by Ziya Meral
A sociological lens offers helpful perspectives in discipling Muslim-background believers.
We have looked at length into how to be a better witness to the Islamic world. We have explored and experimented how to contextualize our message and congregations so that the gospel message can be heard through the thick curtain of prejudice, misconception and hatred. For most of us, the explorations and experiments end at the moment of conversion. Yet the conversion is only the beginning of a life with Christ; and for a Muslim who becomes a Christian, the real challenge begins after the conversion.
It would be safe to say that quite a few converts from Islam give up their new faith within the first two years of their initial decision. Given the reality of life conditions of Christians living in Islamic countries, we cannot fully understand what that “giving up” refers to. In most cases, it is simply a decision to leave the local church and sever relationships with other Christians. Only a small segment of those who leave cite doctrinal issues or have rational reasons for leaving the church. Some return to Islam with greater zeal; some to a quiet life which includes holding their religious convictions to themselves.
This article attempts to analyze the human reality of conversion and apostasy in order to draw application points for healthy discipleship strategies that move beyond initial evangelism. We will look at the case study of a local church in Turkey with the understanding that the situation the church finds itself in is similar to those of other minority churches located in Islamic settings. Though various sociological perspectives are used in the process, this is not a purely academic sociological exercise. Sociological ideas are only used to the level that they can help answer our theological and missiological questions. In the preface of his book on apologetics, sociologist Peter Berger humbly notes,
If some professional theologians should read [my book], they will undoubtedly find various errors and misinterpretations in the discussion of religious thinkers and doctrines. That is a risk that must be taken by a lay person who ventures into a field in which he [or she] is not academically accredited. Evidently, I think that the risk is worth taking. (2004, vii)
The same applies to this article; if some professional sociologists should read it, they will undoubtedly realize its amateur nature. However, the risk is worth taking.
THE CHURCH’S RELATION TO SOCIETY
According to the CIA World Factbook, 99.8% of Turkey’s sixty-eight million people are Sunni Muslim and 0.2% are “other,” mostly Christians and Jews (2000). Of this latter group, approximately 2,500 are evangelical Christians. The country’s republican parliamentary democracy guarantees religious freedom; however, this official stance is shadowed by the strong Islamic worldview and nationalism of local authorities and society. Even though Turkey is a secular state, Turkish identity is strongly identified with being a Muslim. This creates tension for individual Christians and for the Church as a whole. We will look at two of these tensions: anomy and alienation from the wider society.
Most of the members of Umut Protestant Church1 are converts from Islam. Being a Muslim means following a strict code of law provided by Islam which covers every aspect of life. Therefore, when a Muslim becomes a Christian, he or she faces a real life version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “re-evaluation of all values” or a break from the “taken for granted nomos” (the orderly world operating according to understandable laws) which the person had been operating under. Most of the guidelines, from what to wear to what to eat, are replaced with a confusing “freedom in Christ.” The new convert, devoid of any religious rituals and regulations, often feels lost and seeks to find practices like quiet times to cope with that feeling. Instead of serving as flexible personal prayer and reflection time, most converts see this time as replacing their early morning Islamic prayers. For Muslims, missing even one prayer demands penance and church members often feel guilty and in need of God’s forgiveness when they miss early morning devotions.
This anomic state is much more complicated than simply not knowing how to operate under a new system. Conversion from Islam equals a breakaway from society. Berger emphasizes that the “society is the guardian of order and meaning not only objectively, in its institutional structures, but subjectively as well, in its structuring of individual consciousness. It is for this reason that radical separation from the social world, or anomy, constitutes such a powerful threat to the individual” (1973, 31).
This powerful threat is increased by the communal mindset of the Middle East. By leaving Islam, the convert loses his or her identity in relation to his or her local community and the world of Islam (dar al-Islam) and is seen as a part of dar al-harb (the world of war, or the infidels). Thus, church members continually live in a confusing and emotionally draining state. Additionally, a strong sense of shame is often present due to the social pressure that labels them as enemies and betrayers of their nation.
ALIENATION FROM SOCIETY
One leader of Umut Protestant Church (who is also a local evangelist) notes that a new believer who is still connected with the church two years after conversion is likely to stay with the faith; only after the fifth year has the believer deeply internalized his or her faith and Christian identity, and will likely remain a Christian. This leader’s observation has been proven to be true time and time again. This should not come as a surprise to any outsider. The transitioning process from the Islamic nomos to a Christian one and the development of social networks with Christians occurs primarily within the first two years. As the convert experiences a break in relation from his or her society, both the person’s identity and his or her connection to the church and other Christians grows significantly.
According to Christian Smith, “The human drives for meaning and belonging are satisfied primarily by locating human selves within social groups that sustain distinctive, morally orienting collective identities” (1998, 90). Thus, the church serves as “a shield against terror” (1973, 31). The local church provides an identity and the social support the convert needs to be able to operate and live as a Christian. Only those who have been able to develop strong relationships with other church members are able to continue their new-found faith. Throughout this process of belonging and establishment of a new nomos, the convert grows stronger in understanding his or her faith.
Umut Protestant Church, like any other persecuted church, has a strong collective identity which owes its source to the distinction it finds from the dominant Islamic culture (1998, 91). This constant distinction results in a strong defense to the challenge of Islam and society. The high cost of being a Christian pushes the new convert to have reasons to believe and in return to deeply internalize his or her faith. By the fifth year, the convert is well secured in understanding and being able to defend his or her faith. The person also enjoys the strong ties he or she has developed with the church.
Islam serves as the negative reference group through which the church understands itself in relation to what it is not (1998, 105). However, the same strengthening effect has a darker side. For most members of the church, it results both in a strong opposition to or reaction against Islam and in understanding Christianity only to the degree that it is different from Islam. Thus the convert, who fasted for thirty days as a Muslim, ceases to fast as a Christian and reacts to any spiritual discipline. This anti-Islamic attitude, together with the presence of Western missionaries in Christian circles, gives birth to a modification and adaptation of Western practices and perspectives. As the sub-cultural identity of the church is formed, its cultural alienation from the larger society seems complete. The outsider observes the change in the practices, dress, habits and language of the convert, which reinforces the instinct that to be Christian is to be a foreigner. When the theological emphasis on personal spiritual life and the lack of teaching on the wider concerns of the gospel message is mixed with the secondary status ascribed to the church by society, the church becomes alienated as a small social enclave. This fuels the suspicions of the society and leads to further persecution.
HOW RATIONAL IS THE CHOICE TO CONVERT?
Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that “people attempt to make rational choices, which substantially expands the principle of microeconomics that people attempt to maximize gain. As used in economics, maximization usually involves capital and the attempt to acquire the most while expending the least” (2000, 118). In sociological terms, there are two forms of capital a person would seek to increase or sustain in converting to another religion: social and religious. Social capital consists of interpersonal attachments (2000, 118) and plays the major role in the decision-making process. Stark and Finke propose that these attachments, which are valuable to the individual, lead the person to conform to the beliefs of those to whom he or she is attached: “Conversion is seldom about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members” (2000, 117). This makes sense for a person who lives in a country where there is religious freedom and where those close to the person have a belief that society finds plausible. Thus, the young adult who grows up in a church eventually becomes Christian since he or she does not want to risk his or her attachments by failing to conform (2000, 119).
For congregants of Umut Protestant Church, being a member means a significant loss in social capital. The social networks the church provides can never replace what the member will lose since there are less than two hundred Christians in a city with 4.5 million people. Being a Christian will mean a life-long struggle in finding jobs, securing housing and making friends. Religious capital accumulated by the convert who grew up Muslim will also be lost upon conversion. According to Stark and Finke, “In making religious choices, people will attempt to save as much of their religious capital as they can and to expend as little investment in new capital as possible” (2000, 121). Thus, should the decision to be a Christian and a member of the church be evaluated through the rational choice theory, it would prove to be irrational. On this point the theory argues that there must be some sort of “reward” which compensates for the loss. As argued above, there is little satisfying social reward for the member. This creates the anticipation of an otherworldly reward which can be observed in continuing emphasis on trusting God’s providence and salvation. However, even this falls short of the strong eschatological emphasis of cults or sects.
Rational choice theory is still helpful in understanding the high rate of drop-outs, and the high level of commitment of those who stay. The convert eventually realizes the irrational nature of his or her decision to be a member and makes a conscious decision to stay or leave. This serves as the natural separation process between genuine believers and profit-seeking individuals. Since the churches in Turkey have a history of being the target of Islamic press which regularly accuses them of converting Muslims by offering money and visas for Western countries, the churches continually attract those who seek personal gain. It does not take long for the profit-seeker to realize that the “reward” offered by being a member does not match the “cost.” The person will then leave.
The positive outcome of this self-questioning process for those with genuine faith largely depends on the social support the member receives from the church and on personal confidence in the truth of the Christian faith. Most of the conversion stories include dreams, visitations or other mystical experiences. These provide emotional support and legitimization for the member’s deeply rooted fear of committing a mistake by being a Christian and denying Islam, thus being doomed to eternal punishment. Additionally, the pastor’s strong charisma and convictions make him “the significant other” for the members and a continuous source of legitimization. Umut Protestant Church has a strong theology of the cross and its reality for today’s world. The members are under no illusion and are continually reminded of the difficulties which come with being Christian. Those that choose to stay demonstrate a much stronger personal faith, since the high level of sacrifice demanded to be a member is equal to an increased investment of social and religious capital. This results in an increase of the personal value of the person’s religious belief. The fear, shame and loneliness that come from being a Christian in such a setting never leave the church member, yet the price the person pays for his or her faith brings him or her to a resolution similar to that of a marriage vow, for better or for worse.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
There are three application points that surface from this article: (1) a relevant theology, (2) the conscious integration of new believers and (3) a holistic discipleship strategy. Perhaps nowhere else does the urgent need for the development of a relevant theology surface as much as it does in a sociological look at the conversion process. There will always be an inevitable breakaway from the society for the Islamic convert; however, a local theology can provide the necessary tools for the convert to understand his or her new faith in continuation of his or her cultural identity. Such a theology will not only lessen the personal effects of anomy on the convert, it will also strengthen society’s perception of the Church. A relevant theology can only play an effective role within the local church that takes conscious steps to provide close emotional and relational support to the new convert, especially during the first two years following conversion. Integration efforts must include the family of the convert, even if they remain Muslim. The family will play a significant role and winning their trust will lessen much of the personal tensions the convert will face.
However, a relevant theology and strong relationships are only the foundation for a long-term walk with Christ. A holistic discipleship program will strengthen the difficult journey that awaits the convert. This program is different from a baptismal class or a Bible study, although it includes both. It is a close mentorship relationship that provides a role model, emotional support and teachings on relevant subjects. Only these three safety nets—relevant theology, integration and discipleship—will allow the convert the strength needed to carry out his or her faith by the grace and work of the Holy Spirit.
1. A pseudonym
Berger, Peter. 1973. The Social Reality of Religion. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.
_____. 2004. Questions of Faith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
CIA World Factbook. 2000. Accessed May 16, 2006 from www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/tu.html
Smith, Christian. 1998. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith; Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Ziya Meral, a Turkish Christian, is a graduate of the London School of Theology and the International School of Theology in Asia. Ziya is currently doing postgraduate studies in sociology at the London School of Economics.
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