By Rebecca Miller, Photos by Brittni Moten
On Field Media
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — It’s just after 8 a.m. in the morning, and Steve Lyons’ blue paisley handkerchief is already clenched in his hand. As the heat builds, he swipes the handkerchief across his face as he leads a class of about 40 young Tanzanian teacher candidates through a recitation of people and places in the Bible narrative. Despite the March heat, he doesn’t break the rhythm of the story, his gestures animated and enthusiasm contagious.
As the religion class progresses, Steve has the students stand and go through a series of hand motions to remember Old Testament names and locations. Outside, several young women sneak out of a neighboring classroom, one wearing a hijab, a Muslim head covering. They giggle as they mimic the class’s movements, before scurrying back into their classroom.
The narrations open doors to interact with people of all walks of life and religions, Steve said — and it’s fun.
“Oh, man,” he chuckled. “I never have such a good time as when I’m narrating.”
Telling the chronological story of redemption as recorded in the Bible has been a ministry staple for Steve and his wife, Carol, since they came to Dar es Salaam 21 years ago to work with ReachGlobal, the missions arm of the Evangelical Free church. “Tribal cultures,” Steve explained, “want to see the whole story and how they fit into it.” Which is why this storytelling technique is so popular and effective on the African continent.
For the past two and a half years, Steve and Carol have spread their zeal for this narration technique to the Training in Ministry Outreach (TIMO) team they are leading. Based at a teachers’ training college in Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam, the team has helped train aspiring teachers — and discipled those who have a heart for the Lord, who want to make disciples of others, and who are willing to do so in often remote places.
The result? Scores of young Tanzanians have shouldered the mantle of a missional life and committed to live and work in hard-to-reach places, oftentimes among an unreached people group. They are now spread across the country as teachers.
Most far-flung posts are staffed by young men, since the government normally reserves village and city posts for women. All told, there are more than 50 teachers who have taken up the call to be missionaries.
The concept of sending mission-minded teachers into the remote schools also removes a typical road block for an African interested in going into missions: finances. A teacher’s salary is paid by the Tanzanian government.
“What we try to do is implant a missionary vision [into these future teachers], so they will see these tough places as really needy places,” Steve said. “Numerous former students have said to me, ‘If it wasn’t for what you taught us here, we’d never stay in this village.’ These teachers are trained to stick with it, to stay, to make a difference in the school.”
It’s a naturally reproducing concept, and Steve believes the model is a game-changer in reaching the unreached: “I would say that this has been the most rewarding [time] in our career, and I just wish we had 10 more years to do it.”
The Team’s Impact and Legacy
In many ways, because of its central location along Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coastline, Dar es Salaam, which is the fastest-growing city in Africa, was the perfect launching point for the initiative. On the western edge of the city though, there is a distinctly suburban feel. Rocky, rutted dirt roads wind through neighborhoods of modest houses. At the teacher training college, chickens and sheep roam.
It was here that the Lyons planted their TIMO team, a hodge-podge group from the U.K and Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand, who learned how to integrate into the bustling fabric of Dar and teach aspiring teachers.
The Lyons had spent years working in traditional church planting, but in some cases, the church lacked depth. Then Steve saw a short New Tribes film, “Ee Taow,” about how an entire Papua New Guinea tribe converted after hearing the Bible narrated, shouting “Ee taow!” (“It is true!”), the moment they believed.
“It was like, boom, the stadium lights came on,” Steve said — storytelling is a key part of African traditions. Why not use it to convey deeper Biblical truths?
These narrations were quickly incorporated into the Lyons’ work with the Teacher Training teams and was later also used by the TIMO team. In Tanzania, students are expected to take a religion class of their choosing. For the Lyons and their team, it was an opportunity to share the gospel with hundreds of students.
“We get to spend three years with these students,” Steve says, “training them how to be disciples and disciplers.” And the TIMO team members gleaned many insights from watching the Lyons work at the school and from practicing the chronological narrations themselves.
Spending the past couple of years under the tutelage of the Lyons was invaluable. Linda, a team member from the UK, counts it as part of her spiritual growth: “Steve, with his great love of narrating … it’s given me a much greater appreciation for the whole of God’s word.”
Laura, from the US, also values her time on the TIMO team. “It bills itself as a foundation for a lifetime of fruitful ministry,” she said. “I really like what we’ve gone through. TIMO has really brought this to the surface: love God first and foremost and then love your neighbor.”
During their time in Dar, the Lyons dug into the culture and built deep relationships as leaders with ReachGlobal. Tanzanians call Steve “Mzee Simba” — literally translated “Mr. Lion.” Carol is affectionately known as “Bibi” (grandmother).
Over the years, they opened their home to countless people, hosting meals, Bible studies, and other get-togethers. Spend any time with Steve, in particular, and you might conclude that most of the city knows him. Gifted in Swahili, he has no trouble striking up conversations with anyone, from a local merchant to a government official.
That’s why the beat of silence reverberates as the lunch crowd ebbs and flows outside his office. The electricity has snapped off, leaving the ceiling fan motionless, the heat pressing in.
Steve recalls his introduction to TIMO, and his conclusion: it was “the best missionary training program I’d ever seen.” And he still feels that way.
Now, as the final weeks wind down for his team, Steve is honest. “It’s tough, no getting around that. But I think the final product is incredible. It’s worth it.”
Talk to any of the team members and the same sentiments come through. TIMO was life changing, incredible, challenging, humbling — although some phrase it more bluntly. Boot camp. TIMO is like boot camp.
Since it was established in the mid-1980s, TIMO has become a catalyst. It has radically transformed lives — of participants and the people they live and work with. Historically, nearly 75% of those who go through the program return to missions.
The Teachers’ Training College team is a mixture: a pharmacist, a primary school teacher, a doctor, an engineer, an IT specialist, among others. There are families with young children. A couple. A single woman. They each came to the team through different avenues — some with ReachGlobal, others through Africa Inland Mission. Some had previous missions experiences, and others had not.
They all had to learn how to speak Swahili, starting at ground zero. Some picked it up quickly. Others did not.
Omega Edwards, an American doctor, found the transition challenging. “We’re all on the same playing field. We’re no longer doctors, pharmacists, IT people, primary school teachers … We’re all here to learn how to be effective evangelists, missionaries,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself.”
It’s not just about learning how to live in the culture — but also how to live as a team. “The toughness is not the curriculum. The toughness is not living simply,” Steve said. “The toughest thing is relationships.”
In any other context, they admit they wouldn’t have gravitated to each other. But everyone on the team is returning to full-time missions in some capacity, one couple and a single person returning to Dar and two couples moving to other African countries. “Praise the Lord, something worked in spite of me,” Steve said.
And it’s worked, not just in the lives of the team, but in the lives of more than 50 young Tanzanian teachers.
Kafil*, a 27-year-old from the western part of the country, is a mathematics teacher at Veritas Extended School in Kimara. In his second year of teaching, he beams as he talks about his work.
When he began at the Teachers’ Training College, Kafil was a nominal Christian. For several weeks, he heard Bible narration in his religion class, and then Steve invited him to go deeper into God’s word and attend a weekend discipleship group led by the TIMO team. When Kafil saw how the group changed a friend’s life, he decided to join. His faith grew, rooted in the school-day narrations and nurtured by the weekly group meetings in the Lyons’ basement. “I changed a lot from who I was,” he said.
The word of God is in his soul, he added. Now, he takes every opportunity to do Bible narration with his own classes of primary students.
Kafil’s posting isn’t in a hard-to-reach location. But the passion he carries is similar to that of others who have gone into sometimes hostile environments — a missionary zeal that gives them the courage to stay, even when they are persecuted.
Their testimonies are fuel for Steve.
“These guys go to some incredible places,” he said.
On a Saturday morning, boisterous singing, aided by a guitar, drums and other instruments, echoes throughout the Lyons’ house. Six young Tanzanian men mingle with the TIMO men. They laugh and share chai and mandazi donuts together, before beginning Bible study.
This is one of the last times these particular students will meet together for discipleship. As they prepare to graduate and begin teaching in difficult locations among people groups who don’t always accept their Christianity, they are an encouragement to the Lyons and the TIMO team. They are a sign of the future of missions.
“It just brings joy to your heart and tears to your eyes,” Steve said.
*name has been changed