Fruitful Practices: Studying How God Is Working in the Muslim World
by Gene Daniels and Don Allen
An inductive, multi-year, multi-agency study reflects both directly and indirectly Fruitful Practices that have resulted in churches being planted across the Muslim World.
The Psalmist declares, “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). Have we ever considered that we should do this as it relates to reaching the nations? If we delight in what God is currently doing in world missions, then we should be studying those very things so that we can join him. We can rejoice in the recent progress of church planting in the Muslim world, but we should also deeply reflect on the way God is working in order to more effectively join him.
One way to do this is to focus on identifying the common, most effective practices that result in the emergence of fellowships in Muslim contexts. Some ministries use a deductive approach—following the practices of a particular leader, seminary, or missiology. In contrast, an inductive approach seeks to discover what God is doing among the unreached in order to conform to his work. We call this approach to ministry “Fruitful Practices.”
Thus, Fruitful Practices are activities and innovations that are often fruitful in establishing churches among unreached Muslim peoples. The term “Fruitful Practices” reflects the metaphor Jesus used in John 15, where he reminded the disciples that “…this is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8). They comprise the effective efforts that exist through the entire process that builds communities of faith, from establishing teams to reproducing leaders.
We identified certain fruitful practices through an inductive, multi-year, multi-agency study. This study is comprised of two components. The first was a survey of numerous effective teams from 13 organizations representing over 5,800 workers in the Muslim world. The second component included over one hundred in-depth interviews with experienced church planters, two-thirds of whom have witnessed the emergence of at least one fellowship in the Muslim world. Those interviewed came from more than thirty mission agencies. Fruitful Practices, therefore, have been drawn from vast experience across the Muslim world and offer exceptional insights into how the Lord is working.
A Framework for Understanding How Workers Become Fruitful
Well-known missionary anthropologist Charles Kraft wrote, “If we are to reach people for Christ and to see them gathered into Christ-honouring and culture-affirming churches, we will have to deal with them within their culture and in terms of their worldview” (Kraft 1999, 388). In saying this, Kraft is suggesting that understanding worldview is a crucial element of fruitfulness. The findings of our research dovetail with this, showing that cross-cultural workers who endeavor to understand the receptor culture’s worldview are likely to see spiritual fruit.
Reaching this depth of understanding about a new culture is a complex process. In our research, we discerned a framework that seems to facilitate this process, one that divides Fruitful Practices into two categories: indirectly and directly Fruitful Practices.
Some practices are indirectly fruitful because their fruitfulness is derived from enabling the gospel messenger to develop a deep understanding of the receptor culture’s worldview. In other words, indirectly Fruitful Practices are the fundamental building blocks of cross-cultural mission in most settings. While they are fruitful for many reasons, they are critically important because they shape the messenger and his or her message.
Other practices are directly fruitful. These are innovative, context-specific practices which have a direct correlation to fruitfulness in ministry. More often than not, they are the result of someone investing large amounts of time, yet their return yield is also great.
To help us understand this concept of worldview understanding, imagine the diagram to the right like a generator that is fueled by the fundamentals of cross-cultural mission (indirectly Fruitful Practices), and which produces highly innovative and context-specific activities (directly Fruitful Practices) as output.
Next, we will more closely examine the kinds of behaviors that help workers develop this deep understanding of a new worldview, indirectly Fruitful Practices, followed by some of the activities that flow out of this insight, or directly Fruitful Practices.
Indirectly Fruitful Practices
Below are several practices we identified as key for a foreign worker developing a significant understanding of the receptor culture and its worldview.
Language proficiency. Most cross-cultural workers would agree that language proficiency is Fruitful Practice. Therefore, it is not surprising that we find “workers who are able to freely and clearly communicate in their host language(s) are much more likely to be fruitful” (Allen 2009, 113). More importantly, the somewhat abstract idea of “language proficiency” becomes concrete and distinct if viewed through the lens of our research, and understood best in terms of orality or prayer.
In other words, it is safe to say that when a cross-cultural worker can pray with people, and/or tell scriptural stories in their language, then he or she has at least the minimum language proficiency to be fruitful. This implies that we need to change the way we measure language acquisition on the field. Perhaps sending organizations and teams should start thinking in terms of “prayer proficiency” or “storying proficiency,” even developing assessments for these, rather than on the other ways of rating language fluency that are currently the norm.
Cultural adaptation. Another area of practice we see as having a clear connection to fruitfulness concerns how workers dress, what foods they eat, and how they handle hospitality in their homes. This is because “a worker’s attitude toward the host culture sends powerful messages” (Allen 2009, 113). One participant in our study commented on a teammate who consciously tried to live close to local standards of dress and hospitality:
She was very accepted by the people and it has opened many doors. They say, “You are like us. I can respect you. You have something to teach us.” Other foreigners, they don’t listen to because they seem separate from us. (Global Trends and Fruitful Practice, 2007b)
In other words, we might say that local Muslim populations tend to think in one of two ways: (1) significant cultural adaptation (“You have something to teach us”) or (2) low cultural adaptation (“You are separate; we have no need to listen”).
The more a worker participates in the local way of life, the more likely he or she will come to understanding the day-to-day realities of their neighbors’ world, thus acculturating to their worldview.
Walking alongside. We prefer this term over “mentoring” because it is more descriptive. One worker describes her relationship to the Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in her life this way:
…We are to be walking alongside them, working alongside them, not overstepping them…. You are with them whether they are in triumph, or whether they are in the lowest time of their life; you are there, just walking alongside them.” (GTFP, Interview 106 2007a)
This “walking alongside” includes different behaviors—providing emotional support, doing ministry together, modeling Christian marriage, etc. We might say that it describes the normal sharing of life that happens between fellow Christians, but specifically without the paternalism that often distorts a foreign worker’s relationship with believers on the field.
Discipleship chains. This group of activities and attitudes perfectly illustrate the core concept of indirectly Fruitful Practices. There are two dimensions to developing a discipleship chain. First, local church members take responsibility for both evangelism and discipleship. Next, and perhaps more critical, foreign workers deliberately limit (or completely refrain from) contact with these second and third-generation believers. Although this is difficult, it greatly leverages the impact of the foreigner’s presence and minimizes problems of cross-cultural misunderstanding in the new church.
In one Asian context (not Muslim), the practice of not removing a foreigner’s influence has resulted in successive generations of new believers being more and more contextualized. This suggests a correlation between contextualization and the level of influence of foreign missionaries (John 2005). Although this point is hotly debated, some of our research points toward the same result among Muslims.
Research. Many different streams of information shape fruitful ministry—ethnography, linguistics, history, etc. We are finding that practitioners who conduct research, or actively reflect on the research of others, are more likely to see spiritual fruit than those who rely on preconceived ideas and patterns of ministry in their sending countries (Allen 2009, 113).
Few workers state it explicitly, but some kind of research was often just below the surface in the interviews we studied, ranging from field ethnographic work to previously conducted graduate studies in Islamics. This should not surprise us. From early in the Protestant mission era, missionaries have been making significant contributions to the social sciences (Whiteman 2003, 36).
In general, all the practices above are fruitful, albeit indirectly, because they help the foreign gospel messenger enter into the worldview of those they are trying to reach.
Directly Fruitful Practices
Now we will delineate what we are calling directly Fruitful Practices, those context-specific innovations that are directly linked to spiritual reproduction (either individuals coming to Christ, or groups of believers multiplying). Again, these practices emerge when the gospel messenger has a deep understanding of the receptor worldview, enabling him or her to discern the activities that may be directly fruitful in church planting.
Some examples of innovative practices include:
• Bridging to Islamic culture
• Picnics as “safe places”
• Indigenous worship
• Sharing within groups
• Bridging to Qur’an
• Reaching social networks
• Innovations in orality
• Innovative church models
• Strong identity for MBBs
Due to space constraints, we will explore just five of these.
Bridging to Islamic culture. Bridging to Islamic culture occurs when the gospel messenger uses points in a culture as connecting points for ministry. Examples include observance of Islamic festivals, the use of Islamic prayer positions, and observance of halal dietary regulations. As one worker explains, “If you show that you have respect for who they are, for their people, for their faith, then you have an audience with them” (GTFP, Interview 69 2007a). Thus, showing respect for people and their culture is a key to understanding many of the Fruitful Practices.
Such activities help new believers experience faith in Jesus within concepts they can easily identify with by translating elements from Islamic culture into a theological universe that is still doctrinally Christian (Jorgensen 2009, 174). Furthermore, this allows new believers to remain connected to their natal community, thus enabling them to share the gospel.
Reaching social networks. The data collected by our taskforce from across the Muslim world points to the value of the gospel flowing within existing social networks. These networks can have many different configurations: extended families, age/school cohorts, etc. The key issue is that believers live and breathe their faith as much as possible within their own existing networks, and seem less likely to construct new ones out of previously unrelated people. Andrea Grey and Leith Grey assert that this is one of the most important missiological shifts taking place in our day (Grey and Grey 2009).
One participant points out why the gospel is so powerful when lived within one’s social network: “…because it has personal implications for them too….Since they are so much a community-minded people, it was important for them to know that there were other believers beside them, their natural network family” (GTFP, Interview 83 2007a).
Perhaps this is particularly important for us in the West to take note of since we are so accustomed to the “gathered church” concept. Grey and Grey believe that thinking in terms of social networks is critical for any worker who wishes to transition from Western ideas of church to discovering models that are more appropriate for their context (2009, 23).
Innovations in orality. When we think of orality, we usually think in terms of storytelling, and it is true that storying is a powerful way for people from oral cultures to integrate the Bible into their lives. However, our data shows that this is only one way workers are fruitfully engaging the concept of orality; others include expressing biblical truth in the form of pithy or proverbial sayings and corporate scripture reading:
The key part of the gathering is the reading of scripture out loud together, using the Bible as a lectionary…seems to be the backbone of the way the scriptures are being engaged…reading out loud, together and discussing it [the scriptures]… is actually an effective way for the scriptures to be used, to be engaged, in an oral culture. (GTFP, Interview 82 2007a)
We should note that Phillip Jenkins has documented these patterns of engaging scripture through orality as a major component of emerging, Majority World Christianity in the Global South (Jenkins 2006, 17).
Bridging to the Qur’an. In the narratives we studied, there is a range of fruitful approaches to building bridges from the Qur’an to the Bible. These range from complex and theological, to simple and relatively cultural. The approach preferred seems to be dependent upon the degree of
Qur’anic knowledge of the resident in the target Muslim society. In general, we can group these into three categories:
• Workers who use specific methods to reinterpret the Qur’an so that it is more Jesus-centric
• Workers who select specific, limited Qur’anic texts as bridges to biblical stories
• Workers who use the Muslim holy book in a very basic way, just as a cultural point of reference in conversations
Although these approaches vary from one degree to another in how they engage actual Qur’anic material, they share at least two important characteristics. First, they reflect what Lamin Sanneh calls having a command of the “indigenous idiom,” showing that workers are familiar with the religious milieu around them (Sanneh 2008, 212-214). Second, in the words of one study participant, they seem “to give permission” for seekers to read the Bible for themselves (GTFP, Interview 3 2007).
Sharing within groups. One practice that was surprisingly fruitful is when the gospel is shared in small groups rather than one-on-one. Many veterans of work in Muslim settings may recoil from this idea due to security concerns, but there is sound data to support the idea.
In several case studies, workers found that by sharing with a small group, they enabled an on-going discussion not dependent upon the foreigner’s presence to develop between seekers. Although it may be counter-intuitive, it seems that since everyone involved already knows about the religious conversation, there is no fear to continue it. Furthermore, since this kind of group is, by definition, an existing social group, it has significant potential of forming into a new fellowship once the decision to believe in Christ is made.
Each of the innovative activities described above has been observed in multiple contexts across the Muslim world. Therefore, while not exhaustive, they offer a wide view of what God is currently doing.
We are living in a day when increasing numbers of Muslims are finding new life in Christ. Rightfully, our first response is to rejoice, and our second is wonder—to wonder in the sense of awe of what God is doing and to deeply contemplate and reflect on it. The Fruitful Practices ministry is an attempt to contemplate and reflect on these things through orderly investigation.
The activities described in this article are a snapshot of the current wisdom resident in many teams across the Muslim world, but they are not formulas to be followed. Furthermore, even the very best research is no substitute for prayer and reflection, for as Jesus told us, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where is it is going” (John 3:8). Nevertheless, we hope that our research will help increase the fruitfulness of God’s servants working across the Muslim world.
Allen, Don, Rebecca Harrison, Bob Fish, E.J. Martin, et al. 2009. “Fruitful Practices: A Descriptive List.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 111-122.
Global Trends and Fruitful Practice (GTFP). 2007a. Interviews 3, 69, 82, 83, and 106.
_____. 2007b. Small Group 18.
Grey, Andrea and Leith Grey. 2009. “Paradigms and Praxis. Part 1: Social Networks and Fruitfulness in Church Planting.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26(1):19-28.
Jenkins, Phillip. 2006. The New Faces of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
John, Victor. Interview by Gene Daniels. Unpublished Interview, May 17, 2005.
Jorgensen, Jonas A. 2009. “Jesus Imandars and Christ Bhaktas.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33(4):171-176.
Kraft, Charles H. 1999. “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization.” In Perspecitves on the World Christian Movement 3rd ed. Eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 384-391. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Sanneh, Lamin. 2008. Disciples of All Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whiteman, Darrell L. 2003. “Anthropology in Mission: The Incarnational Connection, Part I.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 21(1):33-44.
Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and Don Allen are members of the Fruitful Practices Taskforce, a multi-agency network of missiologists who are studying effective field practitioners in the Muslim world. They can be contacted at FruitfulPractices@gmail.com.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 412-418. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.