Equipping ‘workplace theologians’

Entrepreneur wants everyday Christians to live, share faith

Yacoub SpeaksThe smells and sounds of ink hitting paper permeate Sami Yacoub’s Allux Printing plant in east Cairo.

Though he’s a publisher, the 58-year-old entrepreneur and former pastor prefers to think of himself as a baker, offering food to fuel his twin passions: boosting the spiritual vitality of families and spreading the word of God worldwide.

In the wake of Egypt’s revolutions and the spiritual openness that they spawned, Yacoub thinks it is critical for all Christians – not just pastors and academics – to know what they believe and be able to share it.

“We want people to read and think,” says Yacoub, who started Allux 19 years ago in this tax-free enterprise zone of Nasr City. “And when they are able to think on what they read, then this is the knowledge that changes their life.

“I want to produce very good bread, put it on the table, and let people come and feed themselves and feed others.”

A Bible for kids, families and everyone

Yacoub, 58, is a thickset man with a big laugh who pours out ideas in a steady rush of theology, business observations and personal history. To illustrate how those three intertwine, Yacoub pulls out a copy of his latest (and biggest) project, “The Right Choices Bible” by Dottie and Josh McDowell.

It started when Yacoub recently secured the rights to publish “The Right Choices Bible” in Arabic. It’s a collection of 63 Bible stories written for children, with color illustrations that Yacoub’s graphic designers have been painstakingly redrawing to improve their visual impact. Yacoub has marshaled a worldwide network of translators and printers to publish “The Right Choices Bible” in 25 languages (see story) across Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.

Launching the “Right Choices” project wasn’t easy. To cover translation costs, Yacoub fronted $100,000 of his company’s funds. That’s how much he believes in the power of God’s word to change kids, parents and families.

“I have children’s books and other things like this, and I found that people tend to read easy books – when they read,” Yacoub says. “And that’s not bad, by the way. It leads into the next step. Knowledge is an agricultural thing. The Bible says this about the sower. So even reading a children’s book is something that, you sow a seed, and the Lord does it.”

Yacoub’s publishing company, Eagles Group, became an associate office for Focus on the Family 12 years ago. The position doesn’t pay him extra, but he uses it to promote programs he was doing even before Focus on the Family tapped him on the shoulder – parenting programs, marriage programs and other spiritual training. Promoting biblical literacy goes hand-in-hand with all of that.

“Adults who we see in the church all over the world are the ones whose parents read the Bible to them while they were young,” he says. “There are exceptions. I am speaking about the majority.”

Marketplace evangelism

Allux prints all kinds of materials – New Testaments, magazines for the textile industry and medical journals among them. In serving those clients, Yacoub gets to meet a huge variety of people, from Ph.D. scientists to truck drivers to the machine operators who work for him.

Talking with all those people gives Yacoub the opportunity to be what he calls a “workplace theologian”: someone who does the hard work of making Jesus understandable and accessible to people in his or her workplace.

In Yacoub’s mind, there are three categories of theologians: Academic, Pulpit and Marketplace. Though all three groups need each other, the Academics who write books and teach tend to look down on the Pulpit Theologians (pastors) who study theology in seminaries and preach it to their congregations. Pastors, in turn, often scorn Academics as dry and obscure.

The first two might not like each other, but Yacoub says they often find a common object of distaste in that third group, the Marketplace Theologians. He views them as critical to the future of the church in Egypt and elsewhere.

Our culture here – clergy, pastors, priests – are really belittling of how much people in the marketplace can have a significant impact,” Yacoub says. “That needs to change.”

When he left full-time children’s ministry in a church after 14 years to become a businessman, people told him he was denying the ministry and that he was in danger.

“I tell you, I’ve doubled the time for ministry,” Yacoub says.

He points to the theological questions he regularly asks Muslim workers in his print shop. Because he knows his workers and their personal situations, he can take what he knows about the Bible and relate it directly to them—without relying on a church service that they probably wouldn’t attend anyway.

“Who is the marketplace theologian?” Yacoub says. “Those who are able to think of what they believe. They try to live their faith in the world, and are doing their best every day to see God’s relationship to the people and create it.

The businessman is able to teach the workers here more than the pastor,” he says. “I’m not belittling what the pastor is doing. We need each other.”

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