Because he was known as a hard worker and a devout Muslim, a young man got a good job herding cattle for wealthy families in his West African village. The families fed and paid him well. He liked the job and it helped him and his family members survive.
But then something happened. The young man started to talk with friends and others about Christianity—a religion about which he had known very little. He began to pray and reflect. One day, although he was frightened to make the move, he became a Christian.
At first he was happy and relieved. But then a group of Christians from another area told him that he needed to stop going to the mosque, stop fasting during Ramadan, and start speaking out against Islam.
The young man did this, but it didn’t go over well in his village. His friends turned against him. He lost his job. His wife was taken from him. He was attacked and beaten. Soon he was ostracized and not able to participate in the life of his village. In despair, he moved away.
Only later, after talking to other Christians, did he realize that he could have acted differently. These Christians told him that people had not been ready to hear his testimony. Following the first group’s advice had driven people away and made it harder for anyone to talk about Christianity. If the young man had kept his new faith “under the radar,” over time he might have been able to help others to consider becoming Christians.
This story is an example of why Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) joined with other groups last year to hold a conference and training session for about 160 persons in West Africa.
The conference helped CRWM begin exploring new ways of doing evangelism among people who follow Islam, a religion that is widespread and growing across nearly the entire continent of Africa. Instead of pushing for converts to speak out, a quieter, less public process is being considered.
During last year’s conference, participants discussed CRWM’s ministry efforts in Africa. They learned of educational programs, church planting opportunities, possible partnerships with other Christian organizations, the possibility of opening a center that will focus on transformational development, and the agency’s success in bringing Timothy Leadership materials to various groups. But for the most part they discussed evangelism among Muslims.
Participants shared their stories, such as the story of four former Muslims who struggled with developing their prayer lives and often left women out of discussions about the Bible. With the help of missionaries, women are starting to be given a larger role to play and the group is learning to pray with greater intensity and to come up with prayer requests.
Conferences like these, however, are just the start of CRWM taking a look at a different approach to missions among Muslims. Christian Reformed Home Missions is also taking part in the new initiative. “Home Missions and World Missions want to cooperate to reach Muslims in North America and elsewhere and to develop good plans and strategies to do this. We need to meet Muslims where they are and where they live,” says Joel Hogan, director of international ministries for CRWM.
“Right now we are on the cusp of a new approach. Given the need to keep a handle on our resources, we have to determine what is the best way to be involved,” says Hogan. He acknowledges that not everyone is comfortable with this new approach, and hopes to help coordinate training sessions with experts in Islam to discuss the issue further and possibly find a person who can lead the effort.
Allen Likkel, ministry teams leader for Home Missions, says his agency has high hopes for the work it can do with World Missions. “We are strategizing together with a combined task force, including a missionary pastor CRHM supports in Dearborn, Mich., in Arabic ministry,” he says.
Bold Professions, Hidden Movements
This new ministry approach is not unique to CRWM. It developed in Asia in the 1980s and has spread to many other Muslim-majority countries.
The debate, says Ron Geerlings, CRWM director for West Africa, centers on whether to give space to those who are not yet ready to go public with their faith. He offers the example of a Muslim man who was given a Bible many years ago. “It took him 20 years of reading the Bible and talking with missionaries before he was prepared to announce his faith and be publicly baptized.”
There are those, he says, who are intrigued by what the Quran has to say about Jesus and then want to know more about him and how he is regarded by Christians. “What we are seeing are some bold professions and secret prayers as well as visible gatherings and hidden movements.”
A CRWM missionary in Africa says that traditional strategies for ministry with Muslims encouraged new believers to quit their Muslim prayers and openly declare for Christ. But the question is whether it might be more effective to keep one’s conversion a secret until it becomes clear that the time has come when others want to know more about the Bible, the missionary says.
With all these factors in mind, CRWM is moving slowly and carefully, but it is moving, because even in difficult circumstances people need the gospel message.
Tensions and Triumphs
Here are a few stories that reflect the tensions and triumphs among those who do ministry among Muslim peoples in Africa.
A young Muslim man married into a Christian family. He was curious about his wife’s faith, but didn’t pursue it. He continued to worship as he had all his life.
When the young man grew ill, a relative took him to pray with a local missionary. While there, the young man came across Today, the devotional booklet published by Back to God Ministries International.
He liked what he read and wanted to read more. There were articles in the small booklet that helped to explain the Christian faith. The more he read and thought about it, the more the Christian faith and the saving power of Jesus intrigued him.
After his illness passed, he began a more serious study of the Christian faith, wondering if it was for him.
One day a woman who was a Christian convert went to church, while her Muslim husband stayed home. During the service she fell sick and returned home. No one, including the pastor, came to see her. As the days passed she grew sicker and became more desperate. When it became clear that members of her church were not going to help, she went to some animist friends for traditional medicine.
When members of the church heard about that, the church put her under discipline and refused to pray for her. In a testimony to her faith, the woman didn’t grow bitter and she refused to denounce the members of her church or the pastor.
Then she met with the pastor. Opening her heart to him, she said that it was his neglect that pushed her to her animist friends. This shocked the pastor. Talking to the woman, he saw his sin. They prayed together, confessed, and forgave one another. She is now an active member of the church.
An elder in a church visited his hometown for a vacation. While there, his wife’s family demanded he make a decision: renounce Christianity or lose his wife. It was a terrible choice. He wanted to stay with his wife. Yet he also now knew about the saving power of Jesus and he didn’t want to turn from that. He didn’t know what to do.
He met with a Christian friend, then returned to speak with his wife’s family and explain why he is a Christian. The family listened, and then took his wife away. Painful as it was, the elder returned to his church and remains at work, praying to God to heal his hurt.
Developing Libraries for the 21st Century
What would you do if someone gave you the money to buy 30,000 books and asked you to start a library for a seminary?
It sounds far-fetched, but it happens to Christian school and seminary administrators around the world. That’s why Christian Reformed World Missions sent Ray and Barb Bouma to Nigeria and Mexico to help institutions of Christian education to use a foundational resource: their library.
“In Nigeria we were not only able to go to Mkar University, but to Wukari Jubilee University as well to evaluate their libraries and develop a plan for them to bring their universities into the 21st century,” said Ray Bouma.
The Boumas worked in Nigeria 36 years ago. “We stayed in a guesthouse in the university that used to be our home,” Ray said. “The stone pathways that I put in years ago are still there; the hedges I put in are still there.”
They set to work immediately. “We visited the Reformed Bible College in Harga, the Reformed Theological Seminary in Mkar, the Veenstra Theological Seminary in Lupwe, and several others,” said Barb.
They evaluated the libraries and talked with leaders about how to enhance them. “We tried to help them see their libraries not as a storage facility for books but as the heart of the educational endeavor—a place for learning,” Ray said. “They agreed, so we set out to find ways to do that.”
Part of the action plan is to connect the libraries with resources around the world by obtaining Internet access and developing Internet-based cataloging systems.
A highlight of the Boumas’ trip was observing the dedication of the theological professors and the librarians. “They want to produce quality seminary education for their graduates,” Barb said. “They have excellent quality in leadership, their spirituality is excellent, and academically they are excellent.”
In addition to their evaluations, the Boumas gave a seminar on how to put together a theological library. “Librarians (in North America) could learn how to develop a library on a shoestring,” Barb said.
Evaluating these libraries is just the beginning. World Missions is looking for librarians to help provide on-site expertise and assistance as the libraries develop.
The Boumas also visited All Nations Seminary in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to see if World Missions could be of help to their library.
“We sent an e-mail to all our missionaries asking if there was a need in any of our partner libraries,” said Albert Hamstra, director of special projects for Christian Reformed World Missions. “[Ray and Barb] responded, so we sent them.”
“Interestingly enough, we found out that we can help [All Nations Seminary] with the acquisition of Spanish-language materials,” Hamstra said.
There are already plans to send the Boumas back to Nigeria and volunteer librarians Henry and Judy DeVries to Mexico City on a regular basis.
The library program started in 2003 when Christian Reformed World Missions surveyed partner seminaries and schools and found that some libraries were underutilized and lacking in resources.
A small online community has been set up for librarians the world over who want to offer the gifts that God gave them to those who can use them most. For more information, visit http://volunteerlibrarians.ning.com.
Mariano Avila III is communications manager
for Christian Reformed World Missions.