What Are Best Practices of Church Planting among Muslims?

by Steven Downey

“Is there any hope in reaching Muslims for Christ when there are so many obstacles?”

(Note: Due to the sensitive nature of this conference, no locations, names, or ministries could be identified, except by country.)

“Is there any hope in reaching Muslims for Christ when there are so many obstacles?” A participant who attended a “Best Practices of Church Planting in an Islamic Context” conference asked this question. The Indonesians provided an answer with a case study on probably the most amazing and significant turning to Christ in the history of Islam: the conversion of twelve million Javanese Muslims. This case study came at the end of a day which began with a devotional on Matthew 16:18—“I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”—from an Indian working among Muslims in Kashmir. (Note: Only weeks after the conference, the first convert of this Kashmiri outreach was martyred.)

Certainly the promise of Matthew 16:18 seems to apply to the movement of God among the Javanese. According to the case study, major growth began around 1930 when baptized Javanese numbered about 30,400. Today, unofficial estimates report that Javanese Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) number nearly twelve million.

While Partners International sponsored the gathering in Europe in November 2006, the conference was held at the request of non-Western indigenous leaders who wanted to share successful ministry models at work in Muslim-majority countries. The sixteen participants were experienced practitioners who welcomed a forum where they spoke directly with ministries like their own. Together, their agencies have about 530 ministry workers.

None of the participants claimed to be seeing large numbers of Muslims coming to Christ. One leader noted that of every ten Muslims who become Christian in his country, eight will return to Islam within two years because of family pressure, social ostracism, or job loss. In one town, where the number of Christians has doubled in ten years, many more people in the same period were born into Islam.

No one pretended that ministry among Muslim-majority people groups is easy. “How do you build bridges to Islam when Muslims do all they can to avoid Christians?” asked a Malian church leader. Another leader admitted that five years passed before their ministry saw the first baptism. But all the indigenous ministry leaders, representing ten countries, recognized that even though militant Islam gets most of the media’s attention, they still find Muslims receptive to open dialogue about Christ. What works in winning Muslims to Christ is the same that wins anyone to Christ: having an authentic, personal relationship. “The power of Christian love is the single biggest factor in people coming to faith, even among Muslims,” said one participant.

But how does one enter that relationship when the Muslim and Christian communities often live apart from each other—or even actively avoid each other? One Indian missionary couple, who purposely moved into a Muslim area to minister, discovered that one of their greatest challenges was convincing local Christians that Muslims will actually respond to the gospel. According to this couple, more than one thousand Indian missionaries are sent out annually; however, fewer than one hundred out of twenty thousand Indian missionaries reach out to Muslims.

The danger with “best practices” is to think that there are techniques that will quickly enhance a ministry’s effectiveness. What skills are needed? What competencies? What strategies? What training? Fortunately, one devotional leader began the conference by saying that the first question is not the “how” of ministry but the “why.” What is your motivation? What is your calling? “The shaping of one’s heart is more important than the skill set,” he said. “Once the character issues are worked out, you can move on to competence, training, and strategy.”

The other widely acknowledged truth is that there is no single, monolithic, Islamic world. Reaching people groups dominated by syncretistic folk Islam requires a different approach from reaching nominal Muslims. How one defends or presents the gospel in rural Mali differs from that of urban Dakar. Ministering to wealthy Muslims in the Gulf States is a world apart from the destitute of Hyderabad. Nevertheless, participants were stimulated by the different models they saw, and while no one is likely to jettison what they already do in favor of a new model, many are sure to allow those models to influence and modify their existing practices. The various conference presentations can be summarized around three themes: training, community development, and partnerships.

One of the most impressive training models presented was from Indonesia, a model born out of hard lessons learned. The ministry chose several years ago to focus on the most resistant Muslim unreached people groups, but discovered, to their dismay, that ninety percent of their church planters left the ministry within five years. While many factors accounted for this hemorrhaging, one was the recognition that seminaries prepared students for church ministry but not cross-cultural ministry among Muslims. The ministry developed a training philosophy centered on several principles, including:

• seventy percent of the training must be field experience
• trainees need to be mentored by an experienced church planter
• trainees learn best when role-playing real situations

The training shows students the types of rituals, customs, and beliefs that are part of Muslim life so that future church planters can better understand and relate to their audience.

The first step of a comprehensive seven-stage church-planting process became the most important: personal and team preparation. Originally, teams of two or three were sent out; however, these often failed because interpersonal conflicts would paralyze the team. Now, with larger teams going out, creativity, accountability, and gifting come together more effectively to plant churches. The other critical preparation piece is for church planters to create a respected, accepted, and if possible, even indispensable, identity within the community. Examples include: teachers, nurses, small business owners, and mechanics. Team members learn how to live next to Muslims and gain their respect. In addition, the training addresses more standard fare:

• principles of cross-cultural communication
• contextualizing the gospel
• developing relationships with community leaders
• spiritual warfare and praying for the sick
• using the Qur’an in evangelism
• creating sacraments and special services appropriate for the community
• caring for the poor
• identifying and training potential leaders

While these subjects may be considered standard today, their introduction to the Indonesian missions community at the time was groundbreaking.
A different, but also effective, training model is used by a ministry reaching out to North Africans. This agency provides its expatriate missionaries two to three days of orientation, but then places them with Muslim families for the first five months of service. This immersion experience is a language and cultural juggernaut that crushes any illusions about the challenges ahead. The ministry has found that it can take up to three years before a missionary effectively shares the gospel and up to five years to start a Bible study group or small church—not a calling for the faint of heart.

Everyone agreed that training is essential. The role of community development, however, was more controversial. Christians criticize Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other Islamic governments for providing funds to other nations for those who become (or remain) Muslim. But Muslims criticize Christians for evangelizing under the guise of community development. Would Christians do community development if it did not lead to conversions? Some Christians would answer an emphatic, “Yes! We do community development whether or not it makes disciples, because ministering to the whole person is what Jesus modeled.” Other Christians seem to engage in it only as an effective way to make disciples.

Conference attendees did not address this issue directly; however, the discussion brought out the distinction between community-driven development and church-driven (or evangelistically-motivated) development. In other words, who determines the agenda? Does the church or Christian agency come in with what they think the community needs—or are the solutions coming in response to the expressed needs of the community? Perhaps a water well is a good thing for a community, but do they really want a school? A medical clinic may be important, but do community leaders want an irrigation system? And once the project is completed, is it run by the church as a favor to the community, or is it truly community-owned and operated? Can a Christian-built school, for example, hire Muslim teachers?

The topic of partnerships was especially relevant, because working together in some highly sensitive Muslim-majority nations is far different from working together in Mexico or Haiti. For example, bringing North Americans to some places risks exposing the confidential nature of an indigenous ministry’s discreet outreach.

Two partnership types were examined: North-to-South and South-to-South. The conference itself was an example of a South-to-South learning exchange. Partners International, the only Western organization present, mainly played a facilitating role. All but one of the ministry model presentations originated from indigenous ministries. Partners International hopes to be a catalyst for more South-to-South gatherings that could spawn South-to-South partnerships. For example, an Indian leader now wants the leader of a ministry in the Gulf States to train congregations in India to demonstrate that reaching Muslims is possible. And the head of training for an Egyptian ministry wants an Indonesian brother to share his training model in Egypt. This potential for “cross-pollination” was one of the main purposes behind the conference.

But North-to-South partnerships are not going away anytime soon. In fact, with greater ease of travel and many high-tech communication tools available, interaction between Northern and Southern churches is not only going to grow in frequency, but is already happening outside of formal organizational channels. How do we balance the desire of the North to help the South with the actual needs of the South? Northern churches love to send short-term teams to Southern churches, but how appropriate is this in Muslim countries where public witness is restricted and foreign faces could raise suspicion? The North American bent is for practical service (e.g., building churches, sending medical teams), but one conference participant asked, “Will a team come for two weeks just to pray with us?” Another one pointed out, “Even if a team comes for the short-term, for us it is a long-term relationship, not just the week or two that they are there. For us it is a process, not a one-time event.”

It was acknowledged that hosting short-term teams can be a ministry to westerners, but one church leader has refused teams because it takes so much time to orient them to appropriate cultural practices and set up introductions to the local community. “It takes away from ministry time,” said the leader, “and teams don’t know the context of our work. The ministry needs to tell the outsiders what is needed. And sometimes those needs cannot be met in a week or two, but over several months.”
Without a doubt, providing orientation and training before trips was a sina qua non for those going to the field. Another non-negotiable was that the needs had to be field-, not donor-, driven. Leaders desired a relationship that would continue after the team has left. “We want to know what they do with their experience after they return to the USA,” said one leader, making clear that true partnership goes both ways.

The other side of the North-to-South equation is what might be called “South-to-North”—how do we get the North to see they have much to receive from the South? “Do westerners want to receive from us, not just give?” asked a participant. Another wondered, “Why don’t churches in the North invite groups from the South? Would a North American church want to learn at the feet of an Arab pastor?”

Someone observed that there is a Somali immigrant population in Seattle, Washington. Instead of a church sending a short-term team to East Africa to build a well in a Somali village, why not have an East African ministry teach the Seattle church how to reach their Somali neighbors? “It seems we spend a lot more time thinking about what the Northern church can do for the South than the other way around,” said Carlos Calderon, Partners International’s vice-president of international ministries. “How do we get the North to see that they have as much to receive from the South as they have to give?”

The conference only scratched the surface of a myriad of issues facing Muslim ministry. Participants left wanting more. Any future gathering needs to be based on two cornerstones that made this one a successful start: an indigenous ministry-driven agenda and a genuine spirit of “What can I learn from my co-workers in the gospel?”


Steven Downey is director of international communications at Partners International. He has served with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the United Bible Societies, and has written about Christian mission for many years.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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