Turkish pastor Zekai Tanyar is a former chair of the Evangelical Alliance in his country. In the second half of a two-part interview he describes how churches seek to support new believers in Christ through the pain and disruption this often brings to families.
Can you describe the journeys of people in your church to overcome these stigmas in coming to faith?
Generally it’s easier for the men: they can stick their necks out more whereas in these conservative societies the woman is under the jurisdiction of the father or older brother. Very often people will not rush home and tell. Initially, they will keep it quiet and make excuses why they are going out on a Sunday. Then sometimes they will quote from the Bible in a conversation to hint at what’s happened [to them]. Those who are more courageous, for example, the husband, might say “Hey, I’m reading this or I’m researching this.”
Then we encourage them gradually to let the family see the changes in their lives and their love. I think of one case of a man who’s now very active in church life: he’s a church leader. His whole behaviour towards his wife changed. He was a rough character in how he related to her. His wife was very much against his converting. We try to meet the family and show their son or daughter isn’t getting involved in some weird, scary group. We asked her, “Do you want him to go back to his old ways?” She said, “No, no, no, he’s a nice man now: he’s a good husband and father, he doesn’t beat me, but does he have to be a Christian to do that?” That’s how people think, but in time she also became a believer.
There are sons and daughters who are threatened or thrown out by their families. In some situations they aren’t allowed to attend any church or meet with believers. We’ve had one or two cases where girls are studying at university and the family has stopped their education for a while because they feared they couldn’t control who they mixed with.
There’s always that initial strong reaction and it’s a case of remaining faithful to the Lord and showing love towards the family. It’s not easy. Families hurt and our aim is not to hurt our families so it’s a hard thing to balance. It’s a case of going slowly and praying that their hearts will change. Sometimes their hearts soften, sometimes they don’t. There are cases where the family even after 30, 40 years will not talk to them. Sometimes parents will say “You are no longer my child”. At other times – these are few and far between –the parents are OK and accept it.
What was the reaction of your own family?
In my own family I had a few New Testaments ripped up and thrown out. Often times families won’t sit and talk with you and try to convince you or ask what’s there that isn’t in your own religion. It’s an issue of “What shame you have brought to us”. You are seen as a traitor now to the whole family and to the nation because of your whole identity. That’s the issue – what are we going to tell the family, the relatives. It’s not an issue of “Oh my goodness, you will go to hell now.” Often times people don’t know very much of their own beliefs. These are shame-based cultures and your identity is as a Muslim and a Turk. You can’t tear those apart.
This is despite Turkey officially being a secular state?
I had Turkish friends at university who were atheists or ardent Communists and Maoists and yet when they found out I had become a follower of Christ, they said, “But we are Turks, we are Muslims!” I said, “But you swear at God, you don’t believe in him and you say so yourselves.” It’s a gut thing.
So the challenges in a Turkish church are more manifold than in the typical UK congregation.
I’m not an expert on the UK but you have your challenges especially for young people and the way the media is aggressively anti-faith. But whether you’re in the East or the West the real issue is “Is your God real?” That should be the challenge for any conversation. “OK, you’re telling me this but is it real?”
Are people looking for that reality?
Like in any society, there are some who seek, some who don’t but I would say so, that it’s a universal quest. Of course materialism is very powerful, but when we’ve asked people what was it that made you take this step, they will always say the love of the people, the love of God. That’s the deep need of man – to be loved. Some of the walls we have – of getting to a person’s heart with the Gospel – are the same as those that exist anywhere in the world but some of them are maybe different or extra thick: our history, these identity issues, these societies are much more communal.
What does your ministry consist of?
I was chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Turkey but I also pastored a church for 30 years. Now it is being looked after by three people. But ministry consists of sensitive evangelism, building people in their faith, helping people to understand that the Gospel and the values of God are different to those they may have come with, helping them to rethink their attitudes to daily issues whether it’s work, school, marriage.
It’s that whole thing in Romans 12 of renewing your mind, but we’re coming to people from a society that hasn’t had centuries of Christian input. So the Church is there to help, to weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to make sure we become a family of believers and not just churchgoers. People who come to Christ are losing a lot of their family so it’s seeing that they are brought into God’s love.
Read the first part of our interview in which Zekai discusses how Turkey’s Protestant churches are caring for refugees and healing relationships with Armenians in Turkey and the diaspora.
In 2014, SAT-7 TÜRK filmed the testimonies of a number of Turkish believers. Here is a trailer from their Testimonies show.