by Joshua Massey
Scripture shows that God has never been entirely predictable. Who could have foreseen his decision to wipe out most of humanity and start over with Noah and his family?
Scripture shows that God has never been entirely predictable. Who could have foreseen his decision to wipe out most of humanity and start over with Noah and his family? Who could have guessed that the fulfillment of God’s covenant to multiply Abraham’s descendants would include polygamous marriages? Consider how God asked Isaiah to preach naked for three years, or Ezekiel to roast his food over human excrement (Isa. 20:2-4; Ezek. 4:12-15)?
As familiar as we may be with the Scriptures, we can’t always predict how God will handle a situation. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures extremely well but utterly failed to recognize Jesus. In God’s passion to draw the nations to Jesus, about the only thing we can predict with confidence is that God will do things we don’t expect! We must never forget that God is God: His ways are not our ways. He may, therefore, absolutely astonish us sometimes. In fact, God may at times even appear to contradict what he has previously revealed (Ac 10:13), but God never contradicts himself (Num. 23:19). Whether he asks us to preach naked or roast our food over human excrement, we need to realize that God is God, and we won’t always be able to fit his activity into our limited understanding without some occasional befuddlement and discomfort.
GOD’S UNPREDICTABLE WAYS AMONG MUSLIMS
So has God been doing anything lately in drawing Muslims to Christ that we would not have predicted? Most definitely! One worker, John Travis, has developed what he calls the C1-C6 Spectrum to describe six very different kinds of Christ-centered communities worshiping Jesus today.1 Muslim men and women who at one time only knew Jesus as a prophet of Islam now know him as Savior and Lord in a variety of very different Christ-centered communities. C1 is a typical transplant of a church from one country to another. Inside a C1 church, everything is almost exactly the same as it would be in its country of origin, including the language.
C2 is basically the same as C1, except C2 uses the local language. C2 doesn’t use any Islamic religious vocabulary, but instead has a distinctively “Christian” vocabulary for religious description.
C3 is essentially the same as C2, except C3 uses local music styles, dress, art, and other native cultural elements. C3 makes a clear distinction between practices that are purely “cultural” and those which are “Islamic.” Islamic forms are rejected. C1-C3 believers all identify themselves as “Christians.”
C4 is much like C3 but has also adopted biblically permissible Islamic forms and practices (e.g., praying prostrate, perhaps toward Jerusalem; washing before prayer and before touching the Bible; abstaining from pork, alcohol, or from keeping dogs as pets; using some Islamic terms; wearing some clothing popular among Muslims). C4 believers do not call themselves “Christians” but “followers of Isa (Jesus).” However, the Muslim community does not generally see C4 believers as fellow Muslims.
C5 is much like C4, with the primary difference being self-identity. Whereas C4 believers identify themselves as “followers of Isa,” C5 believers identify themselves as “Muslim followers of Jesus”—much like Messianic Jews, who call themselves “Jewish followers of Jesus.” Islamic theology incompatible with the Bible is rejected. Some C5 believers remain in the Muslim community for as long as they can to “win Muslims as a Muslim” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). In time, however, their deviance from mainstream Islamic theology may lead to their banishment from the Muslim community. But where whole communities of Muslims begin to follow Jesus, the local mosque may be transformed into a messianic mosque for Jesus. Other C5 believers desire to distance themselves from the mosque and Islam, still preferring to maintain their identity as a Muslim follower of Jesus. In contrast to C4, Muslims view C5 believers as Muslim, though perhaps a “strange kind of Muslim.” Most Muslims have not met Muslims who follow Jesus, so the curiosity that results from their identification often opens doors to share their faithin Christ.
C6 will be discussed later.
A SURPRISING PROGRESSION
The majority of churches in the Muslim world today are C1-2—which isn’t too surprising. But C3-5 represent a surprising progression of God’s diversity in drawing Muslims to Jesus.
I use the term “progression” because the surprises didn’t start with C5, but with C3. In its day, C3 received plenty of opposition from C1-2 believers, who insisted, for example, that certain musical instruments are inherently evil and inappropriate for any community of Christ-followers. But in time, C3 became more widely accepted, and in turn laid a foundation for C4.
I attribute this “progression” to God (rather than to the contextual experiments of man) based on the firm conviction that no one becomes “Christ-centered” unless God draws him, as Jesus stated so clearly (John 6:44). Phil Parshall certainly became the vanguard of C4 in the late ‘70’s. Phil endured an extreme amount of opposition from more than a few C1-3 believers. But Phil took the necessary time and actually wrote a book to build his case for C4, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism (Baker Books, 1980).
Ironically, less than 20 years after its release, C4 is today probably the most common approach used by new missionaries to Muslims. But who could have predicted 20 years ago that God would raise up still another group of missionaries who believe that God wants to take them beyond C4? C4 surely paved the way for C5, whose major difference is one of identity. Whereas C4 allows any biblically permissible Islamic form or practice, C5 does not claim to go any further, except in the area of self-definition.
C5 practitioners insist that—even as Paul argued tirelessly with Judaizers that Gentiles don’t have to convert to Judaism to follow Jesus—Muslims don’t have to convert to “Christianity” to follow Jesus. C5 believers surely are genuine disciples of Jesus (Acts 15:8,11), but they do not desire to align themselves with what they perceive as that godless Western institution called “Christianity,” where (from a Muslim perspective) homosexuals enter the clergy, immodest women worship in scantily clad summer dresses, and people put their Holy Scriptures on the floor right next to their dirty shoes.
C5 workers point out that Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not converts. If Muslims drawn to Jesus commit to obey all his commands, bearing witness that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man and that only his death on the cross can pay the price for man’s sin, what does it matter what they call themselves?
Opponents of C5 will argue, “To call themselves ‘Muslim’ means they adhere to certain Islamic beliefs that flatly contradict Scripture!”
C5 practitioners respond, “That sounds like the same argument Judaizers used against Paul, since Gentiles were well known by all Jews to be unclean, uncircumcised, and mostly sexually immoral idolaters. ‘How is it possible,’ Judaizers must have asked Paul, ‘to be both Gentile and a follower of Jesus? The two terms are mutually exclusive!’ And yet we find this phrase, ‘Gentile believers’ twice in the book of Acts—which must have been quite disturbing to the Judaizers, many of whom no doubt loved the Lord Jesus deeply.
“But,” opponents of C5 contend, “to remain a Gentile follower of Jesus is different than remaining a Muslim follower of Jesus, since being Gentile is an issue of ethnicity, not adherence to a false religion.” C5 practitioners respond, “Tell that to Peter, who, though he may not have been able to point at a religious body of literature claiming to describe ‘Gentileism,’ nor an order of priests claiming to represent the offices of ‘Gentileism’, believed he’d be polluted from entering a God-fearing Gentile’s home. So while ‘Gentileism’ may not have been a cohesive religious institution per se, being Gentile surely carried implications of religious consequence, deeply ingrained in the psyche of every Jew and Judaizer who objected to their inclusion in the church without first converting to Judaism.”
CHIRSTIAN BACKGROUND VS. MUSLIM BACKGROUND
Every C5 worker I know sees a huge difference between someone from a Christian background taking a C5 identity and someone from a Muslim background becoming a C5 believer. In fact, one pro-C5 team I know has a countrywide policy diallowing anyone from a Christian background from becoming C5; their identity can go no further than C4. If someone from a Christian background goes around calling himself a Muslim, all they’ll do (according to popular C5 opinion) is either look like a total phony, or mislead Muslims into thinking they converted to Islam. So when I use the term “C5 believer,” I am always referring to those who were raised Muslim by a Muslim family. This distinction becomes even more significant when considering the question of deceit in a C5 approach.
HONESTY IN C5 IDENTITY
While C1-4 workers may assert that following Jesus requires one to cease identifying themselves as “Muslim” in name, C5 workers believe identity is not solely based on one’s theological position. For example, C5 believers, or “Muslim followers of Jesus,” see themselves as far more “Muslim” than “Christian,” even though they disagree with the common Muslim belief that the Bible has been corrupted and Jesus was not crucified. How can they possibly see themselves as more Muslim than Christian in spite of these theological differences?
To answer this question, we must first ask, “Whom do they see as ‘Christian’?” In parts of the world where significant numbers of C5 believers exist, they are mostly looking at C1-2 believers. When C5 believers compare themselves to C1-2 Christians, they say, “I don’t pray like a Christian, unwashed in a pew with my shoes on; I pray like a Muslim.
I don’t dress like a Christian, with Western pants and collared shirts; I dress like a Muslim. I don’t talk like a Christian, with all their strange terms to describe God and his prophets; I talk like a Muslim. I don’t eat like a Christian, consuming pork chops and haram meats (i.e. from animals not butchered in the “kosher” way); I prefer halal meats, like a Muslim. I don’t have a Christian name, like John, Tom, or Paul. I have a Muslim name.
Thus, C5 believers are being entirely honest when they identify themselves as “Muslim” followers of Jesus.
C6 INDICATES FAITH NOT YET MADE PUBLIC
While C6 accurately describes a certain Christ-centered community of believers, it doesn’t fit well on this spectrum in other respects, particularly in the area of context-ualization and self-definition. For throughout C1-5, we can see a progression in contextual “friendliness” with a Muslim’s culture, Islamic forms, and even Muslim identity. But any sense of contextual progression ends at C5, for the defining factor of C6 is whether or not a believer’s faith in Jesus is made public. C6 believers surely practice a wide range of self-definition, and if we ask them how they think their countrymen would best be reached with the gospel, we would surely hear a variety of replies all along the C1-5 spectrum.
CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO GOD’S DIVERSE APPROACHES
I see two common responses to God’s unpredictable approaches in drawing Muslims to Christ.
1. Accuse brothers up the spectrum of compromise, syncretism, and heresy. We should never gloss over the genuine concerns of our brothers who sense significant dangers in a C4-C5 approach. But some, instead of praying for the protection and fruitful labors of those involved in C4-C5, judge them as having crossed from context-ualization into syncretism. Some in turn spread their opinions of heresy to others and engage in what we could call “missiological gossip.” To be fair, they don’t see it as gossip at all, but as alerting God’s people to the sloppy doctrine of compromising saints.
I am not referring here to differences on the nonnegotiables of the gospel (2 Pet. 2:1). Missiological gossip occurs when we elevate disputable matters to such an extent as to condemn our brothers of wrongdoing in areas where Christ has given us freedom. Satan’s ancient strategy to divide and conqueris ever-present among missionaries to Muslims who accuse their Christ-centered brothers of watering down the requirements of the gospel to make it more palatable for Muslim acceptance. They assume they know full well how God draws Muslims to Jesus, and it doesn’t include a C4 or C5 approach. They have forgotten that God is not always completely predictable and in his passion to reach the nations may actually surprise us sometimes.
2. Accuse brothers down the spectrum of obstructing the flow of the gospel with a culturally insensitive, extractionist approach. Pride can easily develop in those who are early adopters of God’s unpredictable ways, as if they are on the cutting edge of a movement of God due to some personal ability of their own. Many fall into a trap of believing the approach God has called them to is the approach for everyone. Paul offers some incredibly specific instruction on such issues in Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” One wonders if Paul’s seasoned advice throughout Romans 14 isn’t rooted in some pretty hard lessons he himself learned when dealing with the Judaizers (Gal. 5:12).
I believe both responses fall far short of Christ’s command to love one another as he has loved us. Both responses also seem to ignore Paul’s instruction to not pass judgment on one another in disputable matters, nor to judge another man’s servant, for “to his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4).
There is a better way, a third response to God’s amazingly diverse methods in drawing Muslims to Christ, which I believe Peter and James modeled for us at the Jerusalem council.
3. Accept God’s diverse paths in drawing Muslims to Jesus, blessing and praying for those who do not share our philosophy of ministry.
The words of James no doubt have inspired every believer called to contextualize: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). You see, with all the accusations of compromise and syncretism on one side, and “making it hard for Muslims to enter the kingdom” on the other, we need to remember that not all Muslims are the same.
MANY KINDS OF MUSLIMS
There are many kinds of Muslims, all positioned on their own spectrums of how near and dear Islam is to their hearts. Many Muslim countries may easily contain all of the groups listed below, and many Muslim groups may also have individual members who share a greater sense of affinity and belonging to some of these groups than they do to their own ethnolin-guistic people.
Nominal Muslims: Muslims in name only, who only go to the mosque on eid (a major Islamic holiday) once or twice a year.
Fringe Muslims: These Muslims, often urban youth, are infatuated with Western culture and MTV. Some are disappointed with their religious leaders, who, they believe, are living in the past and not taking advantage of all that modernity offers.
Liberal left-wing Muslims: These are open-minded Muslims who aren’t intimidated by conservative Islamic fundamentalists. They are often well-educated and financially well off.
Conservative right-wing Muslims: These need no explanation.
Ultra-orthodox Muslims: Islamic reformist movements, like the Wahhabis (called “The Protestants of Islam”), frown on what has become of Islam throughout the world today: a mix of Qur’anic observance with superstitions, sacred shrines, richly ornamented tombs, divination, omens, and excessive reverence of Muham-mad.
Modern Muslims: These have successfully integrated Western technology with Islamic devotion and are proud to be part of a global Islamic community.
Mystical Muslims: Sufis and folk Muslims who, according to Wahhabis and conservative right-wing Muslims, are desperately in need of serious reform.
Communistic Muslims: In some parts of Central Asia and other former communist lands, Islamic identity has been almost completely stripped away.
Rice Muslims: Some poor animistic tribes of sub-Saharan Africa or low Hindu castes of South Asia convert to Islam for material benefit or economic convenience.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but no matter how many kinds of Muslims we list, I believe they will all fit into one of three categories in their attitude toward Islam.
1. Muslims disillusioned with Islam: Iranian Muslims are a great example. So many saw what Khomeini did to their country under the banner of Islam and said, “If this is Islam, we want nothing to do it.”
2. Muslims ambivalent about Islam: They are ignorant and apathetic about Islam. They don’t know and they don’t care.
3. Muslims content with Islam: These Muslims love their Islam and believe with all their heart that Islam is the only true path to God. When they look at Christianity, they see countries with the highest divorce rate in the world, where selfish ambition and materialism are at their zenith, where sexual immorality and homosexuality are accepted, and whose economic appetites led to the colonization and exploitation of their people and national resources. Even when they meet born again Christians, they are often repulsed by “Christian culture.” They are impressed with the person of Jesus, but totally unimpressed with Christianity.
Each of the three attitudes has a high and low end on its spectrum. High contentment could represent devout Muslims as well as propagators of Islam. Low contentment could represent liberal left-wing Muslims who may not be too impressed with (perhaps even embarrassed by) the dogmatism of many Islamic leaders but are nonetheless very proud to be Muslim. Most communistic and rice Muslims would probably fall somewhere on the ambivalence spectrum, while fringe Muslims can be found anywhere from low ambivalence to low contentment.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT MUSLIMS
Which approach do you think will be most effective with Muslims who are perfectly content with their Islam?
I believe C5 offers great promise. C4 is also excellent, but it isn’t hard to understand why many Muslims would much prefer to learn about Jesus from a “fellow Muslim” rather than from a non-Muslim (i.e., C1-C4). For a Muslim to enter the home of a “Christian” to learn about religious matters is akin to treason. But entering a fellow Muslim’s home—even though a Muslim following Jesus may be rather unusual—is much less likely to worry watchful neighbors. In fact, they may even go to see what this study of the Taurat, Zabur, and Injil (i.e., the Bible) is all about!
And when the Muslim seeker after God comes home with some literature about Jesus, it is C5 literature, often printed by well-respected Muslim publishers, not by suspicious-looking Christian organizations. Therefore, such literature doesn’t need to be hidden under a mattress. Instead, it can be freely shared with family and friends.
And because the C5 believer was raised as a Muslim in a Muslim family, he’s worlds apart from the peculiar foreigner claiming to be “Muslim.” In contrast, he really talks like a Muslim, observes proper respect for holy books like a Muslim, washes before prayer, and eats food like a Muslim. The dietary habits of C5 believers allow Muslim guests to be at ease during meal times.
The doors God can open for C5 workers was certainly seen by one North American brother in Asia who fasted and prayed six months that God would lead him to a Muslim background believer gifted in sharing the Injil (Good News). After finding Rashid in a C3 work and training him in C5, John sent Rashid out to reach Muslims as a Muslim. In less than two years, Rashid started 10 “congregations!” (They aren’t called “churches.”)
Which approach do you think will be most effective with Muslims who are totally disillusioned with Islam? Not C4 or C5! Muslims disillusioned with Islam want out! They are ripe for conversion to “Christianity.” C1-3 should, therefore, be most suitable—depending on their preferred language and cultural setting. Ask any Persian Muslim background believer at an Iranian Christianfellowship what he or she thinks about C4 contextualization to reach Muslims, and you’ll probably get a confused look followed by the question, “Why in the world would anyone want to do that?”
Which approach might be most effective with Muslims who are ambivalent about Islam? I don’t know. It could be C1-5! Let’s see who God raises up to be his witnesses among them. Then, let’s pray for their work to bear much fruit.
THE COST OF DENYING GOD’S DIVERSE APPROACHES
Denying God all these options in drawing Muslims to Jesus damages the cause of Christ in far greater ways than merely wounding our brothers with accusations discrediting their missiological methods or theological scruples. Denial can damage trust between brothers called to reach the same people. Those who don’t trust each other don’t generally pray together. Like a cancer, distrust can be quite contagious among coworkers. Rather than rejoice at what God is doing in so many different ways and learning from one another, we avoid sharing valuable information with those who might disapprove—to save ourselves from tiresome controversy.
I know brothers who don’t feel free to share some thrilling developments in their C5 work with C3 brothers laboring among the very same people group. Because these C3 brothers have judged the C5 work as having “gone too far,” they cannot rejoice that these Muslims are being reached with the gospel and in turn spreading the good news of the Lord’s life and teaching far and wide.
Groundbreaking works like this can be seriously jeopardized by dogmatic C3 brothers who feel it is their duty to alert the saints about what they perceive as heresy or syncretism. Add to this the issue of physical danger such news could cause responsive Muslim participants and their families, and one can begin to see the escalating cost of denying this work of God in drawing Muslims to Jesus.
Surely, not all C3 believers are so dogmatic. Numerous C3-4 workers rejoice with great pleasure over how God is blessing this C5 work, but the vigilance in security that must be taken to keep this news from our more dogmatic brothers can be uncomfortably challenging.
When you hear a brother engaging in missiological gossip, discrediting another for his approach either up or down the C1-5 spectrum, kindly stop him, and help him see that not all Muslims are the same. God therefore does not call all of his messengers to reach them in the same way. As dangerous or outdated as an approach may seem, God will use a variety of Christ-centered approaches to reach a variety of Muslims.
And be on your guard! For if God is anything like he has been throughout history, he will surprise you occasionally. Let us heed Paul’s instruction to not judge our brothers on disputable matters. Instead, “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15) and “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19).
When you meet workers who have been called to different points on the C1-5 spectrum than you have, encourage them. Pray for God’s protection and blessing upon them, acknowledging that God will use them to reach Muslims that you won’t likely reach, “for God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9).
1. John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October, 1998, pp. 407-408.
Joshua Massey is a pseudonym for an experienced missionary who has worked in Asia among Muslims.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 188-197. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.