Recently, a missionary colleague and I were discussing the question of when a Muslim becomes a Muslim-background believer (MBB). Before addressing this question directly, let me take a few minutes to describe two paradigms for approaching discipleship.
In 1973, Paul Hiebert wrote an article called “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Missionary Task.” In that article, Hiebert described two ways that people often define what it means to be a follower of Jesus in missions.
- Bounded Sets. Bounded sets are “either/or” sets. Either someone is a follower of Jesus or is not a follower of Jesus. There are only two options. There is no “gray zone” on this issue according to the bounded set view. As way of analogy, Hiebert talks about apples. Either a piece of fruit is an apple or is not an apple. A banana or orange is not 50% apple. Instead, an orange is 0% apple!
- Centered Sets. Bounded sets focus on process and see a great amount of gray zone. In the centered set view, following Jesus is at least a little fuzzy. Besides Jesus, no one has ever been the ideal disciple. Everyone is in process of becoming more and more like Jesus. In this view, if someone is 25% a follower of Jesus, the goal is to move them to 30 or 35% as they move towards the ideal.
There are strengths and weaknesses of both the bounded and centered set views. Here are a few of them.
- Strength of Bounded Set Approach. On the day of judgement, people will be either in the kingdom or outside the kingdom. In Jesus’ words, they will either been sheep or goats (Matt 25:31ff). Therefore, it is important to define some sets of boundaries into which we are seeking to bring disciples.
- Weakness of Bounded Set Approach #1. On the other hand, bounded sets often become difficult in missions. Consider an illiterate Muslim farmer who hears the gospel for the first time in South Asia. He repents and believes, saying that he wants to learn how to follow Jesus. But he does not have everything figured out in his faith, either in belief or practice. If we have a strict bounded set view, we would certainly saw that this man is outside. A bounded-set practitioner would see this man an evangelistic target and continue sharing the gospel with him. A centered-set practitioner would see this as a discipleship opportunity and would begin moving him towards Christ.
- Weakness of Bounded Set Approach #2. A problem with bounded sets is that we need to define what is in and outside the bounded set. Through discussion and study, these restrictions become tighter and tighter. For example, consider the following questions:
- What beliefs are necessary for a person to be a true MBB?
- What practices are necessary for a person to be a true MBB?
- What sins automatically put someone outside of being a true MBB?
- Which biblical doctrines does a Muslim need to be able to understand and believe to enter the kingdom of God? The hypostatic union of Christ? The Trinity? The penal substitutionary atonement of Christ? These are core doctrines, yet often require time and discipleship to fully understand.
- The weakness of this approach is that we can make the boundaries so high and detailed that it is virtually impossible for anyone to come to faith!
- Strength of Centered Set Approach. In this paradigm, everyone is seen as being in process. The goal of this process is to continue to move them towards the center, which is the Lord Jesus. Everyone has a next step to take rather than the question merely being of whether someone is “in” or “out.” In fact, one major issue in modern evangelicalism is the bounded set view that anyone who has prayed the sinner’s prayer is “in.” The centered set does not get caught up in that debate but instead focuses on helping each believer to progress in Christ. As a result, most that use centered set approaches focus on developing processes to help individuals move from one place to the next.
- Weakness of Centered Set Approach. One failure of centered set approaches is a tendency to overemphasize the fuzziness of discipleship. Some in centered sets are fine with people remaining in gray area in their faith since discipleship is seen as fuzzy. For example, a Muslim may follow Jesus while also perpetually following Muhammad.
In the centered set approach, movement towards the center naturally creates the desired boundaries. Hiebert wrote, “While the centred set does not place the primary focus on the boundary, there is a clear division between things moving in and those moving out. There is an excluded middle. An object either belongs to the set or it does not. However, the set focuses upon the centre and the boundary emerges when the centre and the relationships or movements of the objects have been defined. When the centre and relationships to the centre are stressed the boundary automatically falls into place.”
With this description of bounded versus centered sets, let us return to the question, “When does a Muslim become an MBB?” I personally lean towards a modified centered set practice. Our goal is to share the gospel with Muslims. When a Muslim chooses to repent and believe, declaring a desire to follow Jesus, then I call them an MBB, even if their theology and practice is not fully worked out. This perspective has been very helpful for us since many Muslims are ready to begin on the journey to follow Jesus but are in process. In an upcoming blog post, I will share a paradigm about the process I usually use to help Muslims and MBBs move towards Christ.
From a bounded-set perspective, we tend to give baptism when an MBB takes the more concrete steps of separating from the mosque, Qur’an, and Muhammad. At this point, we expect them to confess that Jesus is fully God.
In this way, we begin discipleship where a new believer is but we have a “bounded set” that we expect as they follow Jesus in baptism.
For additional reading.
- Phil Parshall, Beyond the Mosque: Christians within Muslim Community. Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1985.
- David Greenlee, ed., Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between? Hyderabad: Authentic Media, 2013.