by Roland Muller
Learn how one community center is bridging the Christian-Muslim divide.
It was a warm Wednesday afternoon at the center. Several men sat around the circle of sofas chatting about the latest news. I sat with my back against the shelves of Arabic, Farsi, and other books and watched the passersby on the street.
A young woman on the sidewalk hesitated, turned, and made her way through the small parking lot toward us. I glanced around the room, but one of our women had already noticed and was preparing to rise. The men continued their conversation, aware that someone new was now in the center. The women sat behind a counter and during the next hour I could hear bits of the conversation: from Afghanistan, help with paperwork, etc. Soon they were busy at the computer.
Later, we learned this young lady, only 28 years old, was divorced with two young children. She was struggling to make ends meet, depressed, afraid, and aware that her employer was underpaying her. She was afraid she couldn’t pay her rent at the end of the month. The lady helping her had tried to encourage her, and suggested she pray. She asked if they could in fact pray together and the Afghani woman soon bowed her head and listened to the prayer. Afterwards, they hugged and she left.
When the Afghani woman’s story was related to the men, one of the older men’s eyes shone with interest. Only four months before he had come to the center depressed, afraid, and thinking of suicide. Now his eyes sparkled with new life, and he wanted to share with everyone the healing he had found in Jesus. He returned all his medications to the doctor, sharing his testimony with such joy that the doctor could do nothing but respond with enthusiasm and hug him as he left his office, a cured man. Now this young woman had come to us for help.
Our conversation changed to discussing her situation and what we could do. Prayer was first on the list, but perhaps we could do much more.
The next day, the young woman was back. She had found such peace at the center that she wanted to return. Another woman spoke with her this time, hearing her story once again. This time, she included a dream in which a man in white appeared and told her to endure a little longer, and then things would change for the better. What could this dream mean? With a smile on her face, one of our ladies shared her own story of meeting Jesus.
Every few days, God brings someone new into the center, and every few days, our community has opportunities to respond to the needs of others. What started as the vision of one man has grown into a blossoming community of new believers in Jesus from a Muslim background (otherwise known as Muslim Background Believers, MBBs). What is their secret? Why are people coming toChrist through this community? And what am I, a westerner, doing in this setting?
After twenty years of ministry experience in the Muslim world, I began to write several training manuals which have now been compiled into one book: The Messenger, the Message and the Community (2nd edition published in 2010). In this manual, we attempted to help new missionaries learn how to become accepted as valid messengers in their target setting. We also explored worldview in the form of guilt, shame, and fear-based cultures, discovering how to share the gospel message in a contextualized way.
The last section of the book deals with creating community for new believers. In the book, I lamented that we have not yet seen viable forms of community that expressly meet the needs of those coming to Christ out of Islam.
Since writing this in 2005, a great deal has happened in this area. Some of my fellow missionaries have explored the idea of allowing MBBs to stay within Islam to experience the community they desire, and to influence the communities of which they are a part. Others have experimented with various forms of community, from house churches to cell groups to Jesus Mosques to various kinds of “simple church.” All of us are searching for an adequate expression of community for MBBs.
And so in 2009 an MBB couple from Kuwait started the center and invited others, including my wife and myself, to join them. During the next year the community slowly grew, with new believers added every couple of months, then more often. Once the community was established, however, trouble set in, both within the group and from outside, in the form of repeated break-ins and thefts.
The Islamic community on the other hand was quiet as they observed us. When the Imam came to visit us, we received him with honor, and gladly placed his offered Qur’an in our library, along with other Islamic historical literature. From time to time curious Muslim leaders drop in to see what we are doing.
Our community has rented a storefront where we meet daily. During the day, several volunteers help people who come in the door. We have a lending library of books and videos, as well as several sitting areas. The main sitting area in the center of the front room is a circle of sofas where the men sit. Off to one side is a mufrag, where people can sit on the floor.
The women usually sit at a table on the other side between the reception desk and children’s play area. Coffee and tea are always available free of charge. In the back are several classrooms, bathrooms, a TV viewing area, a larger area for community meals, and a small room for our thrift store—an area where we collect donations, and provide them free to newly-arrived immigrants one afternoon a week.
The center is very simple. It is a gathering place for our community and the wide circle of friends we have made. Some days, only a few people pop in; other days, the place is bustling with activity. There are only a few simple rules. One is that we discourage animated discussion of religion and politics. These topics divide people and our purpose is to meet people and build community.
However, in the course of time, a newcomer might comment to one of our members, “I thought you were a Muslim, but you don’t sound like one.” This is an opportunity to invite the enquirer to a nearby coffee shop or to our homes for a more in-depth discussion. This protects the center from becoming a place of evangelism and thus a place to be avoided by Muslims.
We continually try to find ways of introducing new people to the center. We have a sign on the street advertising our library, photocopies, help with paperwork, etc. We offer free classes in English conversation, as well as Arabic classes to those who want to learn or improve their Arabic language. In the past, we have offered sewing and haircuts at discounted prices. We also occasionally offer seminars on certain topics, including job hunting, filling out government or embassy paperwork, and completing income taxes. The purpose of these classes is to provide people an opportunity to come into the center and meet our community.
On average, a person needs to visit us three times before he or she begins to feel attracted to the community. We all smile encouragingly when he or she exclaims, “I just love coming to this place.” We love it too. That is why so many people drop in to chat, drink coffee, spend time, and take advantage of the services we offer. We now have over 150 different families on our email list.
After two years of experimentation, we have come to realize that we are a transitional community. On one side, we have the various Muslim communities around us. Muslim communities are family-based. On the other side, we have Christian communities. These are usually building-based, with people from various ethnic groups attending services in the building.
From years of experience we have seen that the Muslim communities and Christian communities seldom mix, or even meet. That is why the center is unique. It is a community that exists between the two. Muslims see it as their community center. While we are not family-based, we act as an extended family for each other. Christians, on the other hand, see it as a place of outreach. Here leaders have to do some educating, because zealous Christians want to confront Muslims with their Jesus, rather than “live him out” in their lives.
Our “no religion and politics” guideline is as much for the Christians who visit us as it is for the Muslims. We put our rhetoric aside and live out our faith in a Book of Acts-type of Christian community, caring for each other and for those who come to us. We have found that what attracts Muslims the most is when they see Jesus being lived out, not only in the lives of individuals, but more powerfully in the lives of a dynamic community. Once exposed to this type of community, many begin to dig deeper to find out what makes us different.
Once an enquirer comes to Christ, he or she discovers that many of the people at the center are also followers of Jesus. They are then encouraged to attend Bible studies held in the evenings, and are invited to explore the wider Christian community by attending a church with someone from the center. The center itself is not a church—it is a transitional community, helping Muslims transition from the Islamic community into fellowship within the Christian community.
But not everyone digs deeper. Some Muslims have come to the center for over a year. They enjoy the fellowship and benefit from the programs and the help offered, but they never engage anyone in a religious conversation. This is perfectly fine, and in fact this has been our salvation. These Muslims defend us in the wider community. They tell the Muslim community that they have been coming to the center for over a year and no one has tried to convert them. They claim the center is harmless, and at the same time very beneficial.
The greatest threat comes from the Christian community. Zealous Christians want to make the center overtly evangelistic. Western Christians want to volunteer their services. They are often focused on the services we offer, but ignore the community aspect of the center, and are usually ignorant of the protocols and subtleties of Muslim culture. This has divided our community. Why shouldn’t we open the doors to everyone? We learned a painful lesson when a Western woman helping with the English class hounded an older Muslim man to “get back into class!”
Several days later, the woman didn’t bother to rise to her feet when the same man entered the center. Everyone else stood, but she was “too tired.” It took a lot of diplomatic effort to deal with the offended Muslim man. After similar events, we had to ask the woman not to come back. It was extremely painful for everyone.
We have come to the conclusion that many westerners are so individualistic that they are “community challenged.” It is my opinion that they should first work at building community in their own churches before coming to the center to help us.
When visitors ask us who funds the center, we point to the donation boxes. Sometimes, we try to explain what it means to operate “by faith in God,” but our explanations never really communicate the anguish we go through each month as we wait on God to provide the needed money for the rent. Perhaps this simple reliance on God and each other is the glue that keeps our small community together.
Style of Community
The question of MBB community has been plaguing the missionary movement for over a decade. As missionaries have gathered new believers in Jesus from a Muslim background together, a debate has begun as to whether these new communities of faith should be part of the more Western-type Christian community, or could be identified as part of the Muslim community of faith.
This search for identity is being made much more complex because at the same time the Muslim and Christian communities are also wrestling with their own identity issues. Thus, some confusion reigns on all sides.
It is my belief that the type of “either/or” thinking illustrated above is limiting and that there is a lot of room between these two communities of faith so that we can explore building our new communities. There is, therefore, a continuum between the two paradigms of Christian and Muslim.
The situation, however, is much more complex. There is not just one continuum, but many. Below, I have illustrated four basic continuums and placed our community on the lower continuum.
Our goal is to transition followers of Jesus from a Muslim background into an existing Christian community. We typically encourage them to attend a MBB church which uses non-Western music and worship, rather than one that is a translation of something Western. Some of the new believers, however, are so disgusted with Islam that they want to find something totally new. Others prefer something closer to them culturally. This is why variety in expressions of worship is important.
The Way Ahead
Recently, a group of MBBs gathered from across North America to discuss the need for a wider association of MBB individuals and communities. They began to wrestle with how to link themselves and their respective MBB communities together to support one another and the waves of new converts who are joining them. They met again some weeks later in Canada at the MBB Jesus in the Centre conference to explore more together.
I am excited about this because this is an effort led by MBBs from a variety of different communities and expressions of worship. Their desire is to network together and explore the kinds of community where followers of Jesus from Muslim backgrounds would feel more at home. These meetings are key because MBBs are taking the leadership and wrestling with issues that we westerners only can view from the outside (see illustration below).
I strongly believe that MBBs and Christian missions need to work together to explore various forms of community in this area between traditional Muslim and Christian communities of faith. It is here, however, that our MBB brothers and sisters must lead. Those of us from the West can share our perspectives, but they are only that—perspectives.
Our worldview, culture, politics, and religious backgrounds all limit us from fully participating in this area of exploration. MBBs need to grapple with issues that we don’t understand, and build communities of faith that draw from the strengths of both ends of the continuum.
Years ago, missionaries were obliged to leave China, forcing the local believers to create expressions of Christian community that reflected Chinese culture. What emerged was a variety of house-church movements which were a Chinese expression of Christian faith. Today, MBBs are wrestling with the same issues. Can the Church stand back and let them work out solutions without insisting that they create their communities in a particular way or that they be nearer one end of the continuum or the other?
Roland Muller (pseudonym) is a missionary with WEC International, and the author of several books, including The Messenger, the Message and the Community (which contains the earlier book Honor and Shame, Unlocking the Door). He and his wife have been church-planting tentmakers in a number of Middle Eastern countries. Their website is http://rmuller.com.
EMQ Jan 2013, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 44-51. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please use our STORE (here).