Missionaries in regions of the world where Christianity is unwelcome are experimenting with a controversial approach--making converts who hold on to many of their traditional religious beliefs and practices.
"Messianic Muslims" who continue to read the Koran, visit the mosque and say their daily prayers but accept Christ as their Savior are the products of the strategy, which is being tried in several countries, according to Youth With a Mission (YWAM), one of the organizations involved.
Reactions to the practice from other missionary leaders have ranged from "sympathetic criticism" to "enthusiastic support," according to a report in "The International YWAMer," the mission's staff newsletter, which details how the tactic is being applied by a church planter in Asia.
He told of around 50 members of a Muslim family who had decided to become followers of Christ, forming a small fellowship. "They continued a life of following the Islamic requirements, including mosque attendance, fasting and Koranic reading, besides getting together as a fellowship of Muslims who acknowledge Christ as the source of God's mercy for them."
They also meet according to mosque traditions in a style that the leader said would "horrify" many Western Christians. But he said that the strategy was biblical, referencing the early church in Jerusalem where "Jewish followers of Christ became more zealous to keep the law and Jewish customs."
The leader--writing under a pseudonym for security reasons--said that there were issues that needed to be addressed to avoid syncretism, such as Mohammed's place in the new believers' faith. But these were "a matter of process." He wrote: "As the believer's heart changes, he or she places less and less importance on these issues that seem to contradict the gospel. In fact we have found at times the opposite, that we need to encourage the person not to reject his culture and thereby burn bridges with his past."
The missionary approach identifies people as fitting into one of six different groups, from those comfortable in traditional church settings who would be able to openly identify themselves as Christian to those following Christ secretly. "Messianic Muslims" form part of the fifth group, where they remain within their Islamic community, socially and legally.
YWAM is also adopting the approach in India, where a team is working with a "sadhu," or Hindu holy man, said the mission's sub-field director Steve Cochrane. They organized pilgrimages for Hindus to holy sites and "then all along the way they are explaining the gospel to the pilgrims, in a totally contextualized way," he said.
"The whole idea is, How can we see the gospel shed of its cultural forms that are not appropriate?" he said. "Think of the Acts 15 example, where in that context it was very clear that the gospel did not need to come in Jewish cultural forms. It was breaking out among Gentile peoples.
"Sometimes what has to happen is we have to go through crisis in our understanding of what is Christianity and what is culture...The offense of the cross is always there. We can't minimize that. But what we can eliminate is the offense of the cultural issues, and they are huge."