Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities: Scripture, History, and Seasoned Practices

Since 9/11 there’s been a steady stream of books advising Christians how to faithfully evangelize Muslims. Yet there’s been little output from Christian publishers on how to faithfully disciple former Muslims once they embrace the gospel of Christ.

Don Little, who serves as Islamic missiologist for Pioneers and teaches the Christian study of Islam and missiology at Houghton College, attempts to address that question in Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities: Scripture, History and Seasoned Practices.

Impressive Edifices, Shaky Foundations 

As the subtitle promises, Little walks through portions of Scripture and church history to derive lessons for discipleship. He then surveys common issues in the lives of believers from Muslim backgrounds (“BMBs,” as he calls them) as well as responses to those challenges from experienced disciplers around the globe.

Little displays a mature understanding of the particular challenges BMBs face, and he raises many issues Western churches serious about support ministry in Muslim-majority regions should understand and prepare for. Still, as impressive and helpful as his diagnosis is, there are some basic confusions that mar its usefulness. Effective Discipling is an experience in watching someone tear down with his left hand what he’s built with his right. Even as Little addresses topics churches and missionaries need to consider, I’m not convinced his assumptions and methodology should be adopted.

Conceding to the Trend               

Little’s historical consideration of discipleship is chiefly a critique of what he sees as a modernistic model centered on individualistic methods and right thinking. Beyond the tired, simplistic critique of Western Christianity that emphasizing the mind somehow precludes behavioral change, his solution is flawed. Scanning history to find a better way is commendable, to be sure, but his method in doing so is frustrating to any Protestant invested in church history.

While rightly arguing for the importance of community in discipleship (72, 109), Little looks to questionable sources to defend it. The three traditions he cites are Eastern Orthodoxy, Benedictine monasticism, and High Anglicanism of the strongly sacramental variety. But there are other streams in church history that argue for the value of community and sound doctrine without compromising or clouding the gospel (the Puritans spring to mind). It’s unfortunate that Little concedes to the trend of thinking in broader evangelicalism that believes those who deny justification by faith alone can be depended on to model Christian maturity and discipleship. 

Vague View of Conversion

But the most fundamental problem with Effective Discipling is, a bit ironically, the lack of a clear definition of conversion. Even though Little documents genuine repentance as foundational to conversion, and baptism to Christian discipleship (31), he’s willing to describe as Christians persons who’ve not yet expressed those things. Functionally, he seems to view anyone who professes belief in Jesus as a Christian—even if that belief is not exclusive. Though early on he acknowledges the possibility of false conversions, this possibility is never a live factor when he gets to practical issues of BMB discipleship.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of his operating definition of conversion is the chapter on spiritual warfare. Here Little argues that even believers can experience demonic possession. He sweeps away objections to this position, claiming that those who object provide no evidence against his view (238). (Incredibly, this comes only 10 pages after he cites Jesus’s parable of the demon cast out of the house that remains empty.)

Little then proceeds to say believers cannot expect deliverance from demonic attack until “they renounce Satan and all his works and deliberately seek freedom in Christ” and “explicitly renounce Islam” (238). But is it possible for someone to be a Christian before renouncing Islam or Satan? This seems directly counter to Paul’s statement that we cannot dine at the table of both demons and the Lord (1 Cor. 10:21). If someone has not renounced Satan and his works, or any competing religion, how can we possible conceive of that person as a believer? Or what about his basic description of Christian faith in Romans 10, that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”? As a result, Effective Discipling is full of stories of young “Christians” falling away who never really sounded like genuine believers.

This ambiguous understanding of conversion pervades the book and undermines much good work. Even though Little denounces the Insider Movement trend, practically he still allows the possibility of Christians who haven’t renounced a Muslim identity. And though he begins and ends by urging patience in discipling BMBs (36, 303), I felt my confidence in the Lord to complete his good work strained by Little’s vague view of conversion.

Encouraging and Discouraging 

I found Effective Discipling simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. Little is excellent at diagnosing and explaining the challenges of ministry in Muslim countries. He’s particularly adept at clarifying the social pressures and costs that accompany a conversion out of Islam into Christianity. He has much mature wisdom to offer on questions regarding financial support of local believers and the roles foreign missionaries should play in the life of local churches. Yet his impressive work is marred by what amounts to a failure to apply to practical reality a biblical understanding of conversion. 

I hope this book starts many discussions about the challenges involved with discipling BMBs. By integrating historic practices of discipleship and experience, there is a real depth to LIttle's understanding of the long-term issues that are often neglected in the literature on ministry to Muslims. But I also hope those discussions find many of their solutions elsewhere.

Don Little. Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities: Scripture, History, and Seasoned Practices. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015. 350 pp. $24.00.