“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)
Preface to the Series
Due to the extraordinary efforts of many Christians, both in our generation and in the past, a growing worldwide movement of former Muslims has embraced Jesus Christ as Savior. Much prayer for Muslim souls has gone up to the Heavenly Father, who is answering many of these prayers in our time. As a Christian from a Muslim Background (CMB) myself, I am very thankful for those who have labored in our field.
While important bridgeheads have been formed in many Muslim contexts, and while much rejoicing and thanks to God should be given, we do well to think of this still as the beginning, not as the end. There is still much ministry to be done, co-laboring with the Lord. Much of the work remains to be established with spiritual depth. Many new CMBs are just taking baby steps in Christ, while some others have tragically fallen back.
This series seeks to provide encouragement to CMBs and those ministering to them by taking a realistic look into the experiential world of many CMBs in our generation. In summary: Everywhere, and in every place, CMBs need spiritual encouragement in their walk with Christ.
Part I: Tear Down my Father’s Altar? Encouragement to Overcome Fear and Family Disapproval
It is common to talk to CMBs who have encountered Christ through media, dreams, visions, or even miracles. Some have completed baptismal classes and confess Christ openly. However, some of the same CMBs, upon deeper discussion, reflect other beliefs that would hardly be consistent with salvation in Christ. Their knowledge and understanding of the Bible remain minimal. Still others are struggling with morality and character issues. Many others are facing internal pain and crushing discouragement. This may also be true of some new believers who are not from Muslim background, but there are some tendencies observable among CMBs that must be addressed for our movement to grow.
I hesitated in tackling this series. I do not want to suggest that what Jesus has begun in the Spirit, we can fulfill in the flesh. Everything I hope to state affirms our complete spiritual helplessness and utter dependence on the grace of God. Realism is needed for the work to grow and not be short-circuited by spiritual immaturity. I intend that this series would be an invitation for the Holy Spirit to illuminate dark areas and to strengthen weak areas of Christ’s disciples.
The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples,
That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. (Isaiah 50:4)
The Challenge of Family Disapproval
While things are changing quickly in diverse Muslim contexts, many Muslims who are offered the gift of salvation are afraid to receive it because of family pressure. This pressure creates fear and shame, and may result in spiritual confusion. In his book, Insanity of Obedience, Nik Ripken provides the results of a 15-year research project in which he and his wife Ruth interviewed over 700 believers in over 70 high-persecution countries. Of the CMBs, Nik writes, “83 percent of them had declared their faith in Jesus only after the death of their father” 1. Though many who are sharing the Gospel with Muslims do so with the prayer, backing, and affirmation of their families, many Muslims receiving this Good News will face family disapproval for even considering this message of salvation.
The issue of family approval can be thought of as a continuum rather than a “yes-no” question. The vast majority of Muslim inquirers set out on the journey to Christ without the approval of their Muslim families, friends and communities. In some cases, they may encounter indifference or neutrality. Cases of actual approval and affirmation remain rare.
To give historical perspective, nothing happening today in ministry to Muslims is unique in the history of Christian missions. We have many encouraging examples of the Gospel penetrating pioneer fields throughout history. Moreover, the Bible presents clear testimonies that can fortify new believers. God is in control. One such biblical narrative that is pertinent to CMBs facing family pressure is the testimony of Gideon.
The Story of Gideon and His Father Joash
At the time of Gideon, the Israelites were being oppressed by the Midianites. The people were living in fear and their crops were being plundered by their enemies. At this time, the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, and called him to a great work of delivering God’s people. After the initial encounter, “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and named it The Lord is Peace” (Judges 6:24, NASB).
Though Gideon indeed built an altar to God, an altar to Baal also stood tall on the premises. God knew that Gideon needed spiritual freedom. A dual-allegiance system with two gods would block that freedom. So, God commanded Gideon to pull down his father Joash’s altar to Baal:
“Now on the same night the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.’” (Judges 6:24-27)
Gideon was understandably fearful, yet he obeyed: “Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night” (Judges 6:27).
Nothing could be kept secret forever, even in those days before Facebook! In Gideon’s case, the news of him tearing down his father’s altar spread quickly the next morning. His father Joash was brought to account for his son’s action—since it was an Eastern, collectivist society. Praise the Lord that Joash stood with his son and with God!
“When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar which had been built. They said to one another, ‘Who did this thing?’ And when they searched about and inquired, they said, ‘Gideon the son of Joash did this thing.’ Then the men of the city said to Joash, ‘Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has torn down the altar of Baal, and indeed, he has cut down the Asherah which was beside it.’ But Joash said to all who stood against him, ‘Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar.’ Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he had torn down his altar. (Judges 6:28-32)
Joash made a strong stand. Yet it is unlikely Gideon knew in advance how his father was going to act. In effect, Gideon’s obedience to God precipitated a situation which caused a difficult decision for a family member. In this case, the family member, Joash, chose to stand with God and his son Gideon. It is a happy ending.
In the case of the Man Born Blind in John 9, who we will see again in the final article of this series, the parents of the man healed by Jesus were unwilling to stand with their son in his finest hour. They refused to confirm their son’s testimony due to the environment of fear in that context: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). This example illustrates that divine encounters do not always result in a happy ending, with a family standing united in submission to God.
Application to CMBs
Muslims, regardless of age or gender, will feel themselves to be very much in Gideon’s position as they consider the claims of Christ. In nearly all Muslim contexts, to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord is seen by the community as a rejection of the community’s covenant with Islam. Confessing Christ as Lord constitutes a de facto rejection of Muhammad, who forbade the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. In some Muslim contexts, this apostasy is against the law; it is viewed as “tearing down the altar” of Islam.
Furthermore, in the communities in which most Muslims live, it is considered inappropriate to contradict one’s father, one’s uncles, or the community elders. The decisions of one’s forefathers may also be considered inviolable. Thus, the Muslim community will tend to view the CMB the same way Gideon’s community viewed him: he shamed the whole family.
The Need for Spiritual Encouragement
CMBs must be prepared to live without family affirmation. This may cause personal discouragement in the long-term, unless the family eventually becomes more accepting of their loved-one’s conversion. Indeed, this may happen after the shock of the conversion wears off. Other times, the family disapproval continues indefinitely.
In the face of this type of pressure, CMBs need spiritual encouragement and edification. Edification refers to fortifying the spiritual edifice of the soul. Those walking this journey with CMBs may have a great impact upon their lives through the ministry of encouragement. Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement,” brought great strength to the early church through this type of ministry. Other CMBs may encourage their brethren through sharing time together, exhorting them to remain true to Christ, and calling on them for prayer.
The Encouragement of Christ
A CMB will ultimately stand or fall based on his or her relationship with Jesus. The Lord has the ultimate keeping power. No one will snatch CMBs out of His hand. The CMB’s role is to yield to the Master’s hand, as the clay to the Potter.
However, some CMBs are jumping out of the Lord’s hand of their own volition. Why? I believe two of the main reasons are lack of family affirmation, and discouragement. It is the Lord who saves and the Lord who strengthens—but the Lord may use you to provide that greatly needed encouragement.
Here are some practical ways to provide encouragement to CMBs:
- Visiting your CMB friends.
- Inviting them over for fellowship, or out to eat. Include some spiritual component such as prayer.
- Praying together by phone.
- Inviting your friend to spiritual gatherings, church, or prayer meetings.
- Making sure they have transportation or someone to come with to those gatherings.
- Intentionally listening to their needs, since they may keep it shallow at first.
- Sending or giving them helpful articles, apps, journals, websites, etc.
- Reading the Bible together, or over the phone.
- Singing worship songs together.
- Doing fun things together, such as hiking or going on a picnic.
A missionary mentor, Rev. Richard Bailey, who served in Pakistan and then in Metro New York, inspired me with his diligent follow-up of CMBs. He shares these thoughts:
“The first thing I did while working among Muslims in the New York Metro Area was to begin to maintain records of believers from Muslim backgrounds—their name, address, email, phone plus their ethnic and/or national background, languages, etc. This meant always being alert to ask for this information whenever I met an CMB, and to record it or update it in my records.” 2
“The second thing was to try to phone as many of them as possible periodically to see how they are doing and to invite them to meetings and events. If they were of Pakistani or Indian (Urdu/Hindi speakers) origin, I would also try to visit them either at their home, work place or some convenient fast food restaurant, where we could talk freely and possibly read God’s Word and pray with them. With new and/or weak believers I tried to visit them weekly or monthly if possible. I have many happy memories of such times of fellowship.” 3
We personally know many CMBs who testify how Rev. Bailey’s encouragement was pivotal in their spiritual development.
Some of these activities listed above may also provide the encouragement your CMB friends need at a critical season of the journey with Jesus. We will consider some of these in more detail in Part 3 of this series. Praise God that many CMBs are growing in Christ and helping other CMBs, as well witnessing to Muslim inquirers. As we all serve together, I believe the Lord Jesus will be glorified!