Indigenous believers struggle to share faith
December 7 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Indigenous believers struggle to share faith | Friday, Dec. 7, 2001

Friday, Dec. 7, 2001

Indigenous believers struggle to share faith

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor In a bright corner room of a high-rise office building in a modern city of Southeast Asia, a slim, dark-skinned man speaks with a sense of urgency. His name is Jonathan. He is a Christian in a Muslim land, and he expresses a deep burden for his Islamic countrymen. The populations of the two countries where he works are about 60 percent Muslim, roughly equivalent to the number of people in the predominant ethnic group. To be true to one's heritage is to be Muslim. Most of the other residents, and the vast majority of Christians, are descended from families who immigrated from China and India.

In this part of the world - where there are more Muslims than in the Middle East - evangelizing Muslims is illegal, and it is likewise illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. In some cases, those wishing to convert face a mandatory period of "rehabilitation" designed to coerce the new believer back into the Islamic fold. Reports suggest that the experience is not pleasant.

It is dangerous, then, for a Christian to proclaim the gospel to Muslims, and it is dangerous for a Muslim to believe.

But Jonathan perseveres. He was shamed into it, he said, by an American missionary. "He had come to my country at great personal sacrifice to do what I should do," Jonathan says. "As God sent out Gentile Christians to make the Jews jealous, he sent an American to make me jealous."

Jonathan realized that the people of his church mixed only with other Christians, most of them Chinese or Indian. He, like his fellow church members, had not included Muslims in his witnessing efforts.

But God changed all that. Several years ago, he sensed God's call to organize a group of about 25 people who were interested in a ministry to the major ethnic group. A larger network in several cities has grown from that initial meeting, he says, of people working in their own way to share Christ with their Muslim neighbors.

In witnessing, Jonathan stresses the importance of learning the local language, of making friends, of entering the worldview of Muslims and learning to think as they think. He does not come "head on" with a Bible in hand, but uses texts from the Qur'an that speak of Nabi Isa (the prophet Jesus) to lead them to a fuller understanding of Jesus.

People of this ethnic group who come to Christ often do so as the result of a miracle, a dream, or a vision, Jonathan says - more often than from direct evangelistic efforts.

Jonathan's strategy encourages new Christ-followers to remain in the mosque, where they have many contacts, and work quietly to lead others to saving faith in Christ. The most effective witness is an insider, he says.

Others think that strategy is heretical at worst or syncretistic at best, and encourage new believers to leave the mosque altogether and unite publicly with a church.

Imad is one who prefers the "coming out" strategy. He speaks to the same group of visitors, in the same room.

Imad left a successful professional career to focus on evangelism among the Muslim peoples in his country. Much of his current work is with international students in a large city - he recently baptized several people from the Middle East, he says. He knows most converts will remain "quiet believers," but he encourages them to participate in cell groups with other Christians and to use their personal influence to lead others to Christ.

Some new believers find themselves in a quandary, he says. If they want to get married in a Christian ceremony or attend a Bible school, they need a baptismal certificate to prove they are Christians. Yet, some churches won't baptize former Muslims for fear of reprisals. Sometimes, Imad baptizes new Christians in the sea.

In a mountainous province of another country, local believers struggle with similar issues. Their country alone is home to more Muslims than any other, more than all Middle Eastern countries combined.

There is great resistance to Christian evangelism, especially among certain tribal groups that are particularly hostile to the gospel. Violence, murder, and church burnings are not uncommon in some areas.

In a modest hotel room on a hillside street of a bustling city, two nervous young men talk to a group of visitors about their faith. An arrow painted on the ceiling of the room points toward Mecca so guests who observe daily prayers of the Islamic faith can orient themselves correctly.

Rahim and Khalid live within the Muslim community. Their national ID cards still indicate "Muslim" as their religious preference. Yet, they are followers of Christ.

They remain within their religious community and pray at the appointed times, but pray to God through Christ. They continue to recite the Muslim creed, they say, because it emphasizes the oneness of God and ultimately pointed them to Jesus.

The Qur'an speaks of Isa al Masih (Jesus the messiah) as a prophet who was born of a virgin and untouched by sin, Rahim says, passages that provide an opening for him to share additional truth about Jesus. Other passages say Jesus is the word of God, and that He will show the way.

Both men say they have led many family members to faith in Christ, people they believe they could not have reached if they had come out of the Muslim community. Miracles and answered prayer are often instrumental in leading Muslims to Christ, they say.

Khalid cites Paul's advice in 1 Cor. 7:17-34 as a basis for his decision to remain within the Muslim faith community: "Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him" (v. 17). The text speaks of new believers who are circumcised or uncircumcised, slaves or free, married or unmarried, suggesting that they remain as they are. Khalid believes the text can apply to those born in the Muslim community, as well.

Others see it differently.

On the opposite side of the same city, five men and a woman stand before the same group of visitors, gathered inside a small church. The heat is stifling, but one of the men wears a heavy jacket, zipped to the throat. They sing hymns for the visitors in the national language and in their ethnic dialect.

And then they speak, each in turn, as an American missionary translates. They have come from surrounding villages, led to Christ and/or recruited to leadership by Susi, an indefatigable woman whose husband is pastor of the church. They believe that those who follow Christ should come out of the Muslim community and openly declare their faith.

It isn't easy, for their people are proud of their Muslim heritage.

When Susi introduces the woman, she tells of her personal devotion, how she rises at 3:00 a.m. every morning to pray and read scripture. She was shy at first, the woman says, but has grown strong in her faith and learned to be a leader. About 25 other villagers, many of them new believers, meet with her regularly.

A man with upswept hair describes how he employs his people's deep love of music in his efforts to gain the trust of village leaders. He has helped them to understand that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, "so they no longer look at Christians as a cat pouncing on a mouse."

Another man describes his conversion in 1982, after he was given a tract containing the third chapter of John's gospel. Six of his family members now believe, he says. He reported happily that believers in his village have procured a building in which to worship. Someone tried to burn it but was unsuccessful. He praises God for protection.

The man in the coat is only middle-aged, but his face is deeply lined, as with care or hard toil. He speaks of how his own son persuaded some "troublemakers" to attempt to strong-arm him into recanting his faith.

"Last February they pushed me into a truck," he says, "and took me to a remote place, and began to threaten me."

He pauses, remembering. "I said to them, 'I know you can kill me, but I have the Lord Jesus, and you can't kill my soul.'" The men returned him to his home, and his son recently asked for forgiveness, he says, and he smiles.

Susi expresses gratitude for the church and American missionaries for supporting her work in the villages. "Many believe we cannot evangelize Muslims because it is too hard," she says. "But I believe they can be reached if there are Christians who are committed and willing to give all of themselves for this work."

Yet, statistics show that less than one percent of all gifts to missions support the difficult and sometimes dangerous work among those who are most in need of the gospel - where local believers are responding to the challenge to "give all of themselves for this work."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - For security reasons, names throughout this story have been changed. The author visited Southeast Asia on a missions study tour last August.)

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12/7/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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