Being family with new believers

untitledGone are the days when mission agencies gave advice to new missionaries going to Muslim communities that said something like “You won’t see people come to faith, but you’re called to be faithful. Serve God, and look after your walk with Him, and you may see some minor breakthrough”. That was good advice for my uncle’s generation. Years after his time in South Asia, I met up with my uncle just before he died and was able to tell him that there were 20 Believers from a Muslim Background (BMBs) in the town that he had worked in. He wept with joy as he told me that he had given up hope of seeing any. For the two of us it was a real sense of celebrating that God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

People around the world are coming to faith in Christ. There are more BMBs alive now that in all the rest of history put together. There are some silly figures being put out by overzealous mission agencies, but I’m confident in saying that in Bangladesh, where I worked, there were about 5,000 BMBs in 1990 and about 120,000 in 2005. That is God at work, and we had the privilege of sharing the faith walk of many BMBs as they explored what it meant to follow Isa al Masih (Jesus the Messiah) in their context.

BMBs in the UK
We moved back to the UK in 2007 with the conviction that what we were seeing in Bangladesh would also happen in the UK, but not by the same means. This is, indeed, what we are beginning to see. A couple of years ago some colleagues and I did some informal maths and figured that we knew of about 5000 BMBs in the UK, with half of those being Iranian. This compared to about 120,000 converts to Islam in the UK, which sounds daunting but the ratios of the population converting either way is about the same.

Since then, we have begun to see the numbers of BMBs grow. I hesitate to say “grow dramatically” yet, but they are beginning to grow. If the trend follows what is happening in some areas overseas then we will indeed see some dramatic growth.

Who are these BMBs?
We are seeing three distinct groupings of BMBs taking shape. As Bryan Knell reports, the major grouping of BMBs is made up of Iranians. Associated with them are others who have migrated away from war torn areas, destroyed by Islamic factions. This group is characterised by (nb: gross generalisation alert) a starting point of dislike of Islam and what it’s done to them, their family and their home country. In the walking away from Islam they then find Christ. Thus, mixed feelings toward, and sometimes outright antipathy to, Islam is typically a part of their faith walk.

Related to this group are those that are coming from refugee and asylum-seeking situations. Such people have huge physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs. They may find that these needs are met by Christians and that they are attracted to Christ. The faith walk of this group is mixed up with their marked sense of need and finding those needs met in Christ.

The third grouping of BMBs is drawn from the settled, often ethnically-oriented Muslim communities that are now part of the UK scene. Bryan Knell refers to the Mirpuri and Sylheti communities and rightly notes that there are very few coming to Christ from these types of communities. Around the country we are just beginning to hear stories of enquiries and baptisms that involve such people. Their faith walk is not one of dislike for Islam and then finding Jesus. Indeed it’s the opposite of this, in that they first encounter Jesus (maybe over years of friendship with Christians or maybe through dreams and visions) and then, once they are attracted to him, take quite some time of investigating who he is and should they follow him. This involves a slow re-evaluation of what Islam is for them. So rather than coming from a place of antipathy to Islam and then finding Christ, they start with an attraction to Christ and then need to re-evaluate Islam.

Rising to the challenge
These groupings give different positive challenges to the church. We tend to see the Iranian groups as the norm, for they are, indeed, the largest group. But their needs are not the same as the others. The second group brings the challenge of long-term, hands-on care to help meet the deep needs they bring. The third group brings the challenge of working through respect for history, culture and roots in Islam whilst following Jesus. There is real wisdom needed in what the walk with Christ looks like for someone from these communities, for they need to both stand up for Christ and respect their family and roots.

All believers present the church with the positive challenge of providing family, being family, for new believers. They need big sister and big brother figures. They need wider family. They are used to the idea that praying five times a day is a normal ideal and maybe even did manage to pray three times a day. To move to a church that lives for Sunday worship and a midweek homegroup is just not sufficient. The church in the UK needs to rediscover deep community, being in each other’s houses and eating together, and being family through the week.

The other shared need of BMBs is for good discipling and teaching. Like all new believers, they need to work through what their new faith is all about and how it can relate to their history and background, as well as how they fit into their new family of faith. This means wise and sensitive input and the ability to walk with them as they make decisions for them and their family.

There are good resources in “Joining the Family” and in “Come Follow Me”, which can help with background issues and wisdom in discipling BMBs. However, the more important challenge is that of deepening our sense of being family, of being a close community. I see this as a remarkably positive challenge to the church today. Maybe we need BMBs to awaken us to the need, but ultimately, it’s the church itself that will be the richer for it.

Colin Edwards
Colin is Vice Principal of Redcliffe College and course leader for its MA in Contemporary Missiology. His area of interest is Muslim/Christian Relations, particularly looking at socio-cultural aspects, interfaith dialogue and mission.

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