“There is no church here. There are no Christians, and,” he added, “there never will be.” His tenor and words stung. They exposed at once the great need of our city of 450,000 as well as the seemingly impossible task. But what this grizzled Muslim man, a stranger to me, didn’t know was that already there were five Muslim-background Christians meeting in my nearby home.
Today, four years later, the fledgling church in that city has disbanded. All missionaries have been forced to leave. The dozen or so local believers who once gathered have mostly moved on. Those who remain live either in isolation or secrecy. Others have fallen away. And I’m left to wonder if perhaps there was something the old man knew that I didn’t. That maybe his city is unreachable. That maybe church planting is impossible.
Without a doubt, missionaries in the Muslim world face an incredible assignment. Usually we think first of the danger or the obvious antagonism to Christianity. While such challenges are real, I can honestly say they may be the least of our worries when we seek to establish a church where there is none.
Focus on the Identity of Jesus
In some ways it’s easy to be an evangelist in the Muslim world. I’ve found the people friendly and hospitable. Many are overtly religious, relational, and even appreciate lively conversation about religion, God, and Jesus—more so than most Christians I know.
“I’m left to wonder if perhaps there was something the old man knew that I didn’t. That maybe his city is unreachable. That maybe church planting is impossible.”
The principal challenge in such encounters is convincing them of who Jesus is, or more accurately, who Jesus claimed to be. The identity of Christ is foremost in the Gospel narratives, and I believe it to be foremost in any gospel presentation to a Muslim. In many ways, their standard response to Jesus mirrors that of his Jewish contemporaries. “How can God have a Son?” Or, “How can this man claim to be God?” Such is blasphemy.
A resulting temptation is to downplay Jesus’ identity altogether. Since his sonship and deity are reprehensible to Muslims, some evangelists prefer to reserve these topics to the fine print of their evangelism. Here again, the fourfold Gospel’s witness to and emphasis of the person of Jesus is crucial. In the strictly monotheistic context of Judaism, Jesus didn’t soft-pedal his sonship and equality with the Father. Neither should we.
Help Them Count the Cost
Of course, Muslims must come to a knowledge of sin. They need to see the righteousness of God displayed at the cross. They must confess Christ as risen and Lord. Yet the gospel isn’t merely intellectual, and the stumbling blocks are often far more personal. The near constant refrain I heard from Muslims to whom I witnessed—those who came close to, and even wanted to, believe—was this: “But my father will kill me.”
Their words weren’t hyperbole or an empty excuse. These people were convinced, whether rightly or not, that if they confessed Christ they would lose their lives.
After witnessing numerous professors surrender to pressure and return to Islam, we eventually found ourselves discouraging potential converts. As Jesus did with the rich ruler, we asked for sacrifice up front. Layla* was a unique young woman who came to faith in a matter of months. But before she even believed, we called her to count the cost. Later, when she had faced threats of beating, expulsion from school, and family pressure, I was glad we did.
Don’t Settle for Secrecy
Not surprisingly, fear represented perhaps the greatest challenge. So many wanted to believe the gospel without confessing Christ (John 12:42–43). So many wanted to follow in secret, to come to Jesus by night so to speak, but they would not follow him in the light. In our experience, however, those who believed Jesus in secret ultimately denied him in public.
At our first meeting with Layla, therefore, we pressed her to introduce us to her mother, Zara*. She bristled initially, but ultimately relented. Over the next year we spent countless hours with Zara. We came to love her, as she did us. We ate together, laughed together, drank tea well into the night together, even endured some long blackouts in her living room together. And in that dark room she was drawn to light.
But she simultaneously hated it. She wanted to believe—maybe even did a little—but still couldn’t fully blaspheme her faith, leave her family, and betray her country. Her daughter had been fearful of her father. Now Zara was telling us the same thing. “My father can’t know this.”
Work and Pray for Unity
Perhaps you can imagine the obstacles this mindset creates. Believers hesitate to come to a regular church gathering for fear of being found out. Friends or family might notice a pattern. Or, what if you attend church and encounter someone who knows you? Local believers also tend to doubt the sincerity of other Christians, wondering if they might be imposters. On multiple occasions we actually had open debates in church about which one of our baptized members was a government informant. Again, this wasn’t fearmongering. Such individuals were common.
“The challenge is this: how do you gather those who do believe? A culture of deceit rampant within Islam often fuels a palpable distrust.”
Which leads to the ultimate challenge that every missionary who seeks to plant a church in a Muslim context encounters. It’s not how to see Muslims come to faith. In many places they’re believing in greater numbers than those in the West. The challenge is this: how do you gather those who do believe? A culture of deceit rampant within Islam often fuels a palpable distrust. As a result, community never develops. Churches easily fail in the embryonic state before ever fully forming.
In this case, missionaries must work and pray for unity, without which a church will not survive. Of course, this endeavor requires gentleness and patience, perseverance and grit. But ultimately it will only be possible as the Spirit of God binds together the cords of fellowship.
Doing the Impossible
Just because church planting in a Muslim context is exceptionally difficult doesn’t make failure inevitable. Only last month Zara publicly professed Christ in baptism. She’s also doing the unthinkable, witnessing to her family. Her two brothers and a niece are now studying the Bible. And Zara, in order to be a part of a local church, has moved with her daughter to a city some 350 miles away.
Zara and Layla are but a couple of small examples of genuine conversion and the incredible spread of the gospel in the Muslim world. Their story also cries out for us to do the impossible task of establishing churches in places where they do not exist.
Andrew Clarke (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.
*Names have been changed.