Missionaries have historically found Muslims to be among the most difficult group to evangelize.
Not only is their commitment to Islam typically strong, but Islamic law treats conversion to another religion as a crime that can be punished with the death penalty. Other Muslim-dominant countries may stop short of capital punishment, but their anti-apostasy laws can bring prison sentences. Indigenous Christian churches might be allowed, but Christians are usually forbidden to evangelize Muslims or to give them Bibles.
For Muslims who live in Western countries, converting to Christianity can mean complete repudiation from their families. And sometimes family members carry out the death penalty themselves.
Nevertheless, today the Holy Spirit is bringing untold numbers of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.
Lutheran journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto has written extensively about the phenomenon. Recently, an academic journal has published an article about the surge of Christianity in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Christianity Today has a story about the plight of immigrant converts in Europe; and the Wall Street Journal has an op-ed about Muslim converts in the United States.
According to Shay Katiri, writing in Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, “Islam is the fastest shrinking religion there [in Iran], while Christianity is growing the fastest.” In 1994, there were some 100,000 Christians in Iran, mostly members of very ancient churches — Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean. In 2018, the U.S. State Department estimated that there were 500,000 Christian converts from Muslim families. Today the estimate is between one and three million.
Most of the Christian converts in Iran are women. Their beliefs are evangelical. They meet in secret in underground churches in each other’s homes. The women share contraband Bibles and are spreading the Gospel to other women whom they know. A documentary entitled Sheep Among Wolves, available free online, tells their story.
The most visible conversions to Christianity are taking place among the large number of Muslim immigrants in Europe. This is happening particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, where confessional Lutheran church bodies and mission organizations are especially active in evangelizing, catechizing and baptizing thousands of former Muslims. This is not due to any particular outreach programs. Rather, Muslims are showing up to pastor’s studies and mission houses, asking about Jesus.
Secular officials, often skeptical of the conversions, think that they are simply attempting to gain asylum and thus permanent residency in the new country. Often, non-believing immigration officials subject the applicant to a Bible trivia test — “When is Pentecost?” or “How many books are there in the Bible?” — to determine if they are “really Christians.” If they fail, they are sent back to their home countries to face persecution or even death.
Christianity Today recently published an article by Ken Chitwood on how European pastors are pushing back against that practice, urging that consistent standards be applied for those seeking religious asylum and asking that pastors be allowed to testify about the sincerity of a person’s faith.
The article quotes a pastor from the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK), which is in fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), who has become internationally known for his work with Muslim immigrants converting to Christianity:
Gottfried Martens, pastor of a Lutheran church associated with the Missouri Synod in the Steglitz neighborhood of Berlin … cares for more than 1,000 baptized Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani Christians in his church and is currently instructing hundreds more in preparation for baptism.
Skeptics say conversion can be an easy route to asylum. But Martens — who has hands-on experience with thousands of refugee converts — disagrees. The process is intimate and thorough. While he admits that there may be people who try to cheat the system, Martens puts every convert through an intensive examination before Baptism.
Muslims are also converting to Christianity in the United States, but, ironically, our freedom of religion poses its own complications.
A Wall Street Journal article by Daniel Pipes, “When Muslims Leave the Faith,” says that 100,000 Muslims in America leave their faith every year. Currently, there are 3.5 million American Muslims, but more than a fourth of the total number has left the religion.
Yet, only 22 percent of those who leave become Christians. Half of them, exposed to postmodern secularism, leave religion altogether, joining the ranks of the nones.
Meanwhile, about 100,000 Americans convert to Islam every year. “Similar trends prevail in Western Europe,” observes Pipes, “where conversions in and out of Islam appear roughly to balance out.”
When Islam meets secularism, some secularists convert to Islam, and some Muslims convert to secularism. Some Muslims also convert to Christianity, especially in the context of persecution, hardship and the prospect of martyrdom.