by Tony Lynn
As the Muslim chief and I stood beside my white Toyota wagon, the traditional African gestures and greetings were exchanged. The scorching Saharan sun was beating down on all of us. Men greeted the chief and then turned to me. All of us were shaking hands and gesturing to our own hearts and foreheads showing that no ill will or thoughts stood between us.
As the Muslim chief and I stood beside my white Toyota wagon, the traditional African gestures and greetings were exchanged. The scorching Saharan sun was beating down on all of us. Men greeted the chief and then turned to me. All of us were shaking hands and gesturing to our own hearts and foreheads showing that no ill will or thoughts stood between us. A symphony of common greetings filled the air while sparkling smiles beamed from everyone’s faces. I could see by the expressions on the faces of the adults and the children that they felt as if they were greeting a celebrity. The men shook the strong hand of the chief then glanced with pride at one another to see if anyone had noticed.
The African chief had a stoic expression on his face when he spoke. He beamed with a firm but warm authority. It appeared that he was selecting every word with great care. His tight white curls on his face and head barely covered his milk chocolate colored skin. The wrinkles on his weathered face were more than old age-they were marks of tender wisdom.
The chief was not speaking to me; instead he was speaking about me. The chief, whom I had affectionately learned to call Chief Chameleon, was addressing the ever-growing multitude of people. The residents of the crowded African neighborhood had started gathering from the first moment they had observed the chief and me driving around the neighborhood in my small car.
I could tell that the people liked the chief. At the same time, they seemed to have a deep respect for him. The chief moved gently through the crowd. He walked slowly enough that he seemed to float from person to person in his long colorful Muslim robe of indigo blue. His brimless Muslim prayer cap was a complementary sky blue with splashes of startling hues embedded throughout the fabric. The people appeared to be in a trance as the chief took control of the crowd with his commanding presence.
The chief spoke on my behalf, not his own. He said, "This man with me today is named Tony. He is a friend of mine. He is a good man and a religious man. He is not a Muslim but he is a teacher of the Bible and Christianity. From now on, you must treat him as you would treat me."
The chief added, "You know Tony has been preaching on the streets of our neighborhood these past two months. Many of you have heard the good things he has said about God. All of our children and we need to hear these lessons that he and his wife, Jamie, are teaching. You know, as I do, that many of our adult children do not follow the ways of Islam. I would rather my children follow the way of Christianity than to not follow any way at all."
Then the venerable old chief shocked the crowd and me when he said, "I want all of you to know that I am loaning this property upon which we are standing to Tony and his church. They will use this property freely and for the benefit of our community. What is more, all of you will be here next week to help build his church when he comes with the materials to build a thatch and wood shelter for his meeting place."
The chief paused, then panned the crowd with a careful survey and asked for a response, "Do you understand? You will help build this church!" To which the crowd replied, "Yes. Yes. We will help if Allah wills." I stood stunned and in awe, reflecting on how God had used a Muslim chief to get our first church building established. In a matter of minutes, our first building project was underway in Africa and its construction was in the hands of Muslims. Later that evening, during my prayers, I thanked the Lord for allowing us to see so much of his power in the lives of our people.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Almost nine months earlier, Jamie and I vividly remember meeting Boubacar the first day we arrived in Africa. The very moment we had moved away from the customs inspectors at the airport a slender dark hand was there to take my bags from me. I looked up to meet Boubacar who was there to greet us along with the missionaries. Boubacar quietly introduced himself to me. He leaned close to my ear and in his best and slowest English he whispered, "My name is Boubacar. I am a Christian. I have been praying with the missionaries for the safe arrival of you and your family. It is my prayer that God will use you to reach my tribe for Christ." I was so deeply moved that I have never forgotten those words and the emotions of that day.
During the next six months of language acquisition, my wife and I learned an African tribal language on top of our one-year of French study. We loved learning from our tutor, but we also enjoyed practicing the language as quickly as we could use it. We spent many days and evenings visiting with Boubacar and his wife Biba.
While the four of us spent time together, we learned that Boubacar was a good Christian man, but that he had the heart of a lamb when it came to witnessing for his faith. He was reluctant to witness openly because ninety-eight percent of his countrymen were not Christians. The vast majority of the population was Muslim and the remainders were animists. Most mingled the two religious ways of Islam and animism together. Boubacar was justifiably afraid of the persecution he would bring upon himself and his family. While we spent time getting to know one another in those early months, we challenged each other to grow in the Lord and to stretch our faith to more completely trust God.
After six months of language learning, Jamie and I were longing to share the gospel in the heart language of our people group. We had observed the open exhibition of Islam throughout the country, especially in the capital city where we lived. Muslims stopped anywhere they wanted when the call to prayer was issued from the minarets that filled the skyline of our sprawling metropolis. Homes had prayer areas just outside the walls of their compounds on the edge of city streets. We wondered if we could practice our religion with the same openness as the Muslims.
We approached Boubacar about the opportunity of street witnessing, suggesting that we tell the major stories of the Bible from a chronological plan. The idea was to witness and teach the Bible from a designated area just outside of Boubacar’s compound. We would place a mat on the street at a certain time of the week and, with singing and Bible stories, we would share our Christian faith. He was excited about the prospect but he was also timid about the endeavor.
After we spent some days in prayer and reflection, we knew exactly what needed to be done. Three types of visits came to mind. First, we knew that we needed to stop by the local police station and explain what we were doing. Only two years earlier, the government of our West African nation had voted to become a free democracy. Islam was no longer the official religion of the country. We didn’t want them to think that we were starting trouble, rather we were simply exercising our religious freedom. We went to the district chief of police with a gift of cola nuts and a Bible. The cola nuts were a local custom of friendship and the Bible was our introduction. We merely explained to the chief of police that we wanted to practice our religion much like they had been doing for centuries. Since he had never seen Christians worshipping before, he accepted our explanation of practicing our religion as the Muslims did on the side of the street. He gave us his approval to gather in his district.
The second visit was as important as the first. We knew that we needed to visit the unofficial chief of the neighborhood. Every district of the city had an unofficial chief to whom everyone had to answer. Normally, he was a highly regarded man in politics, business or religion. That was the occasion when I met Chief Chameleon.
He was a retired colonel from the military. He had been on the president’s cabinet during the last administration. Chief Chameleon actually had a very long and illustrative name. He told me his real name during our first meeting when I gave him a Bible and a small bag of cola nuts. It was obvious though that he preferred his nickname given to him by his closest friends. He was so named because he had four wives who were from four different tribes in the country. The tint of the skin of each of his four wives was distinctly different, from a Mediterranean cream to a dark black. Therefore, all of his twenty-one children were different in appearance and color and thus the name Chief Chameleon.
My anxiety was the highest when I went to visit the chief. I didn’t know what to expect. The visit ended up being my most rewarding encounter. I learned more about the transition of the government and the culture during our half-day conversation than I had learned in months of language study. After I had openly explained our intentions to evangelize in the neighborhood, the chief replied with an unexpected but pleasant reaction.
The chief said, "Tony, when I was a colonel in the army I traveled to many parts of the world. I have seen Rome, Paris and Washington, D.C. I have seen in those great places mosques standing next to churches and synagogues. I want my country to become a great place too. My nation will only be great when we allow each person the right to choose his own religion." I marveled at his national pride and I was so relieved when I understood that his nationalism was opening our way to start a church in his area.
The chief went on to say something more personal, "My adult children do not practice Islam. I wish that they did. But if they will not be good Muslims perhaps they will make good Christians. You have my approval to meet in the streets of our district."
Later in that same conversation, I shared my testimony and I witnessed to the chief about my faith while we were alone underneath the shade of a tree. His response was heart wrenching. He thoughtfully replied, "It is too late for someone my age to change his ways. I may be like a chameleon because of my many wives but I cannot see myself changing my religion. I will die a Muslim." He then wrapped up our conversation by saying, "If you can help my children to become Christians then do it. I have no problem with that."
The third type of visit required a great deal of time. Before setting out to simply start witnessing, my wife and I realized we had to establish relationships with Boubacar and Biba’s neighbors. During our initial visit we started with Biba and asked her to take us next door to meet the family. Within minutes and with Biba’s introductions we were greeted, invited in, and offered a glass of water.
Three times a week, we went to homes in the same neighborhood. Each time we started with the last family that we had visited the time before. On each occasion we asked them to introduce us to their neighbors and we would spend one hour visiting with the family, getting to know their names, and sharing about ourselves. Whenever they asked why we were in their country we openly explained that we were followers of Christ. We explained that we were there to teach whoever was interested the words of the Bible. We told the hosts and hostesses that we would begin our Bible teaching on a certain day in September. We invited them to join us and left after praying for their family.
The response to our Bible studies went way beyond our expectations. The first week we had thirty guests. The second week we had sixty attending. At one month, we had over 120 people of various ages listening to us teach and sing in their tribal language. The whole process was so simple and so moving. It continued for two months without incident.
It was at the end of those two months of bliss that we then learned that a local Muslim priest, who lived down the road from Boubacar, was not happy with our success. One Sunday morning after services had started, three men came to chase away their family members from our gathering. While the services were going on, the men threw stones at their wives and children. The men were warning everyone to flee from our meeting. One man even pulled off his shoe and repeatedly threw it at his wife while she fled in embarrassment.
That night, just after Boubacar had put out the lantern in his home and settled into bed next to Biba, a loud pounding on the door of his home caused him to leap from his bed. His two infants were startled by the noise. Boubacar stood at the door with nothing on but his shorts.
Two men outside the door demanded that Boubacar come down to the neighborhood mosque to have a conversation with the local priest after evening prayers. One hour later, Boubacar was sitting in the shadows of the mosque with the priest and his two messengers. Boubacar informed me the next morning about the ten-minute conversation with the priest. The Muslim priest warned Boubacar that having me preach in front of his home was a mistake. He then threatened that if I continued preaching Boubacar might lose his rental home. He also informed Boubacar that it was not the business of the Chief to give us permission to preach in the community. Then, with a mock tone of concern, the Muslim priest said, "Do you think I want to see any harm come to you, your wife or your children?"
It was at that moment, when the Muslim priest was awaiting his reply, that something grew in Boubacar’s chest. He said that courage filled his heart and it gave strength to his bones. He responded in a low tone but a raised voice, "My life is in the hands of God, not yours. It is time for you to realize that you are not the Lord over the people in this country. Jesus Christ is Lord!" With that declaration, Boubacar rose up from where he had been sitting face to face with the priest and pushed his way past the two men at the door of the mosque. Boubacar said that at the door he turned back to look at the priest still sitting on his mat and he yelled, "Do what you must and I will do what I must do!"
A PRAYERFUL SOLUTION
It was at breakfast time the next morning that Boubacar was at my door. He joined me for the meal and we reviewed the previous night’s misadventure. I felt too many feelings all at once. I was angry with the priest. I was frightened for my new friend and his family. At the same time, I was exhilarated by the spiritual battle that had begun. What were we going to do?
Together, before the dishes were removed from the table, we decided to spend three days praying over the matter. It was only Monday morning. We knew there was time to consider all of the possibilities before the next Sunday morning’s gathering.
Thursday, Boubacar and I met together with Jamie and we all came up with the same conclusion. We decided that I would go to see Chief Chameleon by myself. I would inform him of the priest’s nighttime invitation to Boubacar and inform him of the conversation, especially the criticism of the chief himself.
I went by the chiefs home on Friday and he wasn’t there. Nevertheless, the family greeted me warmly. They visited with me for a few minutes and informed me that they had already heard about the disruption of the meeting last week. Some of them had even been there. They invited me back on Saturday to see the chief.
Saturday morning when I arrived back at the chiefs home, he was sitting out in front as if awaiting my arrival. When I approached him, he ordered one of his sons to bring something from inside the house. He took the package from his son’s hands and placed the gift in mine. It was a pair of handmade well-crafted sandals. He told me it was my turn to receive gifts. I was touched by his generosity and thoughtfulness.
The chief asked about the new church work. I was elated to tell him about the tremendous growth, but I was reluctant to tell him about last week’s nightmare. Speaking about the bad news seemed to rob our conversation of its joy. The chief listened to every detail with great interest. He asked for the exact words that the priest had spoken. It was apparent that he was angered by the remarks about himself. At the end of the account, Chief Chameleon spoke calmly and said, "I don’t go to that priest’s mosque. He listens to the extremists. He is not a good Muslim. His feet do not follow his words." Those were the only harsh words I had ever heard from the chief.
It was that day that Chief Chameleon asked for a ride in my Toyota station wagon. I wasn’t certain what was going to be done. I had already apologized for causing a disturbance in his neighborhood, to which he replied that it was the priest who was guilty of causing the trouble, not me. While we were getting into the white wagon and rolling away from the chief’s home, one of his wives was reminding him that he had another friend waiting to speak with him when we were finished. His only reply was, "I’ll return when I’m finished."
The chief directed me as I drove. He told me to slow down and to take my time. As we were driving, he showed me three places that would make wonderful meeting places for our church. One of the meeting places was at the end of the road where Boubacar, his family and the priest lived. I informed the chief that we were not in a position to buy any property. He answered with, "That’s not a problem." He offered no further explanation and I asked for none.
What I enjoyed the most during the drive was surprising. We passed the Muslim priest’s home twice. The priest was out front and he easily noticed our passing. Each time he stared at the chief and me in total disbelief. The priest even stood so near to the car as we passed the second time that I felt compelled to wave to him. The chief and I had been waving to the many others who were watching us from the side of the roadways. The chief, it seemed to me, deliberately ignored the priest and continued his gaze straight ahead. Later, I concluded it was a subtle but strong African message from the chief to the priest. It was after that final pass in front of the mosque in which Boubacar had been threatened that we stopped in front of the throngs of people and on top of the future site of our new church.
MUSLIMS BUILT OUR FIRST CHURCH BUILDING
It was then, as it was at the beginning of this article, that the venerable old Muslim chief shocked the crowd and me when he said, "I want all of you to know that I am loaning this property upon which we are standing to Tony and his church. They will use this property freely and for the benefit of our community. What is more, all of you will be here next week to help build his church when he comes with the materials to build a thatch and wood shelter for his meeting place." I stood stunned and in awe, reflecting on how God had used a Muslim chief in order to get our first church building established. In a matter of minutes, our first building project was underway in Africa and its construction was in the hands of Muslims.
Sunday, the next day, our services went well as we met on the street in front of Boubacar’s home. The chief even asked me to come by and to pick him up so that he could attend our service. We did just that. While we met, sang and celebrated the priest and a few of his friends watched from the safe distance of the mosque. The crowd was as big as ever, Boubacar counted two-hundred people that day. At the end of the service, we announced that we would be at the new site on Saturday with construction supplies to build a meeting place. Everyone seemed as happy as we were.
The following Saturday we pulled up to the new site at midmorning. The materials and tools were unpacked. I couldn’t keep my hand on a shovel, axe or even a rope. Dozens of men joined in the construction. Everyone refused to let me help build the thatch and wood structure. They wanted me to watch and to supervise. They asked me how large I wanted the structure and which walls I wanted left open so the air could cool the congregation.
I stood to the side and watched a miracle of God. My wife and three children were also watching the divine event unfold before their very eyes. Muslim men were building our first church building in Africa. Muslim women were looking on. Boubacar was there working alongside his Muslim neighbors. Our language tutor and first convert, Sekou, was there watching in disbelief. He had only been a Christian for two months. All of us were watching the handiwork of God and praising his holy name.
After the construction was done and the last mat was tied down, we asked everyone to join us in prayer. I led in prayer with the best tribal language I could muster. With the noise quieted and everyone still, they listened with rapt attention as I spoke to God in their tribal language. At the end of the prayer, everyone joined as instructed and said, "Amen."
That building site proved to be the beginning of many great undertakings for our mission. The ministry of the church became the model for the remainder of our efforts. Our converts tested themselves in ministry at that site. Some gave testimonies. Some prayed aloud. Some preached and others led the music. Everyone that wanted to learn to stand up for Christ was given the opportunity. Many conversions and baptisms came from the new work, and one final report added further proof of the faithfulness of God. The first Sunday we met together under our newly built church building, three-hundred people were in attendance. The entire miracle happened because of God’s gracious ways and because Muslims built our first church building in Africa.
THE CONTINUING IMPACT OF THE CHURCH BUILD BY MUSLIMS
The radical impact of this new church start jarred the region in five obvious ways.
1. The church took on a tribal name meaning, the Good Way Church. The congregation selected the name from John 14:6. Within a year of its own birth, the church flourished and multiplied into two additional church ministries. The leadership of the Good Way Church had proven that if church starting techniques were indigenous and easily reproducible then new congregations could easily be formed.
2. Almost immediately potential leaders became evident within the new church groups. Seminary extension became mandatory if the churches were going to develop properly. I taught one session a week in the French language with students who were literate. Later that same day, I taught the same material to the preliterate students who could only understand in their tribal language of Zarma. I never had a total of less than twelve students under my care.
3. The Good Way Church shook up the region in the realm of missions The seminary students were making great strides developing in their theological knowledge, but they lacked practical ministry skills. The early church leaders needed an environment in which they felt less danger while sharing their faith. Consequently, I took them on mission trips into the bush, three and four hours outside the capital city. On a weekly basis, I would load up the land cruiser with my brothers in the Lord and we would set out for villages where I introduced them to an unreached people group of a different tribe. During those years of training, I went from being the main missions leader to being nothing more than a chauffeur escorting a team of African missionaries. Developing those leaders were some of the best years of my life. The young men quickly learned to share their faith with boldness regardless of their location.
4. The Gospel penetrated the Muslim country in unparalleled ways. There were two remarkable indications. First, during our inaugural national Bible conference we surveyed the attendees and we discovered that we had more than eight-hundred known converts in the region supporting the work of eighteen reported Bible studies and churches. Second, those mission trips into the bush established a vibrant ministry to another unreached people group called the Gourma people. Even now, news continues to pour out of the country that many of the mission agencies working with the Gourma people feel there is such a strong response to the Gospel that a church growth movement is underway. Both of these miraculous milestones started within three years of the establishment of the church built by Muslims.
5. A Zarma edition of the film Jesus was produced. The film was a joint endeavor between four mission agencies and Campus Crusade for Christ. Jamie enlisted volunteers from our early churches to do the voices. We can still remember the looks of astonishment on the faces of our friends, their family members and their neighbors as they saw the film for the first time. One African woman who was converted at the film’s debut said: "I never believed that God spoke my language because I had been following the way of Islam. I now believe that God does hear me and that he does love me, just as the Christians have been telling me for years."
It is marvelous to see what God can do when he fulfills his promise written in Matthew 16:18, "I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it" (NASB). Even in the sub-Saharan world of Africa, God is the designer and builder. But if he so chooses, his construction team for the church building can be a construction crew of Muslims.
THREE LESSONS WE LEARNED
1. God uses those who are lost to accomplish his will. Satan was trying to use one priest to stop our efforts. All the while, God was using an army of unredeemed Muslims to accomplish his perfect will. His holy will cannot be stopped.
2. The priority of prayer makes a big difference during the large challenges. During the two-month planning stage of this endeavor at street evangelism, broad prayer support was enlisted in the US and among the missionaries in the host country. Many people voiced their fears about such a bold endeavor, yet they kept on praying. Their confidence in God made the difference.
3. Penetrating the layers of relationships in the Muslim-African world can make the difference between victory and defeat. When undertaking any effort at evangelism among Muslims and Africans, the missionary must initially take the responsibility of orienting the entire community toward the gospel. There are many with whom you have to deal. Americans think individually. Most other cultures think collectively. Missionaries must be willing to risk moving an entire community toward accepting the ways of Christianity over and against their traditional ways. That can never be forgotten.
Tony Lynn has been a pastor or a missionary since 1977. He and his wife, Jamie, have recently been assigned to work among the unreached people in Europe. Dr. Lynn earned a D.Min. from Mid-American Baptist Theological Seminary.
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