[UPDATE: Longing for Community now available on Kindle.]
One book you’ll want to read in 2013 is Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between? forthcoming. Edited by David Greenlee. Pasadena, CA: William Carey. I’ll link to it when it releases later this year. It’s a collection of essays from the second “Coming to Faith Consultation” in 2010. The first consultation in 2004 also resulted in a book: From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way: Journeys of Faith (2006) which is a key contribution to the field of MBB conversions in missiological research.
Highlights from the Second Coming to Faith Consultation
One of the major themes of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is centered on the phrase “in Christ.” To list a few of Paul’s expressions, we are blessed, chosen, and included in Christ. We hope in Christ and are marked in Christ in accord with God’s plan purposed in Christ to bring all things in heaven and earth together under Christ. We were once far away but now in Christ are brought near to God, Gentiles together with Israel sharers in the promise in Christ.
Six years ago, at the first “Coming to Faith Consultation” (CTFC) the focus of research and reflection tended to be on the processes and factors involved in how our Muslims neighbors are coming to faith in Jesus Christ. As presented in From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way (Authentic 2006, and just released in Korean), three key, typical factors emerged: those Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ have generally experienced a touch of God’s love, seen a sign of his power, and encountered the truth of God’s Word.
Early in 2010 a similar consultation, CTFC2, was held, both events having a focus on understanding what “coming to faith in Christ” means from the perspective of the believers. At CTFC2, Dudley Woodberry helped us to see how this “emic” approach complements the approach of the Fruitful Practice Research (described in the article by John Becker in this journal), in which the emphasis is on understanding the fruitful approaches and attitudes of those witnessing among Muslims. Combining their findings, as Woodberry has done, gives a fuller picture of how God is at work.
At CTFC2 we observed a shift in the theme of many research papers as compared to the 2004 consultation. Rather than focusing on how people are coming to faith in Christ, the core questions were centered on issues of identity: who we were and are in our society, and, as believers, who we are in Christ and how this affects our social identity.
Selected papers from CTFC2 are now being compiled and will be published in 2011 - notice will be given in this journal. However, as a preview, let me point to the themes of some papers that will appear in that book.
Social identity is multi-dimensional. The one-dimensional C-Scale is helpful to describe a range of practices of communities of believers. However, it is not adequate when we try to extend it to describe the complexities of human identity - corporate or individual.
Jens Barnett suggests that we describe identity in terms of dialogue or multiple narratives.
This is true not only of those who suggest that ‘converts’ should be fully identified with the established churches as well as those who argue for new believers to remain, to the extent possible, within their birth community. As he notes,
In practice then, a purely Muslim ‘insider’ identity, free from all other cultural influences is both an impossible and a misguided ideal. Every believer has internalised a unique combination of narratives from multiple cultural sources. Each of these narratives contains its own scripts, roles, and belongings, and each of these in turn, can appear as a voice of identity within the dialogical self.
The son of a prosperous Muslim businessman added to the discussion, reflecting on the experience he and other Indian believers have shared in attempts to assimilate into the Christian community.
Understanding the strength and unity of the Umma and the role of the Umma in an individual’s identity is essential to understand the struggles that a Muslim seeker will undergo. His life within the Umma has been a place of security, acceptance, protection, and identity. For a seeker it is an enormous sacrifice to lose his place in the Umma. As a Muslim seeker moves into fellowship with the Christian community, it is important that his sacrifice should be acknowledged and understood. The community of Christian believers should become a new place of belonging and inclusion.
In comparison, Enoch Kim noted the changes among the urban Hui of China who, through the impact of modernization and social network changes, have developed multiple identities or “faces” that grant more freedom to make individual choices.
The most important and ultimate decision-maker in [China’s] modern world is “I.” The Hui used to make decisions by what “we” or “others” want, but now it is by what “I” want. . . . the community pressure that the Muslim individual feels has lightened up because now “I” have more rights and abilities than before. As community pressure lessens, individuals will choose what they want.
Discipling women. Often we have emphasized the limitations on women in Muslim societies, perceptions that affect our approaches in evangelism and contributions to teaching and discipling. Mary Davidson noted, however, the important role of women both in private as well as in da’wa, in their homes, at shrines, in rites of passage, and even in impromptu Qur’an recitations she observed on the Cairo metro! Such religious gatherings have many roles, including community and connection, an acceptable reason chance to get out, as an opportunity for leadership, finding blessing and God’s power, and maintaining or challenging community norms. Davidson’s work concludes with questions and suggestions of how such existing social roles for women should be recognized and built on in our evangelism and discipleship.
Complementing Davidson’s insights, writing from Bangladesh Christine Shepherd relates her surprise when several rural women told her that they could freely travel to a village some two hours from their home on a regular basis - “We will just tell people we are visiting relatives,” they explained. Shepherd draws our attention to “the alarming fact that women followers of Jesus … are not typically receiving training through intentional discipleship programs.” Given their important role in leading their children as well as women friends to faith in Jesus Christ, not giving women adequate honor, discipling, and opportunity to fulfill their important role as followers of Jesus, she says, “may lead to a disastrous future for the Muslim background church.”
Shepherd concludes with the words of a Bangladeshi women, nothing that change can take place,
- As men and women, based on biblical teaching, recognize women’s value from Jesus’ teaching and from his example;
- As male leaders give the opportunity for women to take an important part in the jamaat; and,
- As women are taught that they are created in the image of God and that they have an important role in the kingdom of God-they need to know they are necessary to the life of the jamaat. When they are aware of their identity in Christ through receiving proper Bible teaching, men will refrain from oppressing them and women will be able to share their opinions in appropriate ways.
Diverse, and yet one in Christ.
John Kim updated us on the story of “Anotoc,” one situation in which God is at work among “insiders.” (The original story told first in From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way while the updated paper appeared in an earlier edition of this journal.) Others described situations in which the new believers express their faith as part of the existing community of Christians.
While we rejoice in the variety of positive responses to the gospel, we were concerned as an Azerbaijani told us of his research among university students who, though evangelized, have not yet believed. While many Muslims of this region would consider Jesus to be “the God of Russians” this writer notes other reasons for their failure to come to faith, some of them factors that apply to youth in many settings, not just among Muslims.
Traditions of strong family bonds, respect for parents and elders, as a part of local culture, make embracing Christianity costly and troublesome for Azeri youth. Other non-theological hindrances are their indifference, their love of secular and sinful lifestyles and a belief in their own security. . . . The greatest challenge is that they do not want to believe some facts in the Qur’an and in the Injil regarding Christ, the message and authenticity of the Bible, interpreting them as it suits them.
We celebrate our diversity, but remember that it is not an undefined variety. Our identity, whatever outward expression is given, is grounded and deeply rooted in Christ that we might be “to the praise of his glory,” living carefully and wisely as children of light (Ephesians 1: 12-14; 5:15-16).
As Jean-Marie Gaudeul observed,
As we discover the many ways in which Christ, ‘lifted up from the earth, draws everyone to himself’ (John 12:32), we are struck by the extraordinary variety of the ways in which people, finding new faith in Him, discover their new identity: they are changed and yet the same. And we know that this diversity is only a small part of God’s infinite skill in leading us to His house where Unity will combine with the fulfilment of each person's originality.(AFMI)