ and mission with ‘reception.’
Notions of leadership in this part of the world have always been hierarchical, top-down phenomena. Leaders at the top of the hierarchy have the ultimate authority to the extent that it frequently becomes a vital part of their identity. They are so much engrained in their positions that most of the time they overlook potential and capable leaders in their midst, no matter how much their institution may be suffering due to their age or unengaging leadership style. Unfortunately, the list of pastors and church leaders who have reached the age of retirement without having trained successors is long; as a result, the church is paying a high price. For that reason, at least in Lebanon, we have begun experiencing many churches devoid of pastors or leaders.
Like the concept of leadership, the notion of mission is also misinterpreted in this part of the world. In the Middle East, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem, due to several factors, has cornered us in the ‘reception’ mindset when it comes to mission. From the dawn of protestant missions in the region, we needed Western missionaries to establish and run schools, seminaries, hospitals and churches in the Arab world. No doubt, Western initiatives are based on a unique calling to obey the Lord in reaching out to us, and for that we are thankful. Furthermore, much of what has been established in previous generations remains operational and effective. On the downside, however, this has left a scar in our understanding of mission. For too long, we have linked mission with incoming missionaries and with the receiving of financial resources, food aid, medical supplies, educational material or any commodity that might be available for us. We equated mission with reception and failed to learn the principle of giving or sending as we are given.
Although the Bible presents the concept of mission in the act of sending, and the model of leadership in the most glorious act of self-giving, we have always walked in the opposite direction. The fear of having an identity crisis when paving the way for others to take on leadership and the fear of losing our resources when we start reaching out is embedded within the fabric of our Christian communities. Nevertheless, this bleak outlook at the Middle Eastern context has seen a light at the end of the tunnel. It is in the midst of suffering that the beacon of hope is shining again. Because missionaries have been persecuted, expelled and no longer allowed into our countries, we have had to learn to be missionaries amongst our own people. When the Western economy is damaged and no longer able to provide, we have to learn to support others and ourselves. It is in the midst chaos when we get up from our seats, roll up our sleeves and take on our responsibilities. A new Middle East is emerging and with it, our understanding of mission and leadership needs to be dramatically re-shaped.
The political and economic instability in most Middle Eastern countries, the ugliness of the war in Syria, and the rise of militant movements have shaped the whole area. The new Middle East I am referring to is not born of post-modernity and scientific advancement for the common good of humanity; rather it is born out the ashes of its sons and daughters. The new Middle East is being forged in the furnace of oppression, pain and suffering. As a result, the recent demographic changes that the whole area is witnessing due to internal displacement and migration have created an urgent need for a new mindset. The church is facing systematic persecution in most North African countries as well as in Egypt and Sudan, is standing fast in war zones in Syria and Iraq and is burdened by the overwhelming needs of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. In times of crisis, leading from the ivory tower is no longer a valid definition of ‘leadership’ in the dictionary of the contemporary Middle East. Similarly, the notion of ‘mission’ is not to be deemed as a foreign hand reached out to us, but rather our hands stretched out to help our people. After all, is it not a biblical mandate for each one of us to be a missionary and servant leader? I wonder if we need such times to be reminded of this biblical truth.
Many spectators, locally and internationally, are looking at the current crisis cynically, concluding that Christianity in the Middle East is on the verge of annihilation. In spite of their analytical and critical perceptions, they are investigating present circumstances without considering the Christian side of Middle Eastern history during the past 2000 years. Furthermore, they are merely scratching the surface in their analyses without looking deeply at the number of those getting to know and believe in Jesus Christ having been raised as adherents of another religion. Despite the bitterness of the war in the Middle East, the church in Lebanon and elsewhere is serving thousands of displaced persons. Despite the systematic persecution in North Africa, the church is witnessing thousands of people come to faith. God is working through his church in the MENA region. Like Esther in the Old Testament, God has preserved the church for such times (Esth 4:14b). The church is the beacon of hope that will eventually explode forth and shine all over the place. It is through those who believed in the mission of God through the church that leadership formation would take place. Working alongside the church is the hope we have left for a better tomorrow.
Very pertinent thoughts from a Christian leader who is in the heat of the battle in the Middle East. I was struck by your statement that today’s Middle East is born out of the ashes of its sons and daughters. May God empower you and others to be a source of healing!