“Making disciples, cultivating healthy churches in Southeast Asia.” That is a great title for a conference, yet an even greater challenge to be put into practice in a Muslim context. Through tears and in the midst of great sacrifice people have wrestled for generations with how to reach and disciple Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) with the good news of Jesus. Methods have been developed, strategies followed and of course arguments debated. Yet having been drawn together by a love for the lost, too often gospel workers have been torn apart by their different approaches. At times it has been hard to see the expression of unity that we share in Christ.
Whilst for many of us there is a need to reflect on and perhaps repent of the way we have spoken or thought of those with different approaches to this work, we can understand why passions at times run high…
Because there is so much at stake here!
Are we talking contextualisation or syncretism? Are we so bound to our home culture that we are blind to the one we work in? Are we so desperate to see results that we will do whatever it takes? Are we so stuck in our ways that we hinder others from coming to know Christ?
From my perspective, it seems that frequently the battle in some of these areas is lost at the very beginning… in the way people are reached with the gospel in the first place. We work in a Muslim majority country and here are some examples from work we have observed or heard about here:
“The gospel can be shared from the Qu’ran alone.” No need for the Bible. It doesn’t take long to see how discipleship based on the truth of God’s word is bypassed for something entirely different.
“People trusting in Jesus can continue as Muslims.” It doesn’t take long to see how confusion grows in discipleship. Who exactly are we calling people to follow and to whom do they feel and express their allegiance?
“We need to get people into the kingdom, not the church.” Yes, OK so we’re not literally talking about getting them into OUR church with its own culture and peculiarities. Yet discipleship that ditches the church does not seem to fit with what we read so much of in the New Testament.
Or, if you can even believe it: “Let’s just pay people to make decisions for Jesus.” No, really! A national pastor tells me that this is not uncommon outside the city in which we serve together. Guess what happens when the money runs out?
If these are the approaches we adopt and we are aiming to see discipleship in the context of healthy churches, then we have not got off to a very good start! Of course, it is very easy to draw out the issues and problems that others are falling into. But it is much harder to come up with biblical alternatives and even more difficult to put them into practice.
And yet we must. Millions of Muslims wait to hear the good news of Jesus and they won’t be reached by a bunch of well-meaning reformed types pointing their fingers at others. One of the deep convictions we have is the central role of the church in God’s plans for mission in His world. As we work towards biblical models of discipling MBBs in our own context, here are two reflections about the local church and mission that have helped us in our work:
1. Don’t bypass the local church
We’ve heard people say ‘The local church isn’t interested in Muslims’. We’ve read outreach programmes that tell us ‘the local church isn’t interested in Muslims, so we have to go it alone.’ Sure, there are plenty of churches here that are not so interested in reaching out to and discipling MBBs. Yes, there are many parts of the world where there is not a viable church.
And yet, in the context we are working in, there is. So we reject going it alone and we get in it together. We find the pastors and churches that are interested. We equip future pastors in seminary for the task. We work alongside our brothers and sisters in this challenging and urgent work.
2. Submit yourself to the leadership of the local church
More than simply working with local churches, we are trying to listen to and submit to their wisdom, experience and vision. Unlike many of our prayer letters, often the local church is not shouting about the work they are doing, but it is going on. And often it is incredible. As my relationship with my local pastor here has developed it has been a joy to hear of work going on quietly behind the scenes.
I recently had the privilege of visiting one of their workers, ministering in a provincial town. His great mission strategy? “Love people. Pray for them. Share the gospel with them.” In the last 5 years a church of 50 has come into being in that place, half from a Muslim background. Yes, of course, that apparently simple mission strategy needs some unpacking, but the lack of dependence on the latest imported missionary method was both refreshing and challenging to me.
At the Southeast Asia Reformed Conference this November we will be exploring these themes in more detail in the workshop ‘A new identity and the local church – reflections on discipling MBBs in a SE Asian context.’ To say I don’t have all the answers is an understatement, yet as we talk, discuss, think and pray, we trust God will lead us and help us in this great task of discipling MBBs here in Southeast Asia. May it be for His glory.