Article by a World Team missionary serving in Central Asia
There is considerable continuity in the Islamic world. The vocabulary and religious practices that you find in most Muslim communities will have a lot of overlap and familiarity. However, differences in culture flesh themselves out in every context, despite what religion one adheres to. This is no different for Central Asian Muslims.
Almost every nation throughout our region has a population which is more than 90% Islamic. Mosques are spread throughout the city and calls to Namaz (Islamic prayer) go out five times a day from their speakers. The month of Ramadan sees many shops reduce working hours or even shutdown. Iftar (the breaking of the daily fast) sees restaurants crowded until no one else can fit in. And Korban Eid sees makeshift sacrificial bazaars open up to provide families who can afford it a suitable lamb for their festivities. Religion is a central aspect of life in Central Asia.
Besides being Muslim, Central Asians are quite hospitable people. They are friendly and welcoming. Most homes are equipped to quickly pull out dried fruit, nuts, and nan (local bread) to be served with hot tea to any guests who may show up unannounced. Welcoming strangers and friends alike is a common practice in Central Asia.
Challenges and Opportunities
Another unique dynamic to life here is that most people are trying to leave for a better life. They either become migrant workers to send money home or try to find ways to go abroad to what they dream would be a better life. This makes the presence of people coming from places they long to move to very strange. This is to our advantage, as many people are intrigued and curious to find out why one might be willing to go from a place they consider desirable to a place they long to escape from. This creates opportunities to engage with people, and talking with people is the first step to building a relationship. Furthermore, religious conversation is not taboo like it is in many countries. This means the opportunity to mention God and emphasizing the most essential aspects of our lives as believers comes regularly.
While meeting people and talking about spiritual things can happen quite frequently, one of the most important aspects to going deeper and speaking to heart issues is building trust. With Central Asians, trust comes from time spent together, and meaningful time happens over shared meals. This means that hospitality is a central theme weaved throughout our life and work. Learning how to make our home a place locals feel comfortable in and how to decorate to inspire curiosity and spark meaningful conversation is important. The balance of being foreign yet locally acclimated and spiritual is constantly being negotiated. We want to be bold and call people to repentance; however, we do not want to scare people away before we have had the opportunity to share Christ. In all our efforts, no matter where one finds themselves, we aim to make Christ known and Him to be the stumbling block, not our home décor or lack of cultural understanding.
Understanding the Historical Context
The Soviet history of the region complicates life in Central Asia. Many locals were educated in Russian language schools and cities and governments were forged on the foundation of the Russian language. So in many ways, cities are a Russian space, but as many migrate from rural areas into the city you have the meeting of traditional culture and modernity. You have people who consider themselves more “cultured” in the city judging those from villages as still being backwards. While those from villages see the city-dwellers as compromisers who have abandoned their people and culture. Another unique factor in this dynamic is the increasing Islamic influence since the fall of the Soviet Union. The freedom to practice and educate the population at large in orthodox Islamic theology has caused a movement among the youth to becoming more devout. This movement trickles upward as the youth influence their Soviet-era parents to more orthodox understandings and practices of Islam.
This context creates a unique atmosphere to navigate the already complex nature of church planting. One must wrestle with who in particular are they trying to pursue with the Gospel message, where are they in their understanding, what methods, approaches, and Scriptures may be most relevant and helpful to this end. In such a melting pot of interesting and complicated backgrounds, there are many ways in which conversations and relationships happen on a case-by-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all in our work. By prayer and dependence on our Father in heaven, we strive to 1) be faithful in understanding the context in which He has placed us and our pursuit of holiness, 2) Abide in Christ our source of strength and wisdom, and hope, 3) Love our neighbors as ourselves, making meaningful relationships where people are not just projects, but friends who we care about their best, and 4) learning language in order to clearly and boldly proclaim His Good News.
As you pray for our work and consider joining us, please pray:
- for us to be good stewards of what the Father has entrusted to us.
- for us to navigate wisely the complications of life here.
- for the Lord to raise up more laborers for His harvest here.
- for how you may be able to pursue God personally, while living amongst and inviting Central Asians to know and love Him themselves.
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