We live in a society in which admitting one’s own sins is seen as a sign of weakness.
For the Muslim convert, the feeling of being at home includes the aspects of fellowship (“sharing things in common”), and growing into a sense of shared ownership as partners.
Muslims are not the people who live somewhere else, but are our neighbours in all European states. They are in Europe to live and stay, and they have the right to hear the good news.
The universal church should include all without missing any people groups in its memberships. The redemptive plan of God (John 3:16) includes all people, and the image of the church in Revelation 7:9 portrays the church as including all nations.
Many individuals and churches in Europe have begun to face the challenge and have developed strategies in response to the Islamic presence. However, there remains a great need to plant more churches for those who may come out from Islam to Christ.
CHURCH PLANTING AMONG MUSLIMS IN A EUROPEAN CONTEXT
In general, the average person who comes to faith is encouraged when attending a local church service in which he feels comfortable and understood. For the Muslim convert, the feeling of being at home includes the aspects of fellowship (“sharing things in common”), and growing into a sense of shared ownership as partners. This type of church is even more important to Muslims who are used to thinking of the mosque as not only the centre of religious life and a meeting place for prayers, but also for public announcements, and for obtaining counsel and permission for major life decisions of all kind.
Given this context, Muslims in Europe are different from the average European, and therefore need a church model that is different from the typical European church. “Human beings exist not as discrete individuals but as interconnected members of some society,” as Donald McGavran has pointed out. Muslims living in Europe clearly demonstrate this principle and may extend it as a means for protecting their identity. Older generations have often rejected integrating into the new society, while many of the younger generations struggle between the two worlds. In many European countries Islamic organizations have been created not only to protect their prospective communities, but also to influence the legislation of the host country so that it becomes more favourable towards Muslims.
At the secular level, the full integration of Muslims into Western societies still remains a complicated issue. Finding the right church for those who may accept Christ is critical. The question is: which kind of church or fellowship would best fulfil the goal of bringing the converts to the place of becoming vital, responsible members of a church? Which kind of church would be most able to help Muslim converts during this process?
DIFFERENT CHURCH PLANTING MODELS
To my knowledge the church planting models for Muslim converts in the European context could be summed up in the following four categories:
(1) The autonomous ethnic church model
This model stands for ethnic churches that use ethnic languages. It works better if the selected ethnic group is big enough. Such ethnic churches may remove the feeling that Christianity is western and irrelevant, or that it may damage the ethnics’ identity. Ethnic churches show the Christian faith as an applied dynamic for “life change,” and may have a more direct impact on the community. Ethnic churches in Europe serve as living examples of expressing ethnic converts’ new life in Christ without any fear of losing identity or feeling unbalanced due to major unnecessary changes. Through this model, Christian faith can be better translated into cultural forms, emotional factors can be adequately recognized, and the new converts can feel the side of Christianity where their emotional needs are met in a more family type atmosphere. Ethnic converts could be better trained and given leadership which would positively affect their growth and witness. They may easily develop culturally acceptable ways to reach their own people for Christ.
Ethnic churches in Europe may be less attractive to the younger generations due to their greater desire to be integrated into European life. They may see such a church as a cause for more isolation and foreignness in the host country. Christians from hosting countries may see a foreign element in ethnic churches as well, and may feel foreign in its community, which would keep them from being helpful to such groups and even more sensitive towards them. However, strong ties within the ethnic families will make it possible for the younger generation to accept coming to such churches with their families. The ethnic churches should be part of the wider European church, and if languages of the host countries are used side by side with ethnic ones, it may encourage European attendants, especially of mixed marriages, to feel part of the ethnic church. The use of European languages is also important for younger generations who may speak an ethnic language but are unable to read or write it.
(2) The European church with a sister ethnic church
According to this model, a European church plants an ethnic sister church or fellowship that uses the building of the mother church. This model works for European churches who may want to engage in Muslim work. When they have converts they encourage the forming of ethnic fellowships. The mother church and the ethnic groups may or may not have separate membership and leadership policies, so there are two types of this model:
- Sunday worship together, and weekly ethnic fellowships are encouraged.
- The European and ethnic church form one membership and one leadership for all attendants.
- European language for church services and Sunday school.
- Ethnic and European languages are used for house groups/fellowships within the sister church.
- European churches with sister ethnic church(es).
- Separate membership and leadership, but not totally independent from the mother church. • Moral responsibility of mother church.
- Ethnic church uses the building/ resources of mother church.
(3) The model of a multi-ethnic or international urban church
The church in Antioch as described in Acts 11 and 13 could serve as a model for a multi-ethnic or international urban church. It works as a “melting pot” for people from different racial and religious backgrounds.
Planting such a heterogeneous church is in some situations more in keeping with the demographic makeup of the local population. This model could work in urban areas where different but small ethnic groups are living side by side. It demands more cooperation and equal involvement from its members. In such a church different languages, thought patterns, growth speeds, and value systems may co-exist, although it often chooses the language and leadership model of the host country. This church will encourage small ethnic Bible study groups, and youth and women meetings with its respective leaders. However, in order to enhance growth, the gatherings during the week should not merely be an “add-on” to the Sunday worship. The multi-ethnic church should adopt a holistic ministry strategy in order to meet spiritual as well as social and other felt needs of the community.
This model may give a positive image of the church in the multicultural society, as a community where people from different ethnic, social, and linguistic backgrounds are at home and care for each other. As such, it is an eloquent witness to the reconciling power of the Gospel.
(4) The integration model
According to this model, Muslim converts will integrate into existing local European churches. Integration is an option for a newcomer in a host church when he chooses it of his own free well. It implies that he or she agrees to respect the basic guidelines of the host church, while possibly retaining some of the original cultural identity. This model may appeal to second and third generations who may prefer European culture. This model assumes that complete integration of Muslim converts into existing churches in Europe is possible, and that it would be relatively easy for them to adapting to Western style church worship, evangelism, and fellowship.
However, it is important to consider that integration is a dynamic two-way process. It demands some efforts from the side of the receiving church as well. Integration into existing European churches should be accepted by both parties, which is a key factor. Otherwise, the process of belonging will be hindered, and both groups will not really be united. Existing churches are not expected to become like ethnic churches, but they should develop an appreciation for other cultures. As long as Muslim converts feel foreign in the host church, they will be hindered from functioning effectively. Sooner or later, this may result in opting out or even falling away.
THE STARTING POINT
The best starting point is an adequate understanding of our Muslims neighbours in their context, especially in the areas of family life, loyalty, and concept of community. We should not lump all Muslims together into one category. Muslims in Europe are not a single homogeneous group; there are differences in religious practice, language, ethnic background, and cultural traditions. Church planting for Muslims should therefore be selective. It is important to identify the community in which one wants to work, and to ascertain the perceived and “felt needs” of the people. Church planters must learn to look at the population from both an anthropological and a theological angle.
Culture shapes the human voice, and when people become Christians, they carry their culture with them. It should not be required from new Christians that they refrain from all cultural aspects, as long as they are not anti-Biblical. Some cultural aspects can be retained. Some aspects may be transformed, while others will need to be rejected.
It is a mistake to confuse the European culture with the Biblical model. European churches ought to consider that their worship, music, and leadership patterns are not above culture, but are to a large extent culturally determined. Converts should be encouraged to develop habits in conformity with Biblical values, especially in areas where cultural habits are in conflict with contradicting Biblical teaching.
Furthermore, whatever model we adopt as being the most adequate for our situation, we should always take care to equip and help the members of our community to face spiritual warfare and possible persecution. At the same time, converts may expect to experience the power of Christ demonstrated through visions, dreams, healings, or any other dramatic answer to prayer.
First of all, regardless of the church model, converts desire to be received for who they are as brothers and sisters in Christ, without having to jettison their whole past. They may have different patterns of worship and leadership than what Europeans adopt.
Second, church planters should not focus on the religious side and limit interchange to this level. The lack of personal contact between Muslims and Christians is one of the obstacles in Muslim evangelism. Developing “interfaith dialogue” provides good building encounters.
Third, church planters should develop distinctive holistic ministries that may open new doors and increase ministry opportunities. Holistic ministries take the Gospel beyond being just a theological abstraction and intentionally demonstrate it as a dynamic reality for all aspects of life.
Fourth, it is difficult to plant churches as long as the people concerned are mostly in a transitory or unstable situation, such as refugees. It seems to me that in order to plant stable and reproductive churches, we should focus on permanent groups, and give priority to “families.”
The choice of the right model is crucial. I am deeply convinced that all models are relevant in some situation or another, but from my perspective, the model that best fits the European context is that of an ethnic church in which the leadership is in the hands of the ethnic group. There can be elders from the host country and career missionaries integrated into the leadership, and this should be encouraged. Sunday services should be in the ethnic language, with simultaneous translation into the language of the host country to meet the needs of younger generations, mixed marriages, and members from outside the ethnic group. Separate house groups for discipleship in both ethnic language and host country language are to be considered. The ethnic church must put more emphasis on evangelism and developing ministries to meet the felt needs of the community. It must never consider separating itself from the wider European churches.
Ishak Ghatas, is pastor of a Baptist Arab church in Brussels and member of European Christian Mission (ECM).
This article is a condensed and revised version of Chapter 12 in Church Planting in Europe: Connecting to Society, Learning from Experience by Evert Van de Poll and Joanne Appleton (eds., 2015).
This article appeared in the January 2017 edition of Vista magazine.