A special Easter service “Hope For Arabs” event was held at Heritage Church in 2014.
By Warren Bird
Heritage Church in the greater Detroit area is effectively reaching into the nation’s largest populations of Middle Eastern Arabic speakers. It all started when leaders at Heritage Church changed how they were praying.
“Sometimes we pray, ‘God, bless what we’re doing,’ and he chooses to do that,” says Heritage Lead Pastor Jeff Forester. “And sometimes we pray, ‘God, let us do what you’re blessing,’ and he shows us what that is.”
The latter was the case when Heritage had developed a food pantry that was attracting Arabic-speaking Chaldeans (a term that usually refers to Iraqi Catholics)—but no one at the church could speak Arabic. “We began to pray, ‘God, we need somebody who can speak Arabic and who can help us reach these people.”
Enter Avdal Boktor, an Egyptian-born Arabic speaker trained in a Beirut seminary—and the answer to Heritage’s prayers. Avdal and his wife, Hiba, whose entire family came to Christ 20 years ago from a Muslim background, had heard from an Arab friend about Heritage Church’s food pantry.
Lead Pastor Jeff Forrester with Pastor Avdal Boktor. Avdal is now a full time staff member at Heritage Church with ministries at two of their campuses.
“My friend told us, ‘You can come and take food with us if you need food,’ ” says Avdal, who came to the U.S. with his wife under religious asylum from Egypt. “But I told him, ‘I don’t need food; I need people so I can reach them for Christ.’ ”
“I have a big heart for Arab people here. I know the language, I know the culture, and I know their mind.”
Avdal contacted Jeff and shared his vision for reaching Arabic-speaking Muslims. They spent hours discussing theology. With Michigan housing more than 1 million Arabic-speaking Middle Easterners and Avdal being a solid leader with a heart for that group, Heritage had its candidate to lead the charge.
“It was evident very quickly that Avdal was theologically sound and that he had a tremendous desire to lead people to Jesus,” Jeff says. “We prayed and said, ‘God, if you want us to reach this group of people—and we believe you do—send us the right person’…and he just arrived. God just sent us the right person at the right time.”
From Door-to-Door to Two Campuses
Avdal and Hiba began working at the food pantry, ministering to the Arabic-speaking community. They also took initiative to visit people in their homes. “Some people accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord when we would visit them,” Avdal says. Since 2012, the Boktors have knocked on 2,000 doors in the community and given away more than 1,000 Bibles. “Some people would let us in when we asked them about Jesus,” he says. “Others would close the door.”
Avdal served many hours at Heritage Church Pantry ministering to the Arabic-speaking community.
Avdal planned large outreach events for Easter 2014, with 300 Arabic speakers attending in one location, and 400 coming to the other location. More than 90 people—many of them Muslims—accepted Christ at the Easter gatherings. Avdal and Hiba lead a “small group” of new converts in their apartment—but that location would not last long.
“They had over 50 people meeting in their apartment, and the police showed up,” Jeff says. “They got in trouble for having too many people in there, so we began moving more quickly to get a larger place to meet.”
Cracking the Code on Islam
When Heritage leaders saw the success Avdal was having, they considered connecting him with a church-planting network and helping him plant an Arabic-speaking church. Instead, Heritage opted to launch two new Arabic-speaking campuses this year—one that will meet in a renovated 6,500 square-foot space in Heritage’s main building and the other in Madison Heights, about 25 minutes away. “We were already a multisite church, but now we’re adding multi-language to the mix!” Jeff comments.
Avdal came on the church’s staff in early fall 2014. By then he had about 100 families on his launch team. “The majority are brand new believers,” Jeff explains. “They are being discipled quickly through ‘on the job training’!”During his previous two years in the United States, Avdal and Hiba “lived by faith completely,” Jeff says. “God just keeps paying their bills and solving issues for them.”
Avdal says God has given him the keys to reaching Muslims, a religious group many consider very difficult to earn the trust of. Avdal finds that respect for Muslim people and their beliefs can open the door to a conversation about where they stand spiritually, and can help find common ground between Islam and Christianity.
For instance, according to Avdal, Muslims hold Jesus in high regard, as the holiest of all of God prophets. They believe he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died, was raised from the dead and will return to judge the world. The Quran—Islam’s scripture—speaks of Jesus over 100 times and even calls Him “the Word of God.” It tells Muslims to learn the Law of Moses, the teachings of David, and the Gospels. It calls Christians and Jews “People of the Book.” Most Muslims have a great interest in learning about Jesus, but have been taught to distrust the Christian narrative. Too often, Christians want to start off arguing about the theological differences between Christianity and Islam and argue about words before they genuinely introduce “the Word” to their Muslim friends. So, it isn’t theological arguments or intellectual persuasion that is turning the tide for the Muslims that Avdal is reaching. Avdal is showing Jesus to his Muslim friends before he tries to argue about Jesus. This approach is bearing much fruit.
Showing them Jesus’ love in practical ways is proving to be the clincher. “I show a man the love of Christ—not by talking,” says Avdal, who hosted a Christian radio and television program in Egypt. “Many people don’t have a car, so we ask if we can help drive you to something. If you need food, we can help. A man told me, ‘You are true religion.’ ”
While demonstrating the love of Jesus in practical ways, Avdal is also using the media. In July Avdal and Hiba hosted a three-night Hope for Arabs event from a Heritage Church campus, beaming it around the world on an Arabic-speaking satellite TV station and across the internet. “Our prayer was that a hundred people or more would accept Christ as Savior,” says Jeff.
Preaching Jesus, Even at the Movies
Avdal was recently attending the film “The Son of God,” when he and his friend noticed that every person in the theater was Middle Eastern. When the movie was over, Avdal stood up in the theater and began sharing the Gospel with the crowd—several people accepted Christ then and there.
“When he preaches the Gospel, people respond in tremendous ways,” Jeff affirms. “Partnering with him helps us become not only one church with many locations, but also one church with many cultures and many languages too.”
“If churches can figure out how to partner with the right person—an evangelist like this with a gentle, polite and respectful spirit who can speak the truth in love—God might use us to turn the Arabic-speaking community to Jesus,” Jeff says.
It sounds like that is already beginning to happen.
Resources to Help Show God’s Love to Muslim Friends
Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross, Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Baker, 2002.
The Changing Face of Islam in America: Understanding and Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor, Larry Poston with Carl F. Ellis, WingSpread, 2000.
Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women, Miriam Adeney, IVP, 2002.
Engaging Islam, Georges Houssney, Treeline, 2010.
The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence, Thabiti Anyabwile, Moody, 2010.
I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God, Bilquis Sheikh with Richard H. Schneider, Chosen, 2003.
Reaching Muslims: A One-Stop Guide for Christians, Nick Chatrath, Monarch, 2011.
Reaching Muslims for Christ, William Saal, Moody, 1993.
Reasoning from the Scriptures with Muslims, Ron Rhodes, Harvest House, 2002.
Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book, Mateen Elass, Zondervan, 2004.
What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an, James R. White, Bethany House, 2013.