I would like to suggest that my preferred definition of “mission” is determining what God is doing in His world and partnering with Him. In the Muslim world this becomes very important because there are a number of challenges that confront us in our missionary endeavours. If we are out there on our own trying to figure out how to deal with them, devoid of divine presence or help, it will be most discouraging. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are, indeed, working as partners with God. Islam presents us with a host of challenges. This includes numbers–a billion two hundred million people. It includes a massive geographical spread and more than 930 distinct people groups. In terms of diversity, Islam is a challenge because of all the differences between Muslims. Another is the wholism we encounter. There is no division of sacred and secular; Islam comes as a total package, concerned about economics, education, politics and every realm of society. In other words, Muslim ministry is no easy task.
And, of course, we are challenged by Islam’s militancy, backed by the resources of oil money in the Middle East. It’s ability to move into a new cultural area and leave intact multitudes of things whereas Christianity is often perceived of being disruptive. One of the biggest challenges is that we are Westerners, and by that identification we are perceived as colonists and imperialists. There is skepticism when we declare that we may disagree with the foreign policy of our government. Finally, we are challenged by issues of the heart, that is, it is easy to fall into a pattern of not quite liking these folks.
While the gospel is always the key to winning Muslims, and it is true the Holy Spirit is always the one who brings conviction of truth, there are a multitude of influences flowing together to bring unprecedented response. Media, especially radio and Bible correspondence courses are reaching into places we have always considered closed to Christian witness. An increase in refugees fleeing persecution and suffering bring with them a theology of seeking for something that will minister to their spiritual hunger. In Northern Africa from Mauritania to Egypt, throughout the Middle East, in Turkey and Iran and from Afghanistan to Indonesia, the numbers are not large, but God is creating responsiveness.
What are some of the factors that are resulting in the seeds being planted in the Muslim world and signs of a harvest beginning to emerge?
- Number one is God’s timing. Remember the passage in Acts 18 where Paul is in Corinth and is discouraged. The Lord said, “Don’t be afraid; don’t be silent.” Literally He says, “Quit being afraid, Paul. I have many people in this city.” Well, he didn’t have many church members there at the time. So, it seems what the Lord was saying is, “Paul, I got here before you. Thanks for finally showing up, brother. And I have been at work here in social, political, cultural, economic and familial things. I have created some heart longings out there, and the folks may not know what they are longing for and how to articulate the question if you ask them, but don’t give up. Don’t be silent. Press ahead and take advantage of the responsiveness I have created.”
- Where Muslims are coming to faith, you typically find some sort of contextualized strategies. Obviously, contextualization gets widely debated in Christian mission circles, and it means different things to different people, but at one level we are all contextualists. If you believe the Bible ought to be in Arabic for Arabs, then that’s contextualization. Translation is contextualization. So the question is not contextualization but how much is appropriate and effective. How can we make radio and tracts more meaningful within specific cultures. And even the same materials will not necessarily work with urban populations that work in the villages. We need to remove unnecessary barriers in communicating the gospel.
- Quality of life is a factor in whether or not our message will be received. Just as food varies in different cultures, what is considered acceptable behavior is not necessarily the same as we would recognize it in America. Holiness, godliness and piety is to a degree culturally defined. For example, Muslims are people of prayer. Do they ever see us pray? Our form is to go into our closet, shut the door and speak to the Father in private. There are Muslims who have said of humanitarian workers in their midst that they are wonderful people who serve and help us; it is too bad they are not going to heaven since they are not praying people. But when our piety is lived out in a way that can be seen, it becomes a factor in bringing inquiry and drawing people to faith.
- Where Muslims are being won in large numbers, people have discovered ways to encourage national converts to stay in contact with their kin. Sometimes it is difficult for that to happen, but too often in the past our strategies have been that of extraction of a new believer from his community and remove any potential influence and impact. Yes, we are concerned for their safety, but our perception of conversion is too individualistic. In Muslim cultures the priority is family and community, and many places the gospel is taking root in a communal context.
- Another element is signs and wonders. Although God chose to use these frequently in the New Testament church, there are many Christians who have difficulty with that language and freak out. But we could very well say, “God’s divine action.” Actually, this is the most prominent and widespread factor where large numbers of Muslims are coming to faith. Obviously, it is imperative to get the word of God into the hands of people–exposure to God’s word is a crucial part of the process, as well as ongoing prayer. But God is working through visions and dreams and miracles to break down barriers and open their hearts to the word.
- Finally, we must recognize why traditional evangelism, the way we typically do it in the West, doesn’t work very well. It is usually single dimensional, abstract, and contrary to how Muslims learn. It needs to be more in the form of a story that presents a picture. Presenting propositional truth doesn’t communicate to the diversity found among folk Muslims, mystical Muslims or orthodox Muslims. We tend to ignore Islamic values and witness from the perspective of a Western mindset. We tend to be direct when great value is placed on ambiguity and relationship. We often ignore the whole of issue of honor which stands at the hardened core of Islamic societies. The last thing you want to do is get into a win/lose situation. Where the gospel is taking root, Christian witnesses have learned to talk and share with respect instead of confronting and offending that which is most cherished in his or her life.
We need to be aware of another issue that is rather perplexing. Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction against a growing sense of secularism. The secularism of the West is a threat to Muslims. They see the danger of its accompanying carnality and emphasis on individualism (democracy?) as shaking the foundations of the kind of society they value. So you get a rising fundamentalism. That may appear to be one of the biggest enemies of the gospel. But I’m not so sure. It may cause a lot of pain and make for difficult working situations, but many are seeing its extremities and come away disenchanted. “If that is Islam, I don’t want it.” It is happening in Iran, Afghanistan and many places across the Muslim world.
From the Archives: Dr. Robert Douglas, Director of the Zwemer Institute, (1984-1996) presented the following at a Muslim Awareness Conference in 1994.