Meet the Gateway People to the Muslim World

A few years ago at a conference, I held a large banner that read: “Azerbaijanis: God’s gateway people to the Muslim world.” One quizzical individual pondered a few minutes before asking me whether this was a real place.

Azerbaijanis get that a lot.

They are one of the few peoples that span numerous countries with different linguistic and cultural contexts. The Republic of Azerbaijan is home to 9 million Azerbaijanis, but its low profile on the world stage leads many to underestimate its significance. While the exact number of Azerbaijanis worldwide is unknown, it ranges from 30 million to 50 million. Their largest concentration is found in Iran, where estimates range from 18 million to 30 million.From the mountains of Ararat and the Azeri region of Naxchevan (named from the old Azeri words Nuh chixan, “where Noah came out,” based on Genesis 8:4), to the highest echelon of power in Iran (the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, is an Azeri), Azerbaijanis are a people who shouldn’t be ignored.

Dispersed Among the Nations

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Azerbaijani homelands were part of the Persian Empire. Following war and treaties with Russia, the Persian Empire ceded to Russia what is now Azerbaijan and, along with it, significant Azerbaijani populations in the city of Derbent became Russian territory.

At the beginning of the 20th century, many Azerbaijanis fled and resettled in the eastern provinces of Turkey. Current estimates of Azerbaijanis in Turkey are between 500,000 and 600,000. In the country of Georgia, their numbers range from 240,000 to 500,000. In Russia and the former Soviet Union, 1 million Azerbaijani form a significant minority. And in northern Iraq, a people called the Turcoman, who speak Azerbaijani, are estimated to be 2.5 million. These Azerbaijani of the dispersion speak Azerbaijani, Farsi, Turkish, Russian, Arabic and many other local languages.

Although national boundaries present challenges to Western workers, they aren’t so problematic to Azerbaijani believers. Natives from Azerbaijan go to Iran and share the good news of Jesus. Pastors from Baku go to northern Iraq and are welcomed as brothers rather than foreigners. Azerbaijanis from Baku share their faith in Georgia, having freedom to do so without government intervention.In 2009, the translation of the Bible into modern-day Azerbaijani was finalized, at last making the whole of God’s Word accessible to believers in their mother tongue. Moreover, the first Azerbaijani study Bible was published last year. With God’s help, these resources will help Azerbaijani believers grow in the gospel and take it to the nations.

Least-Reached People Reaching Other Peoples

The Azerbaijanis are considered a least-reached people group. Estimates of the number of Azerbaijani believers worldwide range from 7,000 to 14,000. Yet a growing number have recently come to faith in Christ. Many understand the unique role they have in reaching their own and other peoples.

Brother Idris, for example, grew up into a life of violence and crime in Azerbaijan. As he was poised to commit a serious crime, Christ appeared to him in a dream, exposing his life and the consequences of his path. He informed the gang he’d changed his mind about committing the crime; they thought he was crazy and went ahead without him. All were arrested. Idris gave his life to God, and over the years God has used him to pastor a network of small churches reaching his own people as well as Azeris in Georgia, Iran, and Russia.Another brother, Feridoon, grew up as an atheist Marxist in Iran. He believed God was a crutch for the weak-minded. A believing classmate challenged Feridoon to read the New Testament and, not wanting to look scared, he did. The words of doubting Thomas struck him. That night Jesus appeared in his bedroom and showed him his nail-pierced wrists. Terrified, Feridoon fled to a well-known local believer’s house, where he was encouraged and counseled. Over the course of a few days, he began to realize Christ is indeed real, and he gave his life to him. Since then Feridoon has led many to the Lord in various nations. He has translated the Bible into several languages, and he speaks to thousands about Christ by radio and TV programs—all because a friendly student challenged him to read the New Testament.

God is at work among the Azerbaijani people.

New Challenges

Events of the past two years have brought new challenges and diminished the free flow of people and ideas in the region: renewed persecution in Iran, local fears and insecurities prompted by the growth of ISIS, unfavorable news reports about the unjust policies of Azerbaijani leaders, and the threat of renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. An increasing focus on nationalism has led to legislation and business policies that have prompted some expatriate workers to leave.

Nevertheless, we continue to see growth and maturation in Azerbaijan’s church. In many ways, they really are God’s gateway people to the Muslim world.

How You Can Pray

Would you join in prayer for your Azerbaijani brothers and sisters?

  • Pray that God would embolden and empower Azerbaijani believers to reach others for Christ.
  • Pray for growing unity among the few Azerbaijani churches in Azerbaijan, and for local believers and leaders to be strong in faith and patient in trials.
  • Pray that believing workers who bring needed skills and professions to Azerbaijan would benefit the country and be given gospel opportunities.
  • Pray for missionaries and church planters to the Georgian Azeri minority, and for ministries mighty in prayer for spiritually dark places.
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Secret to Building a Soul-Winning Church

by Charles T. Crabtree, Pastor and soul-winner.

Among my friends in Springfield is a rather wealthy businessman who claims to have visited Bass Pro Shops only once or twice because friends wanted to see it. He is not the least bit interested in fishing, so the new equipment he could buy stays on the store’s shelves. The sleek new bass boat he could purchase stays on the showroom floor. And the fish he could catch in nearby lakes continue to swim unmolested.

 

Another friend who also lives in Springfield is not nearly as well off as my other friend, but no fish is safe anywhere in the region. He is a dedicated fisherman who does not let the lack of new equipment stop him from catching fish. He goes to Bass Pro Shops on a regular basis to buy what he really needs and to drool over what he cannot afford.

Both of my friends live in proximity to a major supplier of fishing equipment and wonderful lakes full of fish. Both could be effective fishermen, but only one chooses to catch fish. Therein lies the secret to a soul-winning church.

It was not by coincidence Jesus began to build His Church initially by choosing a number of disciples out of the fishing industry. His call to these men included a promise which interested them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” Matthew 4:19. He was saying to them, “Your motivation and skills in fishing are the dynamics I am looking for in a new kind of fishing industry.”

Every believer should follow the Master and become a soul winner. Since the Church consists of believers who are called to be witnesses, it is logical to expect every church to be a soul-winning church. Sadly, this is not the case. Far too many believers, including clergy and laity, are apathetic to the opportunity for soul winning. If Jesus promised to make His followers fishers of men, it raises a question whether those who choose not to win souls are closely following the Master.

SOUL-WINNING DESIRE

The soul-winning church begins with the want to before it can move to the how to. My friend who does not fish could be scolded over and over for not fishing, or he could be instructed against his will in how to fish and what equipment he needs for fishing; but it would do no good. The want to has to be born in his heart. Fishing has to become a desire. It must become a significant factor in his life.

How can I possibly make my disinterested friend become a fisherman? How can I motivate believers to become soul winners? How can leaders create a soul-winning church when there is no passion to reach the lost?

It all begins with the birth or renewal of desire. Somehow, soul winning must be seen as a joy, not a drudgery; a passion, not a duty; a thrill, not a downer.

SOUL-WINNING MOTIVATION

We would do well to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. This principle is at the heart of soul-winning motivation.

When Jesus said, “I will make you fishers of men,” He was offering His followers a better way of life. Before Jesus came, they had been satisfied to catch a certain kind of fish. Their lives revolved around the fishing business so they could exist. Jesus came to them with a new basis for living so others could live.

No pastor or spiritual leader will ever motivate believers to become soul winners by making them feel guilty, pressured, or coerced. The only way believers will become soul winners is if they can experience the joy and fulfillment of leading someone to Christ.

Believers will only be motivated to become soul winners by soul winners. My disinterested friend will never get into fishing by himself. He is only going to get interested when somebody he cares for begins to testify about the thrill and satisfaction of catching fish. He will never head for the lake with fishing tackle if simply told he should by someone who does not fish. He will not get the urge to buy a boat if he hears horror stories about fishing—no nibbles for 8 hours, the one that got away, the boat that went aground, and everyone got motion sickness.

The main reasons we do not have enough soul winners are:

  1. We do not have enough soul-winning pastors and leaders. If soul winning is not a passion and joy in the life of leadership, it will certainly have no place in the lives of those who follow. People are not interested in theoretical truth.
  2. We drive people by guilt rather than leading them by an excited and effective role model. A lot of people are turned off by preachers and teachers who shout mandates, but leave out the promises.
  3. Soul winners talk too much of their failures and have no record of effectiveness. You can just imagine how motivated new believers will become when they hear about doors being slammed, testimonies being refused, and statistics showing how few who pray the sinner’s prayer really become true believers. It reminds me of the proverbial ineffective broom salesman who knocked on the door with the question: “You don’t want to buy a broom, do you?”

SOUL WINNING BY EXAMPLE

The soul-winning church begins with an excited, influential soul winner. No person in the church is more influential, than the pastor. Pastors can have soul-winning churches if they are soul winners themselves—in the pulpit and outside the pulpit.

Believers are weary of being told what to do. They want to be shown what to do. They must be shown how to be effective witnesses and soul winners in the marketplace. A revival of soul winning in the church will take place when spiritual leaders become fishers of men outside the pulpit and then share the joy and fulfillment of these new experiences from the pulpit.

The most effective motivation in creating soul winners is not preaching about soul winning but telling about it. I saw this over and over in my own ministry. When I was pastoring, I would often preach about soul winning, but I was most effective when I could tell the congregation about a soul I had led to the Lord that week. What a joy I felt when people I was baptizing turned to me and thanked me for leading them to Christ at their workplace or in their home. In those moments, my congregation was able to relate to me as a witness of Christ as well as a pastor. As an under-shepherd, I was able to say to them with authority, “Follow me as I follow the Lord, and I will help you become fishers of men.”

KEYS TO A SOUL-WINNING CHURCH

  1. The soul-winning church has soul-winning leaders. They create a hunger in others to become effective witnesses.
  2. The soul-winning church makes room for those who win souls to share their joy and testimony with the congregation. Pastors would do well to have a witness box or a soul-winning window—time set-aside in the service—to give opportunity for others to share the joy of fishing for men.
  3. A soul-winning pastor will give opportunity for souls to come to Christ service after service. Altar calls are a priority in a Pentecostal church. If no one comes, it is still a victory because the opening of the altars reminds people why the church exists. Of course, when someone responds, the joy on earth becomes the joy of heaven.
  4. The soul-winning church has effective altar workers. The training of altar workers creates soul winners. If people learn how to lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ at an altar, they will be able to do the same in a car, in a cafeteria, and in the corner of an office.

Some time ago, I was preaching in a soul-winning church that had a wonderful choir. I learned that a person wanting to join the choir had to attend one musical tryout and three training sessions for altar ministry before they could take their place in the choir. When I gave the altar call, choir members streamed out of the choir loft to meet those coming to Christ. It is no wonder this particular church is flourishing.

 

used by permission

Together we have won 508,549 souls since 2006. Thank you for loving souls!

I remember doing a survey of the best soul winning ministries in churches. As I called, many, many churches didn’t seem to know what I meant by “soul winning” ministries. I am thinking,… You know, the great Commission, Mark 16:15 He said to them, “Go into all the worldyou know,… in the Bible!    Some of the people had absolutely no clue at all and it made my survey very hard, so I decided to stick to the Baptist churches because they always had an answer. I was raised Baptist, and although I have come to see a few things differently, I knew that for the most part, Baptist people had an awesome understanding about sharing the “Good News of God’s love with the world.        I am so glad that someone share the Love of Jesus with me!!
 
Here is the results of that survey, “Visitation” and “VBS” were, by far the best soul winning ministries reported. If you take into account that prison ministry, door to door, visiting the visitors, and hospital visitation is all visitation, and I can also see where spending time with people who may come for support groups or other relationship ministries or outreaches fall into that visitation category. (Sharing the love of Jesus is Powerful stuff!!)  When the average souls won per year, per church is only 1,… we are glad to report that we added 11 in that past two weeks!!