Innovation in Istanbul

Nicole James | Turkey

When OM founder George Verwer started the movement as a 20-something college student, he loaded himself, a few friends and 10,000 Bibles into an old car and drove to Mexico. Those joining OM today fill out applications, attend pre-field training programmes and frequently fulfil rigorous requirements for learning language and culture once they arrive in their host countries.

Instead of pioneering teams, new OM recruits now filter into existing teams, where they gain requisite experience and learn to share Jesus with the least reached. This organised method offers accountability and often mentorship to emerging missionaries. However, it leaves little room for risk-taking and innovation. What happens when God’s leading doesn’t follow protocol?

Invitation to innovate

At OM’s church planting (CP) school in summer 2015, friends Max*, Kelly* and Elena*—workers in their late 20s—experienced a shift in their missions methodology. Together, they moved from focusing on planting one church to thinking about starting a movement of multiple churches.

“Looking at the number [of churches] in Turkey and how much time, money and effort has gone into making one church, we thought, ‘We don’t have enough time for that!’” Kelly explained.

OM workers in the Muslim world are encouraged (or required) to attend the CP school during their first two years on the field. Max, Kelly and Elena were nearing the completion of their first two-year term on a creative arts evangelism team when they travelled to the training.

“A little bit of a principle we have is that within the first two years [on the field], you need to find a place in the future where you can support an existing team or you find another team, which you can be a part of and whose vision you can embrace. Or, if you can’t do that, you start a new team,” explained Macon*, who was the OM field leader for Turkey at the time.

Through conversations with the three before and during the CP school, Macon noted “a sort of discontentment in their hearts” regarding their ministry in Turkey. “I wanted them first to see if there’s another place they could participate, but really the Lord was taking them elsewhere,” he said. “So I encouraged them in that.”

“Macon asked us, ‘Would you want to start a team?’” Max said. “At first we were like, ‘No,’ because it sounded like a lot of work.”

However, as they continued through the CP school, hearing about examples of disciple making movements (DMM) around the world, they considered how they could apply the principles to their context in Turkey.

Six months later, they started a team.

Millennials in mission

“At first, they were quite nervous,” Macon described. “I said, ‘If you want to start a new team, it’s OK if you fail.”

“The only way we’re going to do better and see movements is by stepping out, doing things differently than we’ve done in the past and encouraging those who are wanting to do it.”

In 2015, OM hadn’t yet verbalised its mission to see vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached. But Max, Kelly and Elena’s goal of sparking a multiplying movement of churches “fitted very much in terms of what we wanted to do [as a field],” Macon said.

When OM released its statement the following year, “it felt like a confirmation,” Kelly explained.

“It helps us vision cast with people in our field who are wondering how they can put this vision into practice,” Elena added.

“Historically OM has actually empowered young people. That’s the way we started: It was a bunch of university students who went out and decided they wanted to change the world. When we first came to the field, we were 25 and 26, and people trusted us with new responsibilities. … As a field, I realised we were very slow to give responsibility to people who hadn’t proved themselves, people who hadn’t had experience. I wanted [to] do something different. Let’s give people a chance. People trusted me; I want to put trust in others. … I thought [letting three millennials start a new DMM team] was one way we could liberate them and give them space to learn.”

Sometimes, providing that space wasn’t easy. “It was hard for us to get them to write a ministry plan,” Macon remembered. “Part of our job was to help them figure out what they wanted.”

“It wasn't hard for them to convince us to do it. It was that we didn't care about the formalities of a document, and we just wanted to focus on actually doing the ministry. We wanted to stop talking and start doing,” Max amended. “We just didn't have it written yet and that took time.” 

The team began partnering with other movement-minded people who shared their vision, but not all of them were with OM. “I think, and rightly so maybe, OM was probably more an avenue to do what they wanted to do. … [Millennials] are drawn to a cause; they’re not drawn to a group,” Macon reflected.

Instead of appointing a leader, the current team shared responsibilities among Max and Kelly, who are married, and Elena. “We were all friends,” Elena explained. “Now our team is growing, and we need to work on a structure a little bit.”

Start, evaluate, recalibrate

The past two years of team development have been “quite a big learning curve,” Kelly said. “We are new, we’re just learning this method and these principles and, also, Turkey is slow [to accept the gospel].”

As the team have met and shared with people interested in learning about Jesus, they have focused on improving two areas: facilitating discovery-led study of Scripture (rather than teaching) and bringing together communities of seekers.

According to Macon, the new team needed to learn by doing. “They’ve found other people who are like-minded who’ve helped them think through things. They haven’t just been doing one thing and sticking to it. They’ve been evaluating, reflecting and adjusting. They’re holding one another accountable, which has been good to see.”

“We used to … focus on individuals and answer their questions, maybe taking them to church,” Kelly said. But those contacts, usually follow ups from Turkey’s Bible Correspondence Course (BCC) didn’t form groups.

“Every time we have a BCC follow up, we get one person. And when we ask them if they want to bring someone else, they say, ‘No,’” Kelly said. “I thought I should start asking people on the phone [before meeting] if they have other people [who are interested].”

Everyone needs to know

Max implemented the strategy first. He told a new BCC contact, “If you know anyone else that thinks like you, that’s going through the same [spiritual] discussion, they can come, too.”

Although Max wasn’t planning to meet the contact for a while, he suddenly received a phone call from him. “I’m coming to Istanbul, and I’m bringing my friend. Can we meet?”

“That’s the shift in strategy,” Kelly enthused. “That simple question, and it made two! … Because he was willing to tell his good friend, this guy can tell more people, together they can tell even more people.”

The men spent three hours together, talking, reading Scripture and discussing it. “They were both super intelligent for their age, but the contact is a quiet person that I wouldn’t expect to share with a lot of people. The other guy is super outgoing, super charismatic and has leadership qualities,” Max described.

After reading Mark 2, Max asked the two men if there was anyone who they thought would be impacted by the information they had discovered through the text.

“We could share this with pretty much everyone,” they said. “Everyone [in our social circle] is questioning Islam, and everyone is considering leaving Islam, or they have already left.”

Kelly also asked a female contact, pre-meeting over the phone, if she knew anyone else who was interested in reading Scripture.

“My husband,” the woman responded.

Instead of going with Elena, like Kelly normally would when meeting another woman, she and Max got together with the couple.

“We want families [to come to Christ]. What’s better than the husband or wife bringing each other? That won’t happen naturally unless we ask,” Kelly said. In Turkish culture, “a girl would never bring a guy friend to meet with a girl. … If we two girls are going to meet at Starbucks, she can’t bring her husband—that would be weird.”

Two married couples meeting made sense, however.

Max and Kelly read Mark 2 with the Turkish couple, the same passage Max had previously read with the young men. Through reading, “they learnt that Jesus could forgive sin,” Kelly said.

“We ended up sharing a lot of the gospel. They were specifically asking [questions],” Max added. “For them the most amazing thing was … [they were] learning all this about God through this text.”

Before the couples parted ways, the Turkish husband announced, “We’re going to read the Bible, and then we’re getting together to discuss it.”

Max gave him a copy of the Inçil (Turkish New Testament). Then he asked the couple who they could share what they had learnt with.

“There’s nobody that would be open to this,” the couple responded.

Max rephrased the question: “We talked earlier about how, if this is true, it’s really good news. So who needs this?”

“Everyone!” they said.

Max and Kelly were unable to meet the Turkish couple again the following week, but they received a text message from them. “We’re reading every day and discussing every night.”

“In Turkey, you find people that say they’re interested, but they don’t read. Or they read with you and not by themselves, so it’s unusual to find people that read a lot. [We’ve noticed] a lot more spiritual hunger,” Max said.

City living

Amidst the constant recalibration, a couple facts haven’t changed, Kelly noted: The team eats a lot of ice cream, and they like living in the city. “We don’t want to move away from Starbucks,” she joked.

In fact, the team asserted that their urban context is strategic for ministry. Four years ago, Elena said she was told that in order to reach the least reached, she needed to move to a tiny village in a remote part of the country. But now “people are getting more creative,” she said. “We can be based here and reach those people.”

For one, residence permits are easier to obtain in a large, internationally known city. “In Istanbul, everyone comes from somewhere else,” Elena stated.

By equipping Turkish people living in the city to study Scripture, apply it to their lives and tell others, the team hopes to create local ambassadors for Christ who can easily return to their villages. “If [a Turkish believer] understands obeying Scripture and sharing with other people, then I can trust him to go back to his hometown, and he’ll be better at [evangelism] than we would be,” Kelly said.

The team also adopted another Turkish province within driving distance of Istanbul. Every few weeks, the team visits the area “to share with people and hopefully see Bible study groups starting up soon,” Elena said.

Finding Turkish people to talk to isn’t difficult for the group of millennials, now in their early 30s. “Our age is good,” Kelly affirmed. “Max can talk to [younger] guys because he’s not grandpa, and we can talk to older [people] because we’re not 18. Being in the middle gives us access to both sides without being totally out of their age range.”

Pray that among the team’s many contacts, they would find key people open to Jesus and willing to introduce their communities to the truth. Pray that Turks moving away from Islam would turn towards Jesus.

*Name changed for security

Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with fields to communicate the ways God is working across the globe.

Published: Thursday, 26 October 2017
Credit: Nicole James
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