Ethnic Realities and the Church
Lessons from Kurdistan
A history of mission work 1668-1990
Reviewed by Ian Downs
“Theories come and theories go, but here is a book which builds on solid, extensive grass-roots experience... The complexities which it reveals and yet handles deftly will defy the logic of any superficial approach.” Ralph D. Winter
“Don’t be confused,” states Ralph Winter, “This book may seem like just another case study of mission work within a large cluster of hard-to-reach peoples—the Kurds. Rather, it is a handbook of mission strategy, employing the fascinating details of a real people while illuminating many insights which are highly significant on a global level.” Winter continues:
"This book shows the way forward in a specific case, but does much more. In perusing its pages—sparkling with very candid and refreshing, daringly honest language—it is not difficult to realize very early that what is set forth here has pregnant implications for much of the rest of the work to be done elsewhere across the world, whether in the sphere of Islam or not."
And he’s right. Having worked in Kurdistan himself, Robert Blincoe writes this volume of history and missiology from a unique, firsthand vantage point.
Blincoe carefully chronicles over three hundred years of missions in Kurdistan. He is quick to point out that mission work which was actually aimed directly towards the Kurds is quite scarce. He writes, “In the 19th and 20th centuries, perhaps 200 missionaries lived in Kurdistan; few of these, however, spoke Kurdish or even had Kurdish acquaintances!” Instead, we find that the vast majority of missionaries adopted a plan which Blincoe has termed “The Great Experiment.”
This plan was fairly straightforward. Since there already existed a historical Christian presence among the Armenian and Nestorian minorities, missionaries deemed it more desirable and effective to work with these who were eagerly receptive to them. The ancient church revitalized could then reach out to its near neighbors, the Kurds. However, the plan on all accounts failed, and Blincoe gingerly lays down the complex tangle of issues surrounding its failure.
One of the main reasons for the failure was that the ancient Christian minorities did not want to take the Gospel to the Kurds. They would rather see the Kurds die because they had suffered under Kurdish oppression for so long. Another major cause was due to the constant political power struggles occurring in the Near East. Missionaries were perceived by Kurds as the advance guard of invading European and American nations, and their efforts to preserve culture and promote the minorities' languages inadvertently undermined the iron fist of the Ottoman Empire. Mission work was rendered almost entirely ineffective due to unshakable misunderstandings. Winter comments:
"But if 'ineffectiveness' is the remorseless pattern of the decades and centuries of the faith of Jesus Christ in the Islamic sphere, then why read the book in the first place? Ah, this remarkable book fairly bristles with insights about how to get beyond centuries-old misunderstandings and move forward effectively. While it does not set out to oppose today’s most widely held mission strategy—that of always working through the existing or 'national' church(es)—it does nevertheless quietly lay down imposing, absolutely insurmountable evidence that reveals even so widely accepted a philosophy of mission to be simplistic."
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lessons from Kurdistan was more that just a cold, methodical account of history and missiological findings. Instead, it was abundant with emotional stories of the many who comprise Kurdistan’s epic. Like reading an old chest full of missionary letters, this book was filled with scores of firsthand testimonies of missionaries, their families, and a handful of Kurdish converts. The reader is given a taste of the hardship, anxiety and persecution these valiant workers endured, as well as the thrill that Kurdish believers felt in their new relationship with the Savior.
Winter concludes, “It would be hard to imagine a work which teaches more effectively and does so in the context of the largest remaining bloc of non-Christians in the world—Islam.”