By Roy Oksnevad
I started working among Muslims in 1986 after attending language school. I quickly discovered that ministry among Muslims is not as straightforward as most ministry in North America. I had done pioneer church planting in the NY/NJ metro area in the early 1980s and was familiar with the ups and downs of new converts as the gospel slowly transforms their lives. However, in my work with Muslims—people who have no collective memory of Christianity—I discovered ups and downs of new converts of a different intensity.
Like so many working in Muslim ministry, I spent a lot of time reacting to all the drama. At times I was confused, not knowing the dynamics that were driving the behavior. Ministry seemed to be one step forward and three steps backward. People were highly suspicious of each other and trying to get people together was a challenge. When someone stumbled in the Christian walk, he or she was quickly judged as not being Christian. I discovered that people were highly sensitive and that there was an entire culture of “doing a dance” so as not to offend the other person. Arguments broke out easily, and so many involved in these conflicts had a zero-sum approach to life; it was all or nothing. My efforts to inject reason into the conversation got me nowhere. In prayer, there were those who seemed to hold God hostage to their demands; anything less was viewed as lack of faith. The idea of overlooking an offense was a foreign concept. Further, there seemed to be an inability to distinguish between a minor offense to be overlooked and a major offense that needed to be dealt with. There was little collective memory of conflict resolution, so many people resorted to their default setting: deny the existence of conflict or simply leave the church when conflict arose. In a relatively short time, fellowships would experience a major split or fail to take root. Forgiveness, though talked about and often preached, just didn’t seem to make sense on an emotional level. Marital problems were frequent, and the divorce rate was exceptionally high. Women found a new lease on life in Christ and many wanted to be up front, and they dressed in a way to get attention. Everyone wanted to share their life’s story and felt “called” to be a pastor. Very few wanted to listen to the pastor they had, for they felt that they could do better.
The more I interacted with others in ministry, I began to understand that what I experienced was not unique to my situation. In fact, leaders of Iranian ministries were all facing the same challenges, and no one seemed to have an explanation of what was happening. Pastors of these fellowships didn’t want to interact with others and even forbade their members from attending activities at other churches. At one point, I was contacted independently by two leaders in the Iranian community asking me to take a serious look at what was happening and to help them make sense of it all. It is out of this research that Shackled to Culture: First Generation Issues in Coming to Christ was birthed.
Why is this book important? This book portrays the community of Muslim background believers from the inside out, based on in-depth interviews. It is not another book about the need to reach Muslims or getting in on the movement of God among Muslims. It isn’t about conversion theories with the desire to be more effective in our evangelism and strategies. It isn’t about dreams and visions or miraculous events that take place regularly in ministry among Muslims. Shackled to Culture: First Generation Issues in Coming to Christ is important because it describes ministry in the words of the believers themselves. It diagnostically categorizes what MBBs shared from their experience, and it helps the reader make sense of the cultural baggage they carry.
What makes this book unique? It is not about a theory of ministry, a methodology to follow, or “silver bullet” to magically transform your ministry. In this book I take an in-depth look at sources of tension to better understand what is happening and where our attention should be focused in order to move a young church forward. Remember, we are looking at a community that is still in its infant stage of development and naturally does not have the infrastructure found in older communities, such as trained leaders and stable, mature members. We don’t need another book on strategy or methodology. We need a book that explains what is happening and gives guidance to help move the fellowship forward. If you are doing ministry among Muslims, you will face all these issues and then some. I have talked with people who have given up in ministry because it was too hard. It may be that the expectations of ministry were unrealistic. It is my desire that this book will serve not only those already doing the ministry but also those desiring to work among Muslims. Shackled to Culture: First Generation Issues in Coming to Christ is a realistic look at ministry with its complexities and idiosyncrasies so the worker can make sense of what is happening and prepare for what will come.
Will this book help me in my ministry? We are seeing Muslims coming to Christ. The Iranian church is one of the fastest growing churches among people from a Muslim background. My focus is to look at taking the nascent church from infancy to maturity. The last chapter lays out thirteen different areas that will have to be addressed if you are to see the ministry make this journey to maturity. Though the book specifically looks at the Iranian church in the diaspora, particularly in Europe, Canada, and the United States, it is powerfully instructive in wholesome discipleship not just for Iranians, but also for those coming from similar backgrounds of toxic faith, totalitarian regimes, and a background of little or no collective memory of Christianity and its values.
Shackled to Culture: First Generation Issues in Coming to Christ by Roy Oksnevad will be published in early 2019 by William Carey Publishing (www.williamcarey.com).