by Dr Hikmat Kashouh

Hikmat is a leader of a vibrant and growing missional church in Beirut. He is an author and speaks across the Arab world and the West.

I was born in the same year that Lebanon entered into what would become 16 years of civil war. During the years of Syrian occupation, our people were killed, our women raped, our national resources plundered and our dignity stolen. I remember how frightened we children were of the Syrian army at checkpoints. Our hearts would be in our mouths. Our stomachs were always upset from anxiety. Our house was bombed a number of times, relatives lost their lives and beloved friends went missing. Ultimately, my father died
as a result of the war.

Many in my church have experienced the tragedy of the war and were refugees ourselves. We moved from one place to another. It would have been easy and natural to hate the Syrians who came to Lebanon for refuge. Many did. Shortly before the war began in Syria, God convicted many in my church about the need to serve the marginalised. One of our church leaders started visiting Syrian workers in their homes. He loved them, ate with them, listened to their stories and then prayed for them. This touched their hearts deeply. Many said to him, ‘No Lebanese have visited us and no one has ever invited us into their homes.’ He used to intercede for them, demonstrate love by investing his time and energy in them and invite them back to his house for prayer, Bible study and fellowship. Many came to Christ, and he started a small group in his home.

Loving Our Enemies

In 2011, when the war broke out in Syria and Syrians started to flee to Lebanon, our church was therefore prepared to receive them. We took the bold step of obeying our Saviour to serve those who had persecuted us, you could call them our enemies. As a result, the Syrian refugee community was provoked to ask big questions: ‘Why are you doing this? Why do you love us? Why are you serving us? Why are you willing to put time and energy and resources into helping us?’ And the answer was always Jesus.

Currently, 25% of the population in Lebanon are refugees from the wars in Iraq and Syria. In our church, 70% of the members are refugees. In nine years, we have gone from having 90 members to a congregation of 1,300. We have had to learn and grow with God’s unbelievable plan. Many refugees are rejected by those among whom they have come to live. They are despised or seen only as objects of charity. That is how God could have related to us. He could have stayed proudly at a distance, dispensing advice about how we should live. But instead he came to live among us, sitting with people on the floor, sharing their food, listening to their stories and their struggles. He did not come to be served but to serve.

In our ministry among the refugees, we have discovered that humble service is transformational. Following Christ’s example, one of our Lebanese church leaders has refused to move to a more comfortable house and chooses instead to live among his Syrian brothers and sisters who were once his enemies. Leading a church at the beginning of the Syrian crisis helped me to see Christ’s example of humility and incarnation as our model. He entered into our world of despair and became what we could not become, in order to draw us to Himself and reconcile us with God. As I reflect on the pain of the past and the lessons since, I praise God that in His economy nothing is wasted.

In our ministry among the refugees, we have discovered that humble service is transformational

Walking Alongside New Disciples

It is important not only to relate to those who express an interest in turning to Christ, but also to encourage them to grow and mature as disciples. The church is, and should always be, absorbed in promoting lifelong discipleship. In Arabic, as well as in Greek and other languages, the words for believing (having faith) and being faithful come from the same root. When we put our faith in Jesus, we start following Him. In our ministry, there are four things we ask everyone to do when they believe in Jesus: to trust Jesus, repent, follow in Jesus’ footsteps and crown Him as King.

Discipleship does not happen in an instant but is a lifelong process. Based on our own experiences, both successes and failures, we now propose a pathway for effective discipleship. This pathway takes seriously the teaching of the Gospels as a foundation for Christian discipleship, guiding and supporting those who sincerely believe in Christ and are filled with His Spirit. It is not enough to merely preach to people. New believers need to see, not only hear about, this new way of life in Jesus. They have only been exposed to one way of life and one style of living and they need to see a different lifestyle in order to understand it, and be fully transformed.

Sending Out New Followers

Finally, we send new followers out to do the same things we have been doing. As they go to make disciples, their character develops and grows to become more and more in harmony with the image of God. Their soul, character, mind, thinking, belief, attitudes, habits, actions, emotions and behaviour will be joined together into a humanity that reflects the very nature of Jesus, who came to teach us how to be truly human.

We do not intend disciples to stay with us but to go to the world as Jesus commanded us to do. We encourage them to call other people to follow Jesus, to teach the ways of the Kingdom, to free people from bondage, to heal the sick, and to set aside time for prayer and spiritual disciplines. Leaders here know that they cannot lead any ministry without empowering and investing in others. Everyone should be equipping someone to take his or her place. Sending out disciples to do the same is mandatory for the expansion of the Kingdom. We believers from a Christian background should trust the followers of Jesus from non-Christian backgrounds and give them space to lead and to serve.

One day the war in Syria will end, as will the war in Iraq. People will eventually return home or settle in a different country. We want them to be well equipped as disciples of Jesus to plant churches, even if they do not have buildings, and to multiply even if they do not have resources. The Word of God will sustain them. The Spirit will lead them to crown Christ as Lord in their lives. The communities they develop will keep them strong. Their witness will attract many to Christ and, as they make disciples, Christ’s Kingdom will expand, the Father will be glorified and communities restored.

This article is an excerpt from Hikmat Kashouh’s book, ‘Following Jesus in Turbulent Times: Disciple-Making in the Arab World’, which is available from Amazon.