Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Emerging Turkish Church

The Emerging Turkish Church
Ryan Keating

As I have been reflecting on the character of the emerging Turkish church, my thoughts are divided between traits which I think characterize the church as it exists today, and directions that represent where I think the church would like to go. I have described three examples of each.

The Turkish church is today characterized by:

1) A generation of modern church fathers.

During the first 25 or so years of evangelism in Turkey, beginning in the 1960's, there emerged a group of Turkish men who rose to maturity as pioneers in a nation which had never known a "Turkish church," during an era marked by political turbulence.  Some of these men not only persevered, but began to take responsibility for the spiritual needs of their country.  And new believers began to see them as fathers, a role which they willingly embraced.  Over the past 25 or so years these men have come to be seen in a role which seems parallel to the one that the early church fathers had.  Today, I see the character of the church as a reflection of the character of these men who still serve as leaders. I could count 6 or 8 men who would fit this profile.  Their names are often mentioned in churches around the country, their sermons and books are quoted, their advice is sought out, and they are often maligned and brought into debates or conflicts as voices of authority. 

It is a sobering truth that there is not an evident second generation of church fathers in Turkey.  It seems that the church is already aware of this, and we have been spending  much of our energy re-imagining leadership issues for the future of the church.

2) A high degree of national unity

From inside the church it is difficult to miss the presence of conflict, scandal, and debate that asserts itself on the agenda so often.  However, I am also struck by degree to which the Turkish church still acts as one entity.  Several ministries seek to serve the whole spectrum of Turkish congregations, offering training, camps, publishing, radio, and television without stark distinctions of denomination or ethnicity, preferring instead to distinguish areas of ministry geographically. TEK, the Turkish Evangelical Association doesn't represent all of the Turkish churches, but it does represent most of them, and there is no competing, or even parallel organization to TEK.  I take all of these to be encouraging signs of a unity which is not perfect, but still characteristic of the church in Turkey. Another anecdotal  but significant sign of unity is the Turkish hymn book, which is used almost universally in Turkish churches.  As new worship songs are written or translated, they are assigned a number and included in the next edition of the book. There have been five updates so far, including more than 600 songs.

3) A reconfiguration of Turkish national identity

The existence of a growing number of converts to Christ in Turkey has brought about a new way of understanding what it means to be "Turkish." The Ottoman Empire had been a Muslim empire, and while it included dozens of nationalities Islam was the unifying characteristic of the empire.  With the emergence of the Republic of Turkey, turkishness became the unifying characteristic of the new nation, but early architects of the republic still understood Islam as an inseparable dimension of Turkish identity.  However, now there are thousands of Turks who have chosen to follow Christ; there is a community of Turkish Christians. I think it is difficult to underestimate how significant this is for Turkish identity.  These men and women love their country as much as they did when they were Muslims, and they are undoubtedly still Turkish.  They represent a way of thinking about Turkish national identity apart from Islam for the first time in more than 1,000 years. There is still uneasiness among the public and in the media about the reality of Turkish Christianity, but there is no denying its existence any longer.  It used to be very difficult to change the line on one's identity card that designated religion, particularly if one were trying to change it from Islam to Christianity. In fact, it was once true that changing one's gender on the national identity card was easier than changing one's religion.  Today, however, thousands of Christians have made that change and it is no longer the scandal that it once was.

The Turkish church is also a church in search of:

 4) Cultural Authenticity

It was among the basic theological and practical concerns of the apostle Paul to explore what it means to be both Greek and Christian.  Similarly, it has been one of the driving concerns of the Turkish church to explore what it means to be both Turkish and Christian.  The church bears the marks of its disciplers from other nations, and Western church trends still have a disproportionate influence on the agenda of the Turkish church. Today, issues of contextualization are hotly debated in Turkey, and the Turkish contribution to the discussion is usually to advise caution and moderation in reaction to Western strategies for contextualization in Turkey which are sometimes seen as extreme.  Still, Turkish leaders are asking critical questions about how to express faithfulness to Christ in genuinely Turkish ways.  Many churches try to maintain a reasonable ratio of Turks to foreigners in their meetings, which sometimes means asking foreigners not to attend.  Every year, at "Christian" holidays, there are discussions in Turkish churches about what it means to celebrate in Turkey.  Believers feel a draw to celebrate the birth of Christ, and his resurrection, but there is uneasiness about how they should be celebrating.  Similarly, they are sure that they don't want to celebrate traditional Islamic holidays, but these are the times of year when their children are on vacation from school, and their relatives are gathering for family meals and ceremonies.  How should they respond? The church is in search of cultural authenticity.  It is a Turkish church and it is seeking genuinely Turkish expressions.

 5) A Recognizable Voice

Ethnic Christian minorities such as Armenians and Greeks have been traditionally recognized by the Turkish government and given limited rights and privileges in Turkey.   Turkish Christians have never had the same kind of official recognition since there was no category for such a group of people.  However, in recent years the church has sought greater levels of official recognition and an increased voice in the public square.  Many churches are now registered as "associations" or "foundations" and are pursuing their legal rights in those capacities.  The Turkish Evangelical Assocation now has official legal representation and there are dozens of law suits pending around the country over issues related to the church.  Turks hostile to Christianity often find ways to make accusations against foreign or local believers and this has led to an increased visibility for the church and a sense of precedent in Turkish courts about defending religious expression for Christians.  This year there were a few Turkish Christians who ran for political offices, and Turkish Christian perspectives were voiced on dozens of news websites, newspapers, and television programs. 

 Despite an increased level of exposure, however, the church is still looking for its public voice.  Often the church seems to be merely reacting to tragedies and conspiracies without  having a forward looking vision for the future of the nation that it can cast in the public square. 

 And the church continues to struggle for a greater degree of official recognition.  In a nation as dependent on official bureacracy and as security conscious as Turkey, this kind of recognition can be the deciding factor in the question of the church's survival.

6) Maturity in Ministry and Mission

Nearly every congregation in Turkey depends on the spiritual and financial contributions of foreign workers.  And there is very little sense of a grass roots passion for ministry in the church.  There are a number of signs of developing maturity, but I think the general picture shows a church which is still in its infancy.  There are many more Turks in positions of leadership in churches and ministries than there were even just a few years ago, and ministries like Filipus and Hasat are consistently equipping Turks for positions of influence. However, it seems that nearly as many Turks leave the church every year as are baptized into it.  And there is still a sense that the impetus for evangelism and discipleship depends on the foreigners, who are regularly trying to stir up interest in ministry among Turks.

Of course there are genuine exceptions to this trend, but I think we need to look toward a time when there is a genuine swell of passion for ministry in the Turkish church.  And our consistent, long term prayer is for the emergence of a Turkish mission movement, that the Turkish church would be taking seriously its role in the Great Commission, and that Turkish missionaries would be making disciples in the nations.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Anniversary of the Malatya Murders

The Impact of Martyrdom on the 21st Century
Saturday April 19th 2008
Ryan Keating

I was invited to speak on the topic of martyrdom.  Specifically its impact on the 21st century.  Of course, my own experience with martyrdom is very narrow.  So this is going to be a very personal account of the impact of martyrdom in the 21st century.

It struck me that very little has changed since the first century.  In the first century if you slit the throat of a Christian he died a painful death.  His body was eventually collected and buried.  His friends would gather to mourn and talk about his death and try to find meaning in his sacrifice.

And I’m sure that most of you are aware of the events of last year in Malatya in Eastern Turkey.  A year ago yesterday, in fact, three of our friends were killed, their throats slit.  This is likely to be a difficult story for me to tell, even a year later.  I apologize for that.

Malatya is a city of 500,000 people.  And it is almost entirely Muslim.  We moved to Malatya together with another family in 2006.  We joined three other Christian families who had moved to Malatya a few years earlier.  That group included a German family, Tilmann and Susanne Geske, a Turkish family, Necati and Shemsa Aydin, and a British family.

By the time we arrived there was a growing fellowship of 15-20 Turkish believers.  My wife jumped into language learning and I started in right away sharing the gospel with friends and neighbors.  Within a few months I was doing small Bible studies with about 10 Turkish men, a couple of whom made commitments to Christ. 

Necati was the pastor of the fellowship and he was also running a branch of a Christian publishing company in Malatya.  He was a very well known Christian, a gifted preacher and a passionate evangelist.  Necati had come from a conservative Muslim background and his entire family had disowned him as a result of his decision to follow Christ. 

Necati brought another young Turkish Christian to work at the company with him. Ugur Yuksel was engaged to be married.  He was from a small village in Eastern Turkey.  A deep thinker and a bold believer.

On April 18th last year, Tilmann, Necati, and Ugur were working in the office of the Christian publishing company in downtown Malatya.  Five young Muslim men came to the office pretending to be interested in the gospel.  Apparently one or two of them had met with Necati before.  He let them in and served tea as they sat around the little table in his office.

At around 11:00 in the morning the five young men tied up Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur.  They tied them to their office chairs, with their arms and hands behind their backs.  During the next hour and half they were tortured with knives as the killers apparently demanded that they renounce Christ and accept Islam.  When they each insisted that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Muslim men slit the throats of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, one at a time.

The police were called when one of the other Turkish workers tried to get in the office and realized that something was wrong inside.  When the police arrived, the five killers were still inside.  Four of them surrendered and one of them tried to escape from the third floor balcony, breaking his neck on the sidewalk below.

Tilmann and Necati were found dead in the office and Ugur was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with serious wounds all over his body.  I arrived on the scene as the ambulances were leaving for the hospital and I followed in a taxi. 

I was waiting together with our British friend under armed guard at the hospital.  The military police wanted us to identify who it was in surgery, so they took a picture with a digital camera and brought it out to us.  It was Ugur. He had been wearing a cross around his neck.  A few hours later I received the news from the doctor that Ugur hadn’t survived surgery.

My family was waiting at home with an intern from our church who was scheduled to give English lessons at that office just shortly after the murders took place.

Word quickly spread throughout Turkey and phone calls and visitors began to arrive.  Within a few hours our house was full of visitors from other cities.  Turkish pastors, other Christians, friends and family of the victims. 

Within a few days Tilmann was buried in Malatya. We sang hymns in Turkish that Tilmann had written.  Ugur was buried secretly in his home town.  His family insisted on a Muslim funeral and I wonder what they did with the cross he wore around his neck.  Necati was buried in Izmir at a funeral attended by hundreds of believers from around the world.

These were the first Turkish Protestant martyrs in the history of the republic of Turkey.

As I said.  Not much has changed.  We have hardly come very far.  Even in the 21st century, When you slit the throat of a Christian, he dies a painful death.  His body is collected and buried and his friends try to find meaning in his sacrifice.

So this morning I’d like to say a few things about martyrdom and it’s impact in the 21st century.  Then I’ll talk briefly about a Christian response to martyrdom.

1. So, addressing my topic, the first thing I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is deadly.

The most obvious impact of course is death.  It doesn’t do us any good to have romantic notions of martyrdom.  It’s deadly.  It’s not glamorous.  All the ethereal, poetic images  about martyrdom dissolve as your friends are wheeled by in bloody gurneys.

I’m reminded of Joseph of Arimathea who, together with some of the women, took down the body of Jesus from the cross.  What an awful task.  To handle the dead body of your friend, your leader, your hero.  The dead body of a man.  Cold and bloody.   I imagine joseph carrying the body down the road to wherever the tomb was.   

Martyrdom is deadly... But it is worth it.  He is worth it.

Of course Jesus is the evidence of that.  We don’t try in vain to find meaning in the sacrifice of Jesus, or in the deaths of those who followed him.  There is meaning there.  There is life after death.  Resurrection is real.

And it is a great privilege to have a cause worth dying for.  In fact, there is no other cause worth dying for.  And no other cause worth living for.

God is worth suffering for.  He is worth going to Malatya for.  He is worth being tortured for.  And the only way to be convinced of that is to meet Him.  To have a genuine encounter with the God who proved that martyrdom is not in vain.  The God who suffered on the cross and shook off death as if it were just a long nap.

But still, people aren’t lining up to go to the hard places of the world.  This is not because God isn’t calling them there.  It’s because you might die there.  I can tell you that my family back home gets this.  They understand in a unique way that martyrdom is deadly, because I’m sure that since April 18th they have all imagined my own death.  My own father is angry that I insist on staying.  He has a good imagination.

Let’s look at a passage from Paul.

 2 Corinthians 4:7-15

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Hear these words in the voice of Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur.

It is written, “I believed, therefore I have spoken.”  With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.  All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

It is no small thing that while death was at work in Necati, Tilmann, and Ugur, the life that exists in the fellowship that remains would not have been possible without them. 

A couple weeks after the murders I went into the office after the police had removed the yellow tape.  They had wiped most of the blood up, but it was still everywhere.  And the tea cups were still on the table.  Evidence of the way that these men served the people of Turkey, the people of Malatya.  All this is for their benefit.  And for God’s glory.  And He is worth it. 

2.  The second thing that I’d like to say is that Martyrdom is Unjust.

This was what struck me the hardest in the days and weeks after the murders.  What a grave injustice.  That men who had already given so much should be asked to give again. 

Ugur met his fiancee years ago.  When they announced their intention to marry, her father refused to give his daughter to a Christian.  So he waited and prayed.  Just a couple weeks before the murders we celebrated with Ugur.  Her father had finally begun to agree to let them marry.  

Tilmann left a wife and three children behind.  Necati left a wife and two children.

Martyrdom is unjust.  That such great men could be slain by such small men.  That such unworthy adversaries are given satisfaction at our expense. 

And of course, the sacrifice of Jesus was just such an injustice. 

It is the painful reality of this age that the will of God, the justice of God, is contested by evil, evil of a supernatural enemy, evil of our own human choosing.  Evil is pervasive.  It has infected everything.  And this is the only way we can make sense of such an injustice. 

Martyrdom is unjust.   But His Kingdom is coming.

And by the example of Jesus, it is in the most heinous injustice ever carried out that the scales of justice are tipped forever in our favor.  It is in the very suffering of injustice, in the act of martyrdom that his kingdom comes. 

 The infection of evil is usurped by the strategy of God to grow the seeds of the kingdom among us.

And there will be a day when injustice is no more.  When suffering is vindicated.  When the will of God is no longer contested.  His kingdom is coming, growing up around us.   And we participate in its arrival.

Today, the trial of the five young men is underway.  The story still consumes news headlines, as the press finds new angles to exploit.  We pray for justice and His kingdom is coming in that courtroom. 

 The lawyers representing the families of the martyrs have been receiving death threats since the beginning of the trial.   The head attorney is an atheist.  And yet he continues to risk his life to defend us.  Martyrdom is unjust.

3.  And Finally, Martyrdom is Scandalous. 

 After the murders hundreds of people told me how sorry they were that such a thing had happened.  Most of them wanted to assure me that Turkey was really a safe place, that it was unthinkable to kill people for religion.  

And it became popular to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.  Local and national leaders all released statements:  “I condemn the attacks...”  Turks didn’t want this to marr the reputation of their country...

 And still so many of our neighbors stopped talking to us.  In a terrific irony, the neighbors were afraid of us.  We were dangerous.  Martyrdom is scandalous.

 The murders were quickly politicized, in much the same way that Jesus’ death was politicized.  No one wanted to take responsibility for what happened.  The authorities sought to cover-up the resurrection.  Conspiracy theories were invented and spread...

 The local media instantly began casting suspicion on the martyrs.  The murderers were only a footnote. 

What were these agitators doing in Malatya anyway?  Who were they really working for?  Almost immediately, grand conspiracy theories began to float around the media. 

The crank on the propaganda machine began to turn and out came some of the most ridiculous accusations and theories. 

 Martyrdom is scandalous.  But it pays more than they can imagine.

Jesus of course tells us in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

 Necati, Ugur and Tilmann are well-compensated.  And it looks like I might be racking up quite a stash up there as well.

Martyrdom is deadly

Martyrdom is unjust

Martyrdom is scandalous

So how do we respond to martyrdom?  What can we do? Let me share three practical ideas:

1.  Struggle against injustice

We work for human rights in the nations.  For the right to live the life of Christ in Turkey.  Human rights is a Christian concept.  We fight to see laws changed, to see accurate portrayals in the media, to see justice done when Christians are persecuted.

2.  Maintain a Christ-like willingness to suffer

We don’t stop proclaiming the gospel.  We don’t stop living the life of Christ in the nations.  And we look for the courage to be willing to suffer, as Hebrews 13:13 says, “bearing the disgrace he bore.”  Ultimately we aren’t surprised when Christians suffer.  Jesus suffered.  He told us we would suffer. 

 3.  Care for the Suffering

 Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”  We can write letters to suffering or imprisoned Christians.  We can pray for the situation of persecuted people around the world. We can sponsor and financially support the work of the gospel in difficult places, and we can commit to visit or even to live out our lives among those who are suffering.