God’s works but not where we expect

In this guest blog (originally found on graceformuslims.org), Andrew Smith reports on churches in Muslim communities around Birmingham. He reflects on the ways of God in “his” mission in the world. What is he doing and how can Evangelicals co-operate with him in it?

Church No.1                                                                                                                                                                               

A church invited a group from a Shia mosque to attend Midnight Mass; Carol Services; Easter Day and a confirmation service. The church also went to events at the mosque. Real friendships are being built as the church had conservative Deobandis who sometimes sat with Shia Muslims during the service. The church also put on a shared lunch, where church members and Muslim guests mingled. The church allowed Muslims to pray in a side area of the building so they could stay for lunch; Shia and Deobandis prayed together.

Church No.2                                                                                                                                                                

Another church has run events for local Christian and Muslim families over the past few years. This has led to joint Christian/Muslim social-action projects and increased numbers of social events and friendships between individuals. This year Muslims came to the Christingle service, Midnight Mass and the Christmas morning service. The Christmas morning service was filmed by a Pakistani Muslim TV channel broadcast in Pakistan and shared widely on Facebook.

Church No.3                                                                                                                                                                          

A church of about 100 people has had increasing numbers of Iranians join the church where about 35 are regular attenders; many of these are from Muslim family backgrounds and they have faced real persecution in Iran. The Anglican church has baptised and confirmed a large number of these in the past few years and many are in regular discipleship groups.

Church No.4                                                                                                                                                                          

Finally another church has about 70 people attending its traditional Midnight Mass. Half of these were people of different faiths many of whom went up for a blessing during communion. The priest said to me: ‘They want us to be authentic; they are not looking for us to change anything. They come for the experience of a Christian service.’

I’m sure these stories aren’t unique to Birmingham and I’m sure they will be a source of great encouragement to many Christians. So why did I call this ‘God’s at work – but not where we were expecting’? It’s because none of these Anglican churches is Evangelical; in fact they would describe themselves as “liberal Anglo-Catholic”. They use traditional liturgies, the clergy wear robes and there are candles and incense in many services. At least two would not see their calling as ‘evangelism’ and explicitly say they don’t ‘evangelise’ (including the church with the Iranian believers). Yet through their ministry Muslims are encountering the Christian faith in an authentic, active way and some are choosing to convert.

What are these churches doing that attracts people of other faiths in this way?

Well – they…

1)      are “incarnational” living and worshipping in and among the local community

2)      offer an unconditional welcome

3)      use liturgy that is clearly Christian but makes little attempt at “relevance” or “contextual”

4)      have a strong commitment to a corporate prayer life in the church.

5)      don’t do “altar calls” or ask people to change; they simply worship, pray and welcome

6)      are committed to building good friendships with people of different faiths

7)      are willing to be “guests” as well as “hosts” by going to where the others are and respect their faith even when they disagree with it

So what lessons can Evangelicals learn from this? Well – let’s…

1)      remember it’s God’s mission not ours (the missio dei). We join in with him; not he with us.

2)      rejoice God’s at work in such  churches and support them with our prayers.

3)      learn from their example

4)      humbly recognise we don’t have all the answers or the monopoly on God’s activity

5)      keep our eyes open to what God’s actually doing rather than what we think he ought to do

These churches don’t have all the answers, nor am I suggesting we should slavishly copy them; what I am saying is we have much to learn here, about the way God works as much as about the way churches behave. Maybe the mix of confident, traditional Christian worship combined with low key (or non-existent) evangelism is a more attractive mix for some people of different faiths, something we should explore.

Source: Canon Dr Andrew Smith, Director of Interfaith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham