By Alan Totire, PhD
We rejoice that there are indications of large numbers of Muslims coming to Christ. While coming to faith in Christ is an important step towards achieving a new identity in Christ, it would be rather naïve to assume that the conversion experience (being born again) is the all sufficient event which would keep Muslim converts within the church. Muslim converts’ faith needs to be lived out within a particular community, most notably the church. The church, then, becomes the primary institution and the community whereby they learn what it means to live for Jesus, and how to live as a Christian in a new community and fellowship.
My dissertation investigated MBB identity construction as it sought to answer what factors promoted or inhibited a positive Christian identity. The concept of identity includes not only the sense of “who I am”, but it also includes a relevant social group – “to whom do I belong?” (Hogg and Abram 1988, Hogg and Terry 2001,Tajfel and Turner 1979). In this case, a loss of identity means a loss of the self-concept, which is dependent on the community and social context. Identities are based upon group membership and include an emotional component as well as possible roles and behavioral expectations. Without these components, a person suffers from a loss of identity. Obviously, this state of mind over the long term is unhealthy. MBBs, being both immigrants and religious converts, are particularly vulnerable to this.
This article is based upon that research and is split into two sections: In part 1, I provide a brief overview of my research and introduce some of the participants and the circumstances of how they left Islam and followed Jesus. In part 2, I will touch upon post-conversion identity issues and provide four best church practices that are necessary for building a positive Christian identity.
Background of the research
From 2012-2014, I interviewed twenty MBBs who willingly participated in this research based upon the following criteria: (1) They had to have come to Christ as a result of leaving their home and resettling in North America. (2) They had to be a first generation immigrant. (3) They had to have been at least 18 years old when converting. (4) They should have been a Christian at least a year when contacted for the interview.
Twelve participants were living in the mid-western part of the United States in Chicagoland. Eight came from the Toronto area of Canada. 6 were Iranian, 9 from the Middle East (including Egypt), two from Pakistan, one from Morocco and one from India. The status of their emigrating are as follows: three came as students, one as undocumented, two as refugee status, and the remaining 14 came as immigrants or as the spouse of a citizen. I chose aliases for participants as well as certain place names.
Preliminary insights from the research
Mission practitioners assert that immigrants are more open to the Gospel. This is generally true for Muslims as well since a loss of culture and community leaves them in a vulnerable position, providing an opportune time for churches or others ministries to reach out to them. Although each story of emigration and resettlement is unique, it is important to understand some of the stories and spiritual background of immigrant MBBs.
Muslim as a socio-cultural term.
While we think of Muslims as people who practice the religion of Islam, the term itself does not in any way measure the extent of religious devotion or practice. Several of my participants indicated that their faith was mainly nominal. In fact, more than half of my participants (11 out of 20) were either nominal or felt an aversion to it. In this case, the term Muslim is a sociocultural term, where one could identify with the group without practicing the religion. In fact, half of my participants (10 out of 20) were disaffected from Islam by the time they were presented the Gospel. The other half came to Christ as they interacted with Christians or the Bible, resulting in a world-view challenge.
Interactions with Western Christians
The majority of my participants who encountered Christians did so in life situations where the sharing of the Gospel was a natural result of such encounters. A few were contacted by ethnic pastors, and two had some interactions with missionaries. While this research does not underestimate the work done by missionaries, it does underscore the need for missionaries and ethnic pastors to equip the laity. The following examples demonstrate the circumstances where Christians shared with their Muslim neighbors.
Grace grew up as the daughter of an Ayatollah and witnessed her father travel around the Middle East as a Muslim missionary. As she grew older, adverse circumstances caused her to flee the Middle East and seek asylum in the U.K. Alone and broken in a foreign land, she cried out to Allah for help and determined to fast until her needs were provided for. After 3 days, a Christian family (having been informed by a concerned doctor) showed up at her door with bags of groceries. This act of grace caused her to break down crying. As a result, Grace wanted to go to church. The day that she visited their church was the day that she committed her life to Christ.
Sarah was a Palestinian teenager who got married and immigrated to America when she was 16, allowing her the opportunity to attend high school. Unfortunately, she was suffering from domestic abuse, and her search for Allah was futile. Fortunately, two Christian teachers from her school had become her friends and sought ways to help her. She was impressed that the teachers did not try to convert her, but sought ways to help her through the local mosque. This, too, did not solve either her domestic or spiritual problems. Instead, the outreach of concerned Christians caused her to begin a spiritual path away from Islam. Initially arguing for Islam, the result of Christian love and outreach caused her worldview to eventually break. The constant comparison between Jesus versus Mohammad eventually caused a break from her Islamic worldview. Sarah surprised everyone by declaring that she wanted to become a Christian.
Growing up in Iran as a devout Muslim, Esther married an Iranian who was a Canadian citizen. Before leaving her country, she feared that she might forget her religion as a result of living in a materialistic and hedonistic society. Unfortunately, her fears were realized when she fell into the habit of shoplifting and was caught. She became angry towards Allah for allowing her to come to Canada in the first place.
Sometime later, she and her husband needed a basement built in their house. Out of the blue, they met two friendly Christian construction workers who offered to do the job, so they accepted. In time, they became friends and conversation eventually drifted towards God. One of them opened up about his faith in Jesus, stating how his father had died, but he was prayed over and came back to life. This greatly shocked Esther, who decided to investigate further and accepted an offer to visit his church. Soon after that, a coworker shared the Gospel with Esther, causing her to face the possible reality that Jesus Christ really died for her sins. That night she cried out to God, and asked Jesus to reveal himself to her. After she woke up, she felt a peace and joy that she never felt before, and knew that Jesus had saved her.
An Iranian who eventually rejected Islam for Marxism, Rasta and her family came to the United States for medical treatment. She needed to learn English, so she attended ESL classes at a church. She became friends with her teacher, but when the subject of religion came up, she preferred not to talk about it. Later, her daughter made friends with Julie, a Christian classmate from school who invited her to church. Her daughter’s begging caused Rasta to relent, but she herself would not go even when Julie’s mother called and invited Rasta to go with them. When Sunday came, Rasta had a vision of an angel who said in Farsi, “I am your good shepherd.” Greatly shaken, that day Rasta went to church and gave her life to Jesus.
Not all conversion stories were dramatic. Salman from India attended an Alpha course at church which caused him to investigate Christ’s claims. Basheer from Pakistan accepted Christ as a result of attending a marriage seminar at church. Abeer arrived as a refugee from Iraq and found herself welcomed by a team of Christians from a local church that had a vision to help refugees. That interested her in Jesus Christ and the Bible, resulting in her coming to faith.
Although it is true that it may take a long time for a Muslim to come to faith, these examples were selected to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is reaching Muslims, and any layperson or church can be used for His purposes. In part 2 of this article, I will discuss the identity issues that arise when MBBs seek fellowship in our churches.
Baig, Sufyan. 2013. The Ummah and Christian community. In Longing for Community:
Church, ummah, or somewhere in between?, ed. David Greenlee, 69-75. Pasadena,
CA: William Carey Library.
Green, Tim. 2013. Conversion in light of identity theories. In Longing for Community:
Church, ummah, or somewhere in between?, ed. David Greenlee, 41-52. Pasadena,
CA: William Carey Library.
Greenlee, David. 2013. Longing for community: Church, ummah, or somewhere in between?
Pasadena, CA : William Carey Library.
Hogg, Michael A. and Deborah Terry. 2001. Social identity processes in organizational
contexts. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis.
__________. 2000. Social identity and self-categorization process in organizational
contexts. Academy of Management Review.25, no. 1: 121-140.
Hogg, Michael A. and Dominic Abrams. 1988. Social identifications: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes. London: Routledge.
Kraft, Kathryn Ann. 2012. Searching for heaven in the real world: A sociological discussion
of conversion in the Arab world. Oxford, England: Regnum.
Tajfel, Henri and John Turner. 1979. The social identity theory of intergroup relations. In
The social psychology of intergroup relations, ed. William Austin and Stephen
Worschel, 7-24. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Totire, Alan. 2015. An investigation into identity theory according to the experiences of believers from Muslim backgrounds. PhD diss., Trinity International University, 2015.