About the Author
Jeff Smith is creative director of Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.
The country where Frank* serves bans nationals from following Christ, outlaws churches and proselytizing, and permits the practice of Islam as the only sanctioned religion.
Editor’s note: Frank’s and his mom’s real names, locations, and key personal details have been concealed to protect Frank’s identity.
As the Islamic call to public prayer blares over a loudspeaker from the minaret tower nearby, Frank* and a friend walk to the local mosque, one of several dozen Islamic worship centers throughout the city. All around them, hundreds of men and boys carry copies of the Quran, considered Islam’s sacred book, to take part in one of the five daily prayer times for the Islamic faith.
Once inside the mosque, worshipers remove their sandals and ritually wash their face, feet, and hands in specially designated faucets to purify themselves for prayer. They then stream into the spacious worship hall, where they find places on the floor facing the mihrab, a niche in the wall that points in the direction of Islam’s holy city of Mecca.
Standing behind a podium, an imam begins leading the large assembly in the opening verses of the Quran: “Praise be to God, the Lord of the Universe, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Sovereign of the Day of Judgment . . .”
Watching men of every age group praying in unison from a humble kneeling posture while facing Mecca, Frank is impressed—and deeply troubled.
“I felt this tremendous sense of community in the mosque,” he said. “They were all praying in the same direction as every other Muslim in the world and all following the same prophet. But you almost feel a demonic sense of false community, a strong community but a false one. It makes my heart break for them to experience true community and intimacy in the one true God.”
Observing from the back of the hall, Frank politely declined as a few of the men motioned for him to join them. Officially Frank was a newly hired teacher at a university in the city. But the other men did not know Frank had traveled to their country on a more pressing mission. In a nation where churches and evangelism are illegal and more than 99 percent of the population are considered Islamic, the Moody Bible Institute graduate was here to introduce Muslims to the only hope for humankind—Jesus Christ.
“During my first Ramadan, I was fasting as they do in this country—no water or food from sunup to sundown,” Frank said. “About three weeks into Ramadan, one afternoon I went before the King (Jesus) for intercession, but it was just to complain about fasting and having no energy to get anything done.
“Then I strongly felt the King say, ‘Go walk your neighborhood.’”
Before journeying to his new country, Frank graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Intercultural Studies from Moody Bible Institute. There he learned to communicate God’s truth and interact with people across cultures, backgrounds, and barriers. After graduation, Frank earned a teaching certificate, raised support, and trained with his mission agency to begin his ministry as a university teacher.
Three weeks after flying into the port city that is now his home, he found himself teaching classes to 120 freshman students.
“Because we have to come in and work professional jobs under professional identities and are invited by local institutions, I started working right away,” he said.
As a teacher Frank reports to the university each morning to plan lessons and meet with coworkers, then returns in the evenings to teach classes. (All activity halts in the city from noon to 4:00 p.m. so residents can rest and find shelter from the oppressive heat characteristic of the country’s climate.)
“At first I said no to the King,” Frank said, “because it was hot; no one would be outside in this heat, and I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything yet that day. But I strongly felt Him telling me to go. I knew I would be disobeying Him if I didn’t go, so I got up and went.
“What happened next was something only the King in His sovereignty could arrange.”
In his job as a covert missionary, Frank leads a missions team consisting of two married couples with children, a third married couple with no kids, three single women, and two single men. Two of his colleagues are also teachers, and the other team members are doctors and nurses at a local hospital. Besides Frank, one other missionary is American. The rest hail from different parts of Europe.
By holding two jobs, Frank is able to fulfill his ultimate purpose—sharing the gospel in one of the world’s most unreached nations.
Frank’s missions team has served in the country for three years and in its current port city for over two years, with intermittent changes to the team’s makeup as individuals and couples have left and joined this unique mission field.
Because Christian activities, including churches and evangelism, are against the law, teammates rely heavily on one another for support. Aside from one local believer, they are the only known Christians. Team members meet Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. to pray for each other and for those they are telling about Christ. On Fridays Frank leads a team meeting to discuss strategy, needs, challenges, and evangelism opportunities. With church gatherings prohibited, the team worships together on Sundays in private, forming its own quasi-house church.
“Everything we do needs to be underground in our homes,” Frank said. “We worship very simply. We sing, pray, and read and study the Word together. On Sundays we also go to the beach together. Encouragement comes from being able to gather together as teammates. It’s sometimes a security risk to be closely associated in public, but it creates a special bond to be the only body and ask the King to expand it.”
”As I got up, I had this picture that I would turn right out of my house and see a woman sitting on her doorstep a little ways down the road. As I got outside, I went right and started walking. Not a soul was outside.
“After I walked a little ways, I saw a woman sitting on her doorstep, just like I imagined.”
Although proselytizing is officially banned, Frank and his team openly discuss matters of faith with unbelievers. For security reasons they use alternative words when communicating in person, on the phone, or via email with teammates and with others in their home country. They are constantly aware of the need to avoid drawing attention to themselves from authorities. As examples of ways they safeguard their communications, they refer to the Bible as “the Book” and Jesus as “the King.”
“The verse ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16) is applicable here,” Frank said. “In this country you’re a sheep among wolves. The people group I’m with is known for being suspicious. There’s suspicion underneath my interactions with them. I’ll tell them, ‘I’m American and teach at the local university.’ Some say that’s cool. Others are more suspicious and ignore me or get upset.”
Fortunately, in his years of employment, Frank hasn’t experienced overt persecution. “I’ve had people be very rude to me and say, ‘You’re an unbeliever’ and ‘What you believe is fake and you’re going to hell.’ It’s just an intense culture here where people tend to communicate intensely,” Frank said.
Persecution is an even more dangerous reality for the country’s nationals. The government and culture strongly discourage residents from practicing any other religion but Islam.
“I’ve had people tell me if they changed systems, they would be killed by their parents,” Frank said. “Others have said they would be treated very badly and rejected by their families and friends. When sharing the good news, you have to be careful, though for ourselves we pray that we would be faithful in the midst of persecution and not only pray for protection from persecution or for it to be taken away.”
“I also saw another man working on a house. I decided I’d talk to the man working on the house, but as I got closer, I saw a man sitting next to the woman on the doorstep and instantly knew I needed to talk to them. But I got nervous and turned down the street to talk to the man working on the house.
“But as I turned, the man sitting next to the woman called out to me.”
Since the government prohibits Christian proselytizing, Frank and his teammates depend on discreet one-on-one conversations to spread the gospel. “In my free time I go to tea shops with friends of mine at the university, and I play basketball and work out with some guys at the gym,” Frank said. “I also spend time with local friends practicing the language. That’s when ministry happens. All our evangelism is done through relational evangelism.”
Whenever Frank steers a discussion toward spiritual matters, he does so candidly yet also sensitively to their religious and cultural background.
“We don’t hide the fact that we follow the King,” Frank said. “We simply try to share in a contextualized way that draws people in and doesn’t offend immediately. I often will use (the Quran) to validate and prove that (the Bible) hasn’t been changed. I also like to quote some of the King’s ‘I am’ statements from the Book to start a dialogue about the King.”
Frank often draws on what he learned during his Intercultural Studies classes at Moody.
“We talk about contextualization—how do we proclaim the gospel to folks in ways that make sense to them and yet is still faithful to the teachings of Scripture?” said Dr. Timothy Sisk, one of Frank’s professors in Intercultural Studies, who also serves as dean of faculty at Moody. “We are taking the gospel to them to point them to Christ and His Word. We want our witness to be sensitive and meaningful to their culture and faithful to the Bible.”
“I greeted the man and woman on the doorstep, and the man had me sit down. Two hours later, I’d had a long conversation with him explaining the entirety of the good news, and he invited me to come back to his house the next morning to discuss more. I returned the next morning, and after three hours of us reading both of our books (the Bible and Quran) and discussing them in detail, the man asked me a question.
“‘Have you had dreams?’ he said. ‘About what?’ I said, knowing where this was going.”
After years of study, Frank can speak and understand the local language deftly enough to talk with residents on a basic level. Many nationals are fluent in English, which allows him to share biblical truth in greater depth. He meets weekly for language training with a local friend and via Zoom with a ministry colleague. He also frequents tea shops and markets for conversations with nationals.
“In some of my relationships with fellow teachers I’ve shared the good news plainly with them,” Frank said. “They’ll say, ‘Why do you believe the King is the Son of God?’ or we’ll discuss what the Trinity is or why the King would die for you if you can save yourself through good works as Islam teaches.
“With people who know little English, I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve been reading a story in my Book. Would you like to read this?’ so they can read it in their language.”
“The man on the doorstep told me of a dream he had about a Man in white. This Man was hovering about a meter above the ground with His arms stretched out, staring right at the man. The man tried to walk past the Man in white, and He just kept staring at him. Once he walked past Him, the Man in white stopped staring and looked forward again.
“The King speaks to many cousins (Muslims) through dreams and visions.”
In an unreached nation where Christianity is outlawed, Frank and his team have experienced significant resistance to the gospel.
“So far I haven’t seen anyone put their faith in the King,” Frank said. “My teammates and I compare it to the parable of the sower. In many ways we’re removing rocks before seed can be sown.”
Most locals express a steadfast belief in Islam and an equally staunch distrust toward God’s Word. Frank relayed a recent example:
“I saw a guard at the university whom I’d had conversations about the King before,” Frank said. “He doesn’t speak English. In his language he said, ‘You want to go to Heaven, right? Then go to the mosque and pray.’
“But I said, ‘I follow the King and believe the Old and New Testament. Have you ever read the Book?’
“He said, ‘No, those are from before. Now we go to the mosque.’
“It breaks my heart. They tell me I have to do research of the other books but they don’t need to.”
Spiritual darkness maintains a stranglehold on the hearts of many nationals. “We remind ourselves often that this war is not against flesh and blood but against rulers and powers and authorities,” Frank said. “One of the main ways I see it is the 100-percent assurance that the (Muslims) believe they are right and that they don’t have to do research of any other belief system. It can be very discouraging, but it reminds me that the (Holy Spirit) is the only One who can soften hearts and convict people of sin.”
“I returned the next morning to talk to the man for another hour and a half. A week later he stopped by my house and told me that he can’t believe the King is God because He was a man that ate, drank, and did everyday things that we do. A month later he and I were exchanging texts. He was reading Genesis and asked who Lot was. Then he asked, ‘Who was the God of Abraham?’
“I told the man to read John 8:58, and he responded, ‘The King is God.’”
Although Frank and his team have yet to see a single national openly profess faith in Jesus, Frank knows of one man in the city, Ahmed*, who is a Muslim-background believer. Ahmed moved to the city from the nation’s capital, where covert missions workers had led him to Christ. Ahmed provided security detail for Frank’s house, giving Frank the opportunity to disciple him before Ahmed joined the local Coast Guard.
“When I came here I knew this was a hard place and the chances of seeing fruit in this country initially are low,” Frank said. “I’ve really tried to remind myself that success equals faithfulness on my end to share the good news and to obey the King and to listen and follow His voice. Having conversations with people here and sharing the King and His truth the last two years, it truly is the (Holy Spirit) who regenerates hearts.”
According to Frank’s mission agency, which has stationed undercover missionary teams in a few cities in this country and in other Muslim-majority nations, the average length of time it takes to lead a Muslim to Christ is seven years.
“It can be disheartening to often not see any fruit,” Frank said. “We remind each other that we’re long-term workers and we’ve only been in this city for two years. How we handle seeing a lack of fruit up till now at least is continuing to corporately pray and ask God to draw people to Himself and to remember that prayer is the greater work.”
“Since then I’ve texted the man a few times. One time I simply greeted him and he responded by asking how to read the Book (the Bible) on his phone because he lost it. I instructed him how. I believe the King is clearly working on the man’s heart. We can intercede for him about this.”
As Frank waits for fruit from his labors, his missionary service in a closed country has produced noticeable changes in his character, attitude, and maturity level.
“It’s been amazing to see how he’s grown in the years since he left,” said his mother, Beverly*. “He has become much more bold to share Jesus with others. He’s also encouraged us to grow in our faith and taught us and his siblings to share Jesus in our daily lives with those around us.”
Frank’s parents visited him in January 2021 and talk to him each Sunday afternoon, usually through a secure app for safety reasons. Knowing one of their children lives in a religiously closed country can be cause for anxiety, but they believe he is resting in God’s hands.
“If fear ever creeps into our minds, we often find ourselves in prayer,” Beverly said. “The Lord is very quick to give us a sense of peace. His dad and I are so proud of him for taking this step. He spent six weeks here in the states this year. When he went back to his city, I later asked, “How does it feel to be back?” He said, ‘It feels so good to be back.’ This tore at my heart as a mom, and yet I am so thankful that he has followed the Lord’s calling.”
As a senior at Moody, when Frank first realized God was guiding him to a country where Christianity is severely restricted, his first reaction was reluctance. Today, he views the country as his home.
“Serving in a closed country is challenging and can be dangerous. Once I knew He was calling me, He caused my heart to warm to the people,” Frank said. “My heart has really grown to love them. I see how zealous some are for their beliefs and how proud they are as a people and for what they believe in. I long for them to have that zeal for the true King.”
Frank prays for the day when the seeds of truth God is planting through his team come to full fruition and the gospel takes root and grows in countless nationals’ hearts.
“As much as possible I hope to stay here,” Frank said. “I tell God, ‘I’m here, Lord, as long as You want me to be here. If You lead me elsewhere I surrender to You.’ He’s not dependent on us. We’re dependent on Him. It’s about Him and His work.”
Jeff Smith is creative director of Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.