The Emerging Muslim Convert Church
The Church's obligation of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth is as urgent and compelling in 1998 as it was in the days of the apostles.
Until recently, the great missionary expansion of the Church over the past 200 years has been met with little resistance from non-Christian faiths. However, the tide of nonresistance has changed, and it is forcing missions enterprises around the world to reevaluating the way they do missions.
The spread of the gospel to Islamic nations represents one of the greatest challenges to the Church. Muslims are the fastest growing major religious group, largely a result of their high birth rate. Islamic population is doubling every 22 years. By the year 2000, there will be an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims, over 80 percent of whom will have never heard the gospel.
Discussing with Enrichment Journal the challenge and progress of missions to the Islamic world are Jerry Parsley, Eurasia field director, and Doug Clark, Middle East/North Africa area director.
HOW MANY ASSEMBLIES OF GOD MISSIONARIES ARE UNDER YOUR DIRECTION IN YOUR RESPECTIVE PARTS OF THE WORLD?
PARSLEY: We have 242 family and 28 single missionary units ministering in Eurasia.
CLARK: We have 32 family and 6 single missionary units ministering in the Middle East. They are scattered along the 5,500-mile stretch from Morocco in North Africa to Pakistan in Southern Asia.
WHAT'S THE STATUS OF THE CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
CLARK: There are actually four major churches in the Middle East: the traditional Orthodox Catholic church, the Roman Catholic church, the Evangelical church, of which the Assemblies of God is a part, and the Muslim convert church.
There's been a tremendous move of the Holy Spirit among the Orthodox churches, especially among the Coptic Orthodox believers in Egypt, similar to what we saw in America among the charismatics in some of our traditional churches in the 1970s and 80s. The Evangelical churches in the Middle East are generally seeing steady growth in most countries. The Muslim convert church is growing extremely slow in some areas, but in other areas it's growing like wildfire. The growth is interdenominational and Pentecostal.
There's tremendous freedom in most Middle East countries for Evangelicals and Pentecostals to proclaim the gospel and reap a harvest--this includes not only the Assemblies of God but also the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Church of God groups. In Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, the Assemblies of God churches are by far the most aggressive churches on the block.
PARSLEY: The one difficult thing in this whole issue is that some of the best stories cannot be told because of the risk it puts on our missionaries. There are sovereign moves of the Holy Spirit where we have missionaries in a number of isolated places. We are seeing small beginnings in these areas. Scripture reminds us not to despise these small beginnings. The Church is being planted, but sometimes it yields a very tender plant.
CLARK: We have some countries where you can count the members of the Muslim convert church on the fingers of two hands. Yet, we have another country in our area where the Muslim convert church numbers over 100,000 believers.
PARSLEY: In many of these countries, the Assemblies of God church is recognized by the government as being viable and having relationship with them. But when we talk about reaching out to Muslims, then we can have problems.
IS PERSECUTION INTENSIFYING IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
CLARK: In some specific areas where Fundamentalists are particularly strong, persecution is intensifying. Many in these regions are bent on destroying believers and every vestige of their faith. But in the Middle East, as a whole, I'd have to say absolutely not. That's true as well for Muslim converts. In most of our countries, converts are under great social pressure from their families and occasionally from their governments as well.
But there are relatively few places where simply becoming a believer in Jesus is an automatic death sentence. Muslim believers who put their trust in the Lord and grow in their faith will often see their families come to a point where they can at least live with that family member's decision to follow Christ. That's especially true of believers who receive the strength and wisdom that comes with the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Most of the intense social persecution comes from being ostracized by the family. But that's not a peculiarly Muslim thing; it's true in Jewish families as well. Everyone knows we've lost some of our Muslim convert pastors to assassination. But threats and beatings and being fired from one's job are far more common kinds of responses that converts have to face.
PARSLEY: One of the things we teach our missionaries is to be good citizens of whatever country they find themselves in. So we do try to respect the authority and pray for those in leadership. We are good citizens, but we demand and insist that we practice our faith and share the good news of the gospel with those with whom we come in contact.
HOW DOES THE BELIEVING COMMUNITY RESPOND WHEN THE CHURCH AND CONVERTS ARE THREATENED OR GO THROUGH PERSECUTION?
PARSLEY: For the most part throughout Eurasia, you see the Church becoming bolder in its faith. We see a coming together, with the national church putting its faith and trust in the Lord. Persecution works to our advantage as far as strengthening the Church.
CLARK: The traditional response of Christians in the Middle East over the centuries has been to withdraw into the religious and cultural community. That has often led to a theology that reinforces the idea that believers in Jesus have no missionary obligation toward the majority Muslim community around them. Even our own Assemblies of God churches have been slow to break through this kind of thinking. But in those countries where we have been willing to reach out to the Muslim with love and understanding, we've often found a Muslim who knows there's something unique about Jesus and wants to know more about Him.
Let me give you an example. At a recent International Book Fair, the Bible Society booth was mobbed by Muslims who wanted to buy a special double offer--a copy of the New Testament and a video of the Jesus film. Over 2,000 copies of the film were being sold every day at the fair. A columnist for the leading newspaper in the Arab world went to the fair, bought a copy, took it home, and watched it twice--once with the sound on, once with the sound off. The next day he filled half a page with his column and said, "This film is so powerful you don't even have to listen to it. Just watch it!" There's enormous hunger in the Muslim community to know about Jesus if we'll just find culturally acceptable ways to present Him.
ARE YOU OBSERVING REVIVAL IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
CLARK: We are not seeing revival in the terms that most pastors in America think of. But we are seeing steady growth, and we are seeing churches and individuals far more open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to share their faith with their Muslim neighbor, friend, or boss than they have ever been in the past. In this part of the world, that's a sign of revival.
PARSLEY: Recently at a conference with missionary and national leadership, decisions were made to form and develop our own missions agency in order to share the claims of Jesus Christ throughout the region. That's revival when the church says, "We've got to go beyond our walls--even beyond our own country--to share the good news."
CLARK: This has helped the Arab believers in our churches. They are just now beginning to wake up to their responsibility to spread the gospel beyond the boundaries of their own Arab Christian communities.
PARSLEY: The seeds have been planted, and the plants of personal and corporate responsibility are starting to grow among the Arab believers in Jesus.
RELATE A MIRACULOUS STORY OF AN ISLAMIC PERSON COMING TO CHRIST.
CLARK: A Messianic Jewish believer from the U.S. came to work for the Lord in Israel. He felt the Holy Spirit leading him to share his faith with Arabs. Soon he led an Arab teenager to the Lord. The young Arab's father was the sheik (religious leader) in the town, and when he learned of his son's new faith, he was furious because his family would be humiliated. He demanded a meeting with the man who had shamed them. When the Messianic Jewish believer arrived at the home of the sheik, he expected a rough reception. The sheik told him, "I called you here to kill you for what you did to our family name. But last night Jesus Christ walked into my bedroom through two locked steel doors and sat beside my bed. I was terrified, but He reached out and stroked my head and told me, 'Don't be afraid; I love you.' I felt such peace come over me. Now I want you to tell me everything you can about Him."
PARSLEY: One common thread you will find in Muslims coming to the knowledge of Jesus and faith in Him is that it often started with a vision. This is true throughout the Middle East and Asia. I suspect it is true in other areas of the world as well. I could tell you countless stories of those who have had dreams or visions. Perhaps a family member, an angel, or Jesus himself has come and said to them, "What you are studying, what you are thinking about is true. Be sure to follow that direction." It has supernaturally opened up their understanding.
CLARK: With a Muslim, a dream or vision is very often the starting point for their spiritual pilgrimage to belief in Jesus. A book to read along these lines is I Dared To Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheik.
WHAT WOULD OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN CHRIST IN THE EAST SAY TO US IN THE WEST?
PARSLEY: The message I hear and resonates in my heart is "Stand with us in prayer." You don't need a visa. You don't need a passport. You don't even need to get an injection. Today through prayer, you can be in the center of many difficult areas of our world. I would request that those believers in the U.S. pray for the Middle East--for those in leadership and for those who are on their journey to find Jesus as their personal Savior.
CLARK: The American church needs to wake up. Islam is coming into the States at a rate that ought to concern all U.S. pastors and send them to their knees in prayer. Islam is threatening to take over our inner cities because it promises to minister to the needs of destitute- and drug-blighted black neighborhoods that middle-class evangelical churches of America can't relate to anymore. We need to ask for a spirit of compassion and repentance. The problems and the threat of Islam in our own backyard are serious, and we need to move far beyond where we are today if we are to meet the challenge. Two things Islam does not comprehend are the holiness of God and the love of Christ. These two ingredients are missing from Islam. They are the two points at which it's most vulnerable. If we can get hold of both of these and display them in our lives before the Muslim world, we will see Muslims come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
We need to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit across the Muslim world. We can work and witness--Islam has heard it all before--but when the power of the Holy Spirit is present and reveals Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for sin, the Church grows even in the tough soil of Islam.
PARSLEY: Skilled and schooled people can debate with Muslims, but the most powerful thing we can express is a personal relationship with God. It cannot be refuted. It is something for which they long.
HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU FOR THE MIDDLE EAST?
CLARK: I'm intensely optimistic. I believe the Spirit of God is doing something so deep and so unique that there is nothing to compare it with at any time in history anywhere else in the world. I believe God is building a Muslim convert church that is going to be so huge it will be far greater in size than the traditional Christian churches in the Middle East. I really believe it's going to be a new work--the kind God talked about when He said, "Look at the nations and watch--and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told" (Habakkuk 1:5, NIV). I believe the emerging Muslim convert church in the Middle East and around the world is going to be even more of a new creation at the turn of the century than the Pentecostal church was at the turn of the last century.
PARSLEY: It is happening, my friends, even as we speak. There is tremendous boldness. There is tremendous growth. There is tremendous hunger for more of God.