Mike Christian and his wife lead a small congregation called the Afghan-American Church of the Bay Area. But their main ministry is not gathering with a dozen or so Afghan believers during the week. It is engaging with the tens of thousands of Afghan seekers from around the world who reach out through messaging apps, social media, and online outlets.
Mike, who was born in Afghanistan and worked alongside the US military there, adopted the name “Mike Christian” after his conversion. It was a signal to fellow Afghans that they could speak with him if they were curious about Christianity. His popular Facebook page shares Bible verses and Christian messages in Dari alongside an invitation to get in touch.
The recent Taliban takeover has created a unique opportunity for some Afghan Muslims to rethink their faith, just as a massive influx of Afghan evacuees are fleeing to the United States for resettlement. It’s the younger generation, and especially the women, Mike says, who are most disenchanted with Islam, and most open to learning about the God of Christianity.
“We receive tons of text messages, emails, WhatsApp, and phone calls from Afghanistan,” Mike told CT in an interview. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t like Islam. We don’t want that kind of religion. We want to become a Christian. Please help us. Show us how we become a follower of Jesus.’”
“I just keep praying,” he says, “‘Lord, you have the power to change Afghan people—to join your church, to seek you and believe in you, to pray and repent.’’”
The couple fields hundreds of questions a day from curious Afghans, describing the good news to them and connecting new believers to nearby house churches. But they are also part of the global network of believers with Afghan connections, helping create resources for churches to better serve their Afghan neighbors—both here and abroad.
“I’m engaged with 30,000 Afghans now,” said Mike. “I don’t remember the Lord telling me to stop. The Lord’s mission is never stopped, so let’s keep going.”
When Mike was working with the military during the War in Afghanistan, he found himself in a dark place and struggling after a deadly mission. He had a series of dreams about Jesus, who called him by name to share the gospel with his people. After joining the underground house church movement, Mike endured intense persecution, multiple imprisonments, and brutal torture for his evangelism efforts before he was able to escape Afghanistan and make his way to the United States.
And although most of the people he engages with are still in Afghanistan, there are a number who live in the US or who are in the process of being resettled here and abroad.
More than 66,000 Afghans call California home, and more evacuees will be resettled there than any other state. The highest concentration of Afghan Americans—some who have been in the US for decades, and some more recent arrivals—live the Bay Area, including in dense clusters of apartment housing around a Fremont neighborhood known as “Little Kabul.”
When the Afghan crisis began, Compassion Network, a group of over 50 pastors and churches around Fremont, began to meet and mobilize. An arm of the local ministry CityServe, they have joined hands to not only welcome incoming Afghan families, but to prepare the existing Afghan community to absorb these new arrivals.
One of the pastors in the network is Sam Knottnerus. Just a couple years ago, he attended a regional gathering of his family of churches, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church’s Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest. At the meeting, they began a campaign to give and pray specifically for the Pashtun people, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and one of the largest unreached groups in the world.
After that meeting, Knottnerus said the Lord whispered in his ear, saying he would play a role in serving the Pashtun people. At the time, he was a family pastor in Pasadena. “I told my wife, ‘I’m just saying this out loud so I’ve said it,’” he said. “I don’t know what it means. I don’t know anything about them.”
A few months later, a Presbyterian church in Fremont asked him to apply to become its lead pastor. He discovered its campus was located in Centerville, only a few minutes from Little Kabul. Knottnerus began leading the church—CPC Fremont—in 2020, as it was still navigating COVID-19, unaware of the further challenges ahead as their region now begins to receive and resettle the largest share of Afghan evacuees in the US.
For Knottnerus, it was a steep learning curve to go from knowing nothing about Afghan people to serving as a pastor in the heart of the nation’s largest Afghan community. But he was soon connected to the global network of believers who have experience working with Afghans—from expat consultants and cultural experts, overseas missionaries, and NGO workers to Afghan Christians like Mike—who have curated a pool of shared resources.
He discovered basic things about how to engage with Afghan people in a culturally sensitive way—from keeping men’s and women’s activities separate to not signaling disrespect for the Word of God by placing a Bible on the floor. “Like, don’t serve hot dogs and pepperoni pizza or barbeque pork at your neighborhood cookout,” Knottnerus said.
But experts in engaging with Afghan Muslims see faith conversations as most appropriate within the context of a trusted relationship. Traditional evangelism is almost always seen as premature and ineffective when first approaching Afghan Muslims, particularly those who have just arrived in the US.
“A lot of them have come out of various oppressive religious climates, so they’re religiously abused or traumatized,” says Anthony Roberts, another Christian field expert on Afghan culture, who uses a pen name to write about the history of Christianity in Afghanistan.
“Even though they’re attracted to Jesus and this new faith, it’s still difficult for them to want to engage, because they might be pushed into a situation where they’re going to be re-traumatized by a new system.”
‘God has brought them to us’
National groups like World Relief as well as local leaders have emphasized how the wave of Afghan resettlement represents an unprecedented opportunity to serve Afghans who may otherwise have little to no exposure to Christian witness.
“What we’re seeing now—it’s surreal, it really is,” said John, a ministry worker. “I mean, we spent years—we went over there, learned their language, developed relationships, went deep into their world—and now God has brought them to us in this season.”
A former expat who’s worked with Afghans since 1985 and holds a PhD in Afghan studies, John asked not to use his full name to preserve his nonprofit’s access. Right now, he is working with an NGO at one of the eight US military bases designated to temporarily house Afghan evacuees, where they wait to complete vetting, biometrics, vaccinations, and other processes before being sent to their respective resettlement locations. Over 50,000 arrivals are staying on these US bases, many of which are located along the eastern seaboard, and a few thousand more being hosted in bases overseas.
There are a number of faith-based organizations among the nonprofits helping care for evacuated families on base, including Samaritan’s Purse—which is facilitating a distribution of donations collected from local churches across the country.
Because of his extensive knowledge of Afghan culture and language, John’s role is to provide orientation for the evacuees—to help them understand differences between Afghan and American culture, religion, and government, and to prepare them for potential obstacles they are likely to face while adjusting to society in the States.
He gets the most questions about American values like justice, equality, and freedom—especially freedom of religion and freedom for women. After one class recently, a man came up to thank John for his talk, and then proceeded to offer him an invitation to convert and become a Muslim. As the man shared about the Qur’an and the story of Muhammad, John listened patiently before responding.
“I paused and I said, ‘Thank you for telling me that. I know you care. You are saying this as a sincere man because you have your faith, and your faith is important to you,’” John said.
The conversation also led to an opportunity for John to share about his own religious beliefs. “He had many questions, but our conversation was in a spirit of love and respect—and that’s critical when we exchange views of faith,” he said. “I’m trying to model something for him. I told him, ‘You are free here. You can become a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Christian.’”
He says most Afghan Muslims are actually quite open to talking about other holy books, including the Bible, because they are devout people for whom God is real and present in the world. Muslims believe in a number of other holy figures from other religions—including Jesus, who’s revered as a prophet.
“God is part of their worldview, so they respect and understand people who have room for a sovereign God. They listen to us, and we make a connection point at that,” John said. “Although we both believe in one God—the question is what is God like, and how do we know.”
For those who want to engage Afghan Muslims, leaders recommended books like Loving Your Muslim Neighbor, and for Muslim seekers themselves, What is Christianity,” translated from the English one, Beliefs And Practices Of Christians: A Letter To A Friend, by William Miller.
There are a number of basic misconceptions Muslims have about Christianity, such as that they believe in three gods rather than one triune God, or that Jesus is God’s son in a physical sense, rather than a spiritual one—and they resist the idea that Christ would die.
“There are gaps in their understanding, so it will take Christians willing to converse in a friendly way,” says John. “We want them to meet true Christians who will not argue—you can’t argue a Muslim to faith,” he says. Believers should be willing to listen, learn, and discuss but know that at the end of the day “God is the one who changes hearts.”
Mike says he will engage with some people regularly for months, while others take years before they feel comfortable to take any tangible steps toward following Jesus. And for the most part, all he does is share his own testimony and answer their many questions.
“They’re asking a lot about Christianity and about Islam,” Mike says. “‘Why did you become a Christian? What’s the reason you accept Jesus? What do you think about Islam—why did you leave Islam and become a follower of Christ?’”
And for Mike, it all comes back to his experience after that deadly mission in 2007, when he returned to his room that day and began to struggle with questions about his faith.
“Why do Afghans fight with each other?” he recalls thinking. “If they’re called Muslim [Arabic for “one who submits” to God] and our religion is known as a peaceful religion, why are they fighting with each other?”
He remembers reading the Bible for the first time shortly after that, opening up a passage in Matthew where Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. “I just felt something so clean in my inside—I felt more peace and love in that time,” he said. “It made me very excited.”
Today, he is praying for every member of dozens of underground house churches who are still stuck in Afghanistan—and he yearns for his own family, who are also considered targets for being moderate and educated Muslims, to eventually join him here in the US.
“They’re in a very bad situation—there’s no way to get out,” Mike says. “But we just keep praying to the Lord, who has the power to protect all his children, and my family, and all these people in Afghanistan.”
Witness through welcome
Narges Mahdi, who is one of very few second-generation Afghan believers, says that at the end of the day, one of the best ways American Christians can be good witnesses to Afghan Muslims is by accepting them into the country as they are, despite their differences.
“We were not welcomed in Afghanistan, or Afghan culture in general, because we were not Muslim,” Mahdi says. “But for Christians [in America], that shouldn’t be the problem.”
Beyond being persecuted for converting from Islam to Christianity, Mahdi and her parents are also members of the Hazara people, an oppressed ethnic and religious minority group (as Shia Muslims in a Sunni Muslim nation), which, unlike the plurality Pashtuns, are identified by their more Asiatic features. Most Afghan Christian converts are Hazara.
“Christianity is about opening the door for somebody that doesn’t look like you. That’s what my faith has taught me,” Mahdi said. “How you serve people will tell the difference between what it’s like to be a Muslim, and what it’s like to be a Christian.”
Mahdi came to study in the US with a student visa, and she is now going through the asylum process to stay here—while her parents sought asylum in Turkey and applied for refugee status in 2016. They are currently leading a house church there, among other displaced Afghans, while they await approval for resettlement to join Mahdi in America.
“Advocate for Afghan Christians, because they will be killed first. But don’t stop there,” Mahdi said. “Advocate for those who are not Christians—for families that you don’t necessarily agree with, but because their life matters. That’s what Jesus did for us, so that’s what I want to do for people.”