My current language helper is a man who has heard the gospel countless times. He has been helping my colleagues and partners learn the local language for several years now. And that means he has gotten a steady and gloriously unrelenting dose of gospel truth for a long time. He has not professed faith. However, he has read much of the Bible, even memorized portions, and has distanced himself considerably from Islam. He now considers himself a Qur’ani, a type of Muslim who rejects all the Islamic Hadith (authoritative traditions) and the Muhammad they describe. Much of everyday Islamic practice and theology is dependent on the Hadith. Limiting one’s self to the Qur’an alone is to essentially embrace a faith that is considered heretical to most Muslims. My hope is that this is only a way-station for my tutor, evidence that he has grasped the deeply different message of the Bible and that he is seriously (though slowly) wrestling with it.
When I have a local friend like this, I’m not always sure how I should proceed with direct evangelism when they have had so much truth shared with them by so many and have not yet responded. There is a danger of their heart being hardened as they get used to hearing the same message and yet there is also the possibility of one more good word shared being the straw that breaks the camel’s back (in a good way). I will often chew on if there are ways to expose them to other complimentary things that could add to the case made by gospel words they’ve heard so often.
Many of us tend to do this with family members and friends who have heard a great deal of gospel truth and yet are not yet believers. We weigh whether right now is the best time to go direct. Or, if now is a better time to let what has already been shared rest on their heart and mind, and to instead focus on modeling a gospel-transformed life, exposing them to beauty or hospitality or friendship or other categories that could play a part in their eventual surrender to Jesus. It’s a tension. I try to navigate it by regularly praying for opportunities to share the gospel. If the gospel is on the tip of my tongue, and I’m praying for chances to go direct, then I feel a much greater peace about not sharing it directly sometimes in relationships like this.
One of my supporting emphases with my tutor has been to share with him a lot of information about how people from his people group and other people groups are becoming followers of Jesus – and about the history of ancient Christianity in Central Asia. What am I trying to accomplish in this? Well, this tutor has grown up in a society where the overwhelming amount of his fellow countrymen are Muslims and can’t imagine being Christians. It’s not even considered an option. In the mysteries of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, there is something in the human mind that tends to be more spiritually open to those social streams that have precedence among one’s neighbors and ancestors. Those are viewed as the honorable, good, or at least decent, options.
For example, in my focus people group a person can be a Muslim. That is what is assumed and what is held out as the ideal. But interestingly, at least two other groups have managed to establish themselves as possibilities for identity – something a local could embrace and still be considered basically a member of his people group. These two groups would be the communists and the Zoroastrians. In the mind of most locals, it’s best by far to be a Muslim. But if you absolutely must apostatize, then it’s on some level acceptable to become a communist or a Zoroastrian. These are tolerable options. To become a Christian? That’s still not considered an option on the table.
Hence my attempt to share a lot of stories and data with my tutor about believers from his people group and region, current and past. I want his brain to begin to shift such that by repeated exposure to the idea that others like him have followed Jesus, he might begin to think and feel that it is an option for him as well. Now, I am under no illusions that this is the key to him being born again. The lightning of gospel conviction will have to strike. Only the Spirit can do that. And yet, switching metaphors, I am going to put as many rocks as I can out on top of the icy lake in hopes that when the sun rises, the ice will break and all the rocks will sink to the bottom. Perhaps the sun will even warm those stones such that the ice breaks sooner because of their presence.
I remember hearing a missions trainer years ago share about something he called the hundred monkeys principle. Apparently thousands of monkeys at some point were introduced to an island where there had previously been no monkey population. Researchers studied how they adapted to their new environment. These monkeys were not used to the ocean and so stayed a safe distance away from it. One day an adventurous monkey decided to take a bath in the ocean. The rest watched from their perches in the trees and didn’t join him. After a while of this monkey bathing alone, one more monkey joined him. It was only the two of them for the longest time, until at last there came a third. The number of monkeys not afraid to bathe in the ocean increased one-by-one, incrementally, until it reached ninety nine monkeys. But to the researchers’ amazement the following day there were thousands of monkeys bathing in the ocean. This 99th monkey represented some kind of sociological tipping point for the monkey population. A switch flipped somewhere internally. Now bathing in the ocean was actually a mainstream option.
Similar things happen with human populations. A given custom is viewed as not possible for “people like us.” The early adopters get persecuted and kicked out. But one day, if the adopters keep on increasing, that same custom is viewed as an acceptable option. As I recall, the other possible outcome of reaching this tipping point might not be a general acceptance of the new belief or custom, but could also be large-scale persecution as that movement is suddenly viewed by the mainstream as a very serious threat. Drawing on memory alone, I recall hearing this tipping point being somewhere in the range of 10% – 13%. Any sociologists or missiologists out there will have to correct me if this is off. For a parallel in the West, pay attention to the increasingly-heated rhetoric on immigration once the foreign-born reach this same threshold.
By sharing (safely) with my tutor about others from his people group who have believed, I am trying to nudge him to be more open to being one of the early adopters – and maybe someday even part of the tipping point. We’re a long way from that percentage currently as I write this post. There are always those who must be the first. And their salvation is extra miraculous in that they take a step that no one from their people group has ever taken before. Surely there is some special honor for these pioneers in eternity. But my tutor doesn’t have to be the first. And though I can’t fully explain it, he needs to know that. I am under obligation to do anything that I can do to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel – cultural, sociological, whatever, such that the gospel itself is the primary offense. Normalize the idea of people like him following Jesus, and that could be one of the many steps the Holy Spirit uses to prepare him for that piercing moment of new birth.
After all, there’s no sense wrestling with the idea of being the first monkey to ever wash in the ocean when you’re actually monkey number forty seven. Others have blazed the trail, so let’s know and feel that deep down inside, and then turn back and consider the invitation yet another time.