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February 1, 2017

J. Christy Wilson, Jr. and His Impact on World Evangelization

Christy Wilson's first contact with missions came even before his first words, his first steps, or his first friendships. His childhood home in Persia (now known as Iran) was a perpetual showcase displaying God's heart for missions. His parents served as missionaries in Tabriz for two decades, and Christy's heart for God and for missions quickly grew.

When Christy was just five years old, Rev. Stefan Huviar, a beloved Nestorian evangelical pastor who labored alongside Christy's father in Tabriz, asked Christy what he wanted to do when he grew up. Christy had frequently heard his parents praying for Afghanistan, an unreached country to the east. He knew that this country, approximately the size of Texas, didn't have even one Christian.

"I want to be a missionary to Afghanistan," Christy informed Pastor Huviar. "Well," the pastor responded, "missionaries aren't allowed in Afghanistan." "That's why I want to be one there," Christy immediately replied. And that is exactly what Christy did for more than two decades.

Christy-Wilson-book-coverBilly Graham once noted, "J. Christy Wilson will go down in history as one of the great and courageous missionaries for the gospel in the twentieth century." Among many other things, he helped launch what became the triennial Urbana missions conference; pioneered Christian work in Afghanistan when others thought it impossible (entering the country as one of only a few Christians in a nation of approximately twelve million Muslims); taught private English lessons to the crown prince of Afghanistan; founded a mission that remains fruitful to this day; reintroduced the biblical idea of leveraging one's profession for the kingdom of God with the term "tentmaking;" and faced danger on numerous occasions.

The Princeton Years

When he was fourteen years old, his mother and three siblings returned to the United States while his father remained in Persia for three more years. Christy enrolled at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, graduating as valedictorian. He then began his studies at Princeton University, where he was captain of the varsity track team, and then graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, as well.

During Christy's first weeks at Princeton, a classmate invited him to a prayer meeting of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship (PEF), held in one of the dormitory rooms. Donald Fullerton, an alumnus from the class of 1912, taught the PEF Bible class on Sunday afternoons and invested greatly in Christy's life. The men in PEF recruited Christy to help distribute copies of the Gospel of John to the entire freshman class. Christy was embarrassed at first, since the recipients were his own classmates.

However, he would later be grateful that he had persisted in the work. Twenty-six of his classmates were to die in World War II.

Also during his freshman year at Princeton, he was introduced to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Stacey Woods, the first secretary-general of InterVarsity/USA, went to great lengths to share his vision for student evangelism with Christy, recognizing his Christian maturity and potential.

The First Urbana Missions' Conference

An influential IVCF board member had been urging Woods to find someone from an Ivy League college to serve on staff. In September 1943, Christy became that person. He initially joined staff on a part-time basis, working with InterVarsity on weekends while still a student at Princeton. During his initial years with the ministry, he was responsible for visiting college campuses throughout New York and New England. His task was simply to pass along his passion for missions to other college students.

In 1944, Christy attended a Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) convention in Wooster, Ohio. John R. Mott's address at the convention left a lasting imprint on young Christy. Mott concluded his talk by saying, "Young people, to find Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord is the most important thing you can do." After listening to Mott share his story and watching as his heart was breaking over the lack of spiritual vitality in SVM, seeds for a new missions' conference germinated within Christy's mind.

Christy traveled throughout the United States and Canada for two years, planting his passion for missions within other college students. Finally, on Friday, December 27, 1946, the first IVCF missions' conference began. Approximately 52 denominations were represented by 576 students from 151 colleges, universities, and seminaries.

Long after the conference concluded on January 2, Stacey Woods observed that over half of the participants had actually gone to the foreign mission field (including Jim Elliot, David Howard, and Ralph Winter), with the other half actively supporting missions from home.

The triennial Urbana missions' conference continues to this day. It has grown to become the largest student missions' conference in the world, and through it, God has challenged more than 250,000 participants with the responsibility and privilege of taking part in world missions.

Entering a Forbidden Land

Throughout Christy's four years with IVCF, his passion to find a way into Afghanistan never diminished or wavered. Shortly after the first IVCF missions' conference, Christy learned of a posting on the bulletin board at Columbia Teachers College in New York stating that teachers were wanted in Afghanistan. Although his friends tried to dissuade him, saying that going to such a closed country would be foolish, he applied for the position. Hearing no reply for several months, Christy made alternate plans to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

WIlson-chapt6The very day he boarded the Queen Elizabeth to sail for Scotland, a letter arrived at his home asking him to come to Washington, D.C., for an interview. The letter was forwarded to Christy in Scotland, and he promptly replied, "I am now working on a doctorate, but would be more than willing to interrupt my studies if you want me to go to Afghanistan."

The reply stated, "There is no need for you to return to the States for an interview. We have had enough applications. Continue your studies and reapply after you have earned your degree."

Christy was disappointed. However, that first delay allowed him to earn his doctorate in Islamic studies, and the knowledge he gained during his two years in Edinburgh proved valuable during the twenty-two years he would spend ministering in Afghanistan.

Eventually, after four more years beset by several more setbacks, Christy and his new bride, Betty, set foot on Afghan soil in the summer of 1951, having been invited by the Afghan minister of education to teach English in Kabul. No businessman, no explorer, no tourist, and certainly no missionary was allowed in Afghanistan. The country was a no-man's-land with a strict "no trespassing" policy. But now Christy found himself standing on soil where few Christian witnesses had ever stood before.

As the years passed, Christy soon found himself in several new roles, including serving as personal tutor to Afghanistan's crown prince and pastoring the international community in Kabul.

Pastoring the Only Church In Afghanistan

While Christy taught English to Afghans, they in turn taught him some of their treasured proverbs. One of them was Du tarbuz da yak dest gerefta na mesha.

An English translation might read, "Two watermelons can't be held in one hand," meaning that if you have too many preoccupations, you will succeed at none of them.

Christy experienced this pearl of wisdom firsthand as he sought to balance his teaching assignment and additional pastoral roles.

Christy sensed the Lord guiding him to devote his full-time energies to pastoring, and in late 1952, he and other teachers planted the Community Christian Church of Kabul (CCCK) for the foreign community. Christy was formally chosen as their first pastor, and they initially met in the Wilsons' home before a building could be constructed many years later.

Christy and the people of CCCK ministered to ambassadors and their families, to hippies traveling through Kabul, and to many students. One day, after several hippies had become Christ-followers, a very diverse group of believers lined the edge of a nearby lake, standing in wonderment, many crying softly, and all sensing a powerful unity of God's Spirit. Suddenly, one of the CCCK members broke the silence, noting to the person standing next to him, "Do you realize that this is the first public baptism to have been held in Afghanistan for over one thousand years?"

On another occasion, after a travelling musical group had completed a triumphant tour in Afghanistan, Christy drove the young musicians to an unconventional tour site: the only cemetery in Afghanistan where "infidels" could be buried. Stopping at the first gravestone, one that was worn with age, Christy explained, "This man worked here thirty years translating the Bible into the Afghan language. Not a single convert. And in this grave next to him lies the man who replaced him, along with his children who died here."

Strolling among the gravestones, Christy told story after story about the early Christian workers in Afghanistan. The group leader later recalled, "It was one of the great moments of my life. I watched their faces as it suddenly dawned on these exuberant American teenagers that the amazing spiritual awakening they had witnessed was but the last step in a long line of faithful service stretching back over many decades."

A Church Building Destroyed, A Government Overthrown

Finally, after Christy had been ministering in Afghanistan for 18 years, CCCK was permitted to build the only Christian church building on neutral soil in Afghanistan, constructed following a personal assist from President Eisenhower. The Afghan government permitted this place of worship only for use among the foreign community; it was never to be used by the Afghan people.

One Sunday morning, only three years after the sanctuary's dedication, soldiers arrived and began to hack away at the wall between the street and the church building.

One gentleman in the congregation went to Kabul's mayor and prophetically warned, "If your government touches that house of God, God will overthrow your government!" The mayor responded by ordering the congregation to turn over their church for destruction, thereby eliminating the need for the Afghan government to pay compensation.

"This building does not belong to us, but to God," the people of the church replied. "We can't turn it over for destruction." And they proceeded to serve tea and cookies to the soldiers who were destroying their place of worship.

Rumors had reached the Afghan secret police that an "underground church" existed in Afghanistan. Therefore, while the workers demolished the church building, they carefully dug twelve feet below its foundation in search of this secret subsurface sanctuary—but to no avail.

Before long, Christy Wilson was declared persona non grata by the Afghan government. Students were becoming followers of Christ, and certain Afghan officials were determined to rid themselves of the corrupting influence who was behind all of this. Eventually, on March 24, 1973, Christy and Betty Wilson departed Afghanistan, each carrying only a suitcase of personal belongings. They were leaving the land in which they had lived and ministered for twenty-two years. As they made their way to the airplane, Christy shook the dust from his feet.

Just four months later, on Tuesday, July 17, 1973, the Afghan soldiers completed their destruction of the church building. That very night, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had ruled for forty years, was overthrown in a coup, and the 227-year-old monarchy in Afghanistan came to an end forever. When Christy heard the news, he fell to the floor and wept.

Christy spent the following two decades serving as professor of world evangelization at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. His former students' remembrances of Christy are remarkably consistent: he would pray with you anytime and anyplace; he knew your name long before you knew his; he loved to tell stories of what God is doing throughout the world; he had a contagious smile and an infectious laugh; and he gave them a picture of what it looks like to be a lover of Christ.

The ripple effect of his life continues to spread to people, ethnic groups, and nations throughout the world. His life continues to grow God's kingdom and to reveal the splendor of the God he loved so much and served so well. 

This article is adapted from a new biography of Christy Wilson entitled Where No One Has Heard, written by Ken Wilson (no relation) and published by William Carey Library. The book is available at www.missionbooks.org.
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