There have been several news stories of late, not least in this magazine, about the number of new converts to Christianity from Islam amongst recent arrivals in Europe. These stories have come from Austria, from Germany, and now, thanks to the Guardian, we have one from England as well.
The Guardian story is well worth reading, and gives us several useful indications. First of all, this really is happening. People from a Muslim background are getting baptised, are joining a church, and are being led into the Church by people like the Rev Sally Smith. This is much more than wishful thinking based on a few isolated anecdotes. Given the incidence of the stories, it is perhaps now possible to speak of a trend. One thing is beyond doubt. There are people from a Muslim background who want to convert. It follows from this that local churches should act in such a way as to make this possible for them.
The story from Stoke-on-Trent illustrates why this getting ready for mission is not always as simple as it looks. The Rev Sally Smith has encountered opposition from her own original congregation, many of whom have left, to be replaced, of course, by new faces. This is not altogether surprising. I was once told by a leading evangelical vicar in the Church of England that the biggest obstacle to making a church congregation truly missionary was always the original congregation. This is something that Pope Francis indicates too in Evangelii Gaudium, though not directly. In every parish there may well be those who much prefer the current state of affairs, and who want maintenance rather than mission. My suspicion is that the Rev Sally Smith would win warm approval from Pope Francis for her missionary work. I wonder what she thinks of him?
The other indication that these stories give us is that the old myth that Muslims never convert to Christianity is just that – a myth. It does happen, and just how and why it happens needs to be studied and understood in order to make the Church more fit for mission. My guess (and it is only that) is that the best way in for people from Muslim countries is to expose them to the Scriptures in their own languages. They come from a culture where the Book is held in great regard. They have been told many things about the Bible that are simply not true and the best way to dispel these myths is for them to encounter the Bible at first hand. In so doing they will find a text that is transparent, easy to understand, and spiritually nourishing. It is through reading that they will come to Christ.
Indeed in the Bible itself we find a clue to this method, in the eight chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. This was the scripture passage he was reading: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. In [his] humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth.” Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptised?” Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him.
The Ethiopian eunuch, according to tradition, then took the faith back to his native country, and thus the Ethiopian Church was born. But it all started with one man reading a book, and another man discussing it with him.