Embracing less certainty, more dependance

By Melissa Ytsma
Melissa Ytsma 2022

Over the past few months, I’ve had the absolute privilege of completing my Summer Parish Internship in İzmir, Türkiye (the new official name for Turkey). I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in the lives of the local believers; from going on camping trips to helping run a weekly English Club to facilitating a Bible study, I learned what it is like to live out your faith in a country where less than 0.4% of the population is Christian. Here are a few things I’m reflecting on as I’ve returned home to Canada:

1) Jesus is moving! On my first Sunday in the church I was attending, a university student gave his life to Jesus over lunch. He is part of a growing group of young adults who are feeling disillusioned with the faith of their upbringing (Islam) and especially over COVID, have been seeking answers to their questions. Many of the people I met spoke about having encounters with Christian messages in places like Facebook or having a dream about Jesus and taking the risk to walk into a church to see if they could find understanding. In Turkey, churches are allowed to exist and citizens are welcome to their own faith, but the persecution is still very real. Those who convert to Christianity do so with great risk of losing their family, friends, employment, and in some extreme cases, their life. Because of these risks, the role of the Christian community is of utmost importance. They’re also in a unique situation where the overwhelming majority of people in the church are first-generation Christians. One Sunday the pastor asked everyone to raise their hands to showcase how long they’d been following Jesus. Starting with 20+ years, 1 or 2 hands went up. Then 10-20 years, maybe 10 hands went up. 5-10 years, more hands went up and even more with 2-5 years. When he got to 1-year or less, around 25% of the church raised their hand. Jesus is on the move in Turkey!

2) Christian community is beautifully messy, no matter where you are in the world. I found in this context, people worked really hard to maintain relationships and disciple one another through the highs and lows of life together. There was a brave and powerful space made weekly in their liturgy for new believers to share what God has been teaching them. It was sometimes awkward and perhaps unorthodox, but it was beautiful! The husband and wife who pastored the church shared the teaching responsibility with others and gave great freedom for people to discern their giftings and serve within them. People were consistently sharing meals together and meeting the needs of those who were struggling. Spiritually mature believers were partnered with new believers to mentor and support. Bible studies and small groups were offered for deep dives into scripture, teaching people how to read their Bible and listen to the voice of the Spirit themselves (with more than a 90% participation rate!). There were many times when I would be overwhelmed with the thought, “this feels like the early church.” It was beautiful and messy and authentic, all the things I hope for in a Christian community. Yet as you can imagine having so many new believers in the church, it can be a challenge to find spiritually mature Christians to disciple others. That’s a challenge the church is facing head-on though, intentionally investing in young adults to grow in their faith and lead in the church. A wonderful sight to see.

3) We have so much to learn from the church in Turkey. Not only is the church in Turkey culturally closer to the beginnings of our faith, but they’re also in this exciting season of rebuilding after much oppression. Before the first World War, it’s approximated that 25% of the country was Christian. Now the number is 0.4%. Even smaller (around 0.01%) if you look at the group that comprised the church I attended: Protestant Muslim-background believers. And yet, it’s growing! The church is discovering the unique gifts God has placed in their culture that bring the Christian faith to life. They have a beautiful gift of community and a posture towards one another, rather than our struggle here in Canada for individuality. Even in everyday society, you greet strangers by saying “Abi” or “Abla” meaning “Brother” or “Sister”. It’s understood that you are for one another, not against each other. They also have the opportunity to live scripture out in very real ways. I had the joy of leading a Bible study on Romans with a few young adults and when we got to Romans 14 discussing eating meat, we were coming close to the post-Ramadan celebration called the Feast of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı). After this celebration, the streets literally run red with the blood of the sacrificed animals. One of the young women attending – a new believer who hadn’t yet told her Muslim family that she’d converted – was quite distraught. Was it OK for her to share a meal with her family and eat this sacrificed meat now that she was a Christian? Should she skip the meal which would bring shame to her parents or honour them by attending and participating? The questions and need for discernment are complex! But the Turkish church is journeying together, listening to the Holy Spirit. And they are intentional in not drawing on too much of the Western church in an effort to find their own identity. It was refreshing to not feel like we didn’t need to have all the answers but trusting that God would provide. I want to embrace less certainty in my walk with Jesus, and more dependence on others and the Spirit, as modelled to me by the Turkish church.

My internship in Turkey brought the scriptures and my own faith to life again in new ways. There are countless more things I could write about concerning my 3-months away, but I hope this at least gives a glimpse into my experience. I am beyond grateful for the encouragement and flexibility of Professor Annette Brownlee, Reverend Lyn Youll, and Bishop Stephen Andrews who helped shape an internship that looked a little out of the box and met my learning goals above and beyond.

Would you join me in praying for the church in Turkey using these words of Jesus from Matthew 9:37-38?

“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”