For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
With one-way airline tickets in hand to Jordan, bags packed by the door, and four little children, we were just days away from returning to ministry in the Middle East. For six years, we helped start an urban agricultural platform with the vision to reach rural and urban Arabs with the gospel through raising fish and vegetables. Post COVID, and after a year of graduate studies, we had assembled a new international team to rendezvous with us back in Jordan and were eager to return to fellowship with our Arab Baptist church, friendships with Arabs, and partnership with other foreign missionaries. Amy having grown up on the mission field in Turkey, and Kevin worked among college students for four years in the Middle East before marriage, this was not our first rodeo. Though we were familiar with these return trips from the US, and all that goes into preparing to move a family back to the Middle East, a doctor’s appointment for our infant son caught us by surprise. What we assumed would be a routine check-up turned into the beginning of a redirection for our family, a permanent move off the foreign mission field, to a mission field all around the United States. Our son did have to have skull surgery and many months of orthotics treatment which initiated the abrupt change to our plans. The deteriorating conditions for entry into Arab countries and global restrictions on travel contributed to our openness to seeing a new direction of ministry. Praise God, our son is still healthy and growing, having made a full recovery, and as a family we are now living in the western suburbs of the Chicago metropolitan, imagining ministry and engaging Muslims in an entirely new way.
Though abnormal in many ways because of COVID restrictions, throughout our year in the United States we noticed an increase in Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Albanians in grocery stores, parks, hardware stores, libraries, public transportation, and the many new ethnic restaurants and shops that appear in rundown strip malls. The conservative niqab, a cloth covering the entire face of a Muslim woman, an unusual sight in much of the urban Middle East, is quite a common sight around town, especially at intersections where mini-van-driving mothers pick up and drop off children from public school.
What we had imagined was the task and burden of every local evangelical church to reach Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist immigrant people suddenly struck us as a neglected opportunity for evangelism among the unreached in America. Meeting immigrants who had never seen a Bible or heard a presentation of the gospel was becoming a common experience with the Muslims we met in those months of transition.
Simultaneously we observed churches in our denomination not just shrinking numerically but closing entirely and selling properties of once-thriving assemblies of Christians. For years the decline in local evangelism and failure to engage with a changing demographic in neighborhoods meant recovery after COVID was just not possible. As a visiting foreign missionary, I was asked to preach at a dying church that continued to rally behind overseas evangelism but had lost the vision for reaching the neighborhood years before. Though the few believers of this church gladly welcomed missionary presentations, they had not seen a conversion among them for an entire generation. These are places where once a thriving youth movement was born and sent missionaries to nearly all corners of the globe.1George Verwer, “Visit to Bethany Chapel, Wheaton,” accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkqQndseJJU. Many churches have faithfully and sacrificially supported evangelism and church planting in the Muslim world for decades, but you could be hard-pressed to find someone with any desire for a relationship with a local Muslim in the neighborhood. On the other hand, other fellowships perceive the massive influx of the unreached but have no idea how to reach out with the gospel. These failures will mean an imminent demise for these individual local churches (Proverbs 29:18).
There is hope! Christ has promised to build his church, and immigration and slow decline are not threats to this promise (Matthew 16:18). These are opportunities for missions, rallying cries to take the gospel to the nations, perhaps like we have never imagined before.
I. Is missions about people or land?
After 13 years of living in Lebanon, and Jordan, with frequent trips back to the US to maintain connections for sustaining the ministry, I was aware of pockets of unreached people groups in America.2Amy ministered among the Meskhetian, a Turkic people group in the Chicago area before moving overseas with Operation Mobilization.
I nearly always imagined these were on the radar of large-scale outreach efforts of evangelical missions locally. Our own church’s heart beats for world missions and a significant portion of the monthly budget is allocated for missions. But are we most concerned with conquering territory for Christ, or winning unreached peoples/nations to Christ? The Biblical witness would have us conclude the latter.
The great commission said all the world (Matthew 28:11) but the saints are the blood-ransomed people of God from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9). Jesus sends his people into the world to win other people by the power of the message, not to conquer their territories for Christendom.
Years in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan we were involved in or observed evangelism, discipleship, and church planting among people who had little to no Christian witness. The Syrian refugee crisis saw Muslim Arabs pour into neighboring countries where many, including the indigenous, Arabic-speaking Christians, were called by God to rise to the occasion for gospel outreach using their common language and culture. Christian missions is work among peoples, not land masses. For that would disqualify a vast stretch of the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia which has been evangelized in the first few centuries of the church. People are on the move, and people are the ones who need to hear the gospel.
II. The fields
The county of Illinois where we now live is somewhere between 6-9% Muslim, and I’ve heard unconfirmed reporting that there are nearly half a million Muslims in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. We drive past a mosque on our way to our church on a Sunday morning, no matter which of the four routes we can take. Even the iconic regional grocery store chain in the area has begun selling a brand of halal foods common at markets in the Arab World. There are 98 unreached people groups in the United States, and 55 of those are predominately Muslim.3“United States,” Joshua Project, accessed March 13, 2023, https://joshuaproject.net/countries/US.
A presentation on these facts piqued my interest for the first time, during a season when the door to the Middle East for missions seemed closed for our family.4Roy Oksnevad, “Missions Today: From Everywhere to Everywhere” (Prayer Meeting for the Muslim World presentation, Lombard Gospel Chapel, April 2, 2022). Recognizing that so many people groups were settling here, what if we viewed the suburbs as a mission field and began reaching out to people with the gospel as we had in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey?
What had been an acknowledgment that many unreached people groups had come to a large metropolitan area turned into a burden to reach those with the wonderful message of salvation in Christ.
III. A strategy for reaching Muslims
How can we develop long-term relationships with people who are just as unlikely to hear the gospel in Chicago as they are in Hyderabad, and train people in our churches to reach them? Are there people in this area making similar observations and asking these questions? Two men (and their wives) came to mind who I knew to be faithful in handling scripture (2 Timothy 2:15) and steadfast in their approach to evangelize and disciple through the church (2 Timothy 4:5). These were already working in America among Muslims and seeking to find redirected missionaries in our situation.5Mike Urton, “How Evangelical Churches in the Chicago Metro Area are Engaging Muslim Communities”, Evangelical Missions Society 2, no.1(2022) In our conversations about reaching local Muslims, and mobilizing our churches to get involved, the Immigrant Mission ministry was born in DuPage County. With the Great Commission as marching orders (Matthew 28:18-20), and the sufficiency of the gospel message as fuel for the task (2 Corinthians 3:5), here are some suggestions for getting started:
- Just like our overseas strategies, our approach must be one where the gospel is clearly presented with the expectation that some will be cut to the heart and believe (Acts 2:37).
- Disciple those who come to Christ to learn the scriptures and be supported to grow into maturity (Colossians 1:28).
- Train believers in our churches using resources that engage Muslims in a spirit of friendship and gentleness, love, and boldness (James 3:16-17).6Georges Houssney, Engaging Islam (Boulder, CO: Treeline Publishing, 2010).
- Network with other churches and parachurch ministries for outreach efforts to Muslims.7In the Chicago area, the Coalition of Ministries to Muslims (and Immigrants) in North America (COMMA) functions in this role.
- Coffee shops where Indians, Pakistanis, and Arabs gather in groups, especially in the late evening. This is a great place to give exposure to young people who would like to meet local Muslims. No appointment necessary, just show up, order coffee, and strike up a conversation with the table next to you.
- Neighborhood parks where boys team up for soccer and families with children play on playground equipment.
- Small ethnic community centers exist all over suburban neighborhoods, sometimes in unlikely locations. In western Chicago suburbs, Turkish American society has been exceptional in openness to friendship with Christians. Many of these places have never been approached by faithful, biblical churches during holidays with a plate of cookies and a note.
“These Christians are our friends and our brothers. They respect us, and we will respect them. Ask them any question you have, and do not be afraid of offend[ing] them.” -Turkish Muslim leader of a men’s discussion group said to new Turkish members joining the group.
- Many Muslims may live on the same neighborhood block as Christians but have never heard why their neighbors celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. Christians can be encouraged that a simple friendly visit to neighbors during any holiday can be a good way of breaking the barrier of fear or consternation that may exist.
- It is not uncommon to see a woman in a grocery store wearing a burqa, or a man wearing a takiyah (men’s skull cap). Though this may look intimidating, many have never heard a friendly, “Hello, welcome to _____.”
- Community college campuses have many international students coming from the Muslim world, in addition to the more established children of immigrants. These students may not be in the scope of established campus ministries. Encourage our church’s youth that there is a good chance they could be the first Christian to ever engage them with the gospel message.
“I’m a part of the MSA at the school. I was wondering if we could do an event together [with Christians] to understand both religions better.” – son of Palestinian immigrants, involved with Muslim Student Association
- Sports camps for neighborhood youth are a good way to get young people in the church mobilized to a local mission trip. Utilize the sports training of our American youth to spend time with Muslim youngsters who may have never been part of a club team or summer camp. This builds trust in the neighborhood with families who may be suspicious of VBS-style outreaches to children. Emphasize we are Christians who fear God and love his Holy Book and love our neighbors as the Messiah instructs us to do.
We now have the realization that there is a field of unreached people groups in the United States. The stories we share with American believers could be startling, or they could be encouraging, depending on how you consider it. In every metropolitan area of the U.S., it is not difficult to find representatives from the most unreached peoples in the world, coming from nations and regions where we have sent missionaries for many generations. How to reach them for Christ in our cities and towns takes creativity and vision, and a continued commitment to the Great Commission in a changing world.
Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.
- 1George Verwer, “Visit to Bethany Chapel, Wheaton,” accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkqQndseJJU.
- 2Amy ministered among the Meskhetian, a Turkic people group in the Chicago area before moving overseas with Operation Mobilization.
- 3“United States,” Joshua Project, accessed March 13, 2023, https://joshuaproject.net/countries/US.
- 4Roy Oksnevad, “Missions Today: From Everywhere to Everywhere” (Prayer Meeting for the Muslim World presentation, Lombard Gospel Chapel, April 2, 2022).
- 5Mike Urton, “How Evangelical Churches in the Chicago Metro Area are Engaging Muslim Communities”, Evangelical Missions Society 2, no.1(2022)
- 6Georges Houssney, Engaging Islam (Boulder, CO: Treeline Publishing, 2010).
- 7In the Chicago area, the Coalition of Ministries to Muslims (and Immigrants) in North America (COMMA) functions in this role.