WE PRAY FOR MANY MORE OF LONDON’S MUSLIMS TO TURN TO JESUS CHRIST AS LORD AND SAVIOUR. HOW READY IS THE CHURCH READY TO WELCOME AND HELP NEW BELIEVERS FROM A MUSLIM BACKGROUND GROW IN THEIR FAITH?
LCM missionary Matt Brinkley and a recent Muslim background convert find a quiet spot on the edge of a graveyard to pray as they finish their catch-up. They have been reading and talking about the parable of the good soil in Matthew’s gospel. The man ends his prayer simply: “Lord, there is sadness now, but I am willing to sacrifice everything for you. Amen.”
The eloquent simplicity of the prayer sums up the experience of many believers from a Muslim background: profound loss and sacrifice. One of the most common and momentous consequences of following Jesus is to be cut off from family and community. The greatest shame for a Muslim is to bring dishonour upon the family name. For a typical Muslim, it is almost unthinkable to take an action that would bring disrespect to your family or community. It impacts extended family structures, and the hurt, embarrassment, and perplexity spills into future generations.
As more men and women from a Muslim background turn to Jesus, a natural and urgent question arises: how ready is the church to disciple and nurture these believers in their new faith? How ready are we to adapt to the needs of people who have been raised in a very different world-view, with different experiences, cultural norms and expectations? We know how easily churches can fail in this. Take the example of one woman, now an effective evangelist, who converted from Islam to Christianity during great personal trauma. When she first became a Christian, she did not receive the welcome and support she needed in London’s English-speaking churches. “Believe me, I didn’t get any connection,” she says. “They didn’t even try to understand or make a connection. For me it’s sad. It’s important to understand other’s cultures, understand how you connect with them and don’t treat them like they are outsiders.”
Even if cultural mistakes and misunderstandings are inevitable, there’s no excuse for a church community not bothering to make a person from another culture welcome and included. Maybe everybody in the church thought it was somebody else’s responsibility. Perhaps people assumed it was on the new believer to adjust to a westernised approach to faith. When the church is unthinking about its own cultural assumptions and norms, we may end up asking Muslim background believers to ‘double conversion’. First, they convert from following the teaching of the Qur’an to following Jesus, and second, they must to convert to western culture. Of course, the Bible was written in and to Middle Eastern, communal cultures, which means Muslims are likely to understand some things intuitively.
ONE OF THE MOST COMMON AND MOMENTOUS CONSEQUENCES OF FOLLOWING JESUS IS TO BE CUT OFF FROM FAMILY AND COMMUNITY
For example, it is common and accepted in Britain today that parents with savings will give a portion of their inheritance to their children when they are setting out, to help them get on the housing ladder. Not so in the Middle East, says missionary Jean-Louis Kassis. He converted from Islam while in prison in Lebanon. ‘If you have two sons and one of them came to you and said, ‘Hey Dad, I need my inheritance now,’ that would be a deep, deep insult in the Middle East. A son who came to his father in this way, is really saying is that he wants to see his dad die.’ It would create a family rift that would mean he would have to go away and never return. This understanding brings real insight to the story of the Prodigal Son.
Don Little in ‘Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities’ looks at the weakness of what he calls the ‘evangelical modernist’ approach to discipling Muslims. It is based on the assumption that a growing understanding of Bible teaching is all that is needed to lead a person into maturity. It is individualistic in nature and does not pay enough attention to the role of the church or on building relationships. Consider that when Jesus called his first disciples, his teaching approach was not primarily to invite them to increase their individual understanding by studying the Scriptures. Jesus’ teaching was action and community-centred. He created a learning community of 12 men with the invitation, ‘Follow me’.
IT ALL HANGS ON ME
Most Muslims who convert to Christianity experience the significant input of two or three Christians on their journey at different points. This gives them time to build up their own impression of what Christians are like. It is useful to know this, says Matt, because everyone has that one person they pray for. When they do respond, you can get so excited and forget that it doesn’t all hinge on you, and you may just be a link in the chain.
SUSPICIOUS OF CHURCH
Yet in the early days, Muslims can be quite suspicious of church. There is a long history of negative propaganda about the church and about Christians that needs to be overcome. Matt Brinkley says he’s heard testimonies of people who experience dreams and visions, which lead them to trust the local church community. ‘We often associate this sort of thing with a Muslim seeker’s journey in the lead-up to conversion,’ says Matt. ‘But where Muslim background believers feel awkward about entering a multi-gender worship space and informal ways of doing church, God has a way of encouraging believers to feel at home.’
Welcoming new believers who may face upheaval in their family and community, coming with a history of mistrust of the church and with different cultural expectations, takes patience, understanding and love. The most effective response is the community life of the church itself, which gives Muslim background believers the best opportunity to grow in faith. Little says of his experience as a missionary in Egypt: ‘The power of corporate worship, honest and vulnerable sharing and caring and praying for each other was often a stronger attraction to Christ than weeks and months of one-on-one conversations and individual discipling. ‘We were not so much inviting people to follow Christ as individuals, but rather inviting them to join a community of those already seeking to grow deeper in their discipleship to Christ.’ We pray that many, many more Londoners from Muslim backgrounds will turn to Jesus. We pray they will find in the church a welcome and a loving community to support them as fellow travellers following Christ.