Although there is a growing indigenous Church in the Middle East and North Africa, many of the region’s new Christians fail to continue in their faith. Experiences of isolation, opposition and feelings of alienation each play their part. Understanding and mitigating against these factors is vital to supporting and establishing these new believers as lifelong disciples.
The emergence of an indigenous church
Fifty years ago, there were hardly any sizeable communities of Christians in any Muslim-majority country who had come from the majority religious background. Mission workers in the region often spent a lifetime without seeing any fruit. Those without any Christian background who chose to follow Christ were rare and of the few who did, some were killed and others had to leave their countries. It was only in the late 1970s that numbers of people started turning to Christ – sometimes without much direct engagement with foreign Christians.
Today, there are two countries with sizeable numbers of Muslim-background Christians in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – Algeria and Iran. In both countries, it was only after foreign missionaries and clergymen were deported that a handful of local believers emerged. They developed the indigenous networks, worship forms and witness that seemed most appropriate and gave birth to local congregations. Local reactions to these churches varied. Although Christians in Algeria have rarely faced any harsh persecution, Iranian believers have paid an immense price for following Christ.
The harsh reality
While these are encouraging stories, life as a new Christian in the region is no walk in the park. In fact, a significant portion of those who become Christians eventually give up their Christian faith. Some return to Islam, some forego any religious belief and some simply follow their Christian faith privately with no engagement with other Christians or public expressions of faith. In fact, only a small portion of these believers remain as Christians beyond 10 years.
There are three main reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: persecution. It is obvious that if you become a Christian in the region, you not only risk your life, torture and imprisonment, but also losing family, friends, job, and even your spouse and children. Facing the immense, daily pressure of looking over your shoulder and staying out of trouble becomes too much for many.
The second reason we might call “anomie”. “Anomie” is a term used by sociologists and psychologists to describe the difficult state of loss of one’s identity, limits, self-perception and lifestyle. It’s a state which drives some people to suicide. It’s experienced by some of those who find overnight wealth and fame, and by others who face major traumas like the death of a spouse or children.
These are all experiences which throw the individual into a personal chaos, and not knowing who they are or where they belong. Someone from a strongly connected religious-based society, who becomes a follower of Christ faces a dramatic remaking of everything in their life – from what they hear through what they think to where they belong. The process is painful and creates an immense psychological pressure.
The third reason is non-belonging to Christianity. For someone who grew up in a religious culture deeply rooted in the Middle East, Christianity often seems like a Western cultural product and way of life. While Christianity is rooted in the East, the international mission movement has too frequently transported a European or American church paradigm. From the music sung and how services are structured, to the vocabulary used and the way things are done, church culture often feels alien to a new MENA believer. And given how current global politics separates the world into “us” versus “them”, they can feel trapped between the worlds of Christianity and Islam.
The response we must make
These three reasons signal to us ways we can help the new MENA church which is growing against all the odds. First of all, we must ensure that new believers know that they are not alone and that we are there to help them when they need even practical things, like places to stay or jobs to do.
Secondly, we must integrate new believers into supportive communities, recognise their journey, and accept their deep questions and personal struggles with much grace. When we look at believers who have continued as Christians for more than 10 years, we see that they are the ones who had the closest integration with the church and the strongest relationships with established Christians. Without the body of Christ, the journey is impossible.
Thirdly, these believers need to see our lives and witness us living them as faithful representatives of Christ. This is important as they internalise life as a new Christian and redefine their values and life choices.
Fourthly, we must actively encourage the Muslim-background Church to develop its own styles or worship, prayer, music and church services, as well as its own books and resources that address issues faced by their members.
Without taking these steps, tragically, the joyful news of new believers or flourishing churches will be short-lived. Not only in the Islamic world, but here in the West and in Scripture itself, being a Christian is a lifelong walk with Christ, not a one-off decision or stand. It is a race we must run to the very end.
Read the inspiring story of the growth and witness of Algeria’s Evangelical churches.