This blog post is the first of several that will focus on special issues in developing Muslim background believers (MBB) to maturity. This section was written to be included in a training manual and adapted for this blog. One of the most significant steps in the faith of every MBB is going public in their faith. Therefore, this blogpost is devoted to that important and complex step in the life of new MBBs!
Helping MBBs Go Public as Followers of Jesus. When Muslims repent and believe in Jesus, they often keep their faith secret from their friends, families, and neighbors. They know that they might face a significant family pressure or even persecution from their family and community when they go public in their faith. However, it is necessary for MBBs to share about their faith in Jesus with their family and community. MBBs should do so carefully and with prayer and fasting. MBBs going public in their faith is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of discipling new MBBs.
Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, is a biblical story of a secret seeker going public. In John 3:2, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn from Him. He came to Jesus at night desiring to be secretive as he learned about Jesus. Later, Nicodemus tried to stand up for Jesus to the Pharisees, saying “Our law doesn’t judge a man before it hears from him and knows what he’s doing, does it?” (John 7:51). The other Pharisees rebuked Nicodemus. Nicodemus, as a religious leader, probably observed the trial of Jesus and His crucifixion. Although the text does not state it, it seems likely that this was a time of transformation in Nicodemus’ life. Immediately after his death, Nicodemus aided Joseph of Arimathea in the burial off Jesus, which would have been a highly public act (John 19:38-42). Nicodemus provided 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes, an enormous expense. We learn three lessons from Nicodemus’ story. Click here for the text of a sermon I once shared on Nicodemus going public.
- First, Jesus allowed Nicodemus to learn about Him in secret and to begin to grow in secret. In the same way, it is permissible – and perhaps even advised – to give Muslim seekers the freedom to grow in their faith secretly for a time.
- Second, it took time for Nicodemus to work through his questions of his allegiance to the Jewish religious leadership and Jesus. We cannot be certain of the timeline, but this was certainly a process that took months, and possibly more than a year. In the same way, we need to give space to Muslim seekers as they work out these issues.
- Third, Nicodemus’ faith eventually forced him to go public as a follower of Jesus. In the same way, MBBs need to go public in their faith at the appropriate time. Often, MBBs go public in their faith in ever increasing circles of contacts, slowly and carefully sharing about their new faith with a few at a time.
Six issues of MBBs not going public.
Until MBBs go public, they live with a dual identity, being Muslims in public and followers of Jesus in private. For many, this dichotomy is difficult to maintain. For example, I have a friend who says he believes that Jesus is God and that Islam is a false religion, but he still leads prayers as the imam of a mosque. He says he wants to leave Islam and believes that the prayers that he leads are false worship. However, because of fear and family pressure, he retains his role as an imam. Now, his family has a Muslim girl that they want him to marry. He is torn between a desire to follow Jesus and the fear he faces of going public. As a result, he is having trouble following Jesus with his whole heart. Eventually, MBBs need to choose whether their new identity will be fully in Jesus.
When MBBs are secret in their faith, they must often compromise their faith in Jesus. For example, they go to mosque to pray, which necessarily includes compromise in their faith. This issue is especially common around Muslim holidays, like Ramadan and Eid festivals. When MBBs are secret in their faith, it is impossible to navigate those situations adequately.
When MBBs are secret in their faith, they are often cut off from fellowship with other followers of Jesus. Instead, they attend mosque, often out of community pressure. They continue to hear more from the Qur’an than the Bible. Therefore, they are not positioned to grow in their faith. The result is that they grow increasingly weak in their faith in Jesus.
When MBBs are secret in their faith, they often struggle to maintain spiritual disciplines like Bible study and prayer. The reason is that they either do not keep a Bible at their home for fear of being found out, or they keep it so hidden that they rarely get it out. Many MBBs only keep a Bible on their phone. While that works for some, others are highly distracted by all the other features on their phone. When they lack a Bible, they struggle to find the time and energy for prayer as well. Without maintaining basic spiritual disciplines, like Bible study and prayer, MBBs cannot grow to maturity in Christ.
When MBBs are secret in their faith, they cannot be a witness for Christ in their own communities. MBBs can be powerful witnesses for the gospel. The gospel should spread through families and along relational lines. In this way, whole families can come to Christ. However, if an MBB is secretive in their faith, then they cannot share the gospel with their family, friends, and community.
When MBBs are secret in their faith, they let circumstances dictate when their faith will become public. If MBBs do not share their faith in Jesus with their family and community, it is likely that some circumstance will come along revealing their faith to others. The problem is that these circumstances do not usually permit a new MBB to reveal their faith carefully and prayerfully. Instead, their faith becomes public in an uncontrolled way. The problem is that this often increases the chance of facing rejection from their family and community. For example, Nabeel Qureshi’s faith went public when he left his computer on in his dorm at college. His parents came in and saw that Nabeel was messaging a Christian friend about Nabeel’s baptism. Even worse, when circumstances dictate an MBB go public, many MBBs publicly deny their faith. For example, the wife of new MBB might find his New Testament hidden in their home and confront him. The new MBB might deny that he is a follower of Jesus in that moment out of fear. When a new MBB publicly denies their faith, it often creates an even deeper dichotomy in their faith and can lead to many issues.
Four Points of the Ideal Picture of MBBs going Public.
Please note that this section paints an ideal. It is likely that some people’s personal circumstances will be radically different. There is real potential for persecution when MBBs go public. A future blog will discuss how to handle persecution of MBBs.
- MBBs should remain in their culture. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 teaches that new believers should remain in the situation in which they were called. This means that new MBBs should ideally retain their names, their food, their dress, their jobs, their role in society, their relationships, and their culture.
- MBBs should separate from Islam religiously. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 teaches that believers in Jesus must separate from false worship. Therefore, new MBBs should forge a public identity where they are personally separate from Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the mosque. MBBs seeking to remain in their community should be careful not to attack Islam, but simply to separate themselves from Islam. If MBBs begin to attack Islam, it is much more likely that they will be expelled from their families and communities.
- MBBs should seek to excel as members of their community in every way. As Jesus transforms our lives, we should be better husbands, sons, and fathers. We should excel in our work and our generosity in the community. We should become more and more productive. More than anything, the character of followers of Jesus should be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16-25). MBBs should take to heart Jesus’ admonition to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). In particular, this truth should be lived out before an MBBs family and the community into which they were born.
- MBBs should slowly and deliberately share the gospel in their Muslim community. While showing Jesus by their transformed lives, MBBs should also seek opportunities to see the gospel spread like yeast within their community (Matt 13:33). A general principle is that MBBs should proclaim the gospel wisely and deliberately in their own family and community but that they can proclaim more boldly and directly outside of their direct community. It is often helpful to train MBBs in evangelism outside of their context and to send them two-by-two to share Jesus with people they have never met. Sharing the gospel outside of their family and community will help them to become more adept at sharing the gospel inside their community. However, they should carefully consider how bold to be with their own family to avoid complete rejection by their family and community. As a group of MBBs grows in strength in a community, it is likely that some separation will automatically happen.
The Public Identity of MBBs in their Community.
There are many perspectives on how MBBs should present themselves in their community. Here, I am advocating for MBBs to publicly present themselves as Followers of Isa and members of an Isa Jamaat.
Option #1. Muslims who secretly follow Jesus. This option means that followers of Jesus perpetually remain in Islam as secret believers. For the reasons already shared, this is not a viable option.
Option #2. Muslims who follow Jesus. Some want to call themselves Muslims who follow Jesus. As Muslims, they are still trying to navigate their relationship to Islam. They have not clearly separated from Islam and have not answered the questions clearly related to the mosque, the Qur’an, and Muhammad. Therefore, this option does not adequately provide a consistent identity for MBBs.
Option #3. Christians. When MBBs call themselves Christians, their family and community are often confused. Many Muslims see Christians as immoral people from the West whose behavior is apparent from Hollywood movies and wars in the Middle East. There are often lies in Muslim communities that Christians drink alcohol, eat pork, and engage in sexual immorality. Therefore, when an MBB declares him or herself a Christian, their community often has vast misunderstandings.
Option #4. Followers of Isa and members of an Isa Jamaat. A better way for MBBs to describe their faith is as Followers of Isa and members of an Isa Jamaat. They then can describe their faith in culturally appropriate ways and how they practice it. This option adequately demonstrates separation from Islam, while describing the identity of the new believer in culturally appropriate terms. As a group of believers forms in a new area, calling themselves an Isa Jamaat clearly describes their corporate identity in a way that is understood in South Asian Islam.
Nine Tips on Going Public Well.
There is no set pace at which MBBs must go public. Just like Nicodemus began to follow Jesus in secret and later when public, it is fine for MBBs to follow the same path. Other MBBs choose to immediately go public after repenting and believing. Every MBBs personal situation is different and should be handled differently. The discipler should focus on helping the new MBB follow Jesus and be transformed as they follow Him. During this time, the Holy Spirit will be working in the life of the new believer. It is hoped that the Holy Spirit will guide new believers to go public in their faith. However, if after several months or a year of following Jesus, they still do not want to go public, then it might be necessary for the discipler to process with them what their hesitations are. It is very helpful at this point to include other mature MBBs in this conversation.
Train MBBs in appropriate and culturally sensitive ways to communicate their faith in Jesus. The Five Special Things about Jesus tool and Korbani presentations are very helpful here. As MBBs learn how to communicate their faith in sensitive ways, ask them to prayerfully consider who from their community might be most open to discussing these things. Teach them how to bring up Jesus with friends and family and to begin discussions.
Pray and fast for MBBs as they begin to share the gospel with others in their community. Remember that this is a spiritual work! Ultimately, we must seek God to intervene and do a great work in a Muslim community.
Disciple MBBs so that they experience life transformation as they prepare to go public. When MBBs experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, their families often take notice. When they explain to their families that this transformation occurred through following Jesus, it is a powerful apologetic for the gospel.
New MBBs should not speak against Islam. New MBBs should be careful not to attack Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the mosque. Speaking against Islam or its prophet is a quick way to be rejected by family and community. No doubt, family and community will bring up Muhammad and urge new MBBs to say the shahada (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”). MBBs should seek to deflect these urges from family by telling their testimony of how Jesus transformed their life and sharing the uniqueness of Jesus.
The person discipling the new MBB should “make every effort to get to know the whole family of the” new MBB (Little, 195). When the gospel spreads to a new family, the family is generally alarmed to learn that someone from their family has repented and believed. Many have experienced that this alarm is reduced dramatically if the family knows where the gospel is coming from and have even heard some teaching from the evangelist/disciple maker who brought the gospel to the family. This can help the family to understand why this family member has chosen to follow Jesus and reduce the chances of rejection.
Introduce new MBBs to more mature MBBs who can help them in navigating these family issues. If the disciple maker is an E2 or E3 worker, then they should seek to connect new MBBs to other mature MBBs who can coach them through these stages. Usually, E2 and E3 workers can only speak theoretically, while mature MBBs speak from experience and from a deeper understanding of the culture.
Be prepared in the eventuality that going public goes poorly, leading to persecution. A future blog will address the issue of persecution of MBBs. This topic will be addressed there more completely.
If the family initially rejects an MBB, be prepared to seek reconciliation. If the initial steps of going public go poorly, the MBB should be prepared to temporarily leave his or her home, perhaps for the night. If the rejection is stronger, then perhaps even longer. At this point, the evangelist/disciple maker or a mature MBB likely needs to help the new MBB seek reconciliation with their family. Someone might go with that person to address the head of household to try to explain that the new MBB is not seeking to reject their family and culture, but simply seeking to grow close to God. While some families might reject the MBB completely, most are able to either find a workable truce with their family or to be welcomed back as family members.
 For the illiterate, substitute the appropriate means of learning the Word of God here. For many, it means keeping audio files on their phone to listen to or using some form of audio device. Many MBBs go to great lengths to keep a micro-SD card with audio files hidden to avoid going public.
Note that some MBBs who have clearly separated from Islam still call themselves “cultural Muslims who follow Jesus instead of going to the mosque,” or something similar. In this way, they are indicating their separation from Islam, while noting that they have not left their culture and community.
 In Muslim ministry, there is a need for developing MBB apologists, like Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel clearly and boldly taught against Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the Islamic faith. The focus here is on the initial steps of MBBs going public in their faith rather than advanced steps.