Rethinking exclusivity

A Muslim man joined us recently for our regular communion service at the place where I live and work.  Which made me think hurriedly about how to do communion inclusively and build bridges rather than barriers.  I could of course simply have said “This is not for you, but you’re welcome to observe”, as indeed you might, but as part of a community that is trying hard to get along well with our ‘cousins’, I knew this wasn’t how we would want to treat a visitor.  So I improvised.

Communion can in many ways be one of the most exclusive things Christians can do.  It focuses on the death (real, not seeming) and resurrection (tangible) of Jesus the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  The introductory words we say often make it clear that this is only for people who trust in Him for their salvation.  Then we pray to him, and at the climax we may also drink alcoholic wine.  So for a Muslim person even to attend this event as a guest is an act of outreach to us.

For some of us, communion will be a non-negotiable.  It is only for believers, and we shouldn’t compromise it.  Others will not think it particularly important how we do it.  I think communion is vitally important, but I do value thinking through how we can make it more inclusive.  15 years ago I felt scandalised when a church I attended suggested that the ‘belong, behave, believe’ model meant communion wasn’t the final reward for completing the Christian initiation process but a part of that journey itself.  Today, I feel differently.

Someone once told me that if our mission is not stretching the boundaries of our theology, we are not stepping out deep enough.  So how do we do communion differently?  And indeed we need to think about other things too which are essentials of our faith but which may also alienate those enquiring.  Should we wear hats when we pray or take our shoes off when we enter a church building?  What posture should we adopt when we pray?

As we rethink mission for another age and multiple competing/complementary paradigms and worldviews there is a need for more discussion about what can be changed and what can’t, what is essential and what is cultural.  As you go through this week there will be many things that you do as part of your outreach/mission simply because you’ve always done them that way.  Why don’t you take the opportunity to ask yourself if there’s another way, different but equally good.

So in presiding over communion with our Muslim visitor, I dispensed with our usual liturgy and read the story of the road to Emmaus.  I explained that we are all on a journey, and Jesus walks with us on it, but we don’t always recognise him.  I shared the broken bread and cup of fruit juice as reminders of the meal he had in Emmaus, and said that perhaps we would see him better as we eat.  I pointed out that the meal mirrors the one he had with his disciples the night before he died, when he told us to eat it and remember him.  I said that he loved eating and drinking and would welcome everyone to eat with him, and he welcomes all of us too.  We don’t have to be perfect to eat with him.

And we all ate together.  After all, the essence of communion is reconciliation, isn’t it?

Singles in a Moslem Context

crowd_aloneOur blog two weeks ago about the challenges facing single mission workers in Moslem contexts has prompted some of you to ask what the answers are.

Well you won’t be surprised to find that there are no easy answers!  That is because people are different, contexts vary, and the living conditions differ considerably across the Moslem world.  What may work for an introverted woman living openly as part of a Christian team in Cairo may not work at all for an extraverted man living in an isolated setting in Malaysia.  Yet there are three key issues which need to be addressed for singles to stand a chance of thriving:

1) Good preparation.  Training and placement are crucial.  An agency must take time to get to know their candidate and consider how he/she will respond in a given culture or team context.  They need to put them in a team setting that is right for them, and above all make sure that the candidate is warned about and prepared for the challenges of working in a Moslem context.  Just knowing in advance that it will be difficult can help the single mission worker.

2) Good field support.  Team leaders need to be aware of the challenges facing singles, so that they can provide adequate in-field support, make sure the whole team is equipped and motivated to provide a nurturing and supportive environment, and ensure that decisions about field placement and housing are taken appropriately.  Having a good supportive team, where there is a significant level of social and spiritual engagement, and a good mix of single and married people, helps with a sense of community.

3) Good ongoing care from family, church and agency.  Awareness of the specific issues, and providing focussed care and support will help the single mission worker cope with the difficult situation.  Taking particular care to be there, whether in person or by using social media, for people at times like holidays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day when they can be particularly vulnerable will be of great help.

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Having said that, there are some particular practical suggestions we can make for thriving in a difficult environment.  They may not be appropriate in every location, particularly for those people working in creative access nations, but we hope that they can stimulate a conversation about finding a way forward.

Establish a ‘religious’ identity – in some countries priests, monks and nuns are treated with respect, and are accepted as singles who have devoted their lives to religious service.  It may be possible in some places to wear a clerical collar, a pectoral cross and allowing oneself to be addressed as called ‘Father’ or ‘Sister’.  Protestants often shy away from religious clothing and prefer to dress in plain clothes, but does this lead to the impression that we are just ordinary people instead of religious workers?  Accommodation needs could also be met by having a same sex singles house or compound modelled on a monastery or convent so the community can make the religious connection.  Some people however consider this might be giving a fraudulent impression that we are something we are not.

Establish a married identity – many single mission workers divert unwanted attention by wearing a wedding ring.  This can reduce molestation and cut the number of unwanted marriage invitations.  However, although some people report significant success with this tactic, others think it’s fundamentally dishonest, and can lead to problems when we have to admit that we’re not actually married.

Spiritual support – single people may benefit from having more spiritual support from the team, perhaps establishing a ‘home group’ for them or encouraging them to find mentors and prayer partners.

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Transport – since many people find buses and taxis threatening places, their transport needs should be considered, perhaps by employing a team driver and a team minibus, or ensuring people live in the same part of town so that people can easily be escorted home.

Self defence – many singles report feeling vulnerable walking home by themselves after dark.  Knowing they have the ability to protect themselves if attacked may help them feel less vulnerable.

Practical support – teams should be aware of the need to provide practical support to newly-arrived singles.

Social activities – team should organise social events where it is possible for singles to mix freely with children, marrieds, and people of the opposite sex. Regular retreats should be organised in places where it is safe for singles to be seen together.

In summary, singles working in the Moslem world face some significant challenges which can exacerbate the usual challenges single mission workers face.  However, of all the people we have spoken to on this subject, most of them are positive about serving God abroad as a single person.  Few of them said it had been easy, and many reported significant emotional challenges, but most said that it was still worth while.

Ever since the time of St Paul, single mission workers have been going into challenging situations to share the love of God, because they love God more than they love comfort, security and home.  They have made a huge contribution to the spread of the gospel, and we honour them for it.  We pray that with better support the current generation can stay in the field even longer, and be even more fruitful in their lives and ministry.

Singles working in a Moslem context

GMCCThis week finds Syzygy in Turkey, taking part in the Global Member Care Conference.  This event brings together people involved in supporting mission workers from all over the world.  The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Member Care in Hard Places’, and we will be looking at how we can effectively support people working in a variety of contexts including:

  • countries where it is extremely dangerous to live openly as a Christian
  • places where disasters have occurred
  • helping people who have suffered significant persecution

Syzygy’s contribution to this useful debate is a workshop entitled “Single Mission Workers in Moslem Contexts”.  We will be looking at the unique pressures on single mission workers that living and working in the Moslem world can cause, and consider ways in which they can be prepared and supported more effectively.  Our research shows that many single mission workers serving long-term in such contexts continue to serve faithfully for many years, though they can suffer significant levels of stress which can impact on their physical and emotional well-being.  We have found that the most significant issues they struggle with include:

dark portraitLack of social status: Single people living outside their parents’ home are an oddity in the Moslem world.  Whether they are thought of as strange, or pitiable, or just an object of curiosity, mission workers of both sexes can struggle with standing out from the crowd.  They may even be suspected of being spies!  Having a spouse and children (particularly boys) adds to social status.

Lack of opportunity to make single friends: Whether it’s local people or other mission workers, it can be a challenge to have social relations with other singles.  For those keen to meet potential spouses, it’s even more so difficult as some societies will place significant restrictions on single people’s opportunities to meet.

Being vulnerable to abuse: Many women commented that their singleness makes them open to being stared at, commented on, propositioned or harassed as they have no man to protect them in a macho world.  Several considered their status to be little more than that of prostitutes and suggested that local men think they are available.

fragile 2Loneliness: While this is common to many single mission workers, it’s exacerbated in a social environment where it can be unsafe to go out alone, and where social mixing with married colleagues can be open to misunderstanding.  Being the only single person on a team can add to a sense of isolation.  Additionally, in a context where there is a powerful spiritual dynamic, not having a partner to pray with and encourage can increase the sense of loneliness.

Lack of security: Several women commented that they felt unsafe going out at night.  This had an impact on their ministry and social lives.

Together all these issues add up to one key factor: isolation.  While some mission workers are naturally better at dealing with this than others, and some learn to develop effective strategies for dealing with isolation, they can still feel deeply the effects of isolation.

There are clearly implications in all this for selection, preparation and in-field support that need to be thought through carefully before sending single mission workers to Moslem cultures.  Needless to say, their wellbeing hinges on receiving effective support from family, church and agency.  In fact, if these three groupings are simply aware of the challenges single mission workers face by ministering in a Moslem context, they may start to implement more effective solutions.  In a couple of weeks’ time, we’ll post some of our suggested solutions.

Who are the real believers?

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

We mentioned previously the conference on contextualisation held last month, and I’d like to follow up by wading into the debate on what happens when muslims find faith in Jesus.

In parts of the world where there is a dominant non-Christian culture, notably but not only Islam, it has become common in recent years for some people who find faith in Jesus to stay within their socio-religious communities.  They may still attend the mosque and call themselves muslims (or muslim followers of Jesus).  This is not necessarily because they fear persecution (they may well get that anyway) but because the community is so tight and hostility to Christianity so strong, that they would lose family, friends, social networks and the ability to earn money or even buy food.  By remaining within their community, even though they hold unorthodox beliefs, they maintain their support structures and, crucially, the opportunity to witness to their families and neighbours.

Some Christians think that these ‘insiders’ cannot possibly be real Christians, and that if they were, they should leave their communities, join a church, call themselves Christians and take the resulting persecution.

Church and mosque - mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

Church and mosque – mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

A biblical case study of relevance would be the early Jerusalem church.  While clearly self-identifying as followers of Jesus (or The Way), they still considered themselves Jews, attended temple services and kept the law.  They were, in effect, a Jewish sect.  They didn’t stop being Jewish just because they followed Jesus.  While relationships with other sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees were occasionally violent, mostly they co-existed for nearly forty years.  The split began when the Jesus followers didn’t take part in the war against Rome (68-70 AD) and fled en masse to Pella, so their loyalty to Jewish nationalism was impugned.  Eventually, around 85AD the Jews developed a curse on those who split the faith, which forced the Jesus followers out of the synagogues where it formed part of the liturgy.

In other words, the Jewish believers were happy to remain within Judaism until those who rejected Jesus pushed them out of it.  It was the same in the churches Paul visited – they always started with the synagogue until they were expelled.  It may well be the same with muslim-background believers – only time will tell.

crossRecent research among one particular group of muslim-background believers in Jesus found some startling results.  390 believers in 118 communities (ekklesia) were interviewed.  83.9% met together with other believers at least once a week, mainly in homes.  Most of them are in groups of fewer than ten people and their activities include Bible-reading, prayer, worship and fellowship.  41% of them had come to faith through experiencing dreams or visions of Jesus, or miraculous healings.  57% of them had found faith after being witnessed to by other believers.  Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that 92% of them had shared with non-believers the message of salvation through Jesus alone.

Until the church can match statistics like that, we don’t have the right to claim that they are not ‘proper’ believers.

The Beautiful One

For a number of years, Christians have been amazed at the stories coming out of the Moslem world of people coming to faith in Christ as a result of having seen Jesus in a dream.  They call him ‘The Beautiful One’.  Many of us may have been sceptical at first, but in recent months the number of reports has increased significantly.

Although accurate reports are hard to get hold of, I heard of one church in a central Asian republic where 80% of the believers had come to faith following a dream.  There are stories of Imams having a dream and leading the entire congregation of the Mosque to Christ.  Just visit a well-known video hosting website and key in ‘dreams of Jesus’ and you will see numerous testimonies.  Some reports suggest that Moslems are turning to Christ in greater numbers now than at any time in the 1400 year history of Islam.

Muslims of course are not ignorant of Jesus.  He is one of their great prophets, and it is taught that it will be Jesus who comes back at the end of the age to receive the faithful and inaugurate global Islam.  But they do not expect to find salvation in Jesus.  It should of course be emphasised that receiving a dream about Jesus does not automatically make someone a Christian, or to be more accurate, a Moslem-background believer.  This is only the start of their journey of faith, which may lead them deeper into their Moslem beliefs, as Jesus is revered within their own religious tradition.

Many of the people who receive dreams are not searching for Jesus, and are perfectly content Moslems.  Reports of the dreams make it clear that the dreamers are in no doubt that it is Jesus they are seeing.  They describe him as beautiful, dressed in a white robe and glowing with light.  This figure will be instantly recognisable to Christians familiar with the book of Revelation.  If the Beautiful One talks, he may tell them to follow him, or that their sins are forgiven.  I was given a first-hand report of a mosque in a middle-eastern country where everyone had received a dream.  Yet if you ask them who it was, they will answer ‘The Prophet… or maybe Jesus’, as the risk of openly confessing Jesus is very high.

So why are these visions coming now?  It cannot be a coincidence that in recent years, just as concerted and committed prayer for the countries of the 10/40 window has been coordinated, it has become very hard for outsiders to get into Moslem communities worldwide to preach the gospel openly.  Although many still go undercover, their ability to spread the message is severely restricted.  With the rise of militant Islam, pressure on indigenous believers from Palestine to the Philippines has become heavier.  Church buildings are being burned and believers being martyred.  So the Spirit of God does a new thing, and speaks to Moslems directly when his human followers can’t.  Together with the rise of Christian satellite TV and the internet, the Moslem world has never been so technologically open to the Gospel.  Those who have dreamed of Jesus may find it hard to meet fellow believers, but they can watch TV and surf the net.

How can we help Moslems find Jesus their Saviour?  Above all, prayer.  Prayer opens the way into the darkest places and softens the hardest of hearts.  If you meet a Moslem, you can ask him if he has had a dream of the Beautiful One (don’t say Jesus!) or if he knows of anyone who has.  Gently (remember that persuading someone to change their religion is a crime in many Moslem countries) ask who he thinks it might be.  What does he want to say to the Moslem?  What does he want of him?  Why does he appear now?  Respectful questions will open a channel for the individual to reflect on the dream while not imposing our beliefs on him or disrespecting his traditions.

Please pray:

  • that Jesus will reveal himself to Moslems in all nations, and that they will see him for who he really is;
  • that the faith of Moslem-background believers will be strong despite the persecution they may face;
  • that Christian mission agencies will be effective in spreading and broadcasting the Gospel and following up.