At a recent Core group meeting to articulate our vision at Joining the Family, we were led in devotions through a reading of Mark 7:24 -36. This led to some reflections on access, encounter, witness, and blessing which I share below.
We see 2 different ways in which people seek access to Jesus here which may help us in our thinking around how we, as church family, welcome, receive, and encourage into a flourishing those new believers from Muslim background who are coming, now in increasing numbers, with a desire to follow Jesus.
The Syrophoenician woman, in her desire for healing for her demon- possessed daughter and for a portion of what she had seen was available to others, had the agency to ask for herself, to initiate the conversation and to persist in engaging Jesus. In some places of the UK, we have seen people of Muslim heritage walk into the church and ask how they can become followers of Jesus. They will have done so after becoming convinced of the claims of Christ – perhaps through independent study; through a deep sense of personal dissatisfaction and a longing for “more”; or, not uncommonly, through a dream or a personal encounter with Jesus, himself. Like the Syrophoenician woman, they don’t need fobbing off or even a cooling off time to think about it. They want in. Recognizing that the pathway to Jesus is not uniform and that others’ experience, although different, is valid is an important first step for the church in welcoming and receiving enquirers from a Muslim background. Just as important is the way we encourage them in their discipleship journey. Broadly speaking, Westerners prioritize word and knowledge over sense and experience – prized by Easterners. Let’s not allow our concern about an apparent lack of Bible knowledge and understanding cloud our affirmation of the dreams or spiritual experiences which our newly believing friends relate. God meets us in both and will lovingly lead those who listen to his voice into areas under-explored.
The man who was deaf needed the help of others to bring him to Jesus – the encouragement of those friends who already know something of Jesus’ power to heal and to restore. Jesus took him aside, away from the crowd where the man experienced Jesus’ touch which changed everything. Some people will need those who will quietly and gently lead them into an understanding and an encounter with Jesus. This takes time, wisdom, a little knowledge and sensitivity. Do we have the patience and capacity in our churches to set aside people dedicated to be walking alongside those taking steps towards Christ or are we driven by programme, project and progress?
Although twice in this passage we read that Jesus was apparently not ready to become a public figure, it seems he could not keep his presence a secret. This life-changing encounter meant that the man and his friends were compelled to share their joy. Our friends who are believers from a Muslim background are in both the position and practice of witness. It appears that for them, like the deaf man who could now communicate, persuasion to share of what Jesus has done and evangelism training is not required! Two weeks ago, a Pakistani Mum came to a church community centre and asked for English class and Bible study. In conversation with her about her request she replied: “I need to understand what I am reading better so that I can tell others about my wonderful Jesus”. Two Kurdish enquirers who showed a prior knowledge of some of the stories of Jesus in a Bible study group explained that their friend, who sits behind the counter of a local Kurdish grocery shop, had been sharing these stories with them as they drank spiced tea together when customer visits were
low. A baptized Iranian man has been witnessing to his (English) benefits support worker at the Job Centre. For a year now she has been attending church, quietly observing, asking questions, and being challenged to reconsider a faith which she threw out as irrelevant years ago.
The beginning of this passage sees Jesus entering the vicinity of Tyre – a Gentile region away from Jesus’ and the disciples’ natural “home turf”. There they had the discomfort of engaging with people different to them (the Syrophoenician woman’s manner could be seen to have been provocative); and the joy of seeing Jesus “do everything well”. At Joining the Family, we recognize that the church in the west is being challenged to move beyond the comfortable and embrace the opportunities and blessings afforded through welcoming, encouraging and learning from the new believers from a Muslim heritage that he is bringing to us. This will inevitably mean change and perhaps a letting go in favour of letting God, in Christ, and by the power of His Spirit have his wonderful way amongst us.
Miriam Williams January 2021