Australia’s most famous minister
The man who reaches millions each day in the Middle East and beyond
Who is Australia’s most famous Christian export? Brian Houston? Peter Jensen? George Pell? The answer may be none of these but Dr Michael Youssef, who has spent his life spreading the gospel to the Arab world.
He can’t tell you how many people hear him preach each week but it’s in the millions.
“There is no way to accurately judge that. We have a television station 24/7, it’s in Arabic and it called Al Malakoot Sat, or The Kingdom Sat. It beams out of Atlanta but it goes into 195 million homes in the Arab world,” Youssef tells Eternity during a visit to Sydney.
“There is no telling from day to day how many millions of people are watching. But from the response there has to be a minimum of 10 million people watching by counting all the people responding. That is just one channel. In the US, I am on seven different networks and our estimate is a million people watching in the US.”
“I want us to believe that when we pray God is going to answer.”
Youssef is an optimist. He is even an optimist about the Middle East. Asked about whether people are being saved in that region he smiles.
“They’re much larger in number than you realise,” he says.
“I was told by a high government official – believe me, a very senior government official – that in Egypt there are at least four to five million converts from Islam to Christianity. But they are all underground. They can’t come out because they’ll suffer greatly. Many are secret believers – a huge number.
“But then you apply that to the rest of the world – the letters that we get from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, from Kuwait. All these countries are an indication that so many of these people who are coming to Christ, who believe in Christ, are fed by our channel and others the word of God, and are disciples.
“People do follow up if they can meet with them, and if they can’t use Skype and Facetime.”
Prayer is a powerful change agent in the region. Youssef has a powerful example. “I want us to believe that when we pray God is going to answer,” he says.
“The Arab Spring began with uprisings in Tunisia, then to Egypt and elsewhere – but I know Egypt and know it well. The Arab Spring was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. Within 12 months they burned churches, killed Christians, and in the streets things got so bad that I can’t describe it to you.
“I was burdened; I wanted to appeal to the pastors and the leaders. So I looked at the camera in our studios in Atlanta, and I sent the message in very broken Arabic to the church leaders. I said ‘don’t forget that you have a power that resides in your knees. Cry to God, and God will do some great things. I know you are living in fear right now – you are thinking we are going to be like Syria; we are going to be like Iraq.’”
“God in his mercy intervened. He brought 33 million people to the streets of Egypt.”
Youssef says he visited a senior Coptic bishop in 1982, who told him he was the only Protestant who had ever come to his private home. Up to that point the evangelicals and the Copts had not had a warm relationship. But this bishop immediately sent a letter to all Protestant pastors and bishops, inviting them to come for a day of prayer to an ancient monastery in Assuit, Egypt, where Jesus, Mary and Joseph were reputed to have hidden in a cave.
“Then the word got out. Churches were praying. People did not care whether they were Presbyterian or Methodist or Pentecostal or Coptic. They were just going to these churches and praying 24/7.
“An anaesthesiologist in Egypt told me later, ‘I finished my shift in the hospital at 2 o’clock in the morning and thought I will drop by and I will pray – probably nobody is there.’ She goes in there and the church was packed; she couldn’t get a seat.
“And God in his mercy intervened. He brought 33 million people to the streets of Egypt – I am talking about the whole nation. And at the same time he raised this man Sisi [Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi], who was the Minister of Defence at this time. God really raised him. The people drafted him to be President – he did not want to be President – and thus literally saving Christians.”
In November 2107, Youssef had a three-hour meeting with Sisi during which he told the President he had watched him on Egyptian television from his home in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I said, when you walked into that Cathedral in Cairo and said ‘every church that was burnt by these terrorists will be rebuilt at the cost of the government,’ I told him in tears that I told my wife that this is the answer to God’s people’s prayer. He is not only God’s gift to Egypt; he is God’s gift to the region.
“The sad part is that once they start prospering and they have freedom – more Christians in government than ever before – their love has gone a little wobbly. So we will have to pray that they will be as passionate and as prayerful as they were when they were in a time of trouble.”
Despite having planted a thriving mega-church in Atlanta, Youssef is not an optimist about the West – and Western churches. He believes the West is facing two major enemies – militant secularists and militant Muslims.
“So one from within and one from without – although they are now both actually from within. [That] makes me pessimistic when I see the blinders on the faces of so many Western leaders, in the media or in politics. These blinders in most cases come out of fear.”
Youssef gives an example of a press conference given by a former head of the BBC when he was retiring at which he was asked why the BBC beats up on Christians all the time while being very respectful towards Islam.
His response showed how this fear was affecting the media and politics: “It is a no-brainer, Christians have broad shoulders and they can take it, but if we say anything negative [about Islam] they are going to show up at Oxford Street [central London] with guns and bombs.”
Now, Youssef says, there is fear about Australia moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Where does that come from? Fear of Indonesia. What do Indonesia and the Palestinians have in common? Islamists.”
“I had to look up the geography book to see where Australia was.”
Youssef recounts his life as one of strange twists and turns. His mother was talked out of an abortion despite despite several doctors warning her not to continue with the pregnancy by a priest prophesying that the child would go on to serve God.
He was sure as a teenager in Egypt that he was called to go to the US. But then in June 1967 the Six-Day War was fought between Israel and neighbouring states Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, after which the door to America was shut.
“Here I got the best theological education I think anyone can have.”
After telling the Lord he would go anywhere and do anything, he wound up in Sydney, Australia, after an Australian ambassador helped him out.
“I had to look up the geography book to see where Australia was. That’s how ignorant I’ve been,” he confesses.
But he is grateful he came. “Here I got the best theological education I think anyone can have – and I hope people appreciate Moore [Theological] College. Here I married a red-headed Aussie – a great gift for the past 48 years … Three of our four children were born here. So I have a debt of gratitude to Australia.”
Youssef is especially grateful to one man, former Archbishop Donald Robinson, back then the Vice-Principal of Moore College. “I have travelled the world since then, and I have met theologians and spoken at seminaries. But I can tell you that the insights he had into the Scripture, particularly his Biblical Theology, which is a rare thing in Seminaries. It’s a rare teaching. To say nothing of his insight into the Greek New Testament.
“That is why every year I come here after he was Archbishop and later when he was retired – without fail – I would invite him and Marie to come and have dinner with me. I told him that as long as they are living I want them to know that this student is grateful for the impact they had on my life.
“To tie the Scripture together as a unit – it was absolute eye-opening for me. No one else could do what this great man Don Robinson did in terms of his insight into the unity of the Scripture.”
Gesturing the shape of a house, he concludes: “Not two books but one unit – one is the foundation and the other is the roof.”