By Roy Oksnevad
Matthew 28:18-20 admonishes us to go and make disciples of all nations. Often in Muslim ministry our desire is just to see Muslims come to Christ; we aren’t considering discipleship. So often the Western understanding of discipleship is knowledge-based. The dictum is right theology (or thinking) makes right behavior. Is going through topics such as assurance of salvation, filling of the Holy Spirit, identity in Christ, fellowship or church, developing a quiet time, or witnessing really discipleship?
To be perfectly honest, my attempts at discipleship don’t look anything like the programs or books we are to go through to “properly” disciple new believers. Example: Time – I try to set times when we can meet and invariably something comes up and we rarely meet weekly. It sounds like this: I have family coming so we can’t meet. Someone came to visit me so we can’t meet. Some event is happening with my family so we can’t meet. Life is not stable and trying to have consistent weekly meetings is hard.
Example: Trying to get through material systematically – Just last night I wanted to pick up on a study we have been doing. The last time we covered the material was 5 weeks ago. Though we have met other times since then, our study was tabled with more pressing questions. The adult son started arguing that he is god (heavily influenced by Hinduism and other Eastern philosophies), we are all gods and he has insights from God. His uncle called him crazy. After things calmed down, I had to answer questions that the son raised. I went to Genesis to cover God’s redemptive story. In the meantime the adult son got up and lit incense and walked around us twice filling the air with its scent. I ended up answering questions such as if Adam and Eve had two sons, then where did their wives come from? Another question related to how the Bible has such bad stories and even the prophets do bad things, so the Bible can’t be a book from God. If it was written by God it would have good stories. (These were the accusations they heard from their relatives and they wanted an answer.) I was able to answer the questions, giving a tour of the Bible showing God addressing man’s greatest problem and how the Old Testament unfolds God’s redemptive plan culminating in Christ Jesus. We ended the evening in prayer as I prayed for each person and their specific need. The prayer time profoundly touched them. As I drove home, I thanked God for the time, but I was also wondering how I can better help them on in their walk toward maturity in Christ. Ministry is messy.
Many churches are doing short-term mission trips. Pastors go and hold seminars working through translators. Are our attempts at discipleship really accomplishing what we think? I asked a leader of a mission group who shared the following insight. The national believers confided in him that typically only about 20% of the material presented by Western leaders was helpful to national leaders. They often use the conference time to gather and discuss the issues they are facing instead of discussing the material that was presented.
Discipleship needs to take into consideration the cultural context believers from a Muslim background come from. Contextual ignorance means that some key areas people struggle in will not be adequately addressed in the discipleship process. What are some of these cultural contexts?
The first thing we need to understand is the context that most MBBs are coming from has little or no collective memory of Christianity. By this I mean that most have had little or no contact with Christians growing up. Their only religious expression they know is Islam and the way that religion was experienced and taught. There is a lot of “religious and cultural noise” that new believers have to filter through which Western Christians don’t have. Many of these questions end in cul-de-sac reasoning, meaning they never get anywhere by following that line of thinking. Yet, many struggle with all the “white noise” from their community and background that is distracting.
What are some foundational issues that may not be fully understood by Western Christians?
- Identity – New Christians can struggle with taking on a new identity in Christ. It is very disturbing when conversion seems to go against culture, history, former religion, community, or family. Many struggle with their cultural identity and the new identity that is now found in Christ. It may take time for the person to navigate this new identity.
- Persecution – New Christians often experience rejection, family pressure, beatings, or being kicked out of the family when family or community discover that someone has become a Christian. Some do not have the strength to stand in light of the persecution. Others in business, particularly those who are dependent upon their community for their livelihood, are afraid to self-identify as a follower of Jesus, believing it would be the death of their business. Persecution is part of the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:12; John 15:20). Yet, much of our discipleship material doesn’t deal with persecution.
- Trauma and trust – Those who have experienced severe pressure and even persecution make decisions based on fear. They struggle with trusting others, particularly those from their own community. We found that new arrivals may take many years before they can trust media or would even consider going to their own community to share Christ.
- Family and community pressure – New Christians face enormous pressure from family and the community to return to the community, since leaving means you will bring chaos to the family, community, country, and religion. The question becomes how does the new disciple honor their family while at the same time remain true to their new life in Christ?
- Living in two realities – Some are Christians around Christians and Muslim around people in their community. There is a belief that you cannot live in your community as a Christian. Navigating the tension between the two communities is difficult, particularly with the viciousness of gossip.
- Instability of life – Refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced war, famine, unstable governments, hyperinflation, or natural disasters have their own world. This instability follows them and is often a contributing factor which stunts their growth in Christ.
- Christians are perfect – Often new disciples bring a utopian worldview to the Christian life and are disillusioned when believers do not meet their expectations of being just like Jesus. Islam today has created a utopian understanding of Islam and Muhammad, though the reality of it is entirely different. Muhammad has grown over the centuries to become a person who can’t be touched. When individuals come to Christ, this same utopian expectation follows them, and they often become disillusioned with the Christian community. This is particularly the case when most of the people and the pastor in the new ethnic church are new Christians and emotional. They don’t have the theological understanding of what G.E. Ladd calls “the Kingdom of God that is here but not yet.” Islam teaches that the kingdom of God has come on earth and they bring this understanding into the new church.
- Conflict – Many former Muslims come from a zero-sum response to conflict, which is expressed “My way is the only way!” There is no negotiation or trying to bring two sides together. Conflict is a major problem. Yet forgiveness and reconciliation are foundational to the Christian life. A complicating factor is that many cannot distinguish between a minor offense to be overlooked and a major offense that needs to be dealt with.
- Oral culture vs written culture – Western culture historically has been a literate culture, as seen with the voluminous books published. This value of reading is expressed in Christianity in which Bible studies are normative in traditional evangelical churches. However, this importance of reading is not easily found in the culture of many former Muslims. Reading and using inductive reasoning in studying the Bible is not necessarily easily understood or adopted. Therefore, MBB pastors may not necessarily have good study habits, and finishing a book is hard. New believers don’t have the study habits to come prepared for a discipleship study. They just want to listen.
Discipleship is not a straight line of finding a “person of peace”* and all will go well. Nor is it as simple as 2 Timothy 2:2 of finding reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Those who accept Christ need us to walk alongside them, helping them grow in their new Christian life. Ministry to Muslims is messy and time-consuming. Our discipleship role needs to be a stabilizing factor when life in their world is so chaotic.
*Person of Peace – this concept is loosely based on Matt. 10, Luke 10, and Acts which promotes the concept of a worthy person who accepts you and your message. Previously in missions, this person was called a “gatekeeper.”
 See Alan Totire’s two articles for more detail https://commanetwork.com/dig_deeper/attaining-a-positive-christian-identity-muslims-finding-christ-in-america-part-1/
 Tarif Khalidi in Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries (New York: Doubleday, 2009) has chronicled how Muhammad has transformed from a person unsure of his fate to becoming the light of the world in Shiite biographies, a model mystic in Sufi literature, to prophet canonized in the 11th-12th centuries, and ultimately a universal model, hero, and liberator in contemporary literature.