Lebanon: presence before proclamation
The most recent mission community meeting of the Fellowship of Baptists in Britain and Ireland (FBBI) included an insight into how Lebanese Christians have sought to respond to the crisis in their country. It was both stimulating and challenging, reports Stuart Davison
Following on from our virtual meeting in June, when we discussed whether returning to our buildings after lockdown would be harmful to mission, we wanted to look at how others have been stretched by the use of having or not having buildings and how they might be used. Consequently, Alia and Wissam joined us from the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD) - and this proved very stimulating and challenging.
Our time together commenced with a sharing of a vision regarding lighthouses around these islands and the way some have stopped shining at a very time they are needed, resulting in loss of life, mental health in the nation and morality.
Lebanon has been greatly affected by several factors. Sectarianism is seen as the problem of the country. Lebanon also has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world: one in four people is a Syrian refugee, and one in three is a refugee.
Other more recent challenges include the aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion, a prevalent economic and banking crisis which has led to hyperinflation (650 per cent), and the pandemic, that have together left more than 78 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, and wrestling with much hopelessness and despair. Wissam saw the lighthouse picture as very descriptive of how the churches have been during the civil war.
With the influx of refugees into Lebanon, God used prophetic voices from within the church to challenge negative views against refugees. The church was boundary-led. One pastor commented that he was concerned that should they work with refugees they would lose their Lebanese congregation. However, once they started a centre for refugee kids they saw that their work with refugees taught them about God and the first lesson was forgiveness: Do you love Jesus; what would He have us do?
In pursuit of a mandate to strengthen the witness of the church, LSESD sets out to address issues of poverty and vulnerability partnering with 25 local churches in Lebanon in response to the refugee crisis as well as new and emergent needs resulting from the compounded crises that Lebanon has been struggling with since October 2019.
All partner churches are witnessing growth; not nationalistic but Kingdom-based. This ministry of compassion that LSESD partner churches are leading emphasises maintaining the dignity of the care-recipient first before evangelism. LSESD also holds children and youth camps for Lebanese and Syrian youngsters.
Alongside addressing issues of poverty and vulnerability, LSESD also focuses on inclusive education, as well as equipping the local church – all in line with strengthening the witness of the Church in Lebanon and the region.
The reason LSESD chooses to work with churches is that, unlike NGOs, churches are part of the local community fabric. There are here to stay unlike NGOs that come to an area for a specific time and purpose following which they move elsewhere.
So, in partnership with local churches, LSESD today provides:
Education and psychosocial support for 1600 Syrian children through eight church-based centres in Lebanon;
Basic needs: food and non-food items (blankets, mattresses, fuel vouchers, stoves, heaters). Support is offered non-conditionally, and without discrimination. There was an initial push back from some churches that saw this as an opportunity for evangelism only. Today, these same churches have come to believe in the full meaning of the Gospel as Word and deed.
Programs for vulnerable children, offering them the opportunity to be children and know that they are special in the eyes of God and that their circumstances are not a reflection of His view of them.
Ministry of hospitality: a sense of community! Refugees have lost their communities and identity. Yet, part of the transformation that is taking place in Lebanese churches today is that it is “No longer us and them, but more us”. Two expressions which summed up so much of this was “from survival to significance”. “Now we have become the church!”
Acts of mercy have drawn others to learn about the Jesus. They are now seeing folk coming to Christ in greater numbers than before.
Three further quotes from Lebanon:
“The church is not just for preaching but for living the Gospel. The message preached on Sundays needs to be lived out in the community during the remaining week.”
“God’s church is diverse – and we have learnt to love and accept others who do not dress like us, talk like us…”
“Our church has changed – it has become home to all people. We’ve become one family. There is no longer room for condemnation in our church.”
They continue to face very real challenges: magnitude of need; exodus of Christians to the West; sustainability – financial and human; keeping the balance – proclamation and demonstration.
Back on the issue of “Re:building for mission” there is a recognition that having a physical building gives legitimacy and location. However, meeting in houses as well moves things from a pulpit-based faith with a professional lead to a localised support with the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.
There were some moving stories of God meeting non-Christians who came to know Jesus as their Lord including dreams of Jesus and the provision of food vouchers. One was of a child in a family who hadn’t eaten for two days. His mother told him to try prayer. That night he dreamt of Jesus, who told that a man would come with help. When the young man turned up the next day, the boy said, ‘We’ve been expecting you!’
Alia and Wissam shared that it took a crisis to get the church moving!
We need to earn the right to speak today. There needs to be presence before proclamation. We need to be where the people are.
Stuart Davison is Regional Minister Team Leader of the South Eastern Baptist Association.
FBBI is the The Fellowship of Baptists in Britain and Ireland.
Visit lsesd.org for more about the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development
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