Nizar Touma likes to say he’s a real Nazarene, by birth, in addition to being a Nazarene by church membership.
Growing up in Nazareth, in Israel, Touma was raised by his parents in the Greek Orthodox Church. Yet, he says they were not serious about their faith, practicing it only as a tradition, not a personal relationship with God.
Touma also participated in the traditions of the church as a youth, but was not a believer in Jesus Christ.
“Until I was 18 or 19, I never thought about my eternal life,” he said.
Just after finishing high school, a friend invited Touma to attend a prayer meeting at a Nazarene church. An American minister named Lindell Browning was there and preached. Touma enjoyed the atmosphere and the activities; they were novel and different from what he was used to. As he began attending regularly, he also took an interest in reading the Bible. He was surprised by what he found in it and wondered why he had never read it before.
One day, during one of the worship meetings, the minister asked if anyone in the room wanted to open their hearts to Jesus and change their lives and invited them to walk up to the front. Touma was a very shy person, usually sitting in the back, and instead of going forward, he rushed home. But once he was alone, he fell to his knees and wept over his sins, confessing to God all the wrong things he had done — things he had never before considered wrong, because everyone did them.
“The next morning, I opened my window and I saw everything out there was new," Touma said. "A big light was shining. It’s like [I was] someone who discovered a new world. I suddenly thought, ‘I was just now born.’”
He went to work and the men he worked with asked him what was wrong, noting that something in his face was different. Touma began talking to his co-workers about what God had done in his heart and that God had made him a new person.
Surprisingly, his parents were unhappy with his change. They told him that if he continued going to the evangelical church, he should move out of their house. But he was stubborn and said that was fine with him. Gradually, they accepted his new relationship with God.
During the first year of his new faith, he brought many friends to the church and naturally began to take leadership of the youth group, helping to lead worship and sing.
Two years later, in 1987, Touma enrolled in theological education in Cyprus.
“My heart was jumping out," he said. "My heart was to serve, to give up everything. In 1985 was the year when you finish high school, you’re like, ‘There is the world, I’m going to overtake it.’ You want to go out and find your future. So in my mind was: get a good job, continue studying, get a wife, get married, have a family. All that was in front of me.”
However, God pushed all those desires from his heart and mind, and he soon cared only about serving God. He began assisting Browning in leading the Nazarene church in Jerusalem. After he was ordained, Touma took over as pastor for almost 10 years.
In 2000, Touma felt God leading him back to his hometown of Nazareth. This was not what Touma wanted. He argued and argued with God and — to avoid the calling — even went out to get an office job with Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as CRU).
“But God’s voice never left me,” he said. “The voice of the Lord (was), ‘I called you to be a shepherd, I didn’t call you to be in administration.’”
His wife, Katie, heard clearly from God, as well. She had prayed that if God wanted them to relocate to Nazareth for ministry, that He would cause a dove to come and land on their window within the next 10 minutes. When she next turned her face to the window, the dove was sitting there. It shocked her so greatly that she called her husband, hysterical and unable to talk coherently.
Finally accepting the clear direction of the Lord, they called Browning and told him they were ready to go back to Nazareth, where a pastor from Northern Ireland named Henry Stephenson, had been leading the church. He remained to help the Toumas adjust to the ministry and then he moved away.
Now, Nizar says he does not regret the move.
"I think when you are in the will of God, you are in the right place," he said. "It’s my joy, actually. If it was not for the calling to be in Nazareth, I would not be there. It’s so challenging. But God has used us in a miraculous way.”
When Nizar arrived, the church was seeing attendance under 50. He asked the congregation to fast and pray with him for eight days. Afterward, they saw people who were healed from sicknesses and diseases. Some families were restored from broken relationships. Encouraged by seeing God powerfully at work to heal and transform people, they implemented prayer and fasting as a regular practice of the church. The church members fast all day every Wednesday, then meet for two hours of prayer for the situations in the Middle East, for refugees, for the Body of Christ, and also the Nazarene denomination. They also fast annually for a week over Easter.
The Nazarene church in Nazareth is flourishing. The attendance at the church is more than 200 people, but their influence reaches well over 300. They have a preschool that allows them to minister to children from several different religious backgrounds while funding the overall work of the church. They also started a large yard sale where they sell cheap items, allowing them to buy food supplies for local needy families and also to distribute Bibles in Gaza, including a solar-charged audio Bible.
The congregation, which is mostly Arab by ethnicity, delivered Christmas gifts and sweets to a Jewish orphanage.
Nizar said that his church has reached people from a variety of backgrounds, including atheism.
He has a heart for reconciliation between Arab believers and Messianic believers, trying to build bridges between Arab and Jewish pastors. He occasionally invites Jewish pastors to preach in his church and has also preached in some Messianic congregations.
“In the Middle East, we are a minority,” he said. “But I feel like we have the effect of the salt on a good meal. We have that effect of the salt because we are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. If we believe that, something must happen; it’s a must.”
For more of Nizar's story, visit the Engage magazine website.