Pastor Joakim Lundqvist is the lead pastor of Word of Life Church in Sweden, which has planted more than 600 international network churches. His church has also been responding to the crisis in Afghanistan in many ways over the years, so we sat down to talk to him on the You’ve Heard It Said podcast to learn more about how we can love our Afghan neighbors. Below are some highlights of what he shared. You can find the whole interview here and use it to start a conversation with your friends, family, and LifeGroup.
Q: How has your church been working in Afghanistan?
Pastor Joakim: We’ve been on the ground in Afghanistan for 19 years, and it’s very different. The way we approach the mission field varies. Sometimes we respond to an urgent need—an immediate need. Sometimes it’s just a hunch we are given after praying and feeling God leading us in a certain direction.
And with Afghanistan, that was actually the origin—we simply felt that God gave us a heart for Afghanistan and the neighboring nations.
Q: How were you building relationships so that you could be there, especially when the crisis escalated?
Pastor Joakim: Our concept for mission work has always been that we are sending people from our church in Sweden to pioneer. But they know that they’re not going to stay. As soon as possible, we’re going to train the locals to run the work because wherever there is Word of Life, we want it to be run by people from that very nation. So the vision will be the same, but the cultural context will be different.
We started out with permanent missionaries in Afghanistan, and then gradually started passing the responsibility over to local leaders. It’s through them that we’re now working. Also, they’re giving us firsthand reports that actually are quite alarming. There are a lot of news reports that are not being distributed—especially about the persecution of the Christian population.
There’s a huge need to be loving our global brothers and sisters. As far as we are concerned as Christians, the Body of Christ is global. Of course, it’s first expressed through the local family—the local church. But it’s clear that we believe together. And if one part of the body suffers, then we all suffer.
Q: We believe in community empowerment so that the leaders within the community are the ones who are driving change because they know the culture. What are some lessons or surprises you’ve had as you’ve started this work?
Pastor Joakim: You always have to adapt to certain cultures. And there are always lessons to learn—you need flexibility wherever you’re going to work. As of now, we’re seeing the enormous potential and strength of having a network now established in the nation.
What’s happening now is really alarming. The Taliban are closing down the nation in the sense that they’re gathering cell phones so people will not read about or distribute what is about to happen.
So, initially they said, “Okay, we’re not as bad. And people will have their freedom,” but now gradually the nation is shutting down. And we know from experience that the Christians are going to face a time of horrible persecution.
The advantage that we have right now is we know where the Christians are. So our mission right now is simply to go from village to village tracking down the Christians before the Taliban and bring them to safety. We have taxi cabs all over the nation right now that pick up entire families—a normal Afghan family will be 10-12 people—and bring them into the city.
In the cities, they can disappear. We have shelters ready and prepared for the families, and in the cities, it is almost impossible to track them down. But because the borders are still closed, this is the best thing we can do.
Q: How do you and your church maintain the sense of God’s goodness and His power when things feel dark?
Pastor Joakim: What we’re doing right now is putting as many of our trusted people in Afghanistan on the staff as possible. Normally, they would have some other kind of business and they would help out in the underground churches during their spare time.
But now, with the different conditions and circumstances, we are providing everyone that we can with a salary to liberate them to travel. And we clearly said to them that as you travel, you should do two things.
One is identifying the Christians and getting them out of harm’s way. And the other one is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ—preach the good news, which is that there’s light in darkness and there is hope in hopelessness.
There is peace in the middle of the turmoil and the storm. And actually, the reports that we are getting are that even some of the Christians that have been given the opportunity to escape have chosen to stay behind because they don’t want to leave. They want to stay and minister to their friends and their sisters and their brothers.
That speaks volumes to me because that means that in the darkness, light shines. And that’s the essence of the Kingdom of God. We’ve always been surrounded by persecution and tough times, and we’ll always be—that’s a natural consequence of Christianity.
And Jesus said this would happen, but in the middle of all that, there is joy. And even if we might see a lot of darkness with our eyes, nothing can change the fact that we are already set free and delivered.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your church and the growth that you’ve seen because even the last time you were here at Life.Church, you were talking about how your church has seen a wave of people coming through.
Pastor Joakim: Sweden has had a great amount of immigration throughout the years, especially in 2015. This was referred to as the refugee crisis in Europe. Many people, hundreds of thousands of people, were just simply fleeing the Middle East, primarily, and also Afghanistan. And the desperation level was so intense that you would get into an inflatable boat with your entire family and take the risk of dying at sea rather than the fear of staying back home and having your whole family murdered or raped by ISIS.
As the refugees came, their whole goal was really to reach Athens, which is the capital of Greece, right at the Southern tip of the Mediterranean Sea, and then walk up north—many were heading for Sweden.
All of a sudden, everyone in Sweden realized that we’re going to have an influx of tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people coming with nothing. And there was a lot of fear and concern, and I could fully understand that.
But there also was a lot of fear in Christian circles that the Muslims were coming to take us and things like that. So I gathered my pastors, and we had days of prayer and asked God, “Okay, how do we position ourselves in the face of this?”
And we really felt God challenging us and asking us, “Okay guys, do you want to build a church of faith or a church of fear?” And we needed to respond to that calling and say, “We want to build a church of faith.”
I realized that faith is not denying the problem, but faith is choosing to see the potential inside the problem—fixing your eyes of what might happen.
We’ve been praying for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Muslims that have accepted Christ. They have a basic respect for the fact that there might be a God. They just didn’t like what was introduced to them through Islam. But still, when they hear about the gospel—when they hear about a God of love that came down to our level—we saw an amazing response.
Little did I know just a few years ago that we would see hundreds and hundreds of former Muslims who have accepted Jesus Christ. And of course, we were so close to missing it. I mean, if we would have positioned ourselves in a different way and pointed our fingers and complained about this scenario, then we would’ve missed it.
I do believe the Church has always been called to serve the people. We’re not called to point fingers. We’re not called to judge. We are called to be there as the outreached hand of Jesus Christ and do whatever we can to show His love.
Q: What are some ways we can learn from you so that we can love our global neighbors well and support them as they integrate into our community?
Pastor Joakim: The first thing I would say to Christians would be not to look too much at the exterior. We’re always scared, to a certain extent, about what is different—that’s natural. But if you look beyond the exterior of a different culture, the different appearances, and just treat them as amazing, wonderful people, you will have a great shot.
These people are wonderful people. They come with a strong sense of family. I was amazed myself, because when all these former Muslims became Christians and became part of our church, the first thing I noted is that they wanted to serve. To them, family is super important, and now the church is their family.
As long as they get a good impression of us being hospitable, loving, and really caring about them—as long as they feel invited—they will want to contribute.
Even if they’re not Christians as you meet them, just love them. In Islam, there is no such thing as love in the sense that we understand it from a Christian point of view. So the best language to communicate the gospel is always going to be love, especially when it comes to people from that part of the world.
Q: Do you have any final advice or encouragement for us as we think about how we can more intentionally love our global neighbors?
Pastor Joakim: I’m reminded of a few of Christ’s last words before being ascended up to heaven. He said:
“… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 NIV
It doesn’t necessarily say first Jerusalem and then Judea and then Samaria. It’s not in a certain order—you should be in all four areas at the same time. You could be His outreached hand locally in your own neighborhood, and at the same time, you can partner with whatever your church is doing to serve the refugees.
But first of all, put aside preconceived ideas. Don’t be afraid of what might be new and unnatural. Remember that the body of Christ is bigger than our nation. And be generous with love and care and attention, and as you are, I would be very surprised if God will not respond with a number of incredible miracles in the lives of these people.