By Mike Urton
“Someone told me, ‘You are like Peter Pan!’” exclaimed the emcee at a conference I attended a few years ago. He had come to Christ out of a Muslim background, and his “Peter Pan” experience was one of trying to care for other Muslim Background Believers (MBBs), while not being a mature Christian himself. A number of other MBBs at the conference also shared how they felt like orphans after they came to Christ. These feelings expressed their frustration with no longer being welcome in the Muslim community and their difficulty in finding mature Christians to disciple them. When a Muslim background person leaves Islam, it is not just religious belief that they leave behind. Often they experience rejection from their families and communities which results in feelings of isolation and abandonment, even after becoming part of a local congregation in North America.
Here is where a Muslim Background Believer Fellowship can assist those who have come out of Islam, helping them to unite their need for community and familiar cultural customs with growing in their new Christian life.
This three-part series will take an in-depth look at the Muslim Background Believer Fellowship of Chicagoland (MBBFC), which began in 2005. This fellowship continued for nine years until its final meeting in 2014. The goal of this series is to discover lessons gleaned from methods used to disciple MBBs in Chicago. In Part 1 we will discuss the history and background of the fellowship, along with the large group gatherings.
History and Background
In the fall of 2005, three MBBs and two missionaries began meeting to plan an MBB fellowship. We determined that MBBs needed a fellowship group in order to help them support one another and address unique challenges stemming from their Muslim identities. We desired to see them become healthy members of local congregations and effective witnesses among their Muslim family members and friends.
As we continued planning, we began making contact with other MBBs. We discovered that they were a diverse group, representing over 14 different nations with a mixture of men, women, single, married, and whole families. Of those who were married, some had believing spouses, and others were married to Muslims. We decided to make English our main language, with individual translation as needed.
Our planning and networking culminated in the first large group gathering in July 2006 at a centrally-located church.
Large Group Gatherings
Early Beginnings: Early on, we met once every two months at a local church, but soon changed to meeting every month. The evenings included an international meal, and a time of teaching, sharing, and prayer. After about a year, attendance dwindled at these monthly gatherings—in part due to the long distances MBBs traveled to reach the church where meetings were held. Since each meeting required significant time and energy, we decided to host them less frequently and start a few Bible studies in locations closer to where clusters of MBBs lived.
These early meetings were attended not only by MBBs, but by Muslim seekers as well. One young Turkish Muslim was invited to the fellowship by a friend who had been witnessing to him. He was interested in Christ, but had been told his whole life that Muslims just don’t leave Islam. Yet when this Turkish Muslim attended an MBB fellowship meeting he was amazed to meet others who had trusted Christ from an Islamic background. The testimony of the MBB fellowship along with the care of a local church, eventually led this young man to place his faith in Christ!
Holiday Gatherings: Eventually we centered the large group gatherings on the major holidays of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The schedule that worked best was to begin with a fellowship meal. This was followed by the main meeting with worship, testimonies, and a message. Small prayer groups followed, and we ended with dessert. Attendance ranged between 20-50.
There were two primary advantages in having the larger group gatherings during holidays. First, in their Muslim past, many MBBs were a part of communities which gathered for meaningful celebrations. In their new Christian life, they were no longer able to participate in many of these celebrations and did not fully grasp the richness of the Christian holidays that they had inherited.
Second, these meetings provided natural ways for MBBs to invite Muslim family members and friends into a Christian community. Many Muslims living in the United States are curious about the holiday customs that they see on display. Due to this curiosity, some Muslim family members and friends were interested in attending the meetings.
MBBs were involved in each step of the planning and executing of these meetings by helping to organize, inviting others, and giving rides to the events. They served as greeters, panel discussion participants, emcees, speakers, and prayer group leaders. In this way, MBBs were equipped for ministry and grew in areas of service and leadership.
The leadership team selected themes for each meeting that specifically addressed the worldview of MBBs and Muslims. The meetings were intentionally structured to challenge MBBs to apply what they heard and experienced.
Evaluation of Large Group Meetings
Themes and Messages: The Christmas and Easter meetings had a number of successful elements. Firstly, the themes and messages connected well with the issues and worldview of MBBs and Muslims. They enjoyed the fellowship with people from a similar background, even though their ethnic identities varied. MBBs appreciated being involved in the planning and participation of the events. The use of visual aids, such as PowerPoint and Christmas decorations, greatly helped to explain the significance of events like Advent. PowerPoint with pictures illustrating the words of songs were effective in teaching people and keeping them focused on the theme, especially for those who struggled with English.
Panel Discussions: The panel discussions were effective in helping MBBs personally identify with the theme and personal applications. Usually three MBBs participated on these panels, answering a few well-prepared questions addressing a topic taken from the message. Panel discussions have helped MBBs communicate ways their new life in Christ is transforming their Muslim past and have helped them learn to share in a larger group.
Prayer Groups: The prayer groups at the end of each meeting provided times when people could share openly with each other. They were important opportunities for MBBs to minister to one another and to any Muslim guests.
Distance: As mentioned above, the distance to travel for these meetings was a challenge and contributed to an eventual decline in attendance. This problem resulted from the fact that Chicago is a very large city and MBBs are scattered throughout the entire metro area.
Language and Presentations: While MBB participation was largely successful, it also posed some difficulties. The unifying language for the group was English. However, it was sometimes difficult to understand presentations by MBBs who had heavy accents or did not know English well. Likewise, some with limited English had difficulty understanding presentations and conversing with others. Another challenge for some presenters was staying within their time frame and remaining on topic.
Assumptions: Another difficulty was the assumption that MBBs understand certain aspects of the Christian life, such as instructions during communion. Muslim ministry workers must keep in mind the backgrounds of MBBs when planning ministry events, and adequately explain things that may not be understood.
Recommendations for Large Group Gatherings
The successes and challenges of these Large Group Gatherings have led us to five recommendations. First, using either a central location that is closer in proximity or rotating locations may help alleviate the travel distance issue. Second, reviewing presentations with people one-on-one before the meetings could assist in keeping them focused on the topic. Third, making sure that those who are participating in other aspects of the meeting are clear on their roles might ensure that the event flows more smoothly. Fourth, taking an offering at each meeting would establish funds to pay for future meetings, as well as provide an emergency fund for those in crisis. It is important for purposes of ownership and caring for one another that MBBs contribute to this fund themselves. Finally, rotating MBBs on the planning team would help to train others and get new ideas and insight to their needs.
In part 2 of this series we will look at how the MBBFC employed small group fellowships and Bible studies.
 The planning team drafted the following purpose statement: “Muslim Background Believer Fellowship of Chicago (MBBFC) is a ministry to MBBs and Muslims who live in or visit the Chicagoland area. The purposes of MBBFC are to encourage and disciple MBBs; to maintain a positive, active Christian presence; and to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ among Chicago’s Muslim community. We strive to glorify God by building His church locally, nationally, and internationally.”
 For example, one Easter gathering focused on the Last Supper and the events surrounding it. The goals were:
- to understand Jesus as the perfect sacrificial Lamb
- to understand why we celebrate and participate in the Lord’s Supper
- to remember the suffering of Jesus and his victory over sin and death
- to fellowship with other believers from all backgrounds and nationalities
- to humbly serve members within the Body of Christ and those outside of it
In order to accomplish these goals, one of the missionaries gave an overview of the Passover story (Ex. 12:1-29). The next speaker connected the Passover to the Last Supper in the main message. These connections demonstrated how Jesus was the fulfillment of the perfect Lamb who came to take away sin.
The fellowship meal, along with the prayer groups and dessert time all have worked together to accomplish the goal of providing fellowship with other believers.
The goal of serving was demonstrated through a short drama in which one MBB played the role of Jesus and acted out the foot washing on three MBB “disciples” from John 13:1-17. He concluded the program by demonstrating how Jesus served the cup and the bread to his disciples by distributing the elements to the believers.
 At one Christmas Celebration, the theme was “God’s Promised Messiah.” A Lebanese couple shared that in their former lives as Muslims, they believed that God did not make promises to his followers. The husband explained, “In Islam you are God’s slave, and he can do whatever he wants with his slave. If God wants to bless his slave, he blesses him; if God wants to curse his slave, he curses him.” He shared that now in his Christian life he realizes that he is God’s child, and that his loving heavenly Father keeps his promises and desires to bless his children.