Discipleship of new believers has emerged as a vital topic in ministry to Muslims. From 2004 to 2013, a ministry with which I served, Jesus For Muslims Network, planned an annual conference for Christians of Muslim Background (CMBs, also known as MBBs). It seemed at virtually every planning meeting at which themes were considered, the topic of discipleship leapt to the fore. For years, Horizons International has held an effective and intensive discipleship camp for new CMBs. The program is known as “Cubs to Lions.” 1
My colleague John Span has recently written an important piece considering why some CMBs are “reconverting” or “reverting” to Islam. 2 In Christian parlance, this is known as backsliding. Span includes anecdotes as well as reasons for the tragic collapse of the faith of many CMBs.
Another colleague, Duane Miller, has authored a (forthcoming) short book on pastoring CMBs. These authors are rich with experience serving Muslim people. Their publications are realistic and revealing. Most Christians who have been in ministry to Muslims for any length of time can attest that many CMB sheep have wandered away. Not all are finishing well. While much has been accomplished, there is still a lot to do in establishing Christ’s Kingdom among many ethnic groups that have historically been under the shadow of Islam.
The View from 30,000 Feet
I am myself a CMB who was saved in 1983. In those years, it was common to pray for Muslim ethnic groups among which there was not a single known believer. Praise God that in nearly all these ethno-linguistic groups, there are now believers. In some cases, vibrant church planting movements have taken hold. In my own people group, Iranians, countless churches have sprung up. However, like John Span, I could easily share many anecdotes of people who have fallen away. If they have not fully reconverted to Islam, they have simply fallen away from Christ and the visible fellowship with believers who share like-precious faith.
I do want to step away from the individual anecdotes to gaze from the perspective from “30,000 feet” (or “10,000 meters”). I cannot fully know what God feels about what is going on. I believe He grieves over those who have fallen away. Though no one can snatch them out of His hand (John 10:28-29), many are simply leaping out of that loving hand.
At the same time, I believe God is winning a great victory in our generation. The airtight system of thought control often found in Islam has been significantly weakened. One well-known CMB shared with me a decade ago, “Fred, we have reached critical mass. The Muslim leaders cannot simply claim we have all gone crazy.” As more former Muslims testify to faith in Christ, they encourage other Muslims to embark on that spiritual journey.
The Spiritual Invasion
For up to fourteen centuries many people groups were held back from the Gospel by the fear induced by Islam and its Law of Apostasy. Of course, Christian witness in many of those centuries and locales was very limited. I do not believe God was happy with this reality. Yet, God was not without a plan. Angels readied for an angelic invasion to set the captives free. In many places, that invasion is already happening. New believers and new churches rise as the fruit of this invasion—this victory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Truly we live in the days of exaltation in which Muslims are seeing Jesus not just as a prophet, but as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Naturally, we cannot easily see heavenly armies. In 2 Kings 6:15-17, Elisha prayed that the Lord would open the eyes of his servant so he too could see the hosts of heaven. We may need those prayers also. (One great Christian author, Frank Peretti, creatively brought the world of spiritual warfare to life in his riveting novels.)
A Spiritual D-Day
Since believers on this side of eternity are typically limited in what we can see in terms of spiritual warfare, some parallels from natural warfare benefit us as illustrations. Of course, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” as Ephesians 6:12 tells us. Our warfare is only spiritual. The military analogy used below is only symbolic.
Military analysts state that an amphibious assault against an entrenched foe is the most difficult military endeavor. Such water-borne assaults are frequently repulsed, with major loss of life for the attackers. A great struggle is required to establish a lasting beachhead under such duress. Yet, I suggest that this is a physical analogy of what the Holy Spirit is doing, spiritually, in our day among many Muslim people groups.
The Beaches of Normandy
The best-known amphibious assault in history took place on June 6, 1944. At this stage of World War II, Allied forces sought to invade Western Europe, which had been controlled by the Nazis since 1940. The Germans knew the Allies would eventually invade across the English Channel, since the Allied troops were staging in England. But the Germans did not know exactly where the Allies would land. The Allies naturally used deception and decoys, but the Germans had the whole coastal area of Northern France fortified with troops, guns, and batteries, in anticipation of the inevitable invasion.
The “D-Day” invasion eventually happened on five contiguous beaches in Normandy, France. The most difficult beach to invade was code-named “Omaha Beach.” That operation—ultimately ending in victory for the Allies—may be instructive to us in understanding what is going on among Muslims and CMBs in our times.
The D-Day operation was so challenging Allied General Eisenhower famously had an “In Case of Failure” letter penned in case the entire operation was repulsed by Hitler. Fortunately, he did not need to utilize it. The challenge of assaulting the beach cliffs of Normandy was so daunting that historians report the Allies used as many first-time combatants as they could; soldiers who knew war would have been disheartened by the near impossibility of the assault.
Almost everything associated with the Omaha Beach operation went wrong from the Allies’ point of view. The first wave of invaders were fed a massive breakfast in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, hoping this would fortify them for the next day or two. However, the waves were so heavy during the Channel crossing that many got seasick, vomiting their bacon, eggs, and coffee into their helmets, overboard, or onto their brethren.
The same winds that raised this surf caused the transport boats to swerve and drift wildly. Most of the boats did not drop the invading soldiers at the appointed spots. Most of the soldiers were bewildered and confused, not knowing where they were.
The overnight bombings meant to soften up the German positions at Omaha Beach largely missed their mark. And Allied intelligence failed to account for an extra German division at Omaha Beach, making the establishment of a beachhead nearly an impossibility.
The “first wave” of Allied soldiers disembarking on Omaha Beach suffered mass carnage. German heavy guns on the bluffs, as well as machine guns, picked off the soldiers like sitting ducks. As soon as the back hatch of the transport boats opened to drop the soldiers, those soldiers were greeted with sheets of gunfire. One English skipper said that every single soldier he dropped off was dead within seconds of disembarking the boat.
Under such withering fire, the boats tried dropping off the soldiers a bit further offshore. However, since the soldiers were carrying 120 pounds (55 kilos) of gear and the waves swelled to over 12 feet (4 meters), many simply sank and drowned. As such, the “first wave” of soldiers commissioned to establish a beachhead on Omaha Beach was a complete failure.
The second wave of soldiers arrived shortly afterward that morning, with their instructions on getting tanks and supplies onto the fortified beachhead. They found no beachhead. Instead, the saw thousands of their comrades bobbing face-down in the reddened surf. Their second wave operation immediately switched its mission to eliminate the German gunner positions which were wreaking this havoc.
Eventually, small pockets of brave but frightened surviving soldiers formed impromptu bands and crossed the mine-trapped beach. They scaled the cliffs and then assaulted those German “pillboxes.” Despite taking heavy casualties, they uprooted the German positions, one by one. By nightfall, the last of the five Normandy beach operations, Omaha Beach, was also secured. Eleven months later, the war in Europe was over and Hitler was dead.
Last year marked the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasions. The landing site is now a cemetery. Nearly 10,000 crosses mark the graves of the “victors.” These died “in the fog of war,” hopeful but unassured of victory at the time they paid the ultimate price.
The State of the Mission
This military example may provide insight to what is happening spiritually to converts to Christ from Islamic backgrounds. The first wave of converts has been met with great spiritual attack. Satan does not want a beachhead established in these many Muslim contexts. He knows if a beachhead is established, he will lose millions more souls.
Not everything can be blamed on the Devil, of course. Human beings, like you and me, make bad decisions every day. We have sinful tendencies. Muhammad was a good example of neither honesty nor humility, so many CMBs bring that baggage with us into the Kingdom. Further, CMBs, especially early in their walk with Christ, tend to be hounded and haunted by family disapproval. This contributes to the absence of a healthy emotional life, since God created the family to be a place of affirmation and nurture. Many CMBs are living with high amounts of internal pain. Yet, what many CMBs are learning is that the sooner one can recognize that Jesus is Lord above all else—even family—the sooner one’s spiritual beachhead in Christ is established.
Discipleship in the Body of Christ
Indeed, discipleship of CMBs is critically needed. This must take place as a part of life in the Body of Christ. It cannot be in a vacuum. CMBs need love and empathy, but do not need to be babied. The value of spiritual encouragement to CMBs cannot be overestimated. I would not be walking with Christ after 37 years if many Christians, sometimes in small ways, had not gone out of their way to reach out to me and encourage me.
Many CMBs are suffering from what I describe as “Flat Tire in My 360.” We can consider a person’s parents, spouse, siblings, children, cousins, in-laws and other family members their “360 degree” relational circle. Surrounding that is the CMB’s work environment, community environment, and legal environment. Very few Christians have everything running smoothly in all areas. CMBs, nevertheless, are prone to having a lot of relational and contextual problem areas simultaneously. This creates a burden that only the Lord can fully lift. CMBs begin to struggle emotionally when they cannot find resolution to all these problem areas, creating the “Flat Tire in My 360” reality. Some of these CMBs collapse spiritually, and either revert to Islam or slide into despondency.
Some of these new materials by John Span, Duane Miller, and also Mark Durie 3 can benefit CMBs and those ministering to them. These visionaries see that God is getting the victory that will glorify the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The way that victory is played out in our days is often not pleasant. The blood-stained beaches of Normandy were not a pleasant sight. Ministry among Muslims can often be frustrating. No one is encouraged by the reality that some have fallen away. But some will yet return to the flock, I am sure. Spiritual encouragement and friendship counseling can help bring this about. Satan is being routed and his doom is sure.
We are now thankfully observing that indigenous leaders, pastors, theologians, and song writers are emerging from these various ethnic groups. They provide the stability that thoroughly establishes beachheads in Muslim contexts. While there are setbacks along the way, the overall trajectory is positive and Christ-ward.
In the end, God will have the final word over CMBs. And it will be a good word. I conclude with the first and last verse of an inspiring hymn which recognizes this truth: “How Firm a Foundation.”
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent word! What more can He say than to you He hath said, To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled? The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”
See, for example, Liberty to the Captives