Smiling Over the Sound of Minarets
Mustapha sits in his apartment, a smile beaming from his face. An overworked air conditioner rattling in the window can’t drown out the bells from the minarets summoning the Sunni Islamic faithful who make up 99% of Tunisia’s population to pray. Mustapha is not part of that 99%, and he’s smiling because he believes the percentage of Muslims in this country are shrinking by the day.
“Until recently there was no Christianity here,” Mustapha says. “Only after 2000 did the Church in Tunisia begin to grow. Since then we’ve had a lot of conversions from Islam.”
Christianity first came to Tunisia in the 70s from foreigners living or working in the country. Around 2000 some of these Christians were able to communicate the message of Jesus broadly using satellite television and the internet. The message reached Mustapha, a now 29-year-old married man with two children who has trained as a civil engineer. Now Mustapha spends dozens of hours a week building a thriving, contextualized Tunisian church.
“I work full-time for the Church in Tunis. Our church is a very young church. At first, we had no church buildings so we started house churches. And even now, many churches are still house churches. We were blessed; in 2006 we were allowed to use one of the existing church buildings, a church where only the foreigners had met together before. For us Tunisians, this was something new. We were six to eight people at most at the start, but the Lord has worked a lot with our church. Now we have 90 members with several couples and there are children of all different ages. We have all generations in church.”
Being a very young church means that those like him who are active in the church have a lot of responsibilities. “I am responsible for logistics in the church so that pastors can concentrate on their pastoral work, preaching and teaching. I am responsible for the worship group, for the discipleship courses for the new believers and sometimes I teach and preach. So I am the kind of person who manages all the ministries of the church.”
The biggest challenge for this new church, according to Mustapha, is “to create a church that fits in our context and our situation. That is very delicate and difficult. The most important is the context. We’re working in the middle of persecution, rejected by society.”
The second challenge is “that we’re in the stage of laying a foundation. We don’t have a model to follow or a system to work with. We’re setting up, creating our system, the administration, and also our own theology, our training, the courses we organize, discipleship training, preaching. It’s all up to us.”
“The concept of Church is totally new for us”
“In the Muslim world, people know the mosque; that is our background,” Mustapha says. “It’s the place where people go to pray, to do their religious duties.New converts don’t understand that they are part of the Church and that Church is about people, members, about ministry, about giving and not only about receiving.”
Their Islamic background also influences the Tunisian believers’ attitude towards the Bible. “They look at it like they did at the Koran, a book with the law of their religion but not a book that you should relate to. With this background it’s difficult to convince someone to have a true relationship with the Bible, to let it change your life, to “eat” the Bible. It’s not just to listen to or to put it under a cushion before sleeping, you have to know it and have a real relationship with it.”
With the Bible in his hands, he continues: “Another problem is that we Arabs almost don’t read. We don’t read! If someone reads something it’s the newspaper for sport or crime. A new convert has to learn to read the Bible. I know this from experience. It was a challenge for me to learn to read and to take pleasure in reading.”
“We started to make up our own songs in the Tunisian dialect”
One of the Tunisian Church’s efforts is trying to contextual the gospel to a Tunisian context.
“There exist Egyptian songs. They are in Arabic, but that’s another Arabic than we speak,” Mustapha says. “So we started to make up our own songs in the Tunisian dialect. When we sing Tunisian Arabic people are more at ease, these songs motivate the people.”
Mustapha recently finished a training offered by Open Doors for church leaders from Algeria and Tunisia and Open Doors continues to stand with the young North African Church.
“We try to make the Bible and the New Testament available for the new believers. We know the importance of the Scriptures for the believers,” says one of the managers overseeing support of Open Doors in this region. “We also offer discipleship training. There we motivate the participants to read and study the Bible.”
Even though Mustapha carries a smile on his face, that doesn’t make his task easy. Some days the weight of living in a predominately Muslim country is overwhelming.
“Pray for me, that God will strengthen me because when I am confronted with all the work, with all these challenges, I become demoralized or depressed,” Mustapha says. “I do all this work, but I don’t see the fruit straight away. Pray for me, that I may hold fast, that I will keep my eyes turned towards the Lord and above all that I will listen to his voice and will not do something by my own intelligence. Truly, we are at the point where we just have to do what God tells us.”