September Newsletter Web Story

September Newsletter Web Story

A Chain Of Discipleship

Standing on the street of a large Central Asian city, three men tease each other about their unfamiliarity with hailing a taxi. Their deep and obvious affection for one another mirrors the bonds they share — bonds of faith, brotherhood, discipleship and becoming a family after being rejected by their own families. Smiling cheerfully, they climb into the back of a taxi to begin the long journey to their homes in rural Central Asia.

Baluan (center) could not keep the Good News to himself. He shared the gospel with his contractor, Shokan (right), and his coworker, Temir (left), and now the three minister together

Four years ago the men didn’t even know each other. And Baluan, the source of their friendship, never could have imagined it when he was a Christian- hating, ninth-grade madrassa student. When his Christian sisters talked about God during family discussions, Baluan would angrily tell them they were headed to hell for betraying Islam. An older sister had become a Christian after a man in their village shared the gospel with her, and she had then led her other sisters to Christ.

Although most people in Central Asia are Muslim, for many it’s merely a matter of culture and habit. Leaving Islam is not offensive on religious grounds, but rather because it will bring shame to the family.

After 12 years of hating Christians, Baluan reached a crossroads. He was deeply devoted to Islam and relished his role as the one who called local Muslims to prayer five times a day from the mosque minaret. But his sisters’ changed behavior was having an effect, even though their words about Christianity had not yet softened his heart.

Later, however, as a young married man in his early 20s, Baluan began his own search for truth. He was still receiving information from two directions: from the mosque, and from his sisters and their Christian husbands. The truth of Christianity gradually eroded his Islamic foundation, and one night in 2007 he fell to the floor crying and asking God to reveal whether Christianity or Islam was the true way.

The next morning he awoke with a new perspective. “I understood that Jesus was for me Lord and Savior,” he said. Wasting no time, he went straight to a friend and told him, “Islam is not true. Jesus is Messiah, and He is true.”

While no one shouted in his face or beat him, his friends immediately disappeared from his life. They walked the other way when he approached, and he and his family were no longer invited to community events like weddings and funerals. “For them, we are strangers,” he said.

Even so, Baluan and his wife were committed to serving God. “My sisters shared the gospel with me and brought me and my wife to the Lord, so we also tried to share the gospel with others and bring the gospel to them,” he said.

Gradually, a small church developed, with Baluan as its pastor. And he continued to share the gospel with everyone he met, even with the contractor he hired to build his kitchen.

A Gifted Evangelist

Shokan couldn’t figure out why his client wanted to pray in the name of God the Father. His own father wasn’t a good person; why would you call God “Father”? In Shokan’s understanding of Islam, God was someone who punished you when you did wrong, and you did not ask questions. So when he asked Baluan why he prayed like that, he was surprised by Baluan’s gentle answer, which he quoted from the Injil, or New Testament.

Shokan’s two-day kitchen job for Baluan stretched into two months; instead of working, the two men fell into lengthy discussions about life and religion. “Every day we talked too much,” Baluan said with a laugh.

Although Shokan was not ready to tell Baluan he believed in Jesus, he was already telling people in the village that he had become a Christian. “After one month, the Lord changed my heart and I had compassion and mercy toward others,” he said. “Everywhere I went, I told people about Jesus. I didn’t want to talk about anything else.”

When Shokan asked Baluan for a Bible, Baluan resisted. “My desire was to make him very thirsty,” Baluan said. “This is my method.” Baluan wanted to make certain that the precious Bibles he gave out went to people who would really use them.

After another month, Shokan was ready to commit to Christ. He called Baluan and asked him where he could repent, and on Oct. 13, 2016, he met with Baluan to profess his faith in Christ.

As Shokan returned home, people were just leaving the evening service at the mosque near his house. With an unashamed zeal for the Lord, he walked up the hill and addressed the crowd of about 100 Muslims. “Very loudly I told them, ‘I am coming here to talk to you about Jesus. Jesus, the Son, He died for your sin and then He rose, and if you go to the mosque you cannot get saved.’”

When the secret police called a few days later, Shokan shared the gospel with them, too. They told him he had to stop sharing about Jesus, but Shokan replied that he couldn’t stop. Finally, the police told him he could share the gospel, but only inside his own house.

Shokan had to get creative. Since his house was the only one in the village with electricity, he decided to buy an antenna that would allow him to pick up the national soccer team’s matches on TV. He knew how much his countrymen loved soccer, and now his house was the only place in the village where they could watch the national team play in the world championships. Shokan invited his neighbors to watch the games at his house, but he told them they had to be there by 8 p.m., even though the time difference meant the games didn’t air until 1 a.m. With his guests assembled in the early winter darkness, Shokan had a captive audience. “From 8 o’clock, I told them about Jesus, preaching to them, and then I went to bed and they continued watching soccer,” he said.

He also had to consider his witness to his own family. Before becoming a Christian, Shokan used to beat his wife “very severely and without mercy, because in Islam it is OK to beat a wife,” he said. Besides stopping that behavior, he also quit drinking and smoking. Although his wife noticed the positive changes, she was afraid of how her Muslim fundamentalist uncles might react.

“When I read the Word of God to my wife, she would put the pillow over her ears,” Shokan recalled. Noting how loud the TV volume needed to be to keep her awake, he began reading the Bible at the same volume so she couldn’t help hearing it. Every evening at 8 p.m., he took the Bible off the shelf and read aloud to his 8-year-old son … along with his wife. Within two months she had come to faith in Christ. Shokan also led his younger brother to Christ.

Recognizing Shokan’s gift for evangelism, Baluan presented him with a challenge. Since there were no Christians in a nearby village, Baluan proposed that Shokan move there and plant a house church.

Many Central Asian countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union have historical ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, and people in those countries often associate Christianity with their former oppressor. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, many reacted by embracing Islam more fully. Ironically, Russian evangelical groups were among the first to begin sharing the gospel in the newly independent Central Asian Republics. While in the 1990s only a handful of believers existed in the country where Baluan and Shokan live, today there are about 2,000 Christians.

Shokan accepted Baluan’s challenge, but in the first four or five months his new neighbors did not accept him and his family in their village. When they piled their garbage in front of Shokan’s house, he and his wife quietly cleaned it up. And eventually, the neighbors came to them and asked why they were so different. Two and a half years later, Shokan now has good relationships with his neighbors. He leads a house church of eight believers, with four others who are “very close” to becoming believers.

Developing More Disciples

While Shokan moved to plant the church, Baluan continued sharing the gospel in his village. At work, he talked about God so much that his Muslim coworkers called him “Pope.” They warned another coworker, named Temir, to avoid him because “he became like a Russian and has betrayed his faith.” But as Temir watched Baluan, he could see how good Baluan’s life was.

As Temir began his search for the truth, he started asking Baluan questions about God. Then he approached a Muslim religious leader with the same questions and compared their answers. Many Muslims in Central Asia read the Quran in Arabic, a language they don’t understand. Eager to compare the content of the Quran with that of the New Testament, Temir got a Quran in his own language and began his study.

Finally, two years to the date after Shokan had accepted Christ, Temir became a follower of Jesus on Oct. 13, 2018. “The 13th of October is the happiest day!” Temir said with a smile.

When one of Temir’s coworkers asked him a few weeks later if he had become a Christian, he denied it. “I didn’t have the courage,” Temir admitted. But the second time the subject came up, he was ready. “I am following Jesus,” he told them, and the news spread quickly.

The owner of the company where Temir worked, who was also a friend of Temir’s father, warned Temir that his supervisor would fire him if he insisted on being a Christian. Then, one day his father and uncles confronted him, along with several Islamic clerics. They surrounded him and began shouting accusations at him, but Temir said he felt calm. “They didn’t give me an opportunity to say anything,” he recalled. “They asked questions and … didn’t listen.” Eventually, he raised his voice. “Please, be quiet!”

Temir then told them that the New Testament taught him to love his enemies. “You are all my relatives, my uncles and my father,” he said. “Even if you don’t accept me, I accept you.” Nevertheless, his father asked him and his wife to move out because he didn’t want Temir to bring shame to the family.

Temir (white sweater) is the newest link in Baluan’s chain of discipleship, but he has already declared his faith to his family and been kicked out of his home

When Temir’s wife learned about Christianity, she, too, gave her life to Christ, and a year later the young couple was baptized. “Now we have a good life,” Temir said. “Praise God!” That good life in Christ includes a deep bond with Shokan and with Baluan, who disciples the two newer believers as they, in turn, disciple others.

After a short taxi ride to the bus station, they spent their ride home joking and laughing, but also encouraging one another and likely sharing the truth of the gospel with anyone willing to listen. Their trip to the city to meet with a VOM worker was a chance for them to spend time together away from the pressures of daily life; both Shokan and Temir have difficult relationships with their immediate families because of their Christian faith.

The three brothers in Christ — Baluan, wise and knowledgeable; Shokan, boldly confident; and Temir, observant and learning from his older brothers in the faith — continue to add new links to their chain of discipleship as they proclaim the Good News in Central Asia.

This house church (top) in Central Asia (bottom) continues to grow steadily, one person and one family at a time. They worship in the local language instead of the widely used Russian