Evangelists and missiologists have long debated how best to contextualize the gospel within Islamic contexts. The debate over "insider movements" revolves around a key question: Should converts from Islam be allowed or encouraged to remain in their Muslim religious and social networks after conversion?
Past discussion on this topic has proven hurtful to Christians on both sides. However, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I believe we are finally going to see real changes in the way Christians write about fellow-Christians in regard to contextualization. This is good news in an arena where there has been a lot of bad news.
In an effort to promote reconciliation and facilitate healthy discussion, a group of 50 scholar-practitioners gathered in June to discuss the challenges of contextualization. Bridging the Divide was hosted by missionaries-in-residence Don Little and Benjamin Hegeman of the Intercultural Studies Department at Houghton College in New York. Attendees included five former Muslims and represented a wide spectrum of views on appropriate ways to reach Muslims.
Bridging the Divide's goal was to clear up misunderstandings, identify points of agreement and disagreement, and strive for mutual respect and understanding. Disputes over contextualization have a long history, and serious difficulties remain, but progress was made through face-to-face interaction, frank discussion, and a commitment to talk rather than throw darts at each other from a distance. As a participant, I saw three key signs pointing to this trend:
During introductions on the first night, many said they had come to listen. This paved the way for positive interaction. There was open sharing and prayer for one another throughout the meeting, and even tears of repentance over unkind things that had been said or written, often without understanding or accurate citation. Evelyne Reisacher, assistant professor of Islamic studies and intercultural relations at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it this way: "I've wondered before if we really love one another, but this time I've seen it in action." An engaged couple from Houghton College, preparing to serve in the Middle East, said they were privileged to witness how veteran workers modeled love and forgiveness.
A final declaration was drafted to summarize the issues that had both united and divided us. We expressed our repentance for the hurtful things we had written about each other in the past, as they contributed to a "divisive spirit" that was harming our ministry. We promised to encourage unity amongst ourselves and committed to "intentionally seek out opposing peer review for our proposed publications that attempt to characterize the views of those with whom we disagree." Ultimately, we reminded ourselves that as Christians, our ultimate end was to work together so that "all may know the gospel." (The full text of the declaration can be read at the end of this article.)
It is apparent from the declaration that the consultation succeeded in fostering greater understanding of opposite points of view on the C1-C6 scale used by many missiologists to describe Muslim background believer (MBB) affiliation with Muslim culture. The scale can be summarized as follows: C1: MBBs in churches radically different from their own culture; C2: same as C1, but worship is in the MBBs' mother tongue; C3: MBBs in culturally indigenous Christian churches that avoid cultural forms seen as "Islamic"; C4: MBBs in culturally indigenous congregations that retain biblically permissible Islamic forms (e.g., prostrating in prayer), investing these with biblical meaning; C5: Muslims who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior in fellowships of like-minded believers within the Muslim community, continuing to identify culturally and officially as Muslims; and C6: secret/underground believers.