Five Progress Markers of Emerging Indigenous Missionaries to South Asian Muslims

South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. Amazingly, compared to the Middle East, there are very few expatriate missionaries working among these massive Muslim populations. Where will the labor force come from to engage the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia?

The largest missionary force to be mobilized to reach the Muslims of South Asia are the proximal Christians of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Each of these countries has millions of followers of Jesus. While there are some Muslim background believers (MBBs), most believers come from Christian or Hindu families. While most Christians in South Asia are not interested in reaching their Muslim neighbors, there are increasing numbers willing to be trained and equipped. Mobilizing even a small portion of the Christians of South Asia will result in a missionary force that will dwarf the potential of expatriate missionaries.  

This article aims to describe an idealized process of leadership development for near-culture missionaries to South Asian Muslims. Near culture means Christians who speak similar languages and share many cultural elements with Muslims. For example, Bhojpuri-speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims share many aspects of their cultures, while also having many differences.

This article builds on two paradigms for leadership development. Nathan Shank’s five levels of movement leadership have been instrumental in shaping practices for developing leaders for gospel movements in South Asia. However, Shank’s paradigm is primarily for leaders who serve among their own people group or similar people groups. Those developing near culture missionaries to Muslims have experienced a need for a new paradigm to describe this process. Ralph Winter developed an E-scale of witnesses that defines witnesses in relation to the culture in which they bring the gospel. Integrating Shank and Winter’s paradigms provides a useful foundation for cross-cultural workers’ progression to South Asian Muslims. The model presented here is a series of five markers for understanding and evaluating indigenous, near culture missionaries to South Asian Muslims.  

Winter’s E-Scale of Witnesses

            Winter’s paradigm is about the witnesses’ relationship with the recipient culture. His purpose in describing this paradigm was the demonstrate the potential of tapping proximal Christians to engage unreached peoples and places. His paradigm is especially helpful in South Asia, where large national harvest forces of mobilizable Christians are juxtaposed with a multitude of unreached people groups. In South Asia, the most apparent need is to mobilize proximal believers to engage Muslim peoples.  

Figure 1. Winter’s E-Scale.[1]

Applying Winter’s paradigm to developing indigenous, cross-cultural missionaries in South Asia provides a helpful distinction of potential workforces. E0 refers to the evangelism of Christians from the same culture. E0 witnesses do not apply in Muslim cultures as there are no Christians to evangelize.

E1 witnesses are MBBs evangelizing within their own culture. For example, a Punjabi-speaking MBB in Pakistan evangelizing other Punjabi-speaking Muslims. There are few E1 workers in the context of South Asian Muslims, but they have the highest evangelistic potential. Whenever possible, it is better to train and mobilize E1 workers than E2 or E3. However, in many places in South Asia, there are few or no MBBs to mobilize, necessitating E2 and E3 workers. Shank’s five levels of leadership apply without modification to E1 workers who serve among their own people group. 

E2 missionaries evangelize Muslims from a similar but different culture. There are multiple possibilities of E2 workers in South Asia. For example, Punjabi Christians in Pakistan seeking to reach Sindhi-speaking Muslims are E2 witnesses. Bangla-speaking MBBs engaging Urdu-speaking Muslims in north India would likewise be E2 workers. In these instances, the cultural gap is significant, while being much less than E3 workers coming to serve among these people groups. In this paradigm, it would be a mistake to minimize the cultural gap that E2 witnesses must overcome to be effective. As E2 witnesses develop, they must grow in linguistic and cultural adaptation of the people they serve.

Within the scope of E2 missionaries, there are varying degrees of cultural gaps that the witnesses must overcome. For example, a Bhojpuri-speaking believer from a Hindu family seeking to evangelize Bhojpuri-speaking Muslims has a relatively small difference to overcome. In this instance, Bhojpuri-speaking Muslims and Hindus both often identify as Bhojpuri first and by their religion second. However, the gap between Punjabi-speaking Christians and Sindhi-speaking Muslims in Pakistan is relatively much higher.[2] Where the cultural gap is smaller, E2 missionaries require less training and equipping. When the cultural gap widens, the skills and training required are much more significant.  

One common pitfall of E2 workers is their failure to release authority and responsibility to E1 workers. Competent E2 workers realize that E1 workers will generally be more effective than they are in engaging Muslim peoples. Therefore, E2 workers should seek to be shadow leaders to E1 workers. E2 workers understand the necessity of their role in developing and coaching leaders while recognizing that the E1 workers must become the primary leaders for movements to emerge.  

E3 missionaries evangelize Muslims from a completely different culture than their home cultures. For example, expatriate missionaries serving among South Asian Muslims are E3 workers. The cultural and linguistic differences are significant. However, E3 witnesses tend to be highly theologically educated, be highly trained, and have substantial levels of support. As a result, E3 missionaries to South Asian Muslims remain highly focused and dedicated. In contrast, most E2 missionaries have significantly less education, training, and support. Support meaning both financial support as well as other aspects of personnel support that missionary organizations provide to their workers. Often this lack of training and support makes it difficult for E2 missionaries to maintain a long-term focus.

E3 missionaries are generally less effective in evangelistic effectiveness than E2 workers. When possible, E3 missionaries should seek to work with E1 MBB workers and develop them. However, there are many places where there are little to no MBBs to train in South Asia. In those instances, a critical activity of E3 witnesses is to develop E2 partners to grow the work among Muslims. In this way, E2 and E3 missionaries form teams that evangelize Muslims intending to develop E1 workers within those communities.

Shank’s Five Levels of Movement Leadership

            Shank’s five levels of movement leadership provide a paradigm for developing leaders to fuel gospel movements. He developed his model in the context of ministry in South Asia. These are five idealized levels to evaluate believers within a church or network to help them move to the next level in this process. L1-L5 are utilized as shorthand to designate L1-L5 leaders.

Figure 2. Shank’s Five Levels of Movement Leadership.[3]

As noted earlier, Shank’s paradigm applies to E1 workers. Ideally, MBBs begin as faithful seed sowers among other Muslims. They then grow into being church planters as they lead Muslims to Christ and form them into new congregations. The move from L2 to L3 leaders as they develop other leaders and release authority to them. Shank’s paradigm focuses on developing apostolic leaders rather than pastors. L3 leaders develop both pastors and other apostolic leaders. The difference between the two is that pastors remain as shepherds of local churches while apostolic leaders function in a Pauline role of planting churches with local leadership and then leave those areas to plant more churches in pioneer fields.

When developing E2 missionaries to South Asian Muslims, Shank’s paradigm helps identify the ideal candidates for training as cross-cultural witnesses. For example, if someone does not evangelize in their own culture, they will likely be ineffective in cross-cultural evangelism. Therefore, those who are not functioning as L1 leaders should not be considered for training to be E2 missionaries. At the same time, L1 leaders lack many of the skills necessary to be effective E2 missionaries. For example, they may be strong in evangelism while lacking skills required in church planting and leadership development. The ideal trainees to develop as E2 missionaries are those functioning as L2/L3 leaders. Ideally, they should have experience in evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, and leadership development in their own culture before undertaking these tasks in a different culture.

However, L2/L3 workers depart from Shank’s paradigm when they become E2 witnesses. They move from being successful church planters to being novices in evangelism in a new culture and situation. Months or years are often required for them to grow back to the same proficiency in the same tasks of evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, and leadership development cross-culturally that they once experienced in their own culture.

Five Markers for Developing E2 Missionaries

             The paradigm presented here is an idealized path for developing L2/L3 leaders into successful E2 missionaries. This idealized path has five markers that E2 missionaries must overcome, each with different challenges. This path culminates with E2 missionaries developing L3 E1 workers who are multiplying churches and leaders among their Muslim people group. Leaders along this path are referred to as M1-M5 leaders, corresponding to which marker they have crossed along this path. Some Muslim peoples are more challenging to reach than others. Progress requires not only the diligence of the E2 missionary but also a move of the Spirit of God. 

Figure 3. Five Markers for developing E2 missionaries. 

M1 leaders have begun the process of seed sowing among Muslims and are growing in effectiveness as cross-cultural witnesses to Muslims. M1 leaders have overcome significant barriers to start their work, such as fear of Muslims and bitterness towards Muslims. They have learned enough of Muslim language and culture to begin sharing the gospel but require significantly more training in these areas. They know essential gospel tools about how to share the gospel with Muslims. M1 leaders are often amazed at how open Muslims are to hearing the gospel. The training required to develop L2/L3 leaders into M1 workers is minimal. 

At some point, M1 leaders realize that most Muslims require more than one or two gospel conversations before coming to Christ. M2 leaders are those that count the cost of this dedication to reach Muslims. M2 witnesses often grow quickly in speaking Urdu or other Muslim languages and understanding Muslim culture and belief. Usually, it takes only 2-3 months for Hindi-speaking M2 workers to become almost fluent in Urdu if they diligently apply themselves to Muslim ministry.[4] M2 workers also begin to identify more and more with Muslims around them, often “becoming a Muslim to save Muslims” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). M2 witnesses learn the cultural preferences of Muslims and adjust their behavior and cultural preferences to be more effective in witness. Some M2 witnesses give up eating pork, wear traditional shalwar kameez, or grow beards so that Muslims can identify with them better. M2 witnesses also become experts at answering the basic objections of Muslims to Christianity. M1 and M2 leaders’ primary difference is that M2 leaders are committed to significant follow-up among Muslim “yellow lights.” Yellow lights are those who continue to listen to the gospel but are not ready to respond. Most M2 leaders are natural evangelists. A significant barrier for progress for them is to keep their focus on following-up with yellow lights rather than preferring to evangelize new contacts.

            M3 leaders are those who have baptized their first MBBs and are discipling them. A common pitfall is that MBBs are often extracted from their community as MBBs take on the culture of the E2 witnesses. When MBBs are extracted, it cuts off the potential for a continued witness to their community.[5] When families take baptism together, they can stand against the persecution that will inevitably follow. When MBBs take baptism, it is common for religious leaders (such as Tablighi Jamaat or mosque leaders) to urge them to return to Islam and forsake Christ. In many contexts, the pressure placed on new followers of Jesus is intense.[6] In South Asia, most MBB churches have developed as entire families have come to Christ and begun fellowshipping together. Experience has shown that it is complicated to form MBB churches from MBBs that have been extracted from their communities.

Some M3 leaders fail to form MBB churches and leaders while being highly effective in baptizing Muslims. In some areas, hundreds of Muslims have taken baptism without any signs of church planting. While this evangelistic effectiveness is laudable, the barrier is that these E2 missionaries have not been effective in developing E1 workers. Without E1 workers, forming sustainable MBB churches is nearly impossible. M3 workers who are baptizing many Muslims need training on developing MBB leaders and working with them to plant churches. 

M4 leaders have developed at least one MBB church and are developing their disciples into E1 workers. On Shank’s scale, these E1 workers are L1 and L2 leaders. M4 leaders must patiently disciple these L1 and L2 leaders. At this point, the M4 leaders are transitioning to function as shadow leaders, knowing that MBB leaders are the future of any emerging movements. They continue with their disciples while transferring authority and responsibility for their work to them. If M4 leaders do not release authority and responsibility to emerging MBB leaders, it is common for a rift to form. E1 leaders generally have a much higher proficiency in engaging Muslims than E2 leaders. Since a primary activity of M4 leaders is sharing the gospel with Muslims, engaging yellow-lights, and discipling new believers, emerging MBB leaders can sometimes feel that they are better ministers than the M4 leaders. However, emerging MBB leaders still require significant discipleship and coaching, which competent M4 leaders can provide.

One major issue that M4 workers need to address is the relationship of these emerging L1 and L2 leaders to Islam and the mosque. Usually, this emerging work will go one of three directions. First, the emerging L1 and L2 leaders may become extracted from their Muslim community. When these new L1 and L2 leaders are extracted, they usually join local churches and often lose their effectiveness in reaching Muslims. Second, emerging leaders sometimes continue attending the mosque because of fear and community pressure. As a result, any new disciples will naturally follow their pattern. The long-term result is that the emerging movement retains one foot in Islam and one foot in Christ and has split allegiance. While there has been a historic battle over the appropriateness of this approach,[7] followers of Jesus continuing in Islamic worship and practice cannot be reconciled with biblical Christianity.

            Instead, new MBBs should remain as cultural insiders in their communities while being theological outsiders from Islam.[8] MBBs should remain in the situation that they were when the Lord called them (1 Cor 7:17-24). They should attempt to retain the same role in society after following Jesus that they held before following Jesus. If they were farmers before following Jesus, they should stay as farmers after following Jesus. At the same time, these MBBs need to separate from the mosque, Qur’an, and allegiance to Muhammad. M4 leaders should patiently teach the Bible to these emerging MBB leaders and especially help them to understand the biblical teaching on the person of Christ. As these MBBs understand the deity of Christ, their loyalty to the mosque, Qur’an, and Muhammad automatically dissolves. As emerging MBB leaders break from Islam, M4 leaders need to coach them to remain in good standing in their community. At this point, emerging MBB leaders struggle through numerous questions related to issues like marriages, funerals, Muslim festivals, and Ramadan.  

M5 leaders have successfully coached emerging MBB leaders to the point of reproducing more MBB churches and leaders. At this point, an actual movement has the potential to emerge. Ideally, the M5 leader continues to function as a partner to leaders in this emerging movement. Since the M5 leader has handed off significant leadership responsibility for this work, they become ideal trainers and coaches to other E2 workers seeking to work through this process. Returning to Shank’s leadership development process, these M5 leaders now have the opportunity to become L4 leaders.  


            South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. There are insufficient expatriate missionaries and indigenous MBBs to finish the task among the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia. However, there is a sufficient harvest force in the local Christian populations of South Asia. This article describes an idealized path with five identifiable markers by which L2 or L3 leaders can successfully cross into Muslim ministry.

 The process of walking along this path is usually difficult. Experience has shown that it is a simple task to get Christian leaders to become M1 leaders, but each successive step requires more death to self. Fewer and fewer continue down this road. Becoming cross-cultural missionaries requires E2 workers to put aside their preferences and culture for the sake of the gospel. Before embarking into Muslim ministry, many of these E2 workers had fruitful ministries. Moving into Muslim ministry often means less financial stability for these workers.

            The path described in this article is idealized. While our team is working with some M3/M4 leaders, we cannot say that we have seen any true M5 leaders emerge. There are examples where E2 workers have begun working with pre-existing L3 MBB leaders, but none that I am aware of that have walked down this path from start to finish. The purpose of developing this paradigm is to clearly define the idealized next steps for which our team is striving. 

In Muslim ministry in South Asia, training has been developed to help E2 missionaries reach the M1 step. There are also resources available to help these workers emerge as M2 leaders. However, there are almost no resources available for E2 workers at the M3-M5 stages. Developing resources, training, and hosting events where M3-M5 leaders can learn from one another and MBB leaders is a necessary next step for developing these cross-cultural missionaries. In addition, the question of financial support needs to be answered.

[1] Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” IJFM 19:4 (Winter 2002), 16.

[2] For insights on the cultural gap between Pakistani Christians and Sindhi Muslims, see Samuel E. Naaman, “Revisioning Outreach to Sindhi Muslims: Proposals for Christians in Pakistan” (D.Miss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1999).

[3] Nathan and Kari Shank, Four Fields of Kingdom Growth: Starting and Releasing Healthy Churches. Revised and Updated Edition (Self-Published PDF, 2014).

[4] Note that in some contexts in South Asia, the linguistic gap is much wider. For example, Telugu-speaking Christians in Hyderabad have much more difficulty learning Urdu than North Indian Christians. 

[5] Often those extracted leave their own cultural context and go to a large city. If they continue in Muslim ministry, it is often among different people groups. Thus, they also become E2 workers.

[6] For an example of the difficulties that Indian MBBs face in between the Muslim community and entering fellowship with Christians, see Sufyan Baig, “The Ummah and the Christian Community,” in Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between? Ed. by David Greenleee (Hyderabad: Authentic Books, 2013) 69-79.

[7] For an updated example of this conflict, see Harley Talman and John Jay Travis, eds., Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015). In response to this defense of Insider Movements, see Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham, eds., Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.

[8] The term Cultural Insider Theological Outsider comes from Abu Jaz, “Our Believing Community is a Cultural Insider but Theological Outsider (CITO)” in Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, ed. by Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham. New York: Peter Lang, 2018, 423-430.

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