Stepping Into the Grace of God
Two years ago, a man began attending church meetings in Beirut, Lebanon, with Matt and Julie Hattabaugh—although “attending” might be putting it a bit strongly. Participation on this man’s part was lacking.
“He would just sleep, then he’d wake up, and he’d question,” Matt remembers. “He was either sleeping or asking questions.”
But as time went on, the man’s attitude began to change. He listened to the gospel these missionaries were preaching, and he practiced God’s word practically in his life. Earlier this year, he came to Matt with a realization.
“He said to me, ‘Paul had an experience with Jesus, but he couldn’t see until he found Ananias,’” Matt recalls. “He pointed at me, and he said, ‘You’re Ananias.’”
It was a turning point for the man—and a validation of Matt and Julie’s entire ministry.
“I said, ‘Yes! And you’re Paul!’” Matt says, laughing. “That story really sums up our focus. We want to turn Lebanese people loose with the ‘go ye’ Gospel message for Lebanon.”
The Hattabaughs have worked hard during their time in Beirut to build a ministry that speaks to the needs of the local people, one that puts the glory of the Gospel above personal ambition.
“The good news answer is not American missionaries in these places,” Matt says. “We bring as many problems as we solve, because we’re always going to be communicating through a cultural barrier. But as we release leaders here to be equipped and to follow the same Jesus that we know, He can do great things in places we just can’t go.”
Less than Convinced
No one can say that Matt and Julie have taken the easy path. Not only are they deeply involved with church ministry and numerous aspects of leadership and missionary training—they’re students, too. Julie completed her Bachelor of Ministry and Leadership in December through OKWU’s Adult and Graduate Studies program,
and now she’s working towards her master’s in the same subject. Matt started in 2019 on the Organizational Leadership trajectory.
Their path to Lebanon wasn’t easy, either. Matt and Julie were married in 2012, coming from different backgrounds and experiences within the Christian faith. Matt’s family were strong believers.
“My family never asked the question, ‘Are we going to church this Sunday?’ It was always, ‘What time are we leaving?'” he says now. After attending ministry training, he spent four years in Russia teaching at a Bible school, then lived a short time in the Czech Republic. His path, as he saw it, was clear.
“As we release leaders here to be equipped and to follow the same Jesus that we know, He can do great things in places we just can’t go.”
Julie had a mixed experience with her faith—definitional, perhaps, but not experiential. “When I was six, on Easter Sunday, I remember my mom telling me to go down front and pray… I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “I knew that there was a God, I knew of Jesus, and I knew that Jesus had a very special place in my heart, but I had never actually confessed Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”
This didn’t change until 2012, when both Matt and Julie were attending a missions conference at Rhema Church. “It never clicked to me that I hadn’t confessed Jesus,” she remembers. “They gave an altar call, and I just knew that I was supposed to confess in that moment.”
The experience came with an immediate calling, too—Julie knew she was to attend Rhema Bible School to prepare for overseas mission work. When she graduated, Matt and Julie would move to the mission field.
Only, they weren’t sure where to go. Julie had long felt a calling to Lusaka, Zambia, and was keen to pursue a pathway there. But before they made a decision, Matt got the opportunity to take a trip to Lebanon.
“All the time was spent in the streets of Beirut witnessing to people,” he says. “Very little organized ministry.”
He came home with a plan.
“I told Julie, ‘We’re moving to Beirut!’” Matt laughs now. “She was less than convinced that was a great idea.”
But over the next year, the family spent time going back and forth from America to Lebanon, and they made the decision to move there in 2017. Julie, still pining for Lusaka, had given God something of an ultimatum: He had three months to convince her Lebanon was the right place for their family. That certainty came early.
“We’d been there about two weeks and Julie said to me, ‘Isn’t this supposed to be much harder?’” Matt says. “We really stepped into the grace of God.”
That’s not to say that everything in Lebanon is easy, or that the country is some half-forgotten geo-political paradise. There are incredible challenges to overcome due to governmental unrest. In 2019, the sitting Lebanese government resigned after receiving a vote of no-confidence from the parliament, and the new sitting government has yet to receive that vote.
“Essentially, we don’t really have a functioning government now,” Matt says.
The Lebanese currency has lost value, the official unemployment rate is at 66%, and consumer goods have seen an almost 500% increase in price, leading to an unstable banking system. The Beirut port explosion, which rocked the country and dominated world headlines in August 2020, destroyed over 19,000 business and left 300,000 people homeless.
“This has been a really difficult time, and everyone we’re ministering to is experiencing it,” Matt says. “People that are really committed to planting churches and seeing evangelism go and grow, they’re faced with these practical life issues.”
When you add a seismic demographic shift to this political unrest, the situation becomes precarious. In 2014, 70% of Lebanon’s population was culturally Christian, with a minority Muslim population. After the Syrian Civil War, Lebanon took in 2.5 million refugees into a country with a population of 3 million. Most of them are Muslim.
“That’s analogous to something like 215 million Muslims coming into the United States in ten months,” Matt says. “Everything has changed.”
So, yes. There are certainly challenges. But Matt and Julie remain optimistic, confident in the calling they received and confident in the growth they’ve been seeing. Since arriving, they’ve assisted in three different church plants, and their primary ministry, Go Church Beirut, has successfully launched—even after the challenges of COVID-19.
There are certainly challenges. But Matt and Julie remain optimistic, confident in the calling they received and confident in the growth they’ve been seeing.
“We had 38,000 people watch a 53-minute message on Easter that was super evangelistic and had a really strong altar call,” Matt says.
Even still, the couple isn’t concerned with their own goals—they’re working hard to equip others to lead.
“We’re working to become as useless as possible, as fast as possible,” Matt says.
When asked what the future holds, the Hattabaughs smile. The look they exchange speaks to a clear satisfaction in their work, a soul-deep conviction that Lebanon is home now.
“We are in Beirut, Lebanon, until [it] ends,” Julie says confidently. “When the Lord tells us to leave Beirut, our heart’s desire is to go to the next thing and do the same thing again.”
Matt paints it even more starkly: “In World War II, when you signed up, you signed up for the duration of the war, plus six months,” he says. “Our time in Lebanon is the duration plus six months.”