Sounds of Life in the Heart of the City
by James Nelson
Along the road into the bustling city, countless sounds blended into an urban orchestra. Above the regular rhythm of hammers rose the melody of truck and bus engines working through their gear progressions. Smaller vehicles and motorbikes provided an energetic horn section. As a nearby roof was replaced, the occasional crash of corrugated metal reverberated like a cymbal.
These sounds drifted through the open archways of the mosque on the morning breeze. Five men sat on the cool tile floor talking, but their voices were not in harmony.
“It is an affront to the community and to Allah!” said a respected elder who was visiting from another part of the country.
“Yes!” echoed his companion. “It is bad enough for them to dishonour the faith in their apostasy, but they meet right next door, in the shadow of the mosque!”
“Uncles, I understand your concern,” the local imam said. “It is unusual for a church to meet so close to a mosque. But please, consider—in the city, many people carry on daily with no thought of God. Their god is money or power. Others are consumed with worthless offerings to idols. Yet these people demonstrate faith in God. They meet and pray and recite the scriptures.”
“But their scriptures have been corrupted,” said a man who was hosting the out-of-town visitors.
“Perhaps,” said the imam. “You can tell them that, as I also have. They will ask, ‘Do you believe that Allah gave the law and the gospel as a guide to mankind, as we read in Surah 5?’ Then they will ask, ‘Do you believe that Allah gave David the Psalms, as we read in Surah 4?’ Then they will ask, ‘Do you believe that none can alter the words of Allah as given to His messengers, as we read in Surah 6?’”
“But this church draws people away from Islam into apostasy!” said the elder. “Their families are shamed. And you, as the spiritual leader in this community, bear responsibility. You will have to answer for this on the day of judgement!”
“Yes, Uncle,” said the imam. “May Allah have mercy on me. But here is what I see. These Jesus followers—they are only 15 or 20 people. They are not a threat to us. Yet our people see their respectful prayer, their acts of kindness, their love of scripture—and they say, ‘If Christians can be so good, how much more should we faithful Muslims do these things?’
“Now there is much greater devotion to Allah here in the mosque. And I cannot forget the words in Surah 29: ‘Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way—except in the case of those who do wrong—saying, “We believe in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you.”’”
Only a Few Will Come
The next morning, the sounds of the street symphony rang out again, but on this day the sounds were joined by the voices of sellers, as a weekly market brought vendors of every type of ware, calling from alongside carts and blankets, from under awnings and umbrellas.
Beneath the roof of a modest pavilion next to the mosque, on the cool tile floor of a meeting space without pews or chairs, two men sat and spoke.
“Brother Sameer, this has been a good time of prayer and reflection on the things God has done and is doing for our community.”
“Yes, Brother Arun. It has been good. Listening keeps us from being prideful. What are you hearing from God about where we are to go from here?”
“I am still listening. You and I have been blessed to establish this church. It has a wonderful ministry.”
“I especially love that Muslims can see this visible place where they are welcome to come and learn about the Saviour. The setting for prayers is not foreign to them. We honour God’s Word. The women are active in ministry but we do not mix the genders casually.”
“Yet there are four and a half million Muslims in this province. Only a few of them will ever come here. And most come as individuals, not as families.”
“I love that Muslims can see this visible place
where they are welcome to come and learn about the Saviour.”
“Of course. Not everyone will respond to the good news of the gospel. For one, we are the fragrance of death to death. For another, the fragrance of life to life.”
“Yes, Brother Sameer, as the Scripture says. But I am talking about cultural barriers, not spiritual barriers.”
“Brother Arun, you just said yourself that the setting is helpful for Muslims.”
“Yes, even if we have adopted perhaps too much Christian culture. But more than that, it is still a place to which we must invite people and hope that they come. And also, we are only on the edge of the Muslim community—not fully in the heart of it. Christ left the glory of heaven to become fully like us. I wonder how we can more fully love the Muslims here.”
“You and I laboured long together to create this church,” Sameer said. He thought about how he and Arun had prayed and fasted together over a period of months, conducted prayer walks in the community, researched its history, its people, and its politics.
As they visited homes and mosques, Arun schooled Sameer, who did not come from a Muslim background. Arun showed how to discuss faith in Jesus in ways people could understand. He also explained the Quran and the Islamic holy books—Torah (law), Zabur (Psalms) and Injil (gospel).
The leaders of one mosque were especially willing to engage in respectful dialogue. Although they would not accept Isa al Masih as more than a prophet, they expressed goodwill toward the Christians and allowed them to establish their place of worship nearby.
Now, however, Sameer listened to Arun’s words and wondered if the future of the church was at risk.
“What would you do, Brother Arun? Change our worship style so that more people will come? Leave us to begin a church in the heart of the city? Take people out of the church to be evangelists in the community? Any of these will be very hard for me.”
“Brother Sameer, however God directs, we will still walk together. You will not be alone. Let us pray and fast and listen a little longer. Let us trust that God will guide us. My heart will always be with you.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What might you do if you were in Arun’s position, having helped to plant a church among Muslims but sensing that something further needed to be done to reach the Muslims of the city? What principles would you consider as you listened for God’s leading?
- Have you ever felt constrained by success? When you experience fruitful ministry, are you inclined to stay and sink deep roots? Or do you hope to see that fruit multiplied in new settings?
- How can teammates work through differences in ministry vision? What are some important steps to take? To avoid?
The Home Study
Three months later, Arun and his wife sat in an apartment, where the windows were open to receive the morning breeze. In this residential area, a different set of sounds drifted in from outside: a group of children laughing as they walked to school; freshly hung laundry flapping from ropes strung across balconies; the call of a vendor delivering fresh flatbread from the neighbourhood bakery.
Their friend Maryam was recounting the discussion from the Bible study she had led the night before. Eight members of her extended family had been meeting every week to listen to and discuss the Gospel of Mark. They were now studying chapter nine.
“When I asked what they saw in the verses, Hamid said that it included many things that are difficult for Muslims to receive,” said Maryam. Hamid was her sister’s husband. “He said, ‘A voice from God calling Isa His son! A prophet of God saying that He would suffer and be mistreated! We have been taught that Allah would not allow prophets to be harmed.’”
Arun knew Hamid. Arun had co-led the first few weeks of the study before turning leadership fully over to Maryam, who also attended the church that met beside the mosque.
“Mark’s Gospel contains many things that are difficult
for Muslims to receive. We have been taught that Allah
would not allow prophets to be harmed.”
Maryam continued. “So then, my mother said, ‘Yes, I also wonder if this story has been changed. But then I see that Isa asks His followers, “How is it written?” They recite the words of other prophets. If the words of the prophets were so respected, then who would dare to change the words of the Prophet Isa?’”
“What a thing for your mother to notice!” said Arun’s wife, Salma. “Her confidence in the Bible is growing.”
“Yes,” Maryam agreed. “And they are remembering what they are hearing, too. My cousin Noor said, ‘We saw this before, when Isa was baptized. The words of Prophet Dhul-Kifl (Isaiah) were recited, and then God spoke from heaven, calling Isa His beloved son.’ Then, Noor asked me, ‘Is that why you were baptized, Maryam?’”
“And how did you answer?” Salma asked.
“I promised to tell them why I was baptized when we study the last chapter of the Gospel, where Jesus speaks about baptism,” said Maryam. “But I said, ‘There is no baptism in this chapter, so you will have to wait!’”
Arun and Salma burst out in laughter. “A wise response!” Arun said. “They will be eager to hear the rest of the story. Have you been surprised that they keep coming every week?”
Maryam explained that she was surprised at first, because no one in her family had ever come with her to a church service. Although her family had shown her love and acceptance, she had not been able to communicate with them about life in Christ. She had felt alone in her faith.
But now her family members were encountering Jesus directly through the Gospel. Some of them had begun to believe in Isa al Masih, although they still preferred to meet in private. Even those who did not believe returned to the group each week, staying late into the night, drinking tea and discussing eagerly all that Isa said and did. A few neighbours also joined in.
Arun and Salma smiled at each other. They were seeing the same pattern repeated in three other home groups. Nearly 30 people—twice the number of those attending the church—were regularly gathering to pray and study the Scripture in home groups. Most of these were extended family members and close friends. Several had made professions of faith in Jesus as their Saviour. Arun and Salma had begun talking about organizing a baptism service with a member of the church who lived outside of the city. Thankfully, he had a large water tank on his property.
Seeking a Stronger Response
Over the months that followed, Sameer continued to lead the church that met next to the mosque. Arun taught at the church from time to time. He updated Sameer and the church members on the progress of the home groups and they prayed for one another. Everyone praised God for his faithfulness in drawing people to Himself in varied settings.
Arun also networked with other national believers and international teams that sought to reach Muslims in their city and other parts of the province. One worker, inspired by Arun’s home groups, began a similar movement in another city that developed into a visible church.
Still, Arun and Salma were challenged by the lack of response in the very centre of the Muslim community in their city, where poverty was crushing. Years earlier, Arun had worked there for a humanitarian organisation that provided skills training and scholarships. He had come to know many of the people and their problems. He and Salma, along with an older woman who was a gifted evangelist, often walked through the area praying for the people, listening to their troubles and sharing about Christ.
“They really are like sheep without a shepherd,” Arun said one day. “I believe we should find a place to live here.”
“Living here is not easy,” Salma said. “Would you work for a humanitarian agency again?”
Arun sighed. “Not the same way that I did before. Some of these men, when they see me, they think ‘Here comes Mr. Moneybags.’ They get their best sob story ready to exploit me. They need material and spiritual help, but it is hard for the same person to try to bring both.”
They often walked through the area praying for the people,
listening to their troubles and sharing about Christ.
Mission agencies staffed by foreigners continued to operate humanitarian agencies in the area, but some community leaders accused the Christians of “buying conversions.” Among the few Muslims who appeared to accept the gospel, fewer still showed signs of lives transformed by Jesus. “Rice Christians” was a term used by people who questioned the motives of those who professed faith in Jesus while receiving aid.
Expatriate missionaries often came to Arun for help with translation and strategy, since he knew the community well and was a native speaker of the language spoken by most Muslims. He and Salma were also affiliated with a mission agency. But turnover among foreign workers was high, and issues of money and control sometimes led to conflict.
Arun continued thinking out loud. “Business would be a good strategy if we had real money. We could pay people and help them have dignity. Education is also badly needed.”
“Counselling, too,” Salma mentioned. Many people had difficulty in their marriages and families. Salma was gifted in listening to people, drawing out their stories and responding with relevant Scriptures and practical ideas.
“We should get away for a while and pray,” she said. “You have been troubled lately, Arun.” The disunity among believers and wavering commitment of some missionaries weighed heavily on him. If Arun and Salma were going to live in the midst of the community, they would need to renew their strength.
A few weeks later, a friend in another city offered to host them for a time of prayer and reflection. They scraped together what money they had for train tickets to make the trip.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What sacrifices will Arun and Salma probably need to make if they move into the heart of the community?
- In your ministry setting, who tends to have the least access to the gospel? What obstacles would need to be overcome for access to be increased? Who is well positioned to help in that process?
- How can ministries that combine church planting with compassion and empowerment address the criticism of buying conversions or having undue influence? How can these principles apply in your work?
- In many settings national workers and expatriates collaborate. But cooperation can be threatened by differences in perspective on money, control, strategy and commitment—even within teams. What are two or three principles for promoting unity among multi-cultural teams?
Building and Earning People’s Trust
The sounds of the morning’s noisy urban orchestra rang out across the heart of the Muslim community, but few of these sounds entered Salma’s kitchen. The windows in the apartment to which she and Arun had moved were opened only a crack for ventilation. In that way the neighbours—whose windows were wide open—would be less likely to overhear the conversation. A woman named Nazia was pouring out her heart to Salma about troubles in her marriage. She was one of many people who confided in Salma, who did not come from a Muslim background but dressed modestly out of respect for the values of the community.
As an outsider, Salma was a safe person with whom to share secrets. Who else could Nazia talk to about her fear of being abandoned and the verbal abuse that she endured? With anyone else, word would be sure to get back to her husband, and that could be dangerous to her health, or even her life. She needed to consider her health—she was expecting a baby to arrive just before Ramadan.
Nazia cried, and Salma cried with her. Salma also offered encouragement from the Psalms and the New Testament. Nazia loved hearing these verses of peace and comfort. The Psalms in particular expressed a vulnerability about struggles that she had never experienced in her faith.
Nazia welcomed the comfort Salma offered, but she was not yet willing to consider Isa to be greater than a prophet. Who could imagine such a thing? It was beyond her comprehension.
She looked at Salma through her tears. Just speaking to this Christian woman was bold enough. Most of the people she knew did not personally know a Christian. Of course, she and her friends knew that Christians existed in the world, along with people who believed in many gods. But they rarely encountered people of other faiths unless they went outside of their neighbourhood—and there was almost never a need to do that.
Nazia was not the only woman who sought out Salma. Several other women did so as well. But so far, only two had come to faith in Jesus, and these had not yet shared their new faith with their families.
Moving into the heart of the community had opened a new chapter in ministry. Arun continued to share boldly—both on the Shi’a side of the neighbourhood and on the Sunni side. Often, the first thing that men asked him was which form of Islam he subscribed to.
“Why do you need to know?” Arun would answer. “Shi’a or Sunni doesn’t help you. Muslims are ones who really surrender to Allah. I have nothing to do with the Shi’a or Sunni sects. I follow the Injil, the New Testament. Jesus Christ is my Saviour and I follow His teachings.”
Some men would argue with him. Some would avoid him. Some would embrace him as one of their own. So far, though, no men had believed in Jesus as their Saviour.
But Arun and Salma didn’t let this lack of response slow them down. Today they persevere in their work and continue seeking God about what they should do next.
Their vision is to see at least three visible house churches established in the centre of the city. They believe this would provide a positive witness to show others that following Christ is for everyone and every place. So far, they have already seen many surprising and wonderful things happen, and they look forward to seeing what God will establish in the heart of their community.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Arun and Salma persevered although response in their new environment was slower than it had been before. What enables you to persevere? How do you deal with discouragement?
- Salma became a trusted counsellor for women. What signs do you see that people trust you or are influenced by you? What signs do you hope to see? What signs can show that a person is not trusted by others?
- Arun redirected questions about Muslim religious affiliation to the importance of following Jesus. How do you decide which questions to answer directly or indirectly? How do you shift conversations toward Jesus? How do you decide when it is appropriate or even safe to do so?
James Nelson is Vice President of Research for GMI and Senior Associate for Fruitful Practice Research. He is a veteran researcher and missiologist who has served in Eurasia and South East Asia with his family.
Some fruitful practices you may note in this story:
As a leader, be ready to highlight the following practices during the discussion. Research has shown these practices to be correlated with fruitfulness across a wide variety of ministry situations among Muslims.
- Believers 3: Fruitful workers disciple others in settings that fit the situation.
- Believers 7: Fruitful workers model following Jesus in intentional relationships with believers.
- Believers 10: Fruitful workers prepare believers to explain why they believe.
- Teams 5: Fruitful teams adapt their methods based on reflective evaluation and new information.
- Communication 1: Fruitful workers use culturally appropriate Bible passages to communicate God’s message.
- Communication 5: Fruitful workers sow broadly.
- Communication 6: Fruitful workers use Bible study as a means of sharing the gospel.
- Faith Communities 10: Fruitful faith communities involve women in culturally appropriate forms of ministry.
- Faith Communities 15: Fruitful faith communities generally meet in homes or other informal settings.