By Malik Ibrahim
In the final installment in this series (part 1, part 2), we turn our attention to how the MBBFC employed retreats and discipleship training.
Often the pressures of immigrant life coupled with the challenges of leaving Islam can be overwhelming for MBBs. In our fellowship there were many who were struggling with these demands. One MBB leader was on the brink of burnout after continually pouring himself into unresponsive Muslims. An MBB woman was married to a Muslim man whose family had attempted to put curses on her and break up their marriage. Another woman had trusted Christ over a year before, but she was afraid to tell her family.
Due to these and other stories like them, we decided it was time to gather people in our fellowship for a weekend getaway. Thus began the preparations for an MBB Retreat, the first of three that we hosted in the Chicago area in consecutive years (2010 through 2012). The discipleship topics addressed at the retreat were Living in Community, Commitment to Christ and One Another, and Conflict Resolution.
The main meetings consisted of worship and teaching with small and large group discussions. Worship music was culturally familiar to MBBs, plus songs common in North American churches. The teaching sessions consisted of short presentations which oriented participants to the topics, followed by small group discussions of case studies.
Each small group was assigned a different case study presenting discipleship scenarios using story-telling and indirect communication common in Muslim cultures. This format allowed MBBs to discuss their personal discipleship issues indirectly through the characters. To prompt discussion and to keep them on track, each scenario was accompanied by questions. After the discussion time, each small group presented their case study to the large group with their recommendations.
The participants found this teaching method to be engaging. MBBs were animated in discussion as they pored over their case studies. A spokesperson presented the conclusions that their small group had reached.
A final emphasis was to provide a place where people could enjoy themselves and each other. Thus we planned recreation time into the schedule. Recreation proved just as important as the teaching and small group sessions, since these activities created space for people to build relationships, as well as to unburden themselves from challenging life situations.
Evaluation of Retreats
Topics and Themes: The topics chosen for the retreats were relevant to the discipleship needs of MBBs. Those who presented did a good job connecting with their audience in meaningful ways. The case studies were largely successful. The presentations to the large group about the main points from their discussion were beneficial in giving people other discipleship issues to consider. The sessions were also safe havens for MBBs to express their frustrations with issues like their struggle to belong in the North American Church. This allowed others to speak into those situations, providing an opportunity for them to disciple each other.
MBB Leadership and Facilities: A strength of the retreats was the participation of MBBs in planning, panel discussions, leading small groups, and teaching. This involvement helped to create ownership. Participants also enjoyed the organized ice breakers and games. Since the retreats were by invitation only, it helped to preserve the time as being distinctly for MBBs and serious Muslim seekers.
Money Issues: One particular challenge for the MBBs was paying to attend. It was important that they pay some amount to offset costs, and to prevent people who had committed to coming from pulling out. Another benefit to having MBBs pay for the retreat was so that they could demonstrate that they placed value on it. However, many were lax in pre-registering, making it difficult to reserve rooms, and by the third retreat only one MBB paid before it took place. Even though the cost of each retreat was offset by generous donations, it was still difficult to get many people to pay any amount. By the last retreat, less than 10% of the cost was covered by MBBs who attended. This lack of payment coupled with a shrinking attendance from year to year led to a decision to cancel hosting any future retreats.
Case Studies: For all of the success of the case studies, there was one drawback: depending on MBBs with little Bible knowledge to apply relevant Scriptures to the scenarios. It would be best to assign specific passages to each group, or even print them out. This would help participants to focus on appropriate passages and assist with applications.
Recommendations for Retreats:
There are two recommendations to be made for the retreats: First, expectations for the attendees need to be clearly communicated. Some who came felt like the retreat was a vacation and that the meeting sessions were optional. This led to people arriving late on the first night and skipping some of the main sessions. Thus, highlighting the importance of arriving on time, attending meetings, and participation in activities would strengthen the fellowship aspect and help them take the discipleship issues being addressed seriously. Accountability to leadership and obeying the camp rules also need to be emphasized. In two cases people brought alcohol with them and also left the camp grounds which were against regulations. These actions could have jeopardized the retreat by getting our reservations canceled. Another aspect related to camp facilities is making sure that the staff are aware of dietary restrictions such as not serving pork products.
Second, it is paramount that the main presentations be anchored in Scripture. There are many counseling methods that can be applied to discipleship issues, but the goal of these weekends was to help MBBs grow in Christ-likeness. Thus, every presentation needs to be biblically based.
A major need that emerged was the struggle that many MBBs have to study the Bible. In their Muslim past, they rarely spent consistent time studying the meaning of the Qur’an; therefore, MBBs do not come into their Christian life having a habit of personal study. To meet this discipleship need, the leadership planned two one-day seminars on how to engage in Bible study.
The format included three main teaching sessions. The first session focused on the Bible as a single storyline, followed by Character Bible Study and Didactic Bible Study. After each teaching segment, MBBs had individual study time to apply the method, then they joined together in small groups to discuss their answers and applications to study questions.
Evaluation of Discipleship Trainings
Topics: The content of the seminars were judged to be excellent in the evaluations received. The MBBs who came were engaged with the topics and seemed enthusiastic about applying them.
Attendance: There seemed to be an overall lack of interest by many MBBs. The first training session was scheduled for a full day, but after eating lunch, everyone left. Thus, the second session was scheduled just for the morning.
Recommendations for Discipleship Training:
Two recommendations emerged from these discipleship trainings: First, hosting these seminars in different locales where clusters of MBBs live may encourage better attendance. Second, it may be more effective to teach this material in Bible studies which already exist, rather than assemble larger groups for training times.
Developing a healthy MBB Fellowship is challenging. Unique to these fellowships in North America is unifying MBBs with diverse cultural backgrounds within a single group. Likewise, first generation immigrants and refugees face overwhelming time and financial pressures that can make participation difficult.
While these challenges may sound discouraging, they do not overshadow the role MBB Fellowships can play in discipling followers of Christ from a Muslim background. MBBs often have distinct needs that the church rarely addresses. They often have a different worldview from most American Christians. Their conceptions of community and family differ from that of typical Americans. These fellowships can step into this gap by providing discipleship that speaks to Muslim issues. They can also provide teaching that takes worldview distinctions into account. And they can provide a place of community and identity that may be missing for MBBs. Struggle will be inherent in developing any MBB Fellowship. Yet, for the blessing and maturity of MBBs and the glory of God, the investment is worthwhile. We hope that the discussion in this series proves helpful to others who are eager to assist these dear brothers and sisters to grow into Christ-like maturity.
 Here is an example of a case study we used at our third retreat on Conflict Resolution:
Dalal and Fatin are two women from the same village in Iraq. They have been attending the same Bible study for over a year. They enjoy the other people in the Bible study, but they do not talk to each other because of a conflict between their families.
In the Bible study they are studying the book of Ephesians. One evening the focus was on Ephesians 4:25-32 (read this passage). In the middle of the Bible study Dalal publicly accused Fatin of not being a Christian. Fatin responded by yelling at Dalal, “Who are you to tell me I am not a Christian when you act this way?”
Discussion questions were:
- What is the root cause of this conflict?
- What counsel would you give to Dalal and Fatin?
- What Bible passages would you apply to this situation? How would you apply them?
- Conflict happens when there are unresolved issues from the past. How do you help Dalal and Fatin begin to deal with past issues?
 One Middle-Eastern woman exclaimed during a session, “This body of Christ you talk about is a joke!” She felt hurt and discriminated against by the church she was currently attending. She had participated in an MBB Bible study for about a year, which helped her begin her journey to follow Christ, but that Bible study had “fizzled out.” She longed for someone to disciple her and to have closer fellowship with other Christian women. From across the room, a woman from India encouraged her to take the initiative and ask someone to disciple her. After the session the Middle-Eastern woman approached the missionary woman about studying the Bible together. The two women studied together for about two years; now that study has grown to include eight to twelve women; the missionary is the main teacher and the Middle-Eastern disciple translates and explains Scripture to the other women.
 We have since learned from missionaries to Muslim countries that when people are invited to a retreat or conference in their own country, the person inviting them is responsible to pay their way and any other costs that may be involved. Our situation was probably a cultural misunderstanding, combined with the desire of some to view these weekends as a personal vacation.