The Baptist movement in Lebanon started in 1893 with one person – Sa’eed Jureidini, a photographer – who on a trip to the United States visited Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, where he came to know Christ as his personal savior and was baptized. Upon his return to Lebanon, and while resuming his work in downtown Beirut, he immediately set out to share with others the Lord’s transformational work in his life.
In 1895, a delegation from Third Baptist Church visited Lebanon and ordained Sa’eed the first Baptist pastor in Lebanon. That same day, Sa’eed baptized eight new born-again believers and so founded the first Baptist congregation on Lebanese soil in Beirut.
In 1920, and following the drastic consequences of World War I, Baptist delegates from the United States, Canada and Europe specifically delegated to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board (FMB) the responsibility of supporting the growing Baptist movements in the region, including Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. The FMB sent several couples to work in the Near East. This boosted the Baptist ministry in Lebanon, and a number of key people became believers. Their names are written in history as well as on the palm of the Creator’s hand. They were led by the Spirit of God to be Baptist pioneers and they spread the gospel all over the country.
With God’s grace, the freedom of worship that Lebanon continues to enjoy today as well as its strategic geographic location as a gateway to the Arab world enabled our country to take the lead on Baptist ministry in the Middle East.
In 1948, Finlay Graham and his wife, Julia, came to Lebanon from Palestine. In 1960, and in response to identified needs, the Grahams founded the Beirut Baptist School and the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), followed by the Baptist Publications – known today as Dar Manhal Al Hayat (Source of Life) publishing house.
In 1998, the Southern Baptists handed over all three ministries to what is known today as the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), or the Lebanese Baptist Society, a locally founded body that with God’s grace and guidance took each of these ministries to yet another level of service with the purpose of “empowering the church in the Arab world through social and educational development.”
As the LSESD, we feel that God has placed us in a position of leadership in the Middle East/North Africa region, and we are responsible to Him to influence upcoming generations to commit their futures to Kingdom work. And indeed we set out to do so in partnership with the global Baptist and evangelical body of Christ.
As a result, today the ABTS has become a missional educational movement, seeking to expand and impact local and regional communities. Our students come from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and others.
With a mandate to “bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and the West,” ABTS’ Institute of Middle East Studies, since its initiation five years ago, has held annual Middle East conferences that challenge its attendees – Arabs and Westerners – with new missional and missiological approaches that are more effective and more sensitive to our context. Another ABTS ministry is the Educational Ministries Resource Center, the purpose of which is to “provide human and material resources for facilitating excellence in strategic educational ministry in the Middle East and beyond.”
In response to the dire need for Arabic language Christian resources, LSESD’s Dar Manhal Al Hayat (DMAH) publishing house pursues a mission to make available and accessible such resources through translations and local writings. More than 40 new books have been published in the last four years – and many others are currently in process. DMAH partners with ABTS in the publishing of much needed theological resources in the Arabic language. Moreover, the GateWay Bookstore was established in November 2008 as an outlet to facilitate access to these resources in Lebanon. DMAH partners with Arab publishing houses and ministries to render its Christian resources available for the wider Arab public.
LSESD’s Beirut Baptist School (BBS) continues to be a unique platform for Christian witness with more than 92 percent of its students from a non-Christian background. The high level of education remains an effective incentive for families to enroll their children at BBS despite its Christian identity and ethos. Hence, the lives of BBS’ student body of around 1,300 (and through them their families and a larger community) are touched by the weekly chapel and Bible study classes – more so since at BBS equal attention is given to both the academic and the spiritual tracks.
In response to identified needs, the LSESD has recently founded two new ministries: community relief and development and the Baptist Children and Youth Ministry that focuses on the empowerment of local children and youth ministries – holding camps for children in partnership with Western churches, and capacity building conferences for youth leaders.
We have learned to look at our challenges as opportunities. As such, though we – as Arab Christians – and as Baptists – are a minority, our role is to be salt and light in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, striving through our lives and through platforms for Christian witness and ministry to reflect the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Nabil K. Costa is executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational & Social Development and the Middle East representative for the European Baptist Federation. This column appeared previously in the April-June 2009 issue of Baptist World, a quarterly publication of the Baptist World Alliance. Click here to subscribe.