Jimmy Pritchard’s mind’s eye saw a stereotypical Middle East culture where Islam dominates and freedom is repressed. But once he was on the ground in Beirut, Lebanon with his fellow Baptists from Texas, he said was “blown away.”
“I could have easily been in any urban area of the United States,” he said.
“I found it to be a very Westernized culture,” said Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Forney, who ventured to Lebanon Jan. 17-23 with an SBTC contingent. “We found a lot of secular Muslims–people who have bought into Western materialism but aren’t reading the Koran, aren’t practicing.”
Pritchard joined a small group of pastors and church leaders, including SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards and Terry Coy, SBTC senior church planting associate, in seeking ways for SBTC churches to partner in 2006 with Lebanese Baptists.
The SBTC is entering its fourth year of partnership with Lebanese Baptists, who count among themselves 28 churches, a Baptist school in Beirut, and the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, which trains nearly 60 students from various Muslim-dominated Arab countries.
Additionally, Southern Baptist’s International Mission Board employs workers who are active in Bible distribution and house church planting in Beirut, where nearly everyone lives in multi-story apartments.
Among Arab countries, Lebanon has the greatest religious freedom. In Beirut, Muslims and Christians–most embrace merely a cultural Christianity–have lived peaceably with each other since a 16-year civil war ended in the early 1990s. Beirut has flourished amid the rebuilding. Western stores and restaurants are common in downtown Beirut.
“The beauty was incredible, but the warmth and generosity of the people was unexpected and unbelievable,” Pritchard noted.
Even in heavily Muslim west Beirut, where a contingent from Forney joined IMB missionaries in Bible distribution, the team was usually respectfully received, Pritchard said.
“We did have a situation where a Muslim answered the door and refused the Bible,” stating he had a Koran and didn’t read it. “Why would I want another book I won’t read?” he asked.
“It’s an open opportunity,” Pritchard said. “Once they realize that materialism will leave them hollow, they will be open to the gospel. (The materialism) is fresh and new for them, but they’ll reach the end of that road as well.”
Pritchard said his church plans to participate in the partnership by sponsoring a student at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. For about $9,500, a church can pay a student’s tuition and living expenses for a year.
Richards said this was his second trip to Lebanon and God’s work is evident.
“Muslims are being won to Christ. Ministers are being trained and sent out to other Muslim countries. The International Mission Board personnel continue to coordinate door-to-door visitation and Bible distribution in Beirut. Beirut is a gateway city giving anyone who goes there an opportunity to touch lives throughout the Middle East.”
In fact, Beirut is a destination for many tourists and temporary workers from throughout the Middle East, Coy said.
IMB missionaries, Coy said, are requesting “strategic prayer” for their work among Muslims—something an SBTC church or church members could undertake. Furthermore, small SBTC churches or associations could pool resources to send missions teams to Lebanon for work with Lebanese churches or to work alongside IMB representatives.
“We are trying to encourage those who went on the trip to take the next step,” Coy said.
For more information on the SBTC-Lebanese Baptist partnership, call the SBTC Missions Office toll free at 877-95307282 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.