By Alan Toitre, PhD
In my previous article, I introduced my research which investigated Muslim background believers’ (MBBs) identity construction as it sought to answer what factors promoted or inhibited a positive Christian identity. In this article, I want to expand upon the concept of identity based upon the research and to illustrate this from case studies. This has implications regarding their retention and discipleship within the church.
First, in my research, I made a distinction between those who are immigrants and those who belong to a diasporic community. While some Christian ministries use the two terms interchangeably, the difference is that a diaspora represents a minority community within a host country with established institutions and networks; reproducing certain aspects of a memory of a homeland. Immigrants, on the other hand, may not be associated with any established community and lack the necessary social resources of the family or community. Almost all of my participants represent the latter. Hence, some of my findings may not be applicable to those ministering within an established Muslim diasporic community.
Dimensions of identity
1. Grace: “The Jesus event”
None of my participants joined a church merely to become part of a Christian community for purposes of socialization. Rather, all of them did so as a result of encountering Jesus Christ in a very personal way, which I call “The Jesus event.” Whether through personal study or evangelism, encountering the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ is the transformative event which causes them to seek out a dynamic Christian community.
2. Past associations and future purposes
I found that identity also includes past, present, and future dimensions. Participants who had a strong sense of identity also had a strong sense of God’s purpose in their lives, and could incorporate their Islamic past. Some, like Esther, spoke about how the Holy Spirit was leading her to come to Canada, even though she was a faithful Muslim at the time.
Likewise, there is generally a future orientation: the expectation that God will continue to use them for his purposes. For example, an Iranian MBB, Mirza, said that initially he was hopeless, but God gave him hope, and expressed an expectation that God would continue to use him and said, “In a couple of years I hope to set a right foundation for a right movement in this community.” Likewise, churches that had a clear missional vision were more likely to encourage a sense of purpose: a future hope of God’s continued grace in their lives.
3. Cultural/Ethnic transcendence
Within certain Christian ministries that take culture seriously, there is sometimes an assumption that culture is something that one is locked into. Hence, if a Muslim comes to Christ, then that person needs to retain as much cultural continuity as possible. While I acknowledge that one’s culture and ethnicity remain as important components, my participants demonstrated that as one encounters Jesus Christ, they are able to transcend such categories. This can partly be explained by the fact that as immigrants, acculturation has already been taking place within a Western secular context. Also, some participants were already disillusioned with their Islamic upbringing, making their transition easier.
4. Constructing a life narrative
Identity research acknowledges the importance of constructing a life-narrative, which is essential for attaining a positive identity. This is the process in which a person integrates one’s past with the present, making important connections with the sense of a new identity. This is similar to the testimony or a conversion narrative in the church. While giving a testimony includes this, constructing a life-narrative is a continual process, and one’s identity in Christ continues to mature in understanding. Hence, a church can be a place that helps facilitate this process.
Case Studies: Best Ministry Practices Regarding MBB Retention and Discipleship in Churches
In this next section, I want to provide case studies that help illustrate the four dimensions of identity above.
Calvary Christian Church: Multi-congregational model
Mohammad and Fatima were already disillusioned with Islam when they got married and eventually emigrated to the United States. Upon arriving, they were interested in Christianity. An Indian church gave them an English Bible, and in time they were connected to an Arabic pastor. He helped incorporate them into his congregation, which was part of a multi-congregational church called Calvary Christian Church. While they both experienced dramatic conversions, they also experienced cultural difficulties. Since Fatima was from Morocco, she had a hard time understanding the Middle-eastern Arabic ways and language. While Mohammad’s cultural and ethnic background was closer to the other congregants, he still had to deal with initial suspicions, gossip, and prejudice. In time those problems were resolved and both got involved in the other church’s ministries, particularly the English congregation and the youth group [#1, #3]. When asked about worshiping with other congregations, they both readily agreed that this was very important [#3]. Both have begun formal Bible studies in English, which was more helpful in directing them into ministry [#2].
Springfield Bible Church: Catalyst for the kingdom
This is a large evangelical church that formed a small group of volunteers who wanted to help refugees through World Vision. Abeer came to America as a refugee from Iraq and soon discovered that members of this church were helping to accommodate her in America, providing for her needs and connecting her to community. She became quite interested in the church and in learning about Jesus Christ so that she soon got baptized. The church became the primary means for her to experience the grace of God corporately, and became active by volunteering to help set up rooms during the week and participating in Bible studies [#1, #4]. Eventually she understood the church’s broader missional vision and exclaimed:
“I promise all my life with Jesus Christ … because I know the Bible is true, my life, and my way. I’m sorry because I feel so upset with the Arab people, especially my country.… I will pray for many countries that they will [know] about Jesus. [This is] the reason I told the people I wish I were on missionary trip. I wish someday!” (laughs) (189) [#3]
Pastor Shahin’s Church: Iranian MBBs in the lead
While attending a Christian conference in Canada, I interviewed four members of Pastor Shahin’s church. All of them were volunteers at the conference, and readily participated in the worship of English praise songs. While his church is mainly composed of Iranian MBBs, it was described as being multi-cultural with a strong sense of grace and purpose [#1, #3]. For example, Niki described herself as an open-minded, educated Iranian who was an introverted loner. That changed after going to his church. The Bible studies were opportunities for members not just to read the Word, but to apply it to their lives and openly discuss various personal issues. Niki admitted how the Bible studies were sometimes painful, but were instrumental in helping her come out of her shell (#2, #3, #4).
I observed that while Pastor Shahin’s church is composed mainly of Iranian MBBs, it is characterized by a strong sense of God’s grace and purpose. Moreover, Pastor Shahin seems to connect his people with the broader church so that is doesn’t become another ethnic enclave [#3].
Conclusion and Recommendations:
From these examples, I found that participants who had a stronger Christian identity came from churches that exhibited the grace of God, had a missional vision, allowed participants to openly share in a small group, and had opportunities to transcend past cultural/ethnic associations. Churches that allowed these practices strengthened MBBs’ Christian identities and promoted their discipleship as well. Based upon this research, these are a few recommendations that I offer:
- Since Muslims generally come from relational cultures, it is important to form a small group of people in the church who are willing to be a part of their community. Optimally, it should include a leader who understands cultures well, such as a missionary or ethnic pastor.
- While MBBs at times will struggle with their Islamic past, I found that it is the outworking of God’s grace in their lives which allows them to sense that God’s presence was working in their past. A church with a missional focus, saturated with God’s grace, may encourage MBBs to see themselves as God’s ambassadors to their own people, encouraging them into greater ministry.
- Allow MBBs to study the Word, discuss it, and seek ways to apply it to their lives. This will be a long process, but by doing so, it will help them construct a life-narrative, which will in turn strengthen their Christian identities.
- Allow MBBs opportunities to make friendships with Christians from other backgrounds. I have found many of my participants excited to be part of a new family in Jesus Christ. They see the gospel as inclusive of all, and would want to meet others within that family.