How does this happen?
by Don Cadwallader
At the present time, the Muslim world is much in the news. Islamic extremists are persecuting Christians and other religious minorities, while moderate voices in America are seemingly silent. News of God’s working to bring people to Christ in Islamic lands is sadly lacking as Western missionary workers in those countries seem nonexistent. However, by reading missionary Nik Ripken’s book The Insanity of Obedience, we can better understanding God’s working in places where persecution is the greatest.
After their own struggles as missionaries in the unwelcoming Muslim country of Somalia and following the death of their son on the mission field, Nik and his wife Ruth spent over twelve years conducting in-depth interviews with more than 600 believers who were living out their faith in cultures where persecution of Christians is common.
What could we Christians living in the “free” West learn from such a study? According to Nik, we could learn that we who are free to share our faith in our own country but who do not because we are afraid can gain much by listening to those who have come to Christ in other countries and who are under threat of severe persecution as a result.
For example, we Western Christians would assume that, for Muslim to convert to Christianity, committed Western missionary workers must devote themselves to a difficult cultural submersion and then very carefully find ways to share the Gospel. Amazingly, says Nik, such a requirement is not always necessary.
After interviewing more than 250 Muslim-background believers, Nik discovered that “more than 90 percent of these followers of Jesus had come to faith without the help of an outsider or a missionary worker from another culture.” This is a startling insight for which Nik offers some interesting observations.
How Muslim Believers Come to Christ Without Western Help
First: Western believers typically fear persecution and avoid it at any cost. Therefore, perhaps God in His wisdom avoids sending Western workers into the world of new believers who live under the threat of severe persecution. Wouldn’t fearful Western believers only instill doubt into the lives of those who would rather benefit from encouragement?
Second: Today there is one Western worker for every 750,000 Muslims. Maybe God is simply not waiting for Western believers to venture into the Muslim world before He reveals Himself to them. Actually, personal interviews show that God has ways of reaching Muslims without the involvement of outside workers.
How are Muslim believers coming to Christ without the presence of Western Christians to preach the Gospel to them?
We must first recognize that God is working everywhere all the time despite our absence. As Nik says, “It might even be suggested that we go out and witness so that we might discover where God is already at work!” And God is at work bringing Muslims to Himself using three events that are commonly found in a Muslim’s personal journey towards faith in Jesus.
Three Events Commonly Found in a Muslim’s Journey to Christ
1. Dreams and Visions
It is not uncommon in Islamic spiritual culture to experience miraculous events, and God uses them to sensitize the Muslim seeker to Christian possibilities. Muslims might hear a voice speaking to them or they might see a bright light or dream about the Bible or hear the voice of an angel or have a dream of Jesus.
According to Nik’s interviews with hundreds of Muslim-background believers, dreams and visions combine with other experiences as “sign-posts and attention-getters” that send the Muslim on a life-changing spiritual journey.
Then, along the way, a surprising break with lifelong Islamic ties often occurs: The Muslim separates from his mosque as a source of spiritual guidance because Islamic clerics simply can’t provide many satisfying answers to someone who is asking questions while drifting towards Christianity. Western workers can eventually enter into this void to provide understanding and Christian resources but usually only after the new believer comes to personal faith in Jesus.
2. Dramatic Encounters with the Bible
It is very difficult to find a Bible in the Muslim culture, yet more than 90 percent of Muslim converts have had significant, dramatic encounters with Scripture. Motivated by dreams and visions, Muslim seekers quietly look for Bibles out of curiosity. Then, Scriptures are often provided through miraculous means; for example, someone might walk up to a Muslim in a busy marketplace and hand him a Bible (or a few Bible pages) and say, “Here, the Holy Spirit told me to give this to you.”
The contraband Scriptures are then read eagerly. This eagerness is sparked in part by the Muslim’s excellent background knowledge of Scripture before making a commitment to Christ. The Muslim culture provides people with a great deal of biblical knowledge while educating them in a strong spiritual environment from childhood. Nik emphasizes that, according to his interviews with Muslim believers, if there had not been some miraculous provision of the Word of God, personal salvation would probably not have taken place.
However, there is a down side to this important encounter with Scripture in the salvation quest: It is here that Muslim women are left out. Because of cultural restrictions, many Muslim women are uneducated and cannot read. As a matter of fact, Nik’s interviews with Muslim women reveal that they are having dreams and visions probably by the millions, and yet we are failing these Muslim women who are searching for Jesus by not providing them with access to the Word of God in oral forms so that they can understand it.
On the one hand, in the Muslim world, Western male workers can orally disciple only other male believers. On the other hand, Muslim women do not hear a Christian witness from believing Western women. This leaves Muslim women with the idea that Christianity is just like Islam; that is, it is only for literate men and not for women.
3. Divine Appointments with Believers
In addition to dreams and visions and dramatic encounters with Scripture, God often brings Christian help into the lives of Muslim seekers in the form of divine appointments. These divine appointments are in the form of surprise meetings with believers who answer questions and provide guidance. Such encounters are recorded frequently in the Bible and many of us in Western culture can, in retrospect, recall a “chance” meeting with someone who, just at the right time, provided us with Scriptural enlightenment. As Nik says, “God is able to put people and His Word together as he sees fit.”
God Still Wants Us to Work with Him
And so, according to Nik’s interviews with Muslim believers, the involvement of Western missionary workers in the Muslim conversion process is not as strategically important as we might think. Yet Nik stresses that this conclusion is based on his snapshot of conditions in certain places at certain times, and the important principle is this: We Christians in the West limit our involvement in God’s work in the Muslim world by our great fear of persecution.
However, this doesn’t limit God who is always working among Muslims, and God wants us to be His partners. In order to do this, we must, as Nik says, “be so in tune to the Holy Spirit that we join with Him in what He is already doing and seek to work with Him to greatly multiply His efforts.”This summary is based on Nik Ripken’s book The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places (B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee, 2014), Chapter 11, “Supernatural Conversions in Western Eyes.”