Dr. Jacob Pursley, Friend to the Muslim World
Mass Muslim Conversions
We Christians have a problem. For over 1,200 years there was no movement of Muslims to Christ. Muhammad died in 632 A.D., but his new religion spread and thrived, unhindered. That is until the 19th century onward. David Garrison in his book, A Wind in the House of Islam, explains that a movement of Muslims to Christ means, “at least 1,000 baptized believers of the past one or two decades or 100 new churches are established over the same time frame within a given people group or ethnic Muslim community.”
The Christians’ problem is not the lack of movements to Christ from 632-1870, but rather the explosion of conversions from 1870 to the present. There were two movements in the 19th century, eleven movements in the 20th. century, and now in the 21st century there have been sixty-nine movements (recorded from 2000-2012).
So what are the exact numbers of converts today? This is hard to say. According to strict figures, in North America alone, there are estimated to be 493,000 Believers from a Muslim Background (hereafter BMBs), and worldwide that figure grows to 985,300.
Due to persecution and anonymity, it is difficult to estimate the actual number of Muslims coming to faith in Christ. Some have suggested that in Iran alone, there are as many as one million converts, though more conservative figures estimate around 450,000. According to David Garrison, there has never been a time in history wherein so many Muslims have come to faith in Christ (his figures are somewhere between two and seven million).
So why are the number of conversions a problem for Christians? It is because we are called to disciple them, and we are not equipped to do so. When Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations and teach them to observe all that he commanded us (Matt. 28:19-20), this includes all of these new converts. Those from a western background, who are not familiar with the impact of the Islamic primary sources (Qur’an, Hadith, Sirat) and Muslim culture on BMBs, are faced with unique challenges to fulfill Jesus’ commandment. We must prepare ourselves for this harvest and its unique challenges.
I have been in ministry among Muslims now for over 20 years (during this exponential growth of BMBs). My ministry has primarily been among Kurmanji speaking Kurds, Persians, Zazas, and Turks. I found apologetics and evangelism among Muslims to be much easier than with westerners. Muslims want to talk about the two taboos in the West—politics and religion. They usually bring up the subject of religion first, and almost every encounter with a Muslim may lead to answering their objections to Christianity and presenting the gospel. Let’s look at some fresh research on how Muslims are coming to Christ and the implications.
Factors that Led Muslims to Christ
In 2019, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation concerning discipling BMBs. Part of my research was surveying missionaries and BMB pastors concerning their experience of how Muslims are coming to faith.
According to my research, the most influential factor that led Muslims to Jesus was exposure to the Bible via reading or listening. The second most influential factors that led Muslims to Jesus were dreams and visions. What is interesting was the least influential factor leading Muslims to Jesus was street evangelism/preaching (this maybe because it is rarely being done in the Muslim world). The second least influential factor that led Muslims to Jesus was visiting a physical church building.
What this tells me is that we need to get God’s word into the hands of Muslims, challenge them to read it, and read it with them. If they cannot read, find audio versions for them to listen to. We should also continue to pray that God would reveal himself in dreams and visions. I personally have seen many Muslims have their first encounter with Christ in this way too. However, it is not the vision or dream of Christ that saves them. The Muslim thereafter finds a church/missionary/Bible, and then upon hearing and believing the gospel is saved, for the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:17).
When it comes to the least influential factor that has led Muslims to Christ, maybe we need more winsome and equipped street preachers and bold evangelists in the Muslim world. However, it is clear that there needs to be an emphasis on getting God’s word into the hands of Muslims. As missionaries give out Bibles/SD cards with the Bible on it, they must teach the Bible’s trustworthiness along with how to read it.
Bible Left on a Park Bench
Mahmut, a deacon of our church in Istanbul, came to faith by discovering a New Testament on a park bench near his home. Mahmut began to read the Bible and thought to himself that its message was not bad, and the teachings of the book were loving and peaceful. This was surprising to him, because he was reared with Muslim indoctrination, which taught that anything Christian was bad. The more he read, the more he learned that what he had been taught was not true. Eventually, he met some Christians and later professed faith in Christ.
Around fifteen years after finding the New Testament on the bench, Mahmut, through a ministry outreach that our church helped organize, met the woman who accidentally left the Bible there. During the outreach, Mahmut recounted how he came to faith, beginning with finding a New Testament on a park bench. This woman immediately came to him and asked, “where did you find this Bible, what year was this, and what time of year?” After their conversation, she had remembered accidentally leaving the New Testament there at that park on that bench on that date. She did not know about Mahmut’s story or the fruit of her forgetfulness until that day!
“Go to the Church and ask for a Bible.”
The first time I ever translated in my life was the testimony of a Turkish pastor. We met at a Bible school in Ephesus, and I was translating so that my mother could understand. This pastor recounted that he grew up in a Muslim family and had never met a Christian or read a Bible. However, it all changed the night Jesus visited him in a dream. In the dream, Jesus said to him, “you have read the Qur’an (pointing to a Qur’an in his room), but you have not yet read my book. Go to ….. city, and you will find a church. Go into the church and ask for a Bible.” The Turkish pastor said he listened to Jesus, went to the city that was told him, and found the church. He was nervous about going in and asking for a Bible. It just so happened that the pastor of the church felt a prompting to put in an extra Bible into his bag that very morning. When this young Turkish Muslim man asked him for a Bible and explained the dream, the pastor then understood. It was at this church and through this pastor that this young Muslim man first heard the gospel and received his first Bible. Jesus did reveal himself to this man, but it was through the ordinary proclamation of the gospel and intentional discipleship that this Muslim came to Christ.
Who is to say that we are not living in the last days as prophesied by Joel? “. . . [A]nd your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. . .” (Joel 2:28). What is clear is that the Muslim world needs Christians that will make themselves available for this great new harvest.
 David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam, (Monument CO: WIGTake Resources, 2014),
 Ibid., 226.
 Duane Alexander Miller, and Patrick Johnstone, “Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 11:10 (2015).
 Samuel Smith, “Over 450,000 Join Iranian House Church Movement, 'Great Number of Muslims Turning to Christ',” The Christian Post, March 3, 2016, Accessed January 2, 2017, http://www.christianpost.com/news/over-450000-join-iranian-house-church-movement-great-number-of-muslims-turning-to-christ-158883/
 Garrison, 5.
Jerry Hickey, Missionary to Brazil
When acceptance before God is based on human merit (i.e. good works), the best efforts to explain otherwise will be filtered through this deeply rooted mindset. What is said and what is actually understood may be completely opposite.
Raised in a practicing Roman Catholic family and having been a missionary to Brazil, my experience since my conversion in 1973 has been that Catholics, as a general rule, find it very difficult to grasp the truth of “being justified freely” by God’s grace. One reason has to do with the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Catholic theologians will argue that they believe in salvation by grace. However, you have to earn this grace by previously practiced good works or behavior, even though that is a direct contradiction of the very definition of grace.
It Takes Time.
Usually, just as the longstanding popular expression in Brazil, “once the token goes into the slot, it takes a while to fall.” Repeated explanations of true grace is required in most cases. Over the years, there have been ex-Catholics who have said to me that they got saved the first time they heard the gospel preached. Upon further inquiry, it became apparent that someone, usually a relative or close acquaintance, planted and watered the seed years before. The concept is too foreign to be assimilated the first time in most instances. Of course, this is added to the universal hindrance of the prideful motivation to justify himself before God through his own self-effort. Cain’s offering and Satan’s blinding come to mind. For this reason, Paul goes to great lengths in his epistles to stress that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done,” “lest any man should boast,” as man most certainly would!
As a new missionary four decades ago, I was under the illusion that, the most effective evangelistic strategy would be the presentation of the “Romans Road” in polished Portuguese (usually on the first encounter), and then add the personal testimony of being raised in a strict Roman Catholic home. I was almost expecting a response similar to the Philippian jailor after the earthquake. In “going door to door” with a Brazilian pastor on a weekly basis, we saw many “decisions” but no conversions (“new creatures in Christ”)… for the aforementioned reasons. Catholic tendency is to trust in the “sinner’s prayer” rather than the One supposedly being prayed to. In this mindset, prayer is a “good work.” As a child, when I made confession to a priest, I was instructed to go to the altar and “say” a certain number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” as penance for my sins, paying for them with these “prayers.”
We also need to understand that in the case of practicing Catholics, their religion is a part of their cultural identity. When Christ and His redemptive work, as presented in the New Testament, are shared, it is viewed as a threat to that identity. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes a question of which religion is right—not a question of a right relationship with the Water of Life. After my conversion and initial attempts to communicate Christ to my parents, and having left home years before, I was labeled to my face--not a heretic, interestingly enough, but a “traitor”.
Fear & Superstition
Fear is another impediment that enters the conversation. Ever since Emperor Constantine’s legalization of “Christianity” and Theodosius’s declaration of it as the official state religion some 70 years later, the Catholic church began to incorporate some practices of pagan religions which existed in Rome centuries before the arrival of “Christianity.” The strategy has continued to modern times and blurred doctrinal distinctives clearly taught in the Scriptures, especially concerning the person and work of the Way, the Truth, the Life and the only Mediator between God and Man (Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). In early 1500`s, Jesuit missionaries “converted” the natives of Brazil and the imported slaves by replacing the names of the spirits they feared with the names of saints. For example, Ogun became St. Anthony, Iemanja the Virgin Mary, and Exu Satan and Oxala, Jesus Christ. As a result, at least half of those who call themselves Catholics also practice some form of Spiritism. This is true, not only in Brazil, but also in other countries where Catholicism predominates cultures previously given to animism. This is also evident by the fact that the image of Semiramis, Nimrod`s high priestess wife, is stamped on all Brazilian currency.
What does this have to do with fear? Fear is the force behind superstition which is powerfully at work as you converse with practicing Catholics about Christ. This explains the nightly bedside ritual of being sprinkled with “holy water from Lourdes” (the location of one of Mary`s supposed apparitions) by my mother. It was a protection against evil spirits. Fear is a tool of Satan to blind the mind from seeing the “perfect love that casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18)—the same love expressed in John 3:16.
Common Grounds & Divergences
In communicating Christ, common grounds are usually the best way to lead/open the conversation. Catholicism gives at least lip service to cardinal biblical doctrines such as Creation, the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Heaven and Hell etc. The problem is the additional infusion of pagan religions couched in Christian terminology or so-called Christian traditions, resulting in the adulteration and corruption of the pure gospel. One of these pollutions is the teaching that Mary is a co-redemptress with Christ and that she herself was born without sin. This perversion and others serve as a
vaccine in reverse, almost immunizing the person against the pure gospel of Christ.
I do not advise to initiate the conversation calling attention to these divergences. Rather, ask questions that would reveal what they really believe about the person and work of Christ, eventually aiming for them to discover what they are really trusting in to be accepted by God the Father. When I asked my father if he was trusting in what Christ has done for him or what he himself was doing for salvation, he responded without hesitation: “Of course, I am trusting in those things (i.e., rituals, good works). Why do you think I do them?” I think his answer surprised himself, as his conversion almost 20 years later would tend to support.
Another possible approach would be to ask if your friend considers herself a practicing Roman Apostolic Catholic. Having started our first church in a “bairro” nicknamed “Little Italy” (containing dozens of Italian restaurants, one of which can seat over four thousand at one time), I learned this is a good way, at least, to insert the token. If the answer is yes, as in most cases it was, I would then ask if they had ever read the letter written by Apostle Paul to the very first church in Rome, from which they considered themselves a spiritual descendent. In those early days most Catholics were unaware of the letter`s existence in the Bible. My parents were part of a generation that were actually told there was no use in reading the Bible because laypeople did not have the capacity to understand or interpret it. Their parents were practically forbidden to read it for themselves. But due to the emergence of the prosperity gospel in Brazil, the Catholic church has reversed its course and began to encourage the attendance in “Bible Study” groups. Of course, as with the prosperity movement, the same old doctrinal definitions regarding salvation are only dressed up in texts taken out of context. If you spark a curiosity of your Catholic friend to read the Bible for himself, especially Romans, it will go a long way in helping the token to fall. It almost goes without saying that whatever questions you ask, friendly relationship building moved by kindness must be the bridge you take to get to those questions.
Some think, given my background, that I must have greater success in convincing Catholics for Christ. No, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit does the convincing; not my background or upbringing. What I mentioned above are not intended to make us more “effective” in convincing Catholics for Christ—just more patient. And loving patience pays off. My father came to Christ just a few weeks before he died at the age of 83. Time does not permit, nor is it in the scope of this blog, to share the multiple expressions of his new standing in Christ during those short few weeks. Suffice it to say that it is the gospel of Christ that is “the power of God unto salvation” as Paul wrote to the very first church in Rome.
Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Let’s talk about some more misunderstandings that affect our view of poverty.
Who is our paradigm for cross-cultural missions—Jesus or Paul?
Some see Jesus as the ultimate example of how to fulfill the Great Commission. Others argue that Paul is the primary example. Does it matter?
While the Son of God made flesh is our perfect example of righteousness, His ministry lifestyle is not the paradigm for cross-cultural missionaries in the Church Age. Jesus never left Israel and focused on the Jews. His teaching ministry was attended continually with signs and miracles. Before His death and resurrection, He chose and trained men whom He would later commission with the task of making disciples among all nations.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts 2. After this, and on through the rest of the NT, we see the first sixty years of the Great Commission. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is our God-given example of a cross-cultural servant of the Gospel. The nature of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the unfolding of biblical revelation naturally lead us to consider Paul and his co-laborers for a model of how to “do missions.”
There is no conflict between the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and Paul ministered under different circumstances for different purposes.
A Closer Look at Poverty: What is it? What is the church to do about it?
A casual look at most missions literature today would reveal that many professed Christians believe that relieving world poverty and helping people achieve a higher standard of living is central to the task of the Church. The vast number of aid organizations, many with Christian roots, exist to promote upward mobility, economic development, and justice in foreign governments. The lion’s share of resources used towards “mission” are used for these purposes.
A simple question that is often left unasked is, what is poverty? When the Bible speaks of poverty, it is not describing people on government support, people with less, those in less developed contexts, or those unable to achieve middle class economic status. Those who are poor in Scripture are those that who do not have clothing, food, or shelter. They are people that cannot survive without emergency aid given to them by others. Search the Scriptures, and you will see that this is so.
What places and circumstances require such aid in today’s world? Those in refugee camps, in war zones, and suffering from recent devastating natural disasters are the kinds of people that need our attention. There are also individuals in our lives that we may meet in real need and genuine poverty.
The love of God commands us to reach out and help those around us. Righteousness means mercy and compassion. Yes, as individuals, we must be generous.
Missionaries today are not bound by Scripture to double as social justice agents or charity organization professionals. These means may be necessary at times, and may even meet a timely need, but these are the exception, not the rule.
Factor #7 A consistent spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.
Keeping the Gospel clear among the poor
We can obscure the focus of ministry when we sweeten the call for repentance and faith with any material benefit for those that answer. Many among the world’s relatively poor profess Christianity in order to get a better deal in this life. Some of that is just human nature—being sinners, none of us desire the truth of the Gospel apart from saving grace. However, when aid work and charity programs are combined with evangelism, often the result around the world is large numbers of public professions with little enduring fruit.
If we are to use compassion ministries in conjunction with cross-cultural ministry, it must be done in a way that guards the Gospel and discourages false faith. Too often our love for visible success and desire for eternal fruit through our short-term efforts clouds our minds from reality. Those cross-cultural laborers who know the language and culture are best equipped to understand how best to use aid in ways that encourage true faith. Methods that confuse the hearers or encourage them to false faith are unworthy means for giving the Gospel message.
The Local Church: guarding spiritual relationships amid relative poverty
We can blur the focus of our ministry when we are confused about our role. Church planters/disciple-makers in the New Testament were not aid organization managers who wielded power and influence through their funding from overseas. Nor were they employers of those that they led to Christ. They were servants of the Gospel whose primary identity was that of being teachers of the Word of God. They were either financially independent of those with whom they served, as Paul, or dependent upon those they served, as Peter. There are no examples in the NT of church planters or spiritual leaders acting as financial patrons of the people that they served.
The norm for pastors in Scripture is that local congregations help provide for their pastors materially as he provides for them spiritually. This is true for cross-cultural laborers and traveling evangelists in the NT as well. But what has happened in modern times among cross-cultural missionaries is that they are not merely independently supported as Paul was (by his own hands and by love offerings), but they also become financial patrons to those whom they serve.
What happens when spiritual leaders become financial patrons, and believers they lead become their clients? People follow their leader because of the authority, status and power that he/she wields because of financial influence. The people do not give generously and fulfill their ministries apart from their patron’s immediate support. The people do not learn to support their own pastors as commanded by God. Servant leadership is almost impossible.
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
This one thing can sharpen the focus of our ministry: the only thing required of God’s people in any given place to fulfill the Great Commission is to proclaim the Gospel through the enabling power of the Spirit. If we teach or exemplify through our ministry methodology that anything else is necessary to accomplish the task of making disciples, we render most Christians in this world incapable of obeying Christ!
Many cross-cultural missionaries lack faith in the power of God’s Spirit. They trust instead in a plethora of programs, buildings, and social aid. The national believers assume that if they too want to serve Christ and plant churches, they will need massive capital in order to do the same! The more complicated and expensive our methods on the field, the more we handicap the faith of the people we are striving to teach to obey Christ. The more simple our methods, the more reproducible they are, which encourages the faith of the people. Methods matter profoundly because of what they communicate about our faith in the power of God’s Spirit.
Factor #8 Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.
Avoid getting sidetracked from a primary need
Compassion ministries have their place and are current expressions of God’s love and mercy. People in this generation are far more interested in these types of ministries than past generations were, and that is just fine. But who fulfills these ministries, how they do so, when, and how these affect local bodies of believers on the field need to be grappled with. Compassion ministries must not be allowed to distract God’s people from the primary need of making disciples.
The 1 Corinthians 9 principle
Cross-cultural missionaries who are willing to labor for the Lord Jesus on pioneer fields must embrace the 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 principle: “I must be all things to all men with all discipline of body and spirit that I might win some.” This spirit is contrary to the spirit of our day.
Men and women are needed who are committed to labor for the Gospel who possess the spirit of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9. These will lay down their personal rights and embrace a life of discipline for Jesus’ sake. They will not insist on privileges or comforts. They will sacrifice and do hard things like conquer languages and understand and adapt to other cultures in order to preach Christ.
Missionaries may have to be creative and tolerate extra pressures in order to live where Christ is not named. They might have to be bi-vocational. They might have to endure the continual strain of imminent expulsion or imprisonment. But they will do this out of love for Jesus Christ. They will discipline their bodies and spirits by God’s grace and pursue His glory among the nations.
A return to biblical priorities and simplicity in cross-cultural missions would clarify the Gospel, empower believers for ministry, free up resources, promote reproducible methods of evangelism and training, and, above all, bring more glory to Jesus Christ whose name we proclaim.
Meet the challenges and share in the blessings!
*If RSS feed is not working for you, please add it to your app or software manually by adding this url:
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.