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.

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