Church tells the story of Jesus to Sudanese

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DALLAS—It’s the stories people remember. Dad’s most embarrassing high school moment, a favorite birthday memory—tales that weave a rich past of personal and relational histories. With each retelling, moments come alive once again.

Tim Ahlen, pastor of Forest Meadow Baptist Church in Dallas, enjoys time with children in Sudan. (Photos courtesy of Forest Meadow Baptist Church, Dallas)

In largely illiterate cultures, like many in Southern Sudan, storytelling preserves hundreds of years of history for people groups dependent on oral records. It also gives missionaries a gateway to share the gospel.

“When I was young, everything was in stories,” Sudanese pastor Edwin Makola recalled.

“The International Mission Board … and the larger evangelical community … discovered that orality was a good idea, to go back to Jesus’ day. He taught in parables. … It’s the right thing to do in Southern Sudan.”

Makola arrived in the States 13 years ago from Africa as a refugee from Sudan. He now serves as pastor to a Sudanese congregation in Dallas with Forest Meadow Baptist Church, which houses four different ethnic congregations—Anglo, Hispanic, Sudanese and Zambian.

Three Sudanese young men professed their faith in Jesus Christ when they were stranded under a tent with a group of missionaries. The missionaries shared their faith, and the young men made their commitment to Christ.

Forest Meadow Pastor Tim Ahlen has taken groups to Southern Sudan for four years to evangelize, but he uses a different kind of preaching than in a typical Texas Baptist church.

“Expository preaching is meaningless to (the Sudanese). They walk away with the stories and the illustrations—what they understand,” Ahlen said.

As Texas Great Commission Initiative coordinator, Ahlen works to create awareness among missionaries about how worldview affects a person’s reception of the gospel. The Texas Great Commission Initiative—a collaborative effort involving Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Tarrant and Union Baptist associations—exists to equip church leaders for effective mission work.

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“Storying”—Ahlen’s chosen method for reaching illiterate people groups—incorporates as many as 50 Bible stories told in chronological order to create a holistic picture of God and his faithfulness.

Church member Lori Hoxie liked the storying method when she went to Sudan with Forest Meadow.

A young Sudanese girl helps her family and village by pounding grain.

“We picked the ones we thought were the most appropriate for the culture. We did it at different times during the day, whenever they were available. You tell the stories, and then you ask questions about it to see if they got the facts straight, to see if they know what’s going on,” Hoxie explained.

“It’s a totally oral culture, so telling stories, that’s how they learn.”

Foreign missionaries have been using storying for years, Ahlen clarified, but he wants to see it used in the Western world as well. He currently works with Makola to apply it in ministry with Forest Meadow’s Sudanese congregation.

Makola arrived from Africa trained in expository preaching. But to become a better minister to Sudanese in the Dallas area, he attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for a few weeks to learn storying.

The alternate method helps Makola communicate the gospel more effectively to people from his own culture, Ahlen said.

“The culture is a storying culture. When Makola got brave enough to start telling stories, people would tell him they had never heard preaching with such power,” Ahlen insisted.

But why would Makola have to come to the United States before learning culturally appropriate teaching styles?

The reason stems in part from a long history of Western colonization in Africa, Ahlen said. Many Sudanese Christians think expository preaching is the only correct way to spread the gospel, which speaks to widespread association in Sudan of Christianity with Western tradition.

Visitors from Texas encounter a busy marketplace in Rumbek, Sudan.

This bias creates negativity towards other, more local methods of evangelism—like storying. Many Sudanese pastors in America are ridiculed by their congregations for using storying, and Sudanese missionaries often opt against using the storying method in their own country.

“They don’t want to go back to Southern Sudan to tell stories; they want to go back to preach,” Makola said.

It’s a struggle to convince Sudanese people, once in the United States, to return for ministry in Sudan because of the tough conditions they would face there, Makola said.

Having just left “a mess … of poverty and torture,” most would rather stay in the United States, he speculates.

“One of the most difficult jobs in the world is to be a pastor to the Sudanese,” Makola said.

Pastors do not receive payment in Southern Sudan, where most people hold the mentality, “‘we don’t take care of our leaders; they take care of us,’” Ahlen quoted.

An elderly Sudanese woman rests by a tree.

“(The Sudanese in the United States) say they care deeply, but they won’t give a dime to go help. They expect the American church to do it for them.”

Navigating cultural mores in-transition also complicates ministry to Sudanese in the United States.

“The Sudanese people in particular—they feel they have left that Third World background there. They are trying to cross over to the world they call civilized and leave behind the old systems, to shake them off,” Makola said.

Acculturation presents problems, Ahlen said, when values systems clash, especially with first-generation Sudanese Americans. Children often grieve parents as they embrace American culture at the expense of their parents’ traditions, he said.

But despite frustration, Forest Meadow’s Sudanese ministry—focused on evangelism and church planting—has been fruitful.

Around 90 attend regular Sunday services, Makola said. Special occasions, like Christmas, attract as many as 800.

Besides services at Forest Meadow, Makola and other willing church members hold house-to-house services, or “prayers.” They attend to people under stress by praying, singing, and studying the Bible together in their homes.

“When you come together and put your hands on your brother, the weight becomes less. We leave you with a happiness,” Makola said.

Regarding evangelism in Southern Sudan, Makola said he’s optimistic.

“It’s like water upon the sand. … You don’t see it at first, but slowly the sand becomes soaked. That’s how the gospel works in people’s lives. Time will come—you will see a change.”

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