God’s Divine Plan for Muslim Immigrants

Data about how Muslims come to Christ should affect our thinking on immigration.
God’s Divine Plan for Muslim Immigrants
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Naima* came to the United States from the Middle East with her family in the early 1990s. Though she was too young to remember most of the details, she distinctly remembers people from a local church welcoming her family of eight and helping them to get settled. Looking back on her early days in the US, Naima remembers that people from “the church … would bring us Christmas presents and all kinds of stuff. I have no idea how they connected with my family. I was not even five years old at the time. … [But] I remember them helping us with bills.”

After high school, Naima enrolled at the local community college, where she met Daniel, a fellow student. He became a good friend, listened to her struggles, and was always willing to talk about Jesus. At one point, he gave her a Bible and began reading to her out of the Book of John. Challenged by his faith, she brought him a Qur‛an and urged him to read it as well because she was convinced it was the truth—though she didn’t know much, if anything, about it. Evening study sessions often gave way to questions each had concerning the other’s Scripture. Some of the questions were pointed, the answers unsettling.

Naima and Daniel lost track of each other, but a few months later, Naima ended up in the hospital as a result of a drug overdose. There she met a janitor and a hospital transporter who, by their kindness and words of encouragement, demonstrated to Naima the love of Christ. After nearly two weeks, Naima was released from the hospital and reconnected with Daniel. She was excited to tell him all that she had learned and of the kindness of the Christians she met while in the hospital. When Daniel invited her to church, she gladly accepted.

The words of the Bible and the compassion of the Christians she met were nudging Naima toward the Christian faith while eroding her confidence in Islam. But it took the healing of her niece from an illness, in response to Naima’s own prayer, to convince her that the Christian faith was true. Once that was settled, Naima began attending a local church and, after several months, confirmed her faith in Christ in baptism.

Naima’s story is touching, but is it unique? Do she and others who have turned from Islam to faith in Christ have anything in common? If we listen to their stories, is it possible to see a pattern? Recent research conducted in Western Europe and North America indicates that it is indeed possible.

The Word of God and the Community of Faith

For my PhD dissertation, I conducted research in 2012–2013 on the conversion to Christianity of Muslim immigrants in France. In 2015–2016, I was co-leader of a team that conducted similar research on the conversion of Muslim immigrants to the United States and Canada, in partnership with the TIM Center of the Tyndale College and Seminary in Toronto. Our work was published in 2017 as Fruitful Practices in Ministry to the North American Muslim Diaspora: A Mixed-Methods Study.

The studies, which made use of both qualitative (interview) and quantitative (survey) methods, sought to identify the observed causes for conversion, especially as noted by Muslim converts themselves. Each study identified the same top three factors leading to conversion of Muslims in Western Europe and North America: access to the Bible, relationship with a Christian friend, and experience with a local evangelical church, as noted in the table below:

Factors Associated with Muslim Conversion

Factor

North America

France

Experience with Local Evangelical Church

76%

70%

Christian Friend

76%

53%

Bible

82%

34%

The fact that the Bible shows up as significant in both sets of data should not surprise us. The apostle Paul makes it clear in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” The writer of Hebrews asserts that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (4:12). As evangelicals who hold a high regard for the biblical text and its transformative power, we would expect this outcome.

For Said, a student from the Middle East, the impact of the Bible was unforgettable.

After a year of [pretending to agree with the words and practices of Christianity that I saw in my host family] I started to doubt myself. Maybe they were right? Maybe their religion was the right one. So I decided to actually read the Bible. I started in Genesis. The stories were so good. They resonated with me. They were all so familiar. Reading it was like being pulled into a powerful story; it was almost like watching a film; it was so moving and powerful. These were so much like the things I had heard all my life at home and from my dad. Then after eight months, I got to the [New Testament]. I started reading and Jesus’ words amazed me. He said things like “pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.” Who could this man be! No one ever talked like this. I could not put the book down.

The Christian friend as a significant factor in conversion also makes sense. God is a relational being who has orchestrated the conversion process to be one of human agency carried along by divine initiative and effect. Though as evangelicals we would agree that our efforts alone do not save, we are equally aware that God has ordained both the means and the ends with regard to salvation. And the means, at least in part, includes relationship between those who follow Christ, who have the opportunity to show the love of Christ and explain the good news, and those not yet converted. It is in the context of these believer/non-believer relationships that truth is explored and a lived-out faith is observed.

Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:18–20 that “all this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. … And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Though God may use all manner of the miraculous to bring someone to saving faith, his normal means involves relational witness.

Ahmad, a former Muslim from Albania, described the impact of a Christian friend like this:

[I]t almost seemed like the more I wanted Christian people to get away from me, the more they surrounded me and they came from different places I just couldn’t get away from them. And how I came to this church is I have a dear brother … and he’s what I used to call the most annoying Christian that I’ve ever known. But … he was the one that kept inviting me to church and invited me to this and that. … He was one that I watched closely and there were some things that he did that attracted me [to the Christian faith].

Compelled by the Church

Beyond the Bible and the influence of a Christian friend, what might surprise us is the role of the local church. Testimonies of more than 70 Muslim converts revealed that in addition to the Bible and a Christian friend, experience with a local evangelical church was highly influential in their conversion journey. This is surprising for several reasons. First, Islamic theology discourages its followers from entering churches or otherwise participating in church-related activities. Second, given the social, cultural, and religious differences that exist between Muslim immigrants and members of Western evangelical churches, one might think that initial contact with a local church would reveal and highlight differences, especially socially and culturally, that could impede conversion, not enable it. And finally, though Protestant evangelicals have developed significantly in their understanding of other cultures, the interview data reveal that in the typical encounter with a local church, Muslims did not perceive intentional efforts being made to accommodate them.

Yet despite all this, something in the life of the Christian community is so compelling that it overrides many Muslims’ objections and disapproval.

Saida, a single woman from Iraq, found the church a special place full of special people.

And when I came to the church, I found the people—they are just full of joy. … And from the way they were dealing with each other, they were so nice. … I became also full of joy. And I listened to the songs. … It was so beautiful. So I was really astonished. And through the pastor I came to know the words of the gospel. And his words came straight to my heart. And the words I’ve heard made me … fall in love with Christ more and more. And I was so much attracted to Christ. And I wanted to become [a] Christian like them.

Much more could be mined from these conversion stories. Perhaps the most significant factor is the religious context of the West, in which many types of religions are allowed to exist and compete for members. Social scientists refer to this context as religious pluralism. Those who live in places that embrace religious pluralism (as in Western Europe and North America) are free to pursue, adopt, and express their religious beliefs or to opt out from religion altogether.

A New Context for Faith

In his book Understanding Religious Conversion, Lewis Rambo says that this religious pluralism plays a significant role in conversion for Muslims in three ways. One is that it provides religious options. Despite an individual’s interest in adopting a new faith, if other options are not available, the choice is, in effect, non-existent. It also provides for the forming of new relationships and the freedom to move away from (and perhaps sever) previously existing relationships with friends or family members aligned with the former faith. This means the convert will face fewer social consequences. And finally, it provides new faith content to explore and the opportunity to compare the new faith with the old one (in this case, Islam).

In short, Muslim migration to the West provides an unparalleled context for the exploration and experience of religious options by the Muslim immigrant, which are in many, if not most, cases denied in Muslim-majority countries. This should cause us to take a fresh look at the current state of global migration, which, in many cases, includes Muslims attempting to move to the West.

Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that both the Old and New Testaments relate story after story of migration, from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Moses to the nation of Israel and, ultimately, to Jesus and his own family. The story of the Bible is the story of people on the move. To understand the Bible, we need to understand what the Bible has to say about migration.

What we see in the biblical record is that God is ultimately behind the movement of people. His intent is that all of creation be redeemed. He has ordained both the means and the ends to that redemptive plan. Paul, in his Mars Hill discourse, argued that “from one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26–27). Paul’s words suggest that global migration in any generation is not just about politics or economics. It just might be the result of a divine initiative.

Given the current global context of migration, the church in the West finds itself in a unique place in history to help Muslim immigrants who come to our shores as refugees, students, vacationers, or workers. We offer the stranger the hope of the gospel by doing what Jesus commanded: loving him or her (Matt. 25:36–38). In so doing, many will be saved.

*Names have been changed for security reasons.

Richard Kronk, PhD, is the author of several books on the topic of Muslim conversion and is currently professor of global ministries at Toccoa Falls College, in Toccoa Falls, Georgia.

May
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God’s Divine Plan for Muslim Immigrants