Look over your shoulder after you take your next sip of that latté. The man sitting three tables back that glances occasionally in your direction is likely with the king’s security force. We think he is also the one who drives by the meeting house where you go on first-days to say the forbidden words that will land you in jail…if your lucky. Those words? Jesus Christ is risen.
So went the testimony of one young man living in one of the discipleship houses, that we call connexion houses, near the university. His testimony stunned all of us and proved to be, along with his inspirational presence, one of the catalysts for transformation at the connexion house last semester. His was an arduous story of conversion from Islam in North Africa, which culminated in an encounter with our risen Lord in an Isa dream. Providentially, through a labyrinthine series of mutual connections, he had landed on the doorstep of the Balmforth house. I wasn’t sure if he would understand what it meant to participate in our ministry and live in a Christian community. But he never blinked, decided to move in on-the-spot, and (to everyone’s surprise) began to minister to the young people living there.
The nature of Christian groups matters
What makes his story so striking isn’t really the intrigue, the persecution, or the courage of conviction. What is striking, if you hear the whole tale, is the sincerity of the relationships of the people that were the conduits for his conversion. He was an Arabic scholar and a conservative Muslim, who, in a well-meaning way, had convinced his sisters to veil themselves in public. He stumbled across a French Bible, read it, and in an Islam class innocently corrected a teacher who made an error in referring to Christian belief.
Think of him as the guy at the front of the class with his hand in the air unable to refrain from sharing his knowledge. His comment and apparent knowledge of the Bible caught the attention of a young lady who approached him after class. Why had he known about the Bible? Eventually, his innocent comment earned him an invitation into an underground Christian community comprised of generations of Christians that had survived government harassment by staying under the radar.
Three years of friendship followed. He came to love these people so sincerely that he resolved secretly to convert them to Islam. The most remarkable thing of his account of these meetings with these Arab Christian people was not so much the content of their exchanges, but the quality of the group of believers that welcomed him. He was aghast at their goodness toward each other, which he had thought was unattainable by those who did not follow the Koran. This group of people were upright, kind, and morally straight individuals who loved and cared for one another. He loved being part of this group, spending time with them, engaging them in conversation about Jesus.
When I thought that he wouldn’t understand what it meant to live out Christ’s call to love God and neighbor in a residential discipleship house, I couldn’t have been further off the mark. After all, it was his experience of the Christian community that drew him in close enough that the risen Christ could lay hands on him.
Invite students to think about the culture of their group
One major take-away from having an Arabic Christian walk with us for a season was to force us to be more purposeful about inviting students to think about the culture of their student groups. Questions inside our connexion house invariably arose with our foreign observer…Is the TV the idol of your “living” room? Why do you say difficult things by text and not face to face? Why do you think watching TV is time “together?” Why is the kitchen table not used? Why do you prefer not to prepare shared meals? Why are students “too” busy for household meeting? Suddenly, how we answered these questions had relevance as a matter of Christian practice.
Students (and especially Christian students) should not disregard the unlikely miracle of their association. There are after all places where associating is neither possible nor legal. Students must be invited to think about the culture, structure, and practices of their groups and how transformative they can be. One of the greatest poisons in our connexion houses is not conflict about who is washing the dishes or whose empty Chick-Fil-A bag is on the kitchen table. It is an assiduous apathy taken by the few who never take a personal stake in the house asking: How does being Jesus followers make our missional group/household fundamentally different from any of the other thousands of groups/houses out there?
When Christians come together, and especially when they voluntarily reside together, they create a small-scale society of Jesus. Students must be told that the reflection of that society, the culture of that group, will have the power to draw people in close enough to literally meet our risen Lord.
Joshua Gahr is the Executive Director of Connexion House, Inc., a ministry that plants Christ-centered discipleship houses for university students and young adults in Austin and Central Texas. If you or your students have thought about living together while you pursue your ministry and academic pursuits, see how we can help at www.connexionhouse.org .