by Dean S. Gililand
This article is a response to “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization,” by Phil Parshall in the October 1998 issue of EMQ.
I have the report of the "Islampur" project before me. My role was research director. The project was not limited to "Islampur." It was designed to compare and test various models for evangelizing Muslims. The particular report Phil Parshall refers to did not endorse or condemn but provided three cases for whatever light they might shed on approaches to Muslims in various communities. As far as I know, the use and distribution of the results were left to the discretion of the foundation that provided funds for the project.
Apart from the justified concerns raised in the article, I sense a tone of defensiveness in some of the things Parshall has written.
Since the late 1970s Phil has led the way with his books on sensitive thinking about contextualization among Muslims. His writing obviously has raised controversy for some. He has helped us see how cultural innovations can become tools for evangelism among Muslims. Now, in response to a very carefully planned piece of research, he seems to be saying, "Listen, please. I meant this but not that." He recalls how an older Christian worker had warned him about being on a "dangerous slide." Now, Parshall feels he is the one who must protest the "slide." If "Islampur" believers have taken the idea of messianic Islam to an unacceptable extreme, Phil wants us to know that neither he nor his team took them there. As one intimately involved in the research project, I would say that, whatever the outcome, perhaps 10 to 20 years from now, it is not Phil’s burden to worry about guilt or blame. We don’t know everything at this point. Conversion in any mission situation is a process. In this particular one the factors of process could not be more critical.
Since the article has revealed the "Islampur" case, more needs to be said in fairness to the research. The researcher himself concluded the data presentation with careful words: "Whether in fact a person can be an authentic fllower of Jesus and still remain within the fold of Islam raises strong opinions and emotions on many sides…It is, of course, possible that those who endorse radical contextualization of the Gopsel within Islam are wrong." He also wrote, however, that after looking at the entire report, "It does seem that there has been a real work of God among the (name withheld) Muslims."
Little is known from Phil’s article about the internal problems caused by leaders who took these followers of Jesus in two directions, causing, finally, a near abandonment of the teaching that should have been continuing. In the background are many painful factors which added to the burden of these simple people who say they believe in and follow Jesus. At one point, the names of key believers in the movement were turned over to the government. Despite internal and external problems, these clusters of followers were able to testify honestly and without coaching to what Jesus, the Bible, the power of the gospel and other Jesus-people mean to them.
I must emphasize the critical issue of the context. While the context and contextualization are what this case is all about, too often conclusions about what is right or wrong are generalized without attention to a particular case. A practicable and fitting approach in one place will probably not be appropriate somewhere else. For example, the case behind Parshall’s example does not fit the research’s second case, which was done in Nigeria.
Some 45 million Muslims live in Nigeria. The big difference with "Islampur" is that Nigeria also has 45-50 million people who call themselves Christians. There is no way that Muslims who conver to Jesus Christ in Nigerial would ever call themselves Muslims.
In fact, it was a rather well-known esoteric model of evangelizing Muslims in northern Nigeria that attracted the research in the first place. The ministry was not integrated with the churches and was supposedly producing believers who were suffering intensely for their faith. Evangelical churches had come to disown the movement because of the secrecy and clandestine style of the leaders. The movement has now collapsed, even though it had received a lot of private publicity and support outside of Nigeria.
Therefore, the Nigeria situation is totally different than the one in "Islampur." In Nigeriga the churches are almost apostolic in their boldness before and among Muslims. Form contextualization (except in the far north) is seen as a kind of imitation of the Muslim way an therefore is looked upon as neither necessary nor desirable. Christian-Muslim confrontation saturates the life of Nigerian people—socially, politically and religiously.
The Parshall article discusses the appropriateness of an apporach in a particular Asian context. The size and strength comparison between Muslims and Christians in "Islampur" is like the elephant to the fly, as it were.
Obviously, this little flock that has turned to follow Jesus—with members who pray to Jesus for forgiveness, who believe that Jesus died for them, and who say he is the only Savior—has to be taken very seriously. Even though they call themselves Muslims, they are not like other Muslims.
The words of Jesus are poignant and sobering: "I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16)." I have mentioned the need for the passage of time because, like any other movement, this one is in process. In the meantime, we should never forget that the Holy Spirit does not abandon his Word or his people. While conversations are well-intended, God goes on doing his work through his Holy Spirit, to bless and honor truth and to remove his blessing from error.
I recall discussions I had with African pastors about the implications of the apostle Paul baptizing the Philippian jailer and his family immediately, coming as they did straight out of "paganism." It was an emotional and a highly charged situation, with no church except, perhaps, some women of Lydia’s household who had also been baptized quickly and privately. Then, after a confrontation with the police, Paul left them for Thessalonica (Acts 16). How much hope would there seem to have been for isolated converts in a place like Phillipi? Still, the church developed there.
I am not saying the situation in "Islampur" is the same as in Philippi, but the Holy Spirit is still at work in poorly informed, sometimes misguided believers. Beyond any human comprehension, the Spirit faithfully guides those who seek the truth. The Good Shepherd said, "I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). The church has always been a mystery (Eph. 3:3,9), but it is God’s church, and in the end God will make the judgment.
Dean S. Gilliland is professor of contextual theology and African studies at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He was a missionary to Nigeria for 21 years before joining the Fuller faculty in 1977. Gilliland’s Ph.D. is in West African Islam.
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