by David Greenlee
In early 1997, a regional church development working group asked what could be learned from existing churches to benefit those planting new churches of Muslim background believers (MBBs).
How do churches grow? From Paul’s basic-yet profound-explanation (1 Cor.3:6) to Christian Schwartz’s statistical studies (1996), many have attempted to explain the principles that affect the growth of churches, and wondered how they could foster greater growth in and of the church.
Many books have been written born from research in regions such as India (McGavran 1955) and sub-Saharan Africa (Braun n.d.) Less attention has been paid, at least in terms of formal research, to the recently emerging churches in the Muslim world. Greg Livingstone (1993) provided a global survey but indicated the absence of research on conversions from Islam to Christianity (1993, 154). My dissertation (Greenlee 1996) was an attempt to start bridging that gap.
In early 1997, a regional church development working group asked what could be learned from existing churches to benefit those planting new churches of Muslim background believers (MBBs). Those discussions led to the collection of case studies of twelve churches in the region. Analysis of the cases points to certain tendencies and patterns among the churches.
These findings, we should remember arise from descriptive studies; we must be very careful in moving from them to prescriptive statements. What I have written is true about these churches. As you read, I encourage you to bracket these findings with a question mark and allow them to stimulate reflection on your own ministry setting.
CATEGORIZING THE CHURCHES
Case studies were provided for twelve churches. Church refers to a group of Christian believers who regularly meet for fellowship, teaching, worship and the sacraments. Eleven are located in a setting dominated by Islam and with no significant Christian presence in recent centuries. The remaining church is in a neighboring country with a historic Christian presence, but these MBBs have had virtually no contact with Christianity except through a small number of Western expatriate missionaries or other national MBBs. Eight of the churches continue to function today; one ceased in the 1980s and three in the 1990s.
Of the eight churches functioning today, I have classed five as vigorous, two as plateau and one as struggling. These groupings are based on the case studies themselves, not on an external scale. Although admittedly somewhat subjective, the factors affecting my categorization include numerical growth, vitality of fellowship, response to opposition, and strength of national leadership. At least two of the churches which have ceased meeting, at one time, could have been called vigorous. In looking at the case studies, I tried to learn lessons from those ceased groups when they were at their best as well as the factors leading to their decline.
Galatians 6:2 gives practical instruction on how to put John 13:34,35 into practice: bear one another’s burdens. My earlier work on individual male believers in one country revealed a disturbing lack of commitment to "burden bearing" (Greenlee 1996, 159-61).
In this study, it is encouraging to find that all of the vigorous churches report a strong sense of community demonstrated in specific instances of burden bearing. Caring for the sick, helping the unemployed, and encouraging those in various struggles were some of the examples reported.
The two plateau churches referred to burden bearing, but it seemed to have occurred more in the past. The struggling church gave no indication that burden bearing was a part of the fellowship.
Of the ceased churches, one had gone through a vigorous phase in which it did have a time of significant burden bearing. The only other reference among the ceased churches to burden bearing was to the absence of this practice in one group before its demise. The informant reported that the decline of the church "might have been that everyone was exhausted with some people always giving and not being able to give any more while others were always receiving and not willing to give."
EVANGELISM AND WELCOM OF NEW PEOPLE
Missionaries should evangelize! But the vigorous churches tend to be those in which the national believers have taken on an active role in evangelism. Schwartz argues that, although "it is indeed the responsibility of every Christian to use his or her own specific gifts in fulfilling the Great Commission … the gift of evangelism applies to no more than ten percent of all Christians" (Schwartz 1996,34).
How then does a church characterized by evangelism emerge? Much, it seems, depends on the founder, or a leader who has come in at a time of revitalization. Robert Coleman’s classic work (1993) points to eight principles Jesus did beyond simply evangelizing. He produced evangelists through selection, association, consecration, impartation, demonstration, delegation, supervision and reproduction.
Of the two vigorous churches most strongly characterized by evangelism, the founder of one and the revitalizing leader of the other clearly exemplify the principles Coleman presents. Their own commitment to evangelism, close association with a select few, training, and demonstration has led to several others being equipped and involved in evangelistic ministry.
What should be done with seekers and new believers in an environment where betrayal may bear serious consequences? Welcoming new people to the church is a critical issue. Several churches had experienced negative repercussions from welcoming an insincere person; most of the rest were fearful of what could happen. Various strategies were adopted by the vigorous churches, but it is clear that finding some plan to welcome seekers and new believers, a workable plan which the church as a whole adopts, is very important.
It is not surprising that the vigorous churches indicate that the members are, in one way or another, using their spiritual gifts. Some churches which were weaker, or ceased, also made such reports, although the reports tended to indicate this had to do with teaching and not a broader range of spiritual gifts that contribute to the life of the body.
Two of the ceased churches were characterized by the unwillingness of some to get involved, leaving a heavier load on a small number. This contributed directly to the demise of these churches.
Leaders are vital. Finding qualified national leaders is very important to long-term growth. How those leaders are appointed appears to be crucial.
In the countries of these twelve churches, national politics is characterized by a strong, central figure. Where an attempt has been made at free elections, the result was years of civil unrest. The people tend to accept the situation but when crops fail or the economy turns sour, tension on the streets can become acute.
Intercultural relations expert Geert Hofstede (1997) describes the countries of this region as having a very high power distance. That is, in this region inequality is accepted, hierarchy is needed, superiors are often inaccessible, and power-holders have privilege.
Having visited most of these countries myself, I would agree with Hofstede’s description of society as a whole. But what applies to successful national politics and social structure does not apply within these churches. In fact, it could be that two sets of values are competing, those described by Hofstede and a more biblical, egalitarian, servant-leader approach to Christian community.
All of the vigorous churches have made a transition to national leadership. For some it was a bumpy process as leaders failed in one way or another, leading to a turbulent period. Failure in the leadership transition contributed to the decease of two groups and is a continuing problem for one which is struggling.
In one setting, an expatriate who had helped found a church appointed a leader with apparently adequate gifting. When the expatriate left the country the church fell apart. The others in the church did not place confidence in the new leader and were not in agreement with his appointment. In other cases, appointing people to leadership prematurely, or taking leadership back out of their hands, were reported as negative influences on church development.
Our cases do not provide definitive answers for this thorny issue of transition from an expatriate founder to national leadership. It appears, though, that a consensus-building approach to decision-making and leadership issues is helpful. Having leadership gifts alone is not enough; building trusting relationships is vital. The failure of leaders to develop relationships and build consensus run counter to the health of the church. On the other hand, good leadership must be complemented by the rest of the church sharing the load, using their spiritual gifts and bearing one another’s burdens.
Persecution, as experienced by these churches, ranged from the general social pressures and intimidation from family and employers to harassment and, at times, torture at the hands of the police. The only specific death threat reported was directed at an expatriate by friends of a fundamentalist who had come to faith. Perhaps the most common characteristic among the churches was the problem of fear of what might happen.
Among the twelve churches studied, the only pattern I find linking the cases is that persecution tends to push the believers inward, to curtail witness, and to cause them to be cautious in relationships. The specifics of their responses vary greatly. Some struggle with fear, while at least two of the vigorous churches want to avoid unnecessary trouble and so have measured their (somewhat) open evangelistic activity accordingly.
The demise of the church which ceased in the 1980s was, in part, a result of severe police intimidation and arrests of several believers. Another church seemed to be growing well, but fear linked to one man’s open evangelism led to division and eventual break-up of the group. In another short-lived church, quite strong police intimidation helped prevent the group from being solidly grounded, leading to its demise.
Since the cases were gathered, I have been aware of serious police intimidation of two of the vigorous churches. The believers made it clear that they were Christians, making no attempt to emulate Muslim religious practices (cf. Green 1989). I have been informed that, when the intimidation subsided, both groups saw significant numerical growth or multiplication in the formation of other groups.
SINGLES OR FAMILIES?
One mission agency’s definition of an autonomous, functioning local church includes the presence of Christian families in the fellowship (Livingstone 1993, 170). Although doubtless we all long for the incorporation of entire families in the churches, no clear pattern emerged linked specifically to the question of singles-only churches.
One group started by two single men, involving just single men, thrived and eventually, through marriage of the members, included families. Another similar group struggled. A group started by couples involving singles eventually fell apart as a result of police intimidation and inadequate leadership transition when the expatriates had to pull out of participation. At the same time, presence of families in a church was no guarantee of the church’s vigor.
It is evident that families can add a measure of stability to a church, but single men at times give the needed leadership and evangelistic drive to a church made up of singles and families together. At other times, the married man (and his wife) provide leadership as well as a secure place to meet. Study of the roles of Philemon, Onesimus and Epaphras among the New Testament churches in the Colosse-Laodicea-Hierapolis triangle may help to illuminate this point further.
One important finding is a confirmation of the role of single missionaries as church planters in the Muslim world. One of the older churches was blessed for many years through the ministry of a godly single woman missionary who, perhaps due to her age and longevity in ministry, held the respect of both men and women. Another of the vigorous churches was planted by two single men. As singles, the two did not attempt to bring in women but when a church member married, followed some time later by the marriage of one of the missionaries, the group was able to transition to mixed membership in the church.
It seems that having a secure, regular place to meet which is identified more with nationals than missionaries is an aid to growth. Too much dependence on the missionaries for a place to meet appears to be unhealthy.
Alternatively, it seems that the weaker churches tended to be dependent on the missionaries for a place to meet, or that the meetings took place outside the normal environment of the national believers. One exception is a house that has been known as a Christian place for decades and has been somehow tolerated by the authorities (although with waves of persecution over the years). Another vigorous church comprised of singles did meet initially in the single missionaries’ apartment. Its location and the lifestyle of these men, however, reflected their close bonding to the local culture.
CONFERENCES AND SPECIAL EVENTS
Mathias Zahniser (1997) suggests the importance of symbol and ceremony in the cross-cultural discipling process. In an Islamic setting, MBBs may struggle with their response to Ramadan and the various Islamic feasts, all the while wondering how to incorporate such Christian celebrations as Christmas and Easter.
The case studies I have considered remind us again of the importance of special events in building up the church. Summer Bible camps, Easter and Christmas events and other opportunities to gather believers for celebration, fellowship and teaching make a major, positive contribution, especially among the vigorous churches. Even some reporting on churches that have now ceased, in looking back at better times, consider these gatherings of great importance.
There is no simple key, no recipe, for planting thriving churches of MBBs. Suggested success principles and practices developed in countries with significant freedom for open church life may not prove relevant to our setting. Schwartz’s excellent work must be applied with care since his extensive surveys involved few churches in settings dominated by Islam (1996, 19). We may even find that practices developed in one region of the Islamic world are irrelevant among MBBs elsewhere. Joshua Massey (2000, 12-13) helps us understand the reason for this by reminding us of the diverse attitudes Muslims hold toward Islam, not just their diverse theologies.
The research project giving rise to this paper grew out of the disquiet of a group of MBBs and missionaries concerned to see churches growing and thriving in their region. Broader research might help us refine these findings and extend the range of their validity. The hard work will not be further studies, surveys and analysis; the real challenge is in creatively, contextually bringing these principles to life in ourselves and in the people entrusted to our care and training.
Braun, Willys K. n.d. Evaluating and Escalating Church Growth in the Third World. Kinshasa: International Center of Evangelism.
Coleman, Robert E. 1993. The Master Plan of Evangelism. 30th anniversary edition. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell.
Green, Denis. 1989. "Guidelines from Hebrews for Contextualization." In Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry, 233-50. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.
Greenlee, David. 1996. Christian Concersion from Islam: Social, Cultural, Communication and Supernatural Factors in the Process of Conversion and Faithful Church Participation. Ph.D. diss. Deerfield, Ill.: Trinity International University.
Hofstede, Geert. 1997. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Livingstone, Greg. 1993. Planting Churches in Muslim Cities: A Team Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Massey, Joshua. 2000. "God’s Amazing Diversity in Drawing Muslims to Christ." International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1):5-14).
McGavran, Donald A. 1955. The Bridges of God. New York: The Friendship Press.
_____. 1970. Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. by C. Peter Wagner. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Scharwz, Christian A. 1996. Natural Church Development Handbook. British Church Growth Association. www.CundP.de/international provides a list of international distributors.
Zahniser, A.H. Mathias. 1997. Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples across Cultures. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.
David Greenlee serves as international research associate with Operation Mobilization. E-mail: email@example.com
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