Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, the debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostilities toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?
These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.
My friend Bill works with another mission agency, in the same Asian city. Three months ago, Bill baptized Ibrahim, a 23-year-old single man who has since been disowned by his family, threatened, and fired from his job. Besides being discipled by Bill, Ibrahim has been attending a local church (whose members are from a different ethnic group than Ibrahim), and he is growing as a Christian. The church has hired him as a part-time janitor, which provides for his basic needs, as well as giving him a place to sleep. Bill emphasizes Romans 10:9: “Confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
My friend Jerry (also with another agency) takes a very different approach. He’s been studying the Bible with Ahmed, a 27-year-old single man who made a decision to follow Jesus two years ago. As they have studied together, Jerry has encouraged Ahmed to do everything he can to remain connected with his family and community, including maintaining his identity as a Muslim. He continues many of his former religious practices, such as attending the mosque, saying ritual prayers five times daily, and fasting during Ramadan. Ahmed has gathered a group of his friends who sometimes study the Bible together, yet they still maintain respect for Muhammad and the Qur’an. Ahmed identifies himself with Jesus but is careful not to say or do things that would imply he has become a Christian. Jerry emphasizes 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Each one should remain in the place in life that the Lord assigned to him.”
Uma is a national partner of mine who was talking with Khalil, a fruit seller at a local market, and asked him, “Have you ever had a dream you felt was from God?” Khalil looked stunned and told him he had recently dreamed of a man in white who told him, “You are on the path to destruction. I am the path to life. Ask my servant how to find the right path.” Uma volunteered as a servant of the man in white to show Khalil the path. He told Khalil to gather a group of his family and friends, and he would begin showing them the path. Seven friends of Khalil (mostly other sellers at the market) gathered with him for the first study of the “Holy Book,” at which Uma distributed a photocopied page containing Genesis 1:1-2:4. The group discussed how God had created all things, and what he might want them to do as an application of that fact.
After the third study, Uma stopped attending the group and met with Khalil outside the group, equipping him to lead the upcoming study week by week. At the end of 30 studies (covering the essential truths of salvation up through the New Testament), six of the eight original group members chose to be baptized and continue meeting as a house fellowship (the beginning of a house church). This group does not use the label “Christian” (which would imply that they had joined a different political and ethnic group despised by their people). Rather they call themselves “Followers of the Way of God” (see Acts 18:26; 24:14), and those around them realize they have chosen a new identity, a new way of life and faith. Uma’s favorite verse is 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”
Questions to Consider
All three of these approaches are currently being applied by missionaries with various agencies. Some encourage converts to make an individual decision to be baptized and join a church as soon as possible, regardless of the effect on their family, friends, and others in their culture. Others encourage those who follow Jesus to remain members of their birth religion and try to be a witness in that context. Still others are intentionally aiming to reach small groups of people all together—-whether extended families, interest groups, or just groups of friends.
What would you do if you were a missionary? Would you want to use any of these three approaches?
Here are some of the issues and questions involved:
- How much has our Western worldview shaped us to read the Bible through an individualistic filter (missing the fact that the vast majority of church growth described in Acts was reaching groups rather than isolated individuals)?
- How much should we be content to reach individuals who are open and then encourage them to reach other individuals (versus intentionally aiming to reach families or groups)?
- If a “fringe person” is the first to follow Jesus and subsequently forsakes his or her own culture to join the “church culture” of a different ethnic group, what effect does that have on the rest of their people?
- How much should cultural outsiders tell seekers and new believers “the right answers” for belief and how much should we expect the Spirit of God to guide them to the best answers through direct group interaction with the Scriptures?
- What parts of a person’s beliefs and practices must change when they begin to follow Jesus and as they mature in him?
- What approaches are most likely to catalyze church planting movements rather than just reaching a few scattered individuals?
- How can we plant churches that are truly indigenous: led, supported, growing, and multiplying with local resources, rather than dependent on outsiders?
- How can we proclaim and live out the gospel’s implications in ways that believers’ identities are found in Jesus, not in our cultural, religious, and/or political affiliations?
- How many of these issues are actually similar or the same in our Western context, but less obvious because of the lingering veneer of Christianity in our country?
Answers to questions like these influence outreach strategies. In Pioneers, our goal is church planting movements among unreached peoples. For that reason, we don’t want to “extract” isolated individuals from their social context, as happened with Bill and Ibrahim in our first case. We also don’t want our fruit to be only individuals or informal groups who are positive toward Jesus but still identify themselves as part of a non-Christian religion (e.g. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, or Secular), as happened in Jerry and Ahmed’s case.
Our approaches to church planting span a creative variety of methods that are consistent with Scripture. Uma and Khalil’s case represents just one of the ways that networks of house fellowships are spreading as the beginnings of church planting movements. Please join us in asking God to give wisdom to our field workers and leaders as we seek to catalyze church planting movements among the remaining unreached groups of the world.