By Mike Urton
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the history and background of the Muslim Background Believer Fellowship of Chicagoland (MBBFC), along with the large group meetings. Now we will turn our attention to the small fellowship meetings and the Bible studies conducted by the MBBFC.
Small Fellowship Meetings
Thanksgiving Dinners: An annual Thanksgiving celebration for MBBs became a tradition. One missionary family hosted this celebration in their home, creating a family atmosphere which helped to build community among MBBs. A traditional Thanksgiving meal was served along with a time to give thanks to God for all the ways that his faithfulness had been personally experienced over the past year. After a person shared what he was thankful for, the group responded in unison, “Thanks be to God!” This time of sharing ended with singing traditional Thanksgiving songs such as “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” These gatherings were significant because they gave many MBBs time to fellowship together, forget the challenges and stresses that they faced, and recount God’s faithfulness to them. They experienced Christ-centered community and belonging at a time when most Americans are gathered with their families.
Picnics and Fellowship Meals: We held picnics and potlucks in order to provide more opportunities for fellowship and outreach. Picnics were held in a local park, with testimonies by MBBs who shared with Muslim friends and family members about placing their trust in Christ. A missionary family hosted monthly potlucks in their home, which were less structured, informal gatherings. These provided a place for new or timid MBBs to meet others. For at least one new believer from Central Asia for whom large group gatherings were overwhelming, these potlucks provided her with a comfortable, private place to meet with other MBBs. The picnics and potlucks were met with varying degrees of success and failure. Picnics were held at a large public park; many non-Christians attended, some only came for a free meal and to be with friends. During the testimony time, many scattered throughout the park because they were not interested in spiritual discussions and testimonies. It may have worked better to hold the picnics at a smaller park where everyone would have remained closer together, or at a home with a large yard.
Evaluation and Recommendations for small fellowship meetings
As noted above, these small fellowship meetings provided a more intimate and laid back atmosphere for MBBs to connect.
For a period of time, an attempt was made to host these meetings on a monthly basis in the home of one family. However, this model was not sustainable due to the demand on one family to host each month. Either holding these gatherings at greater intervals, such as every other month, or establishing a rotation of people who host would serve to make these small fellowship meetings viable.
Throughout the development of the MBBFC, we organized small group Bible studies which met weekly or bi-weekly in homes. The purposes were to provide fellowship on a more regular basis, to study the Bible consistently from their worldview, and to make discipleship more intimate within a small group. Topical issues, book studies, chronological studies, Bible survey, and Discovery Bible Studies are examples of what was covered. The groups were often mixed in gender, age, and ethnicity; due to this factor, the common language used was English with occasional translation as needed. The task of leading Bible studies rotated among a number of the attendees. Instruction on how to lead took place in one-on-one meetings before the person led.
One of these Bible studies met for six years on the north side of Chicago. It began with the meeting of three MBBs and a missionary who came together to plan the study. We developed a list of topics that needed to be addressed in their lives which may not have been addressed in the local American church. The list included the Trinity, the deity of Christ, honor and shame in the Bible, a series on the Kingdom of God, and Prophethood. We also decided that each Bible study would end with two questions: “How do we apply this study to our lives?” and “How do we use it in witness to Muslim family and friends?”
An important feature of MBB Bible studies is the extending of hospitality. The group that met in downtown Chicago always enjoyed a meal together at each meeting. This spoke to the MBBs’ values of community and hospitality. All of the regular attendees were responsible for bringing some part of the meal. This Bible study group ran on Middle Eastern/South Asian time, so the meetings started about half an hour after the designated time, with people arriving throughout, and concluded when the last person left.
Evaluation of Bible Studies
Evaluations took place about once a year in conjunction with the MBBs who regularly attended.
Responsibility: The small group Bible studies were a significant way for MBBs to study Scripture and experience Christian community in a culturally relevant manner. A major success of the group in downtown Chicago was its longevity. Also, MBBs took ownership by hosting the study in their homes, sharing responsibility for the meal, and leading the teaching times.
Content: The topics spoke to the discipleship needs of the MBBs involved. A benefit of employing the Discovery Bible Study (DBS) method was training in how to study Scripture with non-believing Muslim friends and family members. An aspect of DBS methodology is sharing stories from Scripture in order to find people who are interested in studying the Bible. One Pakistani brother began sharing the Bible stories, along with his personal testimony, with his Muslim family and others in his Pakistani community. A Korean brother who had been helping with the Bible study launched a DBS with three Kyrgyz men, of which two were believers who were being trained to do a DBS with others, while the third was a Muslim seeker.
Fellowship and Support: At times the fellowship and support for one another experienced in the group were quite strong. This was evident in how people were vulnerable with one another in struggles they were having, as well as supporting one another in times of tragedy, such as the death of a family member.
Commitment and Conflict: The major challenge was the inconsistent attendance of some MBBs and the abandoning of the group by others. The need to remind people through multiple forms of communication about the Bible study was an obstacle, even though we met every two weeks. There were long stretches during which studies were spotty and inconsistent. Sometimes these periods of inconsistency had identifiable reasons, such as needing to find a new location due to the host moving. At other times, the reasons for the spotty gatherings and lack of attendance were more difficult to understand. Unfortunately, serious internal conflicts arose in the group which led to the end of the Bible study.
Recommendations for Bible Studies
We have four primary recommendations for making MBB Bible studies more effective. First, ownership of the group breeds commitment to the Bible study. This means that the greater the level of involvement a person has, the more they will view it as their own. Having participants take responsibility for areas such as making phone calls to remind people about Bible study, bringing food, and leading can ensure higher levels of ownership and longevity. Second, intentional meetings for socializing and encouragement outside of the planned meeting times, such as calling each other weekly and asking how to pray for one another may create a greater sense of community among those who attend. A third important component is an identifiable exit strategy for the missionary or non-MBB who helped start the group. The handing over of all leadership and responsibility to MBBs may help the group to become self-supporting and self-sustaining as MBBs are ready and equipped to teach and lead. Finally, in order to avoid burning out leaders, the work and responsibilities need to be shared and rotated. This distribution of labor may not be an equal share for everyone, but it needs to be ensured that the vast majority of labor is not falling to one or two people.
In the final part of this series, we will discuss how the MBBFC employed retreats and discipleship training to help MBBs grow in their Christian life.