To say that Ramez Atallah has learned to lead creatively and courageously in a land where Christians are being increasingly marginalized and attacked by the dominant Muslims may be an understatement.
Having ministered for more than 30 years in Egypt where Coptic Christians make up only about 10 percent of the country, Atallah remains one of the few Protestants that the Orthodox Church has accepted into their community, bridging the gap not only among Egyptian Christians but also among the Muslims, the West and the Middle East as well.
The general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt joined the panel of speakers at the annual Desiring God Pastors Conference this week in Minneapolis, where he spoke of his personal testimony and advised pastors from all over the world on ways they could lead their ministries with vision, creativity and trust during times of difficulty.
"We have a sense that what God has called us to is fulfillment," Atallah, also the honorary president of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, shared on Wednesday. "And most of us want to be fulfilled. We want a church or a ministry that can best use our gifts."
"But I want to submit to you that this is unbiblical. God has never promised that He's going to put you in a place where you can use all your gifts ... God calls you to a mission, puts you in responsibility, then He wants you to develop any gifts you have that may serve that responsibility."
The former director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada admonished believers not to go after gifts, which was the trap of the devil, but God's mission and calling. "This is Paul's reminder: You are obligated, eager to share the Gospel, and never be ashamed because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes."
Atallah himself did not believe that administration was his particular gift or calling. The Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary graduate shared that he would rather be teaching the Bible than directing 250 employees at his Bible Society, passionate about training Coptic Christians in the inductive study of God's word, which he did for several years after returning to his home country in 1980.
Previously, Atallah, who is also the program chair for the Lausanne III World Congress, lived in Canada for 18 years before he had the vision from God to return to Egypt.
He and his family had escaped to Quebec when the Egyptian government began nationalizing big businesses, of which his grandfather had many.
His grandfather had chosen Atallah to be the heir of his companies, having no sons of his own. When he was only 5 years old, he was dragged to factories, exploring the textile and transport businesses his grandfather hoped to hand down to him one day. His entire life was charted out for him at a young age, giving him no other options.
In 1959, however, everything changed when his grandfather was told that his companies would be nationalized, meaning that the government would take over his businesses and pay him $200 to run them for the socialist government. Unwilling to work under the conditions, his grandfather escaped penniless to Canada.
Atallah was smuggled to Canada soon after finishing his last year of high school, joining his grandfather who later died from a heart attack.
It was there in Canada he came to know Christ through a local church and grew his faith as a student at McGill University involved in InterVarsity.
"On August 19th, at an evangelistic meeting at a church, I stood up and made the decision that transformed my life," he recalled.
"Though I had been to church all my life I had not known the wonder of the Gospel. When I came to understand the Gospel for the first time, I knew that this was what my people needed. I knew nothing, but that's what I wanted to do. I was determined that I would go back some day."
Eighteen years later, after having married his American wife Rebecca, a missionary's daughter, he chose to leave to Egypt with his family. The decision was a very difficult one because by that time Atallah had become a "known personality" in Canada, serving in the Lausanne Committee and leading InterVarsity as well.
"I went to Egypt and I was a nobody. It was very hard," he described. "I was there as a student worker."
While he was back in his homeland, the Lord led him to think of an idea to pioneer inductive Bible studies, a non-threatening way to approach the Orthodox Church which was skeptical of his desire to help the church, believing he only wanted to implement his own programs.
"So I would come with no textbooks, no nothing. We would just observe the text, understand and apply. Seemed innocuous and couldn't do much harm doing that and I said I only needed a few weeks."
Training Christians to read the Word in that way eventually led to his appointment to teach the sharpest young Orthodox leaders of the Coptic Church, where he gained the nickname "Ramez Bible Study" and earned the trust of the bishop.
It also gave him the opportunity to work with the Bible Society of Egypt, where he was appointed as the director in 1990. With differing opinions and stubborn personalities, Atallah remembered praying for an earthquake so that he could execute a few of his plans, which to his surprise, actually occurred in 1992.
"As I was driving home and saw devastation in Cairo the first idea I had was to make a tract that we would share across the country. We got that idea from the university where the first thing they would do when devastation occurred was make tracts."
Creating 300,000 tracts that shared the Gospel message, Atallah and his staff distributed the Good News to all the pastors they knew. One side of the tract displayed newspaper clippings, which told a story: "But for the grace of God Cairo would have destroyed." The other side showed a study of earthquakes and also relayed Paul and Silas' words, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you'll be saved."
"So earthquakes are supposed to make you want to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved," Atallah lightly told the audience.
After the tracts had been created, bookstores were also built housing Christian literature that was "completely biblical," not "smelling Orthodox, Protestant, and etc." All of the writing was generically Christian.
Because they lived in a mostly Muslim country, there were many limitations and restrictions to their work. Every piece of literature they created had to be passed by a censor and they were forbidden from handing out Scriptures for free to the public.
Getting creative, Atallah decided to sell the Scriptures instead, which was not considered proselytizing by the government and sold thousands across the country for only 17 cents as a result.
Additionally, since they were not allowed to proselytize, they decided to advertise. When the free market entered the country, the Bible Society began running ads promoting Bibles, audio Scriptures, and Jesus films. It was a "dream come true" to see billboards on the busiest highways in Egypt featuring pictures of Bibles and promoting their Bible Society.
Since the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent growing attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Bible Society has attempted to flood the country with God's Word.
Two hundred and fifty churches have joined together with them to display banners speaking of rebuilding churches, taking values the revolutionaries were calling for and using the Christian terminology for them instead. Words like "righteousness, forgiveness, freedom, and love," which were used by the revolutionaries, were also used in their own campaigns to unite the people as well.
Their organization also worked to spread the Gospel to children through their Kingdom Festivals, where kids gathered together to enjoy wholesome entertainment and hear the message of God. Through the festivals, half a million kids have been reached, Atallah reported.
He also spoke of his wife's work with the marginalized garbage village of Mokattam, where a once overlooked city filled with "smelly, straggly" people collecting trash became the center of religious activity because a few faithful people, like his wife and Father Simaan, decided to help the poor. Now, the village boasts of the infamous "cave churches" in Egypt, and has one of the largest cathedrals in the Middle East.
Throughout his work in the ministry, Atallah learned of five principles that good leaders must have: 1) vision to see things other people don't see and power to capture and incarnate it 2) trust in God even through the shadow of pastoral death 3) creativity to transform obstacles into opportunities 4) faith that assists people who are marginal or eccentric and 5) humility that allowed leaders to be mission rather than gift-oriented.
"One of the main tasks of a leader is to communicate principles from the Scriptures," he noted. "Principles that are transferable which can mark and transform people's lives. If we just give information ... and people leave without being grounded in biblical principles, we cannot make an imprint in their lives."
When Atallah returned to Egypt in 1980, he came across an old family picture while rummaging through some items. In it, was his great grandfather, whom he knew as Athanasius.
Athanasius held a Bible in his hands and it was only later that Atallah discovered who his great grandfather was – Tanassa, the first elder of the missionary church in Assiut begun with the Scottish Presbyterian John Hogg.
Athanasius' nickname was Tanassa and he was the humble carpenter and evangelist of Assiut who spent most of his life propagating the Gospel message, and creating many small evangelistic villages throughout the country.
Though he was excommunicated by the Orthodox church for associating with Presbyterian missionaries like Hogg whom he allowed to hold Bible studies in his own home, he continued to reach out to the Coptic church with the Gospel and minister to Muslims as well.
"Until I went back to Egypt, I thought I had made a 180-degree turn, leaving my intended plan by my maternal grandfather and determined to follow the Christian ministry," Atallah shared.
But he realized that he wasn't destined to be the heir to his grandfather – a successful businessman and entrepreneur – but his great grandfather instead, who shared his passion for spreading the Gospel to Muslims and Coptic Christians alike.
"You see, I realized that this programming by my grandfather was the wrong programming."
It was like "restoring default settings" to a computer that was changed to run other programs or settings.
"You know when you have a wonderful ingenious application, restore default settings the way the owner, the creator had planned," Atallah concluded. "I realized what God had done for me. God had pressed that button on August 19."
The Desiring God Pastors Conference concluded on Wednesday with a speaker panel and a conversation between Doug Wilson and John Piper about the supremacy of Christ in all of life. The entire conference was streamed live and available in Spanish and Russian.