Book Review. Ethnic Realities and the Church by Donald McGavran.

McGavran, Donald A., Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979. 

This blog post was originally submitted as a class assignment for my doctoral studies. However, this book often comes up in conversations as a relevant book for understanding the Indian church. Understanding the Indian church is key for mobilizing the Indian church! (For more on mobilizing South Asian Christians to South Asian Muslims, click here) I am hopeful to have future blogposts that cover books and dissertations that provide insight about the churches of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian churches.

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Donald McGavran (1897-1990) was a missionary to India and the founding Dean of the School of Missions, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1965. McGavran was born and raised in India by missionary parents before returning to spend thirty-eight years as a missionary in South India (1923-1961). During this time, McGavran was mentored by J. Waksom Pickett, the author of Christian Mass Movements in India (1933). McGavran and Pickett co-wrote on the dynamics which led to people movements.

During his time in India, McGavran noticed that the church was growing at extraordinary rates in some areas and not at all in others. In his words,

In the section of India where I worked, 145 areas were scenes of missionary effort… in 134 of these areas the church… had grown at only 11 percent a decade… But in the other eleven areas the church was growing by 100 percent, 150 percent, or even 200 percent a decade. Why was this happening? A vast curiosity arose within my breast. There must be a key to Great Commission mission, and I resolved to find it.[1]

As a result, McGavran wrote Bridges of God in 1955, trying to describe how people movements were occurring in India where large numbers of a single people group came to Christ in a short period of time. In 1970, McGavran wrote Understanding Church Growth in which he more carefully delineated his teachings on the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).

Summary of Contents

Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India describes nine church types in India in order to describe the challenges and opportunities that these church types present for the Great Commission. This book is primarily a sociological description of the various church structures observed by McGavran and his colleagues[2] in India.

McGavran said “in only twenty-one of the more than three thousand ethnic groups of India do Christians form any considerable proportion of the total population… In more than 2900 castes and tribes there are practically no Christians at all” (28). Likewise, McGavran noted that there were a few dominantly Christian districts in India, but most districts were less than 0.5 percent Christian (25-27). The uneven spread of Christianity among certain ethnic groups and in certain areas was due to past people movements. Per McGavran, “Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ” (36). 

McGavran distinguished nine church types in India, five basic types and four secondary types. Those nine types are (41):

The Five Basic Types

Type 1. Fully Monoethnic Syrian Churches

Type 2. Fully Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

Type 3. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Caste

Type 4. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Tribe

Type 5. Modified Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

The Four Secondary Types

Type 6: Urban Conglomerates or Multiethnic Churches

Type 7: Urban Monoethnic Churches

Type 8: The Great Conglomerates

Type 9: The Indigenous Churches

Ethnic Realities and the Church describes these nine church types and discusses Great Commission barriers and opportunities of each church types. This book concludes with two appendices where McGavran defended his views on ecclesiology and the HUP.

            The Syrian churches of Kerala are Catholic and monophysite fellowships that read their liturgy in Syriac (Type 1; 51). These are the oldest churches of India, perhaps being founded by the apostle Thomas. Syrian Christians dominate much of the Christian religious leadership of India with over half of Catholic priests in India being from Kerala (55). While Syrian Christians are “immovable” in their faith, most Protestants would consider them “doctrinally corrupt” (55). Moreover, “For nineteen hundred years, because they did not want to mix their blood[3] with that of other ethnic units, they ceased to propagate the faith” (57). While historically the Syrian church has been “stolidly nonevangelistic,” two spin off denominations, the Mar Thoma Church and the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India, have been evangelistic (61ff). Since these two denominations worship in Malayali,[4] their evangelistic effectiveness has been limited to Malayali speakers. Therefore, McGavran’s suggested Syrian Christians to form apostolic bands that can learn the language and culture of other people groups and plant churches among them (66).

            Fully Conglomerate churches (Type 2) are “the most typical of all Indian congregations and denominations” (68). These churches are composed of members from various castes and tribes. “Each convert has to come to Christ alone, outof the caste in which he was born” (68). McGavran describes,

The process is entirely natural. Given the fact that no community wants its members to defect to any other caste, given the intense communal loyalty which is an essential part of the Indian system, there are only two ways in which men of caste can become Christian. (1) They can come as individuals – one-by-one-against-the current, against the family, against the jati[5] or homogeneous ethnic unit in which they were born… (b) They can come out group by group.” (69-70)

Fully conglomerate churches are primarily composed of individuals coming to Christ, while church types 3 and 4 are composed entirely of groups coming to Christ.

Many fully conglomerate churches developed around mission stations where one-by-one individuals were brought into the church. The message of these churches was “leave your caste and join our community” (83). Often fully conglomerate churches resisted people movements because “To be good, it had to be slow,” thus monoethnic churches were seen as less Christian (77). The Great Commission potential of fully conglomerate churches is twofold. First, they have a high potential of reaching those who are at the fringe of society, such as those who move to distant cities for work or who are not in a good relationship with their caste (89ff). Second, 

“Historically most great people movements have risen as existing Christians of conglomerate congregations have led someone to Jesus Christ, and then he… has led his own people – in India his own caste or tribe fellows – to Christ.” (91)

Therefore, McGavran argued that the highest evangelistic potential of Type 2 churches is to start Type 3 and 4 people movements.

            Monoethnic churches from caste (Type 3) and tribe (Type 4) occur when large numbers of a caste or tribe come to Christ and continue in their “normal social organism” (93). Generally, monoethnic churches form when men and women hear the gospel and discuss their decision as a group until a consensus if formed at which time they make a group decision and are baptized together (96). Because of the close relationships within castes and tribes, this message naturally travels through their relational networks. As more and more groups in a relational network take baptism, the social pressure becomes less for the next group to do so. Thus, people movements can sweep across an ethnic group. It is important to note that historically, people movements have generally occurred among lower castes.

“In about 2,000 Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and Brahman castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in only 5 – that is in only 0.0025 percent of these castes. On the other hand in about 600 Scheduled Castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in 21 – that is in about 3 percent of these castes” (100).

Per McGavran, no great monoethnic movements by caste had taken place in North and Central India (110).[6]

Monoethnic churches have great evangelistic potential not only for their own ethnic group, but also to affect other ethnic groups on their fringes. For example, the Presbyterian movement in the Punjab around 1900 “won far more converts from the Muslims than all the specialized and scholarly missionaries to the Muslims put together” (113). 

Tribes and castes differ in that castes share “a region with many other castes” while tribes are “the sole or the main ethnic group” in a given area. Each tribe has “a language or dialect of its own” (123). Evangelistically, monoethnic churches by tribe often “suffer from limited vision” since they do not feel responsible to share the gospel outside of their tribe (132). Per McGavran, there should be intentional attempts among any tribal people movement to make sure that the entire tribe is evangelized before deep separation occurs between Christians and non-Christians within a tribe (137).

            Modified multiethnic churches (Type 5) are a blend of Type 2 and Type 3 or 4. These churches attempt to be multiethnic, but their proximity to a people movement causes at least half and maybe as much as ninety percent of the church to be of a single caste or tribe (144). Therefore, the culture of that caste or tribe to dominate the church culture. Modified multiethnic churches tend to be large and tend to have great evangelistic potential to reach more of the primary caste or tribe (148-150). However, these churches tend to be divided since church leaders, being from people groups that are more historically anchored in Christ, are almost never from the ethnic group that forms the modified multiethnic church’s majority (145ff).

McGavran’s four secondary church types were peripheral to his five basic types. Thus, they will be dealt with in less detail. Urban conglomerate churches (Type 6) are types of multiethnic churches that occur in big cities as a result of transfer growth (158). “So far big-city conglomerates… have not shown much evangelistic potential… The English-speaking multiethnics were the least potent” (165-6). Urban monoethnic churches (Type 7) occur as believers from rural people movements relocate to urban areas and form monoethnic congregations (170ff). The great conglomerates (Type 8) are eight denominations that composed 83 percent of Christians in India in McGavran’s day: Roman Catholic, Church of South India, Council of Baptist Churches of Northeast India, Methodist Church of Southern Asia, Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India, Church of North India, Presbyterian Church of Northeast India, Federation of Evangelical Churches of India (186). Indigenous churches (Type 9) are denominations and associations that are indigenous from their beginning, meaning that they are derived from Indian leadership (214). McGavran concluded by stating that the greatest potential for the church of India was the untapped reservoir of potential missionaries from within the Indian Church (237). 

Ethnic Realities and the Church concludes with two theological essays. The first reminds the reader that Ethnic Realities and the Church is written phenomenologically rather than prescriptively in describing the various church types of India. Therefore, McGavran asks the reader not to criticize his ecclesiology but rather use this book as a look at the various ecclesiologies present in India (246). The second essay defends that caste issues are deeply rooted in Indian society and that the resultant ecclesiological issues must be addressed (250ff). Practically, McGavran reiterates his call for monoethnic churches, while advocating that Indian Christians overcome racial prejudice in Christ (257).

Critical Evaluation

McGavran’s Ethnic Realities and the Church is an invaluable description of the Indian church through a missiological lens. While this book is almost forty years old, most of McGavran’s descriptions ring true today, especially regarding his five basic categories. McGavran’s five basic church types provide an accurate framework around which to describe what is happening in the Indian church. As with anything written by McGavran, most critiques of Ethnic Realities and the Church center around the HUP. 

One major shift in the Indian church from the time of McGavran is the rise of indigenous missionaries and resultant indigenous churches and denominations. McGavran stated that these groups showed great potential but had often not flourished since pastors were moved towards denominations with greater resources (218). Since 1979, indigenous missions, such as Vishawani, Uttar Pradesh Mission, Believer’s Church of India (i.e. Gospel for Asia), have grown dramatically. These are organizations started and lead by Indian leadership who are funding indigenous workers to plant indigenous churches. These indigenous movements still tend to be dependent on outside funding as in McGavran’s day (16). As a result, there has been a dramatic shift away from Christians in India being formed into only a few denominations. Most of the eight great conglomerate denominations have decreased in influence, while indigenous denominations have drastically increased.

Another shift from McGavran’s time is that the Syriac churches have continued to lose their distinct character with multitudes leaving these monoethnic churches to join conglomerates. Likewise, many of the new church movements being birthed by indigenous missions cannot be described as purely monoethnic, but also have a distinctly different character than the fully conglomerate churches. These churches are similar to the modified multiethnic churches but differ in that they began as monoethnic churches which begin to bring in other castes. Generally, these semi-multiethnic churches are over fifty percent of a particular caste, while successfully reaching out to other castes and integrating believers from castes that have a similar status.

As noted by McGavran, most Christian growth in India has taken place among various Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (i.e. low caste ethnic groups), however it is no longer correct that people movements have occurred among only twenty-one ethnic groups in India (28). As in McGavran’s time, there has been substantially less Christian growth among forward castes, Muslims, and other peoples, although progress is occurring among these groups as well. Because of these realities, probably the greatest weakness of Ethnic Realities and the Church is its age. Missions efforts in the subcontinent would be greatly helped by a fresh and thorough phenomenological analysis such as McGavran’s. McGavran was only ready to write this book after thirty-eight years in India and significant academic experience. Likewise, an updated version would be of greatest value if written by someone with substantial experience, like McGavran.

The most controversial statements in Ethnic Realities and the Church revolve around McGavran’s statements regarding the HUP. For example, 

“Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ; but since the congregations and denominations of most leaders of the Indian Church are conglomerate and not people movement by nature, these leaders neither know nor teach the monoethnic way of becoming Christian. Indeed, in most seminaries and Bible schools in India people movements are seldom mentioned. The very concept is often disapproved.” (36) 

These statements move beyond phenomenological description to active advocacy of “the monoethnic way of becoming Christian.” The controversial nature of this kind of statement can be seen in a 2016 Southern Baptist Journal of Evangelism and Missions. In that journal, Aubrey Sequeira blasted McGavran with the following five critiques:

(1) Missiology characterized by church growth principles underestimates the diabolical nature of the caste system; (2) The church growth model fosters nominal Christianity and perpetuates a deeply entrenched ethnocentrism in the church of Jesus Christ; (3) McGavran’s theology does not sufficiently reflect a biblical understanding of conversion, particularly of repentance; (4) McGavran’s church growth principles have not adequately taken into account the New Testament call to embrace Christ at the expense of being excluded and ostracized by society; and finally, (5) Church growth missiology exalts pragmatic considerations over biblical faithfulness.[7]

In the same journal, John Michael Morris[8] and Troy Bush[9] wrote in defense of utilizing HUP based missionary methods. Indeed, McGavran’s HUP has been debated and examined since he introduced this concept in Bridges of God in 1955.

The question at hand is whether McGavran’s advocacy of HUP based missionary methods is appropriate or if it breaks the biblical injunctions regarding the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ (Eph. 2:11ff). McGavran offers a reasoned response to this question in Ethnic Realities in the Church. By the time McGavran wrote this book, controversy had raged about the HUP for twenty-five years. Therefore, McGavran’s later writings had been refined by the fire of criticism on his teachings. McGavran wrote four considerations: 

  1. “the Church in India faces a Hindu social order which believes that men and women are made in different molds by God Himself, and that some are forever superior and other forever inferior.”
  2. “Christians are indeed called to participate in the struggle for a new society… Before the Throne we all stand equal.”
  3. “the practice of full brotherhood… ought [not] to be made a condition for a person becoming a Christian.” Therefore, “as a matter of convenience to the ‘yet to believe’… homogenous-unit congregations may be started.”
  4. “Christ will indeed break down the middle wall of partition… but he will do it for those who through faith become parts of His Body” (256-257).

In other terms, McGavran acknowledged that the caste system is evil, but understood it as an inevitability among unbelievers in India. His concern was to create churches in which unbelievers could come to Christ. Once in Christ, the walls of division between castes and ethnic groups could be broken down. In other words, for McGavran the focus was on bringing people to Christ so that their views on caste could be reformed. 

In response to Sequeira, a few considerations are required. First, McGavran and Sequeira are united in a disdain for the caste system. However, their views on how to overcome the caste system are different. McGavran sought to bring people to Christ so that Christ could transform believers so as to overcome casteism. While Sequeira seems to advocate that unbelievers need to reject the caste system as part of their repentance unto Christ. Second, Sequeira said that McGavran did not sufficiently explore the idea that believers face ostracism in coming to Christ. However, even a cursory reading of McGavran shows how often he appealed to believers facing ostracism and persecution for Christ. For example, McGavran’s Founders of the Indian Church details multiple stories of the first converts in people movements across India. McGavran clearly describes their transformed lives and the difficulties they faced in coming to Christ. In conclusion, South Asian missiology will continue to be divided over the issue of whether monoethnic churches are ethical or not. But, all can agree that casteism is both sinful and ever present in Indian society, although hopefully on the decline. 

[1] Donald A. McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10.2 (1986): 54.

[2] Especially, “George Samuel of Bombay, Amirtharaj Nelson of Madras, and T.C. George of Bangalore” who helped McGavran develop his last four church types (39ff). 

[3] McGavran was describing the endogamous nature of the Syrian churches of India.

[4] Malayali is the common language of Kerala.

[5] Jati is the Hindi word for caste or tribe.

[6] Since 1979, people movements have occurred in North and Central India. 

[7] Aubrey M. Sequeira, Harry Kumar, and Venkatesh Gopalakrishnan, “McGavran’s Church Growth Principles from an Indian Perspective,” SBJME 2 (2016): 94.

[8] John Michael Morris, “McGavran on McGavran: What Did He Really Teach?” SBJME 2 (2016): 9-23.

[9] Troy L. Bush, “The Homogenous Unit Principle and the American Mosaic,” SBJME 2 (2016): 24-46.

The Power of Near Culture Missionaries to Muslims in South Asia

One of the questions of this blog is to answer the question, “How can a billion South Asian Muslims be reached with the gospel?” One of the realities of this question is that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Luke 10:2). One of the greatest needs to reach the Muslims of South Asia is to mobilize a missionary force capable of bringing the gospel to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. 

A Christian worship service in South Asia.

Let us begin by looking at the problem. In 2010, Todd Johnson showed that South Asian received the least missionaries of any area globally.[1] Johnson reported that in 2010, South Asia received eight foreign missionaries per million population versus the global average of 58 foreign missionaries per million. In contrast, Latin America received 172 missionaries per million people.[2] Therefore, Latin America receives over twenty times as many missionaries per capita as India and Pakistan. Here is what that looks like on a graph.

In positive news, Johnson reported that South Asia has 734,000 national Christian workers.[3] These are pastors, evangelists, or other Christian workers who are from South Asia. While some foreign missionaries focus on Muslims, most national workers in South Asia are focused on Hindus and Christians rather than the Muslim population. Many anecdotes express this reality. For example, I was once at a Christian meeting in Lahore, Pakistan. Although two hundred Christian leaders attended the meeting, only a handful had real experience in evangelizing Muslims, even though Lahore is 94.5% Muslim. The vast majority of Christians in Pakistan are either unwilling to share the gospel with Muslims or have no idea how to do so.

Here is more positive news. Low-caste Hindus in both Pakistan and India are highly receptive to the gospel. Since there are more Hindus in India than in Pakistan, widespread church planting has occurred more in India than in Pakistan.[4] David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements contains one study of the incredible growth rate of the Indian church. Garrison gave data on a handful of movements where tens or hundreds of thousands of Hindus came to Christ in a relatively short time.[5]

The Indian Census places the Christian population at 2.30%, or approximately 31.7 million in 2020.[6] However, the number of Christians is substantially higher than this figure due to Hindu movements to Christ. Believers from Hindu backgrounds are generally counted as Hindus under the census since officially changing one’s religion in India requires a court process that results in loss of rights for those in scheduled and backward castes and invites undesired scrutiny. Therefore, a very conservative estimate would place the number of Christians in India at more than 50 million (3.6%).[7]Many are Christian only by heritage, while others have a fresh vitality in their faith.

Mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach unreached peoples is a long-standing strategy in world missions. However, mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims has not been a heavily adopted strategy. Historically, the most famous failure in mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims relates to the Coptic church of Egypt. Famous missionaries, such as Samuel Zwemer and Temple Gairdner, gave lifetimes of service in Egypt and had no measurable success in mobilizing Coptic Christians to reach Muslims.[8] The primary reasons for this limited success have been assumed to be ongoing persecution and ostracism of Egyptian Christians, a lack of spiritual vitality in Coptic Christianity, and historical barriers between Muslims and Christians in Egypt because of centuries of violence.[9] The historical failure to mobilize Copts to reach Egyptian Muslims has led some to shy away from mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims. 

However, the situation of South Asia is significantly different than the case study of Coptic Christianity. First and foremost, South Asia churches have been experiencing substantial growth for many years, especially among Hindus. This growth has also led to a great vitality among many Christians, especially first-generation believers. Therefore, the churches of South Asia are in a very different place than the Coptic Church of Egypt. Additionally, India is one place where Muslims are a minority. Instead of persecuting Christians, both Christians and Muslims are being persecuted together by the Hindu majority. This dynamic also marks a stark difference between the situations of India and Egypt. However, the Christians of Pakistan have been persecuted by the Muslim majority in a way that mirrors Egypt. Persecution will likely remain a significant barrier to mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Pakistani Muslims with the gospel. However, there are segments of the Pakistani church with a high degree of vitality in Christ. Many of these Christians are ready to engage the Muslims around them with the gospel. 

            More has been written on mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Muslims than mobilizing Indian Christians to reach Muslims. Frederick Stock’s People Movements of the Punjab details the early spread of the gospel through Presbyterian missionaries in what is now known as Pakistan. He reports how the conversion of an illiterate low-caste Hindu man named Som Ditt in 1873 sparked significant growth. From 1881 to 1891 the Christian community in the Punjab grew from 660 believers to 10,165.[10] By 1930, over 100,000 believers were reported in multiple denominations in Pakistan.[11] The results of this movement today are seen in the strength of the Punjabi church in both India and Pakistan. However, this movement has had little impact on the majority Muslim population of Punjab.[12] While Stock asserted that some Christians “proved gifted” in ministry to Muslims,[13] he provided no information on Muslims coming to Christ. 

            In 1999, Samuel Namaan wrote a dissertation asking, “what are the obstacles that prevent the Church of Pakistan in Sindh[14] from evangelizing Muslims in Sindh?” and “How can the Church of Pakistan in Sindh develop an effective strategy to evangelize Muslims?”[15] For his research, Namaan could only identify ten Muslim background believers (MBBs) in Sindh province.[16] An attempt to circulate a survey among MBBs yielded “no response as none of the Church of Pakistan workers were directly involved in Sindhi Muslim evangelism.”[17] According to Namaan, the barriers inhibiting Pakistani Christians from evangelizing Sindhi Muslims included:[18]

  • Muslim hostility to the British. Atrocities committed during British rule in South Asia created deep wounds. The British built the historic churches in most Pakistani cities, creating a permanent link in Pakistanis’ minds between the British and Christianity.
  • Sindhi hostility to the Punjabi majority. Punjabis dominate Pakistani politics, causing animosity between Punjabis and Sindhis. Since most Pakistani Christians are Punjabi, additional cultural tension exists.
  • Pakistani hostility to the West. Western military action in the Middle East is perceived as Western Christian military action against Muslims.[19]

Pakistani and Indian cultures have remarkable similarities, having been a common territory until partition in 1947. However, according to current census reports, Pakistan has a 96.4% Muslim population, while India is only 14.2% Muslim. Because of a difference in each country’s relative population, they have roughly the same number of Muslims at about 200 million each. The dynamics of reaching Muslims in India versus Pakistan are substantially affected by majority versus minority dynamics. For example, in Pakistan, Christians are burdened by blasphemy laws, prejudicial legal systems, and terrorist attacks. In India, Muslim angst is generally against the Hindu majority.

The millions of Christians in South Asia comprise a major workforce that can be mobilized to reach the Muslim minority. The most remarkable growth and vitality in the South Asian church is occurring among Hindus. Hindus are coming to Christ in large numbers in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.  Therefore, these Hindu background movements are the most significant opportunity for mobilization. Recent years have also seen an increased desire among South Asian Christians to engage Muslims with the gospel. 

Considering our question, “What is it going to take to reach a billion Muslims in South Asia?” One need is to mobilize the South Asian church to reach Muslims. It is unlikely that enough foreign missionaries can be mustered to reach 600 million Muslims in South Asia. However, suppose even a small fraction of South Asian Christians can be mobilized for this task. In that case, the number of indigenous missionaries will dwarf the potential of foreign workers.

[1] Johnson, Todd M., David B. Barrett, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2010: A View from the New Atlas of Global Christianity,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34.1 (January 2010): 29-36.

[2] Ibid., 31. 

[3] Ibid., 31. This number is undoubtedly higher in 2020 than it was in 2010.

[4] Extrapolating from Census estimates for 2020, India has about 1.1 billion Hindus while Pakistan has about 3.6 million Hindus.

[5] Garrison, David, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World. Arkadelphia, AR: WIGTake Resources, 2004, 35-48. See also Garrison’s book, A Wind in the House of Islam.

[6] Extrapolating from the 2011 Indian Census data based upon the 1.87% anticipated growth rate in India. This figure includes all Christian groups, including Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, and others.

[7] Author’s estimate. However, some put the number at 5% or even higher. The highest estimate that the author has heard is 12%.

[8] Tucker, Ruth A., From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, 241, 245.

[9] Hassan, S.S., Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 17-53. Rowe, Paul S., “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt in the Wake of the Arab Spring,” Digest of Middle East Studies 22.2 (2013): 262-275.

[10] Stock, Frederick and Margaret, People Movements in the Punjab. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1975, 64-68.

[11] Ibid. 111, 237, 253, 259, 274, 283.

[12] Ibid. 15.

[13] Ibid., 199.

[14] The Church of Pakistan is a denomination in Pakistan with Anglican heritage. Sindh province is a province in southeast Pakistan with a population of approximately 48 million.

[15] Naaman, Samuel E. “Revisioning Outreach to Sindhi Muslims: Proposals for Christians in Pakistan.” (DMiss diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1999), i.

[16] Ibid., 87. 

[17] Ibid., 190.

[18] Ibid., 21-23.

[19] Naaman’s study was completed before 9/11 and the United States’ subsequent military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tensions are more pronounced now than at the time of Naaman’s writing.

A Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to Philemon

When we look at the New Testament, almost every book has a clear purpose. The Gospels present the life of Jesus. Acts shows the power of the Holy Spirit working through the early believers. Romans presents the gospel in depth. Hebrews demonstrates that Jesus is better.

There are a few New Testament books whose purpose is less clear. Philemon is one of those books. In His sovereignty, God included this little book in the canon of Scripture. Therefore, this little book has something to add. It is essential in some way. There is a unique point that this book is supposed to make for us.

The main point of the book of Philemon can be found in the story of this letter.

Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), recto. The earliest known fragment of the Epistle to Philemon. Used by permission from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Story of Philemon

In Acts 19, the apostle Paul spent three years in Ephesus (55-57 AD). For two years, he trained leaders at Tyrannus, who in turn shared the gospel, made disciples, and planted churches across Asia Minor. The result was that “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

One of the men who was trained during this time was Epaphras. Epaphras pioneered the gospel work in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Col 1:8; 4:12-16). Although Paul had never visited Colossae, his disciple, Epaphras planted a church in that city.

A few years after he left Ephesus, Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years (60-62 AD). During that time, he was reunited with Epaphras, who was also in prison (Philem 23). From the time of his imprisonment, Epaphras labored in prayer for his churches that were left behind. In fact, one of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to establish Archippus in his ministry, likely to replace the role left by the arrest of Epaphras (Col 4:17). It seems that Epaphras encouraged Paul to write the letter to the Colossians to continue to help that church to grow despite the adversity occurring that led to Epaphras’ arrest.

Paul’s letter to Philemon was sent simultaneously as Paul’s letter to Colossians and is something of a subplot of what happened in that letter (click here for a Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians). We can tell that they were written at the same time because the two letters have the same circumstances. In both letters, Paul was in jail with Epaphras (Col 4:12-16; Philem 23). In both letters, Paul sent Onesimus back to Colossae (Col 4:9; Philem 12). In both letters, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke were with Paul (Col 4:10, 14; Philem 24). Also, the same Archippus who was to take leadership in Colossae was one of the three recipients of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Lastly, in Colossians 4:9, Onesimus was described as “one of you,” meaning that he was from Colossae. As an aside, Paul described ten of his coworkers in this short letter, which is a picture of the need of modern missionaries to develop more coworkers for the gospel!

The main point of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the slave, Onesimus, and his relation to Philemon and Paul. Philemon is described as a coworker of Paul, meaning that he was involved in missionary activity (Philem 1). Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had come to be with Paul and Epaphras during their time in Rome. Many have assumed that Onesimus was a runaway slave, although the text does not say that he was a runaway. In fact, it is implausible that Onesimus, as a runaway slave, would have randomly come into Paul and Epaphras’ contact while they were in prison. They could not have been in the same jail since Paul was a Roman citizen under house arrest. A slave would have been kept in far worse conditions.

Instead, it is most likely that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul and Epaphras to care for them during their imprisonment. Similarly, the Philippian church had sent Epaphroditus to Paul (Phil 2:19-30). Philemon and the church meeting in his home had likely sent a financial gift by the hand of Onesimus.

During his time with Paul, Onesimus had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. Paul now described Onesimus as “my son,” saying that “I became his father while I was in chains” (Philem 10). Paul described Onesimus as “my very own heart” (Philem 12). In a wordplay on Onesimus’ name, Paul said he was formerly useless (Gr. achreston) to Onesimus, but now had become useful (Gr. euchreston) to both Paul and Onesimus.

Now Paul asserted that Onesimus’ status had changed. He sent Onesimus back to Philemon, although he wanted Onesimus to remain with him (Philem 13). Paul shares an expectation that Philemon will consent to do a “good deed,” without explicitly stating what this good deed was (Philem 14). In the context, it seems that Paul’s expectation was that Philemon was releasing Onesimus from his slavery and send him to Paul to join Paul’s missionary team. As a Pauline coworker, Onesimus was to be treated “as a dearly loved brother” (Philem 16). In fact, Paul commanded Philemon to “welcome [Onesimus] as if you would me” (Philem 17). 

Therefore, Onesimus returned to Colossae with Tychicus, the letter carrier of Paul’s letters to Ephesus and Colossae (Eph 6:21-22; Col 7-9). He may have been the same Onesimus described by Ignatius of Antioch as the leader of the church of Ephesus in c. 107 AD.[1]

The Purpose of Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Having reviewed the story of Paul’s letter to Philemon, we can now return to this short letter’s purpose. Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to gain permission for Onesimus to join his missionary team. Paul was careful to do this so as not to offend another missionary coworker, Philemon. Therefore, Paul’s entire purpose in writing his letter to Philemon was to establish another coworker for the gospel.

This means that God, in His sovereignty, included a whole New Testament book whose primary purpose was for a missionary leader to add another member to their missionary team. This little book, then, becomes one more indication in the New Testament of the value of missionary teams. It also provides a picture of how a missionary leader appealed to a local church’s leadership to send one of their members to join Paul in his missionary activity.

From Slave to Missionary

Paul’s Letter to Philemon is also a picture of the life-changing power of the gospel. Onesimus was a slave, described as “useless” to his master (Philem 11). As a slave, he owed a debt to his master (Philem 18). Since Philemon was not only a follower of Jesus but also a Pauline coworker, we should assume that he treated Onesimus well. However, when Onesimus encountered Jesus through Paul, his life was transformed. He became Paul’s spiritual son and useful for the gospel ministry. Onesimus was manumitted from slavery and launched directly into ministry as Paul’s apprentice and helper. 

This story provides insight into how the apostle Paul viewed those around him. While others saw a slave at the bottom of society, Paul saw a potential leader. Imagine how easy it would have been for Paul to overlook Onesimus. As a leader, it would have been easy for Paul to see Onesimus’ only value as serving him. After all, Onesimus was “only a slave.” However, Paul, like Jesus, saw the people who were around him. He saw potential in Onesimus and was ready to tap his potential.

At the same time, Paul knew that if he took Onesimus as his coworker without Philemon’s willing agreement that he could break relationships in Colossae. In this letter, Paul masterfully appealed to Philemon for Onesimus in such a way that Philemon could not say no while being sure to give Philemon credit for his generosity. For example, Paul wrote,

“But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.” Philemon 14

“And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – not to mention to you that you owe me even your very self.” Philemon 18-19

Here is the point. If a slave can become a missionary coworker of Paul, then so can anyone. As Paul wrote somewhere else, 

“Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world – what is viewed as nothing – to bring to nothing what is viewed as something.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

The book of Philemon is ultimately about the life-changing power of the gospel. The gospel is so powerful that it can transform the lowest in society into men and women worthy of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

[1] Ignatius to the Ephesians 1.3, 2.1.

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.

Money: The Most Complicated Part of Missions

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Timothy 6:10

Without a doubt, financial issues are the most stressful aspect of missionary work for the average Western missionary. Consider the following:

  • In 2012, if someone made $34,000 per year, they were among the 1% of the planet’s highest salary earners. 
  • In 2020, the average income in the United States is $63,051 (IMF estimates). Therefore, the average American is in the global 1%
  • In 2020, the average income in India is $1,877 (IMF estimates).

Many Western missionaries come from middle-class homes. However, upon arrival in South Asia, they are relatively wealthy compared to most South Asians. In a country like India or Pakistan, income inequality is much broader than in the United States. When a Westerner arrives, he is confronted by poverty on a level he has never seen.

The problem is even more pronounced when particular states are examined. For example, the per capita income among the 220 million people of Uttar Pradesh is $972 per year or half of India’s national average. Uttar Pradesh is also home to some affluent areas, such as Noida and Lucknow. There are even some billionaires in Uttar Pradesh that pull this average up significantly. The result is that the average resident of Uttar Pradesh is poor on a level that the average American cannot understand without first experiencing it.

As Westerner missionaries encounter this poverty, many issues collide in their hearts and minds. Here are a few of them.

The Bible commands followers of Jesus to care for the poor. Here are a few verses that we missionaries wrestle with almost daily.

  • “Give to everyone who asks you.” Luke 6:30
  • “They only asked that we would remember the poor, which I had made every effort to do.” Gal 2:10
  • “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?” James 2:15-16

Just as Paul was eager to help the poor (Gal 2:10), the average missionary is filled with compassion regarding the human tragedy surrounding them. We want to help! Moreover, Scripture commands us to help.

In our countries of service, we missionaries are the rich. When we move overseas, we have to wrestle with verses like these for the first time in our lives.

  • “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”Matthew 19:23-24
  • “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort.” Luke 6:24
  • “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.” 1 Timothy 6:9

Personally, I never considered myself to be rich before moving to South Asia. However, I also remember having a roof over my head, decent clothes, and eating three meals a day. We had a refrigerator in our kitchen as well as an air conditioner and heater in our home. I slept in a comfortable bed and had enough money to take my wife out for a nice meal. Sometimes my wife and I shared one car, but other times we each had our own vehicle. In South Asia, these are all signs of wealth. 

At one point, we moved into a middle-class neighborhood in South Asia. We installed one of the first air conditioners in our community to manage the hot South Asian summers. Our little apartment cost $70 USD but was nice compared to many of our new friends. 

At the same time, whenever we go back to visit family in the United States, we switch from being rich to being dependent upon others. We have no home nor car in the United States. Everything in the United States is costly in comparison to our South Asian home.

We feel guilt when we enjoy comforts that were normal to us growing up. When I take my family to McDonalds here (which is a special treat!), we usually spend about $10-12 USD. From an American perspective, this is a minimal amount. From a rural Indian perspective, this is enough money to feed a family with rice and beans for a few weeks. Often, I have a hard time enjoying such extravagance while thinking about a friend who may or may not have food for their family. More than one night, I have laid awake in bed, looking at the air conditioner pumping cool air into my bedroom, wondering why I should have the luxury of this device when most of my friends do not. Likewise, I sometimes feel guilty when going to the doctor. I know that my insurance will pay for my bills, while others that I know are praying for God to take care of their medical needs. They are not going to the doctor simply because they lack enough money. Why should I get decent medical care when they cannot? All that I have is simply because of God’s sovereign choice. I could just as easily have been born into a poor family in rural Uttar Pradesh.

I grew up in the most comfortable country in the history of the world. The kings of ancient times would have been jealous if they knew the comforts that Americans experience today. For example, the average American sleeps in a comfortable bed in a temperature-controlled home. The contrast is stark when I stay in rural areas in South Asia. Once I attended a meeting in a village with about a hundred people. I wondered where we would all sleep that night. In the evening, they put out bedsheets on the concrete roof of the church building. There was no pad and no pillow. We each had a bedsheet on a concrete slab. To say the least, I had a poor night of sleep. However, for the South Asians around me, this was normal. A few days later, when I got back to my bed, I felt both grateful and guilty.

It is confusing to know when to help others and when not to help. Today, I have the following requests in front of me. One man is asking me to help him pay for his children’s school fees. If their school does not receive payment in the next five days, his children will be kicked out. Another person is asking for help with a CT scan to understand why they are having chronic headaches. Yet another friend is asking for money to help meet their societal obligations for a relative’s wedding. On top of this, I am helping two brothers in Christ start small businesses that I am hopeful will help make them self-sustaining in the long run. Also, some believers in rural areas have been telling me that they are low on food.  I know dozens of others who are in genuine need who have not asked.

In light of all of these requests, a few things are clear. First, I am incapable of meeting the needs of everyone who asks me. Second, a dependency problem exists among many South Asian Christians. Dependency means that many Christians are dependent on outsiders to meet their needs rather than being locally sustaining and independent. Let me share how this works. Imagine a foreigner begins working with a South Asian Christian. The two of them become like brothers, which leads the foreigner to share more and more financially with his friend. He helps his friend get a better home and pays for his children to attend a better school. The South Asian believer quickly becomes dependent on the foreigner to sustain their new lifestyle. Compared to the foreigner, they are still living on a low-income level. However, it is beyond the South Asian believer’s capacity. Now imagine that the foreigner has to go back to his home country for any reason. After a few months or a few years, the funds stop coming to this South Asian believer. Now he is in a crisis, unable to pay the rent at his home and afford to put his children in the new school. So, what does he do? The South Asian believer looks for another foreign income source!

We want to leave healthy churches and ministries in South Asia. The vision of this page is “No Cousins Left.” This vision means that we want to see local ownership of the core missionary task. When we define local ownership, we tend to think of four aspects of this local ownership:

  • Self-propagating. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are propagating the gospel themselves. They are making disciples, planting churches, and developing leaders rather than depending on outsiders to do so.
  • Self-governing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are led by local leaders. Outsiders are not making decisions for the group.
  • Self-funding. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are financially independent and take care of the ministry’s financial needs locally.
  • Self-theologizing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders study the Scriptures themselves under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to determine truth. Their theology is not being dictated from the outside.

If we think about these four aspects, it quickly becomes apparent that “self-funding” is a core issue. For example, we know that ultimately whoever pays the bills is the one holding the authority. If the person paying the bills is not happy, then they will withhold their financial help. Therefore, whoever is paying makes many of the decisions about strategy and theology. As a result, if a church is not self-funding, it is also not self-governing, nor is it self-theologizing. 

Imagine a South Asian leader was being paid to focus on Muslim ministry. While the support continues, it is easy for them to continue this focus on Muslim ministry. They are afraid to leave Muslim ministry since this would cause a loss in their support. The result is that they are led less by the Holy Spirit than they are by an outside donor. Now imagine this external support ceases. If they want to continue in Muslim ministry, they struggle to determine how to do so without support. Imagine that they are having trouble paying their bills a few months later. Someone comes and offers them a salary for translation work or radio ministry or something else. Seeing their family’s needs, they eagerly take this new role while trying to continue in Muslim ministry on the side. After a few years, their passion for Muslim ministry is squeezed out by their employer’s new emphasis.

We want to be wise in our giving. The above just scratches the surface of the issues related to money in missions. Missionaries are usually burdened for the poor. Missionaries are often filled with compassion and want to help. However, missionaries are also often thinking through all of the questions related to money above. 

On top of these issues, most South Asians and most Westerners have a vastly different approach to money. In his book, African Friends and Money Matters, David Maranz shared a great deal of wisdom about how Westerners and Africans differ in their approach to finances. A few years ago, I read through this book with one of my good South Asian friends. He was shocked at how Westerners think about money. I was also shocked to learn about how South Asians think about money! While this book was written for African and not South Asia, it is amazingly applicable. I highly recommend this book for understanding two divergent perspectives on money. These divergent perspectives on money often lead to significant misunderstandings.  

For example, I knew a Westerner who was starting a business with a South Asian partner. The Westerner was leaving to go back to his home country for a few months, so he gave around $10,000 of cash to his South Asian partner. There was a highly developed business plan for these funds to get the business started while the foreigner was abroad. However, once the foreigner left, the South Asian man’s extended family came to him and pressured him to use large portions of these funds for weddings and other needs. Because of how social pressure and finances work in South Asia, this man gave most of this $10,000 to these needs. When the foreigner found out, he was angry and felt betrayed. This event ended the relationship between these two men. The foreigner ended up moving back to America. The South Asian partner never became involved with ministry again. One of the core issues was that the foreigner involved had no idea how money works in South Asia.

In the end, what should missionaries do regarding money? Let me give five of my convictions.

  1. Be frugal. While most missionaries are “rich” when they come to South Asia, it is best to moderate spending on their personal needs. 
  2. Be generous. Missionaries should model 1 Timothy 6:18-19, “Instruct the rich to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.” 
  3. Be wise. Missionaries should seek to invest money into developing others so that they are self-sustaining after the missionary leaves. Care should be taken not to create dependency but to use their finances to build others so that they become strong and independent. One good book on this subject is When Helping Hurts.
  4. Be Spirit-led. Missionaries should be wary of depending on their own wisdom regarding finances. Instead, they should pray and consult with other godly men and women to make Spirit-led decisions.
  5. Be forgiving. If we are generous, sometimes we will be cheated. Some people will lie to us or deceive us to get money for something else. Sometimes, the money will get used in a way other than our intention. When this happens, we need to forgive. One big key is not to trust anyone with more money than you can lose. Then as trust grows through experience with that person, you can entrust them with more money.  

In the end, remember that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out” (1 Tim 6:7). Money is a temporary part of this life that will not be part of eternity. Let us seek to glorify God with the money that He entrusts to us.

A Billion Muslims in South Asia by 2047

As I shared in another post, South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. There are far more Muslims in South Asia that in the Middle East. In 2020, there are approximately 586.9 million Muslims in South Asia.

Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have the second, third, and fourth largest Muslim populations globally. The largest population of Muslims on the planet is in Indonesia.

Considering this growth, I recently wondered, “When will there be a billion Muslims in South Asia?” So, I spent some time crunching the numbers. If the growth rates assumed here are maintained, then there will be over a billion Muslims in South Asia by 2047. In 2047, there will be 380.9 million Muslims in Pakistan, 381.2 million Muslims in India, and 247.5 million Muslims in Bangladesh.

2047 is only 27 years away. In the next 27 years, the Muslim population of South Asia is set to almost double!

What does this mean for ministry to Muslims in South Asia?

  1. We need to pray! We need God to move among such a large group of Muslims.
  2. We need to mobilize! The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
  3. We need to labor! Let us join God in working among these peoples for whom Jesus died.

As a last note, I want to encourage us all to ask a question… “What is it going to take to reach a billion Muslims?” If you want to learn how to join us in this work, please consider taking our E-Course. Please click here for more information.

Folk Islamic Ritual #1: Na’at (Devotional Singing)

This blogpost is the first of a series sharing some of the basic aspects of South Asian folk Muslim rituals. Understanding folk Muslim’s worldview aids in making disciples for Jesus among folk Muslims. Therefore, each reading concludes with tips on how these worldview issues relate to ministry among folk Muslims.

There is great diversity in the belief and practices of folk Muslims in South Asia. Therefore, do not make the mistake that every South Asian Muslim that you meet will do all the practices described in these lessons! Instead, use these lessons as a launching point to explore the worldview and practices of South Asian Muslims that you meet. 

Asaf-ud-dowlah (d. 1797) listening to musicians in his court in what would be present day Uttar Pradesh, India. Used by permission from Wikipedia Commons.

When my wife and I first moved to India, we lived by a mosque where women began singing every morning at 4 am over the mosque loudspeaker. As I began to understand a little Urdu, we were surprised to hear that they were singing songs to Muhammad. This practice is called na’at. Na’at derives from the Barelvi doctrine of hazir-o-nazir that “the Prophet continues to have a spiritual presence of his own manifest as pure light (nur-I muhammadi) and is capable of mediating between Muslims and God.”[1] Many Muslims believe that Muhammad’s spiritual presence, as pure light, is present with Muslims everywhere, much like Christians believe about the Holy Spirit.

The singing of na’at “establish[es] a special relationship to the prophet and invoke[s] his mediatory presence.”[2]At the root of devotional singing is a folk perspective of Allah, Muhammad, and Sufis. Perry Pennington shared a helpful anecdote about how folk Muslims view their devotion to mediators (Urdu vasila). This anecdote was a conversation with his friend, Dervesh.

According to [Dervesh], for every work there is an accompanying vasila (means). For instance, the vasila for reading is eyeglasses; for writing, a pencil, for drinking, a glass. Prayer, he made clear, also requires a vasila. “Which vasila do you use when you pray?” I asked him. Dervesh explained that he prayed in the name (with the vasila of) all the prophets and holy books. Vasilas are required in prayer, Dervesh said, because prayer is talking to God, who is mighty and powerful. He is full of blessing, but his power is so great that direct contact with him is fraught with danger. God, he continued, is like an electricity-generating power plant. It produces such a powerful form of electricity that it is useless for ordinary household items like radios, for its power would destroy them if connected directly to them. Instead, the electricity is taken from the generating plant to an electrical grid… In prayer, Dervesh concluded, God is like the generating station, the prophets like the grid station, and Sufis, like the transformer. They are a conduit for the blessing and power of God that flows from them into their followers in a manageable form.[3]

Some Muslims also sing to Sufi saints. Qawwali is a more popularized and often syncretized form of Islamic musical expression sung by skilled musicians. The Mughal king, Akbar the Great, became a devotee of Kwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti and his dargah in Ajmer after hearing a Qawwali in honor of that Sufi saint.[4] In some contexts, especially related to some Sufi shrines, ecstatic dancing and the use of marijuana[5] to achieve a spiritual state. The goal of devotional singing and dancing is to enter into a deeper relationship with Allah and gain barkat (Urdu for “blessing”).

Proclaiming Jesus as the greatest mediator between God and man is compelling to many folk Muslims (1 Tim 2:5-6). Portraying the mediatorial role of Christ is significant to folk Muslims who are seeking mediators between them and God. The book of Hebrews in particular highlights the mediatorial role of Christ as the new high priest. One particularly powerful verse in evangelism to folk Muslims on this theme is John 14:6, which uses the term vasila in Urdu. “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Urdu mere vasile ke bagher).’”

Click here to go to a second reading on South Asian Folk Muslims. The second lesson is on the veneration of Muslim saints called pirs at tomb complexes called dargahs.

[1], Patrick Eisenlohr, “Na’at: Media Contexts and Transnational Dimensions of a Devotional Practice,” in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. by Barbara D. Metcalf. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, 102.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Perry Pennington, “From Prophethood to the Gospel: Talking to Folk Muslims about Jesus,” IJFM 31.4 (2014): 197.

[4] Catherine B. Asher, “Pilgrimage to the Shrines of Ajmer,” in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. by Barbara D. Metcalf (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 77.

[5] Green tea should be imbibed with great caution in South Asia. A missionary colleague in India was once given “green tea” by his Muslim friend. Unaware it was marijuana; he drank two glasses. It was quite potent since it took more than twenty-four hours for my friend to come down from his high. 

Systematic Theology 6: The Clarity of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

This lesson is on the second of four characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority, (2) Clarity, (3) Necessity, and (4) Sufficiency. This post is the fifth of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God. Discussion of five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. This lesson also discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus for theological study.
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). 
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of [the Bible][1] are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of [the Bible] is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). 
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91).  This lesson largely focused on the manuscripts of the Qur’an and the New Testament, showing that the evidence is clear that the New Testament has not changed. However, there is good evidence that the Qur’an has changed.
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all [who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit]”[2] (Grudem, 108). 
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). 
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that [the Bible] contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). 

The question of the Clarity of Scripture is who can understand the Bible. Throughout church history, this has been a controversial question. For example, the Catholic Church kept the Bible in Latin for hundreds of years so that the average believer could not read it. They believed that only priests could understand Scripture. Therefore, the Bible was kept in a language that only the priests could study and learn it. Unfortunately, this led to a time in church history when even the priests did not understand the Bible well. 

One of the key acts of the Reformation was to translate the Bible into common languages so that the average believer could have access to it. Translating the Bible into common languages usually led to the persecution of the faithful men who undertook these tasks. Consider these two brief stories.

  • In 1534 AD, Martin Luther published his German translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew texts. Luther was famously excommunicated from the Catholic church for his teaching. More than once, Catholic leaders sought to kill Luther for his teaching and for his work in Bible translation.
  • In 1535 AD, William Tyndale translated the full Bible into English for the first time. In 1536 AD, Tyndale was publicly burned to death for translating the Bible. 

Luther and Tyndale published their translations of the Bible at a time when the printing press had recently been developed. As a result, their translations were printed in mass and made available to a much broader audience. For the first time in hundreds of years, the Bible was made available for the ordinary follower of Jesus.

Today, the same issue occurs. Many pastors believe that only people with formal theological education can understand the Bible. The result is that they are slow to put the Bible into the hands of their disciples and encourage them to read it for themselves. Sometimes people are afraid that new believers will misinterpret the Scriptures. Therefore, they tell believers to come and hear their teaching while de-emphasizing their disciples learning directly from God in the Bible.

The doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine has two parts:

  1. God has revealed His Word in a clear way that ordinary people can understand.
  2. God has given His Holy Spirit to each believer so that His Spirit can guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

The Bible is Clear

“The revelation of your words brings light and gives understanding to the simple.” Psalm 119:130 (Psalm 19:7)

The word “simple” here is a reference to a person without insight and understand. It is a reference to an ordinary person without a great deal of education. The testimony of the Bible is that the Bible is specifically designed to give insight to simple people. 

Without a doubt, the most accessible sections of Scripture to understand for new believers are the stories, or the narratives, of Scripture. God, in His wisdom, gave us a Bible that is 43% narrative. The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are undoubtedly the most important books of Scripture. God gave them in narrative form. 

According to the Indian census, 59.1% of Muslims in India are literate. Many of these 59.1% are of low literacy, meaning that they can do simple tasks like writing their name but cannot read a book. For those coming to Christ who are illiterate, the stories of Scripture are easily taught. Recordings can be provided of these stories in their heart languages so that the average believer who cannot read and read can still have access to much of Scripture. The Holy Spirit can guide even the illiterate to understand His truth.

While some passages of Scripture are more challenging to understand than others (see 2 Peter 3:16), God has provided His Word in a form that is understandable to most people.

The Holy Spirit Guides Believers to Understand the Bible

Several passages of Scripture show that the Holy Spirit guides believers to understand all truth.

  • “’Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel in those days’ – the LORD’s declaration. ‘I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts.’” Jeremiah 31:33, quoted in Hebrews 8:10
  • “I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statues and carefully observe my ordinances.” Ezekiel 36:27
  • “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” John 14:26
  • “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

In contrast, several passages emphasize that those without the Spirit – or those outside of Christ – cannot understand the Bible correctly.

  • “But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.” 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • “When [Jesus] was alone, those around him with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He answered them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven.’” Mark 4:10-12
  • “Yet still today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” 2 Corinthians 3:15-16

The defining difference between these two kinds of people is whether they have the Spirit of God living in them. If we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will guide us to understand all spiritual truth. If we do not have the Holy Spirit, then we cannot fully understand the Bible.

How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit

If the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power is what determines our ability to understand the Bible, then we need to understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Bill Bright’s booklet, “Are you Experiencing the Spirit-Filled Life,” is one great way to understand these issues. Click here to go to Bright’s booklet (the three diagrams below are from this resource).

Bill Bright defined three kinds of people: (1) those without the Spirit, (2) those filled with the Spirit, and (3) followers of Jesus who neglect the Spirit and live their own lives. The following three diagrams use circles to show a person’s life. Inside the life is a throne, indicating who is the Lord of their life. The cross indicates Christ, and the “S” indicates self.

When a person outside of Christ hears the gospel, they repent and by faith allow Christ to become the Lord of their life. When they repent and believe, God fills them with the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8). When Christ is on the throne of their life, they study the Bible, and the Holy Spirit guides them into all truth.

Unfortunately, all followers of Jesus sin (1 John 1:5-10). When we sin, we essentially remove Christ as the Lord of our lives. We put ourselves back on the throne of our lives. In this state, the Holy Spirit is no longer guiding us and transforming us. Many followers of Jesus live sinful lives, and as a result, they are not filled with the Spirit of God. The Spirit no longer teaches them. For them, understanding the Bible is difficult because God’s Spirit is not leading them.

Those followers of Jesus who live sinful lives also need to repent from their sin and place their faith in Christ again. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of walking by the Spirit is a constant choice to turn away from sin and walk by the Spirit. Any time we turn away from God’s way, we need to repent and follow Him again.

The point is that new believers can walk by the Spirit, turning away from sin, and following God. As they walk by the Spirit and read the Bible, God will guide them into all truth.


The result is that when any person comes to Christ, we need to get the Bible to them. As the Holy Spirit comes into them, the Spirit will teach them the truth of His Word. If we neglect to put the Bible into the hands of new believers, we fail to believe that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to teach the truth to God’s people. If we lack confidence that new believers can understand the Bible, our lack of confidence is really in the Holy Spirit. We are saying that the Holy Spirit is weak. Often those who de-emphasize the ability of the Holy Spirit to teach new believers overemphasize their own ability to teach the Bible. Consider this, if someone’s confidence in their own ability to teach the Bible is greater than their trust in the Holy Spirit to teach the Bible, this person is undoubtedly guilty of pride.

On the other hand, God has given Bible teachers, pastors, and scholars to the church (see Eph 4:11-13). The purpose of these people is to equip the body of Christ so that believers can directly approach God. Some passages of Scripture and some doctrines are harder to understand. It is beneficial to have godly men and women who can help believers grow in their understanding of the Scriptures. However, these leaders must not fall into the Catholic Church’s trap that persecuted Luther and Tyndale for translating the Bible! Every Christian leader should long for those under their leadership to be like the Bereans who took Paul’s teaching and carefully compared it to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).

Therefore, as Muslims come to Christ, we must get the Bible into their hands. We must encourage them to read the Bible with prayer. As we do so, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will be their best teacher. As they study the Word, we should continue to disciple and mentor them with the hope that they will become wiser than us as they meditate on the Word of God (Psalm 119:99).

To get updates when new Systematic Theology lessons are posted, please subscribe to the No Cousins Left blog!

[1] In the definitions for the Authority of Scripture, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Sufficiency of Scripture, the term “Scripture” has been replaced by “the Bible” as seen in brackets. The reason is that the definitions could have been confusing from a perspective of Muslim-Christian conversation. 

[2] I have modified Grudem’s definition. What is in the brackets was originally “will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” in Grudem.

Systematic Theology 5: The Innerancy of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology . The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

This lesson continues a study on the four characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority, (2) Clarity, (3) Necessity, and (4) Sufficiency. This post is the fourth of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God. Discussion of five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. This lesson also discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus for theological study.
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). 
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of [the Bible][1] are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of [the Bible] is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). 
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91). 
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Grudem, 108). 
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). 
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that [the Bible] contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). 

Today’s Systematic Theology study will be in two parts. First, there will be a brief discussion about the inerrancy of Scripture and how this is related to the authority of Scripture. Second, the majority of this lesson will be a comparison of the manuscript evidence of the Qur’an versus the New Testament. Simply put, the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is better than for the Qur’an, however this is often not well known. Manuscripts are ancient copies of books that are still in existence. 

Inerrancy Defined

“The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91). Simply put, the Bible contains no errors in any way. This means that there are no scientific, historical, or other errors contained within God’s Word.

It is significant that Grudem uses the term “original manuscripts” in this definition. The only copy of the Bible that we can say has no errors are the original manuscripts. Unfortunately, we do not have the original manuscripts today. This fact has often led to confusion in Christian-Muslim dialogues since Muslims claim to have an unchanged Qur’an. Today, we will evaluate this claim by Muslims. In the end, we will see that both the Bible and the Qur’an have a history. 

A great book to read on this subject is Keith E. Small’s Holy Books have a History.

The History of the New Testament

The Bible as a book has a long history. It was written by dozens of authors in multiple languages over many hundreds of years. For the sake of simplicity, we will look only at the history of the New Testament. The textual evidence for the New Testament demonstrates that there have been no changes of any significance to the New Testament.

  • The original copies of the New Testament are no longer in existence. These ancient copies were either lost from age or from persecutions where many copies of the Bible were burned. For example, during the Diocletian persecution in 303-313 AD, many ancient copies of the Bible were destroyed by the Roman government.
  • There are about 24,000 ancient copies of the New Testament that are in existence today. You can see scans of many of these documents at These scans are freely and publicly available.
  • Many books are available to teach people about the various manuscripts of the New Testament, including detailed lists of where these manuscripts currently are. One excellent book on this subject is Kurt and Barbara Aland’s The Text of the New Testament.
  • You can purchase Greek New Testaments that include a textual apparatus. The textual apparatus shows any places where the manuscript evidence of the New Testament has any potential for disagreement. Here is the most commonly used Greek New Testament:
  • Tens of thousands of people have studied these Greek manuscripts in detail and compared them and can testify that these resources are accurate. All of the information about these manuscripts are available for all. 
  • There are many small disagreements between various manuscripts and a whole science called Textual Criticism has emerged about how to compare and use these manuscripts to get to the oldest version of each New Testament text. All of the writings and research of scholars on these issues are published in journals that are readily available.
  • The final judgement of most scholars engaged in textual criticism is that we can be certain that the text of the New Testament that we have is almost identical to the original autographs of Scripture.

The History of the Qur’an

The Qur’an as a book has a long history. Muslims claim that the Qur’an has never changed but the evidence does not support that view. In fact, today, Muslims in different parts of the world use different Arabic texts of the Qur’an. 

  • 1924 Al-Azhar Version of the Qur’an. The Arabic text of the Qur’an that is used by most Muslims today comes from Egypt in 1924. In Egypt, there is a famous madrassa called Al-Azhar. This madrassa is the most highly regarded school for Islamic instruction by many Muslims around the world. Before 1924, there was confusion since many of the teachers at this school were using different Arabic versions of the Qur’an. Therefore, in 1924, they published an authoritative Arabic version. This version was compiled through the recitation of various hafiz[2] rather than on existing manuscripts. Therefore, the most common Arabic Qur’an used today is based on the oral tradition of Muslim scholars from less than a hundred years ago. 
  • How Uthman made an official Qur’an. According the Hadith, here is the story of how the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an came into being during the reign of the Caliph Uthman (644-656 AD). The story is similar to the 1924 story. Muslims disagreed about which Qur’an was correct. Therefore, a small number of people gathered together and made an official version of the Qur’an and send out copies of this Qur’an to each of the nine Muslim provinces at that time. 

“Narrated Anas bin Malik:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to `Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to `Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So `Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to `Uthman. `Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, `Abdullah bin Az-Zubair, Sa`id bin Al-As and `Abdur Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. `Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, `Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. `Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt.” Sahih al-Bukhari 6.61.650

  • Some famous manuscripts of the Qur’an.
    • Topkapi Manuscript. The Topkapi Manuscript is found in Istanbul, Turkey. It is from the early-to-mid 700s AD. This copy of the Qur’an is almost complete, missing only Qur’an 5:3-8 and 17:17-33. Most Muslims today claim that this manuscript was owned by Uthman, even though it was from many years after his death.
    • Samarkand Manuscript. The Samarkand Manuscript is current in Uzbekistan. It is from the mid-to-late 700s AD. This manuscript is very incomplete and has many pages that have been replaced by newer pages. The oldest parts of this manuscript include portions of Qur’an 2-5, 11, 14-20, 24, 27, and 36-43. The Topkapi manuscript and the Samarkand manuscript contain significant disagreements with one another.
    • Sa’ana Manuscript. The Sanaa manuscript is a palimpsest that contains two old copies of the Qur’an. A palimpsest is a manuscript that has an upper and a lower text. Because writing material was so expensive in ancient times, scribes would clean off the text of manuscripts and write a next text on them. The lower text can now be identified through infrared technology. Therefore, the Sa’ana manuscript has an older (lower) text that is only visible through scanning the document and a new (upper) text that is visible to everyone. It is significant that the upper and lower text of the Sa’ana manuscript contain many disagreements with one another. 
  • Notes on the Qur’anic manuscripts
    • The most ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an are not identical with one another.
    • The 1924 Cairo edition of the Qur’an disagrees substantially with the most ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an. One study by a Turkish Muslim of the Topkapi manuscript identified 20,000 differences between the Topkapi manuscript and the 1924 edition of the Qur’an.[3]

To summarize the textual evidence of the Qur’an

  1. The official Muslim story is that Uthman (644-656 AD) created an official Qur’anic text and had all older copies burned. Most Muslims argue that the Topkapi manuscript is from the time of Uthman. Therefore, most Muslims argue that they currently have the Uthmanic version of the Qur’an. However, why did Uthman need to burn the ancient copies of the Qur’an? Was he trying to hide something? Was the Qur’an he had made the same as the Qur’an Muhammad gave? We can never know since the evidence was destroyed!
  2. The most commonly used version of the Qur’an today is from Cairo in 1924. This version contains about 20,000 differences from the Topkapi manuscript. Therefore, the version of the Qur’an that Muslims use today is different than the ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an that are available. Why don’t Muslims use the oldest copies of the Qur’an today?
  3. Therefore, the Qur’an has changed substantially over time. It is not possible today to know if the modern Qur’an is similar to the Qur’an from the time of Muhammad.
  4. A comparison of the textual history of the New Testament versus the Qur’an actually shows that the New Testament is better attested than the Qur’an. In simple words, there is better evidence that the New Testament has not changed than that the Qur’an has not changed.

To get updates when new Systematic Theology lessons are posted, please subscribe to the No Cousins Left blog!

[1] In the definitions for the Authority of Scripture, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Sufficiency of Scripture, the term “Scripture” has been replaced by “the Bible” as seen in brackets. The reason is that the definitions could have been confusing from a perspective of Muslim-Christian conversation. 

[2] Hafiz are individuals who have memorized the Qur’an.

[3] Tayyar Altikulac, Al-Mushaf Al-Sharif. IRCICA, 2007.

Christian Mass Movements in India (1933)

Below, you can download a PDF of J. Waksom Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India: A Study with Recommendations. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1933.


In December 1928, the National Christian Council of India, Burma, and Ceylon met in Chennai. During this Council, there was significant disagreement about mass movements to Christ in South Asia. Mass movements had been occurring in South Asia for hundreds of years through which thousands or tens of thousands of people were rapidly coming to Christ from a particular caste or tribe. Donald McGavran later called these “people movements.”

Dr. John R. Mott called the council to be cautious about rejecting these movements. Instead, he called for a study of these movements so that proper recommendations could be made. Therefore, in December 1928, the following resolution was unanimously adopted,

The Council considers that as soon as possible a secretary should be appointed to initiate, in close consultation with Provincial Christian Councils, a study of the work in mass-movement areas and asks the executive to prepare proposals regarding the choice of such a secretary and the raising of funds, outside the regular budget of the Council, for his support.” (11)

Based on this resolution, J. Waksom Pickett was selected to study these mass movements and write up his findings. Pickett studied of five of these mass movements and wrote up recommendations. He concluded that these movements were not only from God but that missionaries should learn from these movements and actively seek God to start more similar mass movements. One of the five movements that Pickett studied was the Presbyterian movement in Sialkot, Punjab. This movement was the beginning of where most of the Pakistani Christian community began to come to Christ.

Download this important study here. Since this book is past its copyright and out of print, the PDF can be freely distributed.