“Inside the World of Christians from Muslim Backgrounds” is a 4-part series.
- 1: Tear Down my Father’s Altar? (2/25/19)
- 2: A Place and a Nation (3/4/19)
- 3: Prayer, Presence and Program (3/11/19)
- 4: Messengers of God (3/18/19)
The growing movement of Christians from Muslim Backgrounds (CMBs) worldwide has caused much excitement, and, naturally, some growing pains. From the latter part of the 20th Century to today marks the first time in history large numbers of Muslims have needed to be integrated into the Body of Christ. In general, new believers are not self-integrating. Responsible spiritual leadership requires facilitation of this process.
This article considers a number of practical questions that we hear from those sharing the gospel with Muslims, who then are discipling the new believers. Some questions from Christian ministers include:
- How do we disciple new CMBs?
- What should our expectations be?
- Should we continue investing time in a Muslim friend who does not show spiritual interest in the Gospel?
- What are the signs CMBs are growing spiritually?
I note at the outset that I am not prescribing a particular type of outcome regarding church planting methodology. Many viable outcomes are observable. In some cases, CMBs have been welcomed and incorporated into churches in which the majority of congregants are not CMBs. In other cases, these churches have started CMB fellowship groups or sub-groups within the church. This may be especially helpful to facilitate worship in the CMBs heart language, if that is not language used in the church for worship and preaching. In more pioneer settings, CMBs will form an original church with no previously existing members, though a mentor or missionary may provide some guidance. And in some cases, especially where media has provided a catalytic effect, Muslim inquirers may have formed their own embryonic or proto-ekklesia, which need to be strengthened.
Many Muslims are having experiences with Jesus via online resources, though witnessing Christian friends, or even through “signs and wonders,” such as dreams and healings by Jesus. While this may be legitimately seen as a Muslim “getting saved”—and I am judging a person’s salvation—we frequently and tragically observe spiritual shallowness among CMBs, lack of spiritual freedom, and pitiable understanding and application of the Bible. God’s desire for CMBs is spiritual depth based on a growing relationship with Jesus: a Bible-based life empowered by the Holy Spirit and manifesting the Fruit of the Spirit. Often, an CMB with a dramatic testimony is mistaken by Christians for having a deep, vibrant spiritual life in Christ. In some cases, people presume that if the person knew Islam and the Qur’an well, this aptitude immediately transfers to knowledge of the Bible and the Christian life. It does not. This is a process in which spiritual depth is needed.
Facilitating holistic spiritual depth among CMBs is not much different than doing so among other new believers, though there are specific areas related to the Muslim background that should be addressed. For example, Mark Durie, in Liberty to the Captives, seeks to help CMBs find spiritual freedom from the binding covenant of the shahada confession. I simply refer you to that great resource. 1
Unconditional Friendship and Limited Time Availability
The “young man in a hurry” will likely experience frustration—and miss out on many an occasion for joy—when seeking to fast-track ministry to Muslims. Patience is needed for two reasons. In many Muslim cultures, inquirers do not “wear their heart on their sleeve.” In many cases, they have mastered the art of concealing those hearts. It simply is difficult to know during a first spiritual conversation with a Muslim what his or her spiritual status is and what the long-term spiritual destiny of that Muslim will become. Discernment is needed. However, it is easy to mistake initial friendliness or talkativeness for openness to the Gospel. It is equally easy to mistake contrariness, argumentativeness, or the lack of overt affirmative response to the Gospel as a Muslim being “closed.” We simply do not know what God has been doing in the successive chapters of that Muslim’s life—a person whom God loves infinitely more than we do.
Second, we do well to think of Muslims coming to Christ as a process, rather than a point in the time. God knows when He writes that person’s name in the Lamb’s Book of Life. We do not. A Muslim goes through a conversion to Christ, though we might not know exactly when, in real time. However, the spiritual development and trajectory of an CMB’s life may often be clearer seen in retrospect, after years have passed.
Many Muslims can quickly spot what they will consider a phony, such as someone “selling” something. The salesman will move on to other prospects if a sale is not made. In the minds of many Muslims, this selling could include religious proselytism. It is necessary to develop trust with Muslims. These friendships are almost always mutually enriching. Here I would recommend David Leatherberry’s book, Abdul and Mister Friday: Neither Wanted to Go to Heaven without the Other. 2 The author describes the art and gift of unconditional friendships with Muslims—people whom God helped to trust him.
In addition to cultivating friendships among Muslims, we hope to see spiritual growth. Muslim inquirers and CMBs need mentoring of a spiritual nature. Christian workers may invite, at an appropriate time, those from Muslim background who are moving toward Christ to participate in several spiritual activities. These invitations may also provide opportunities to determine with whom to invest spiritually. It is not a weeding out process. Unconditional friendship is required. Christian ministers should not abruptly withdraw their friendship from Muslims who seem hesitant to move forward spiritually. Keep those friendships active. You may sow, another may water, and God will give the growth.
Since no one has unlimited time and energy, I recommend appropriate investment in Muslim inquirers and CMBs who show both the willingness and the follow-through for spiritual participation. I will summarize these spiritual activities as:
Muslims are taught in childhood to pray rote prayers in Arabic. Whatever Muslim apologists may say to the contrary, the emphasis is on quantity, not quality. Though individual Muslims may have various experiences, the Islamic concept of prayer, “Salat,” is part of the Islamic system of salvation by works. Developing a personal relationship with God through prayer is not the goal in Islam; this may even be considered blasphemy since Allah is impersonal.
I remember as a new CMB thinking to myself, “Now that I am a Christian, how do we pray?” Forms and postures may vary among Christians. Even Jesus’ disciples wisely asked Him to teach them to pray even as John the Baptist taught his disciples (Luke 11:1). The key thing for CMBs is to move into heartfelt, earnest extemporaneous praying. This is best learned, at the beginning, by praying with other Christians.
Muslims are raised to respect the spiritual practice of prayer. On one occasion, I was at a church-based center where Arabic-speaking immigrants came to learn English. A visiting pastor from Mongolia was also present. We were gathered informally in a circle. I was chatting with a Syrian refugee, who was sharing about the deaths and injuries suffered by his family members during the Syrian war. I asked if we could pray for him and another Syrian present. They said, “yes.” I asked the Mongolian pastor, whom I had not met previously, to lead the prayer. He began praying (yelling) in a language I knew not, waving his arms wildly in front of the Syrians from their heads to their toes. One could almost feel the breeze generated by those moving arms.
There were a couple Moroccan Muslim immigrant men present also. I was wondering how all of these Muslims would process this very unique style of praying. I feared the outcome. At the end of the prayer, however, one of the Moroccans quickly blurted out, “We want him to pray for us too!”
In Islam, worshippers do not come into the presence of Allah. And even in their worship, Muslims are afforded no outlet for singing and musical instrumentation. The chanting of the Qur’an may provide a pseudo-musical experience, but that is it. All the while, each Muslim culture has its own indigenous music.
Music is a blessing to us, and with it we bless God and others. God has even given the non-musician an instrument—the mouth—from which to sing praise to the loving Creator. CMBs need to learn to enter into His presence with singing and His courts with praise. If a person purports to be an CMB, but continually bristles at entering God’s presence, refusing to open his mouth to sing, this may indicate a spiritual blockage. This blockage, like a pebble in a flute, will hold back to the CMB’s growth if not voluntarily dislodged. Teaching is needed on worshipping in the presence of God. Repeated resistance to entering God’s presence may be an indicator that the CMB is not really moving on the road to discipleship. This teaching is often best done by example, invitation and participation.
It is encouraging to see indigenous praise ascending to Jesus in languages that have been historically spoken by Muslims. Persian-speaking CMBs have composed hundreds of new choruses and hymns, which they sing enthusiastically and with deep reverence. Worship songs are now coming forth in many Muslim languages, providing a great witness to Muslim inquirers. Praise belongs to Jesus, and this is where CMBs can meet with God. Taste and see that the Lord is good!
A note here is needed to emphasize that prayer, worship, and the Christian life in general must be grounded in the Bible. While the vast majority of Muslims are not students of the Qur’an, the same must not be true of CMBs and the Bible. We must be as familiar with the Bible as monkeys are with trees. The Bible must be our habitation and our refuge. Encouraging CMBs in any established Bible study program is a blessing. Once I read on an online forum a question asking, “Can anyone recommend a book to give to a new CMB?” I assume this was in addition to the Bible! I am encouraged whenever I listen to Afghan CMB preacher, Husayn Andaryas. The Bible flows forth freely and naturally from him in multiple languages. He is a student of the Word who is now preaching it.
Though I hesitate to use this word, it expresses a corporate side of walking with Christ that is important to CMBs. Believing alone or in secret is neither sustainable nor preferable in the long-term. CMBs need some kind of spiritual fellowship. A discerning spiritual mentor to CMBs may invite the new believers to prayer meetings, fellowship meetings, and spiritual events of this type. Naturally, CMBs may be hesitant at first, unsure of who else will be there. If their conversion is unknown to their family and friends, they may be particularly cautious. For these reasons, encouragement (not undue pressure) is needed. As Paul told the Corinthians: “This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35).
If an CMB is completely unwilling to meet with believers other than a missionary, this may indicate a lack of growth or spiritual bondage. Encouragement is needed to overcome this fear. While there are legitimate concerns and suspicions held by CMBs, it cannot form a permanent and all-exclusive barrier to fellowship with other followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
CMBs are coming into the Kingdom of God. The Father is seeking worshippers to worship Him in spirit and in truth, not simply in outward formalities. CMBs are coming into this global worshipping Body of Christ. Real and regular encounter with God’s grace, love, mercy and presence are needed for CMBs to grow spiritually. Many have “converted,” and shared a testimony, but otherwise have plateaued spiritually. Let us go deeper still. The Lord is calling.