The country of Turkey figured prominently in New Testament Christianity. It was home to the seven churches addressed in Revelation, Paul visited many churches in Turkey on his missionary travels, and Peter mentions several locations there. At one point, Turkeywas considered a Christian realm, but the rise and fall of various empires took its toll on Christianity, which has been virtually nonexistent in the country during modern history.
By God’s grace, that is changing.
When Turkey became a secular republic in the 1920s, it officially adopted freedom of religion; however, almost no native Christians lived in the country until the 1980s. Since then, the Christian population has gradually been increasing in this predominately Muslim country.
Today something less than 5,000 Turkish national Christians exist among a total population of 70 million. Of those, a small group of church fellowships are working toward forming a Reformed federation.
A young American named Caleb works alongside a Turkish pastor and is an elder in one of those congregations. He explains that church leaders are attempting unification according to a Reformed denominational model.
“Six churches are part of the core group,” Caleb says. “Several other churches plan on joining when the ball is rolling, but aren’t involved in the structuring.”
Although Caleb has been commissioned by a church in the United States to assist this national pastor with church planting and receives support from that church as well as other churches and individuals, he is not associated with a particular organization and is significantly self-supporting.
“I chose not to go through an organization,” he explains. “I really believe that the local church is God’s hand in the world and should equip, train, and hold accountable those in ministry as opposed to a parachurch organization.”
Between 20-80% of Caleb’s support comes from his freelance work as a computer programmer and consultant for clients all of whom must be outside Turkey.
“It varies a great deal according to what I’m doing,” he explains. “The first year I was here it was about 50/50, but it’s never been the same since. When I first went over, I raised some support partially because my sending church felt it was important to invest in my time there. I felt that it was an important example to support myself, so I kept some of my freelance work.”
Strictly on a volunteer basis, Caleb assists churches with technical needs, helping them publish things online and keeping servers secure. He authored a Bible search tool that helps compare translations in Turkish.
Caleb’s ministry work includes teaching and counseling, working primarily with college age believers who do evangelism.
“Those are mostly new believers who are active in sharing what they’ve learned,” he says. “Part of my role is to come alongside them, encourage them in the faith, mentor them in their walk, and be with them when they’re discouraged.”
Because most families identify themselves as Muslim and family ties are so strong, planting gospel seeds is very difficult.
“It is very hard ground,” Caleb says. “We try to sow seed, and often nothing comes up. But we do this because it’s true, because it glorifies God, whether we see the fruit or not.”
Caleb explains that Muslim culture in Turkeyis quite different from the Middle East and many families have a rather relaxed attitude toward religion. Some families, however, consider conversion an act of treachery. One friend needed to be hidden for several years as he lived under a death threat from his family.
Having grown up in Albuquerque, Caleb was pursuing a career in architecture in Colorado when he began working in youth ministry. After becoming involved with missions in Mexico, he realized that his goal was no longer to get ahead financially in life. He gave up his architectural business to allow the time he needed for ministry opportunities.
He first visited Turkey in 2003, sent by his church with a small group to assess their possible involvement with a church plant.
“At the time, I was feeling called to missions, but I thought it would be elsewhere. I was very involved with work in Mexico City and interested in spending time there,” Caleb says. “But I was excited to see what was happening in the church in Turkey. I was particularly interested in this pastor’s focus on training young believers to be a foundation for a future church.”
After several more visits, Caleb moved to Turkey in 2006 to work with that pastor. He enrolled in a university prep course to learn Turkish and lived with a national roommate.
“I had a church who was experienced in missions and willing to fill oversight roles,” he says, “and I had a national minister willing to train me, hold me accountable, and work with me on some things.”
Caleb appreciates the value Turkish people place on the family unit and on spending time with people rather than events or activities. Friends will often spend an entire day together, rather than just an evening or one meal.
When asked about his hopes or goals, he replied, “I very intentionally steer away from saying I want X Y and Z to happen because I want to see the local church active in ministry and myself serving alongside it or as part of it.”
“I do what I do because as a believer I feel my primary responsibility is to glorify God,” he adds. “In Turkey he is not glorified in any sort of widespread way and I want to see him honored there.”
Caleb’s primary prayer request is for perseverance, particularly for young believers as they face challenges in their culture and try to glorify God with their lives.
He also requests prayer that Turkish hearts and eyes will be open to the gospel.
“Pray for the reception of the Word,” he says, “that the light would shine in the darkness; that people would have hearts that love the light and not cling to darkness.”
“One thing I’ve seen very clearly in the last year is how the Word always evokes a response. If it’s properly preached, it will be seen as either folly or wisdom, either death or life. Pray that people would see it as the wisdom of God. Some see it as folly. They hate it because it shows them something they don’t want to see. Pray that God opens people’s eyes to see it as wisdom.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8-9 of the April 11, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.