A Lasting Legacy of Samuel and Amy Zwemer in Bahrain
Despite winning only a handful of converts, Samuel Zwemer was the greatest missionary the United States has ever sent to the Muslim world. Of him, the historian Kenneth Latourette said, “No one is more deserving of the title, ‘Apostle to Islam.’” He was a gifted evangelist, a prolific author, a compelling speaker, and a dedicated professor—never deviating from this message: Muslims need Jesus, and Christians need to reach them.
When Zwemer was asked to be the keynote speaker at the very first Urbana missions conference in 1946 (before it was called “Urbana”), he chose the theme “The Cross in Christ’s Commission.” This was seven years into his “retirement,” and six years before his death.
World War II had just ended the year before. The world was reeling under the uncertainties of atomic weapons and how the new antagonistic superpowers would go forward. Zwemer began his message,
All of Christendom and the best thinkers of the non-Christian world face the New Year with deep forebodings and a consciousness of crisis. It may be doubted whether there has ever been a time when the Christian church was beset by so many and such powerful foes. . . . Everywhere we read of persecution, closing of doors, bitter opposition, the patience of unanswered prayer, or the flaming sword of martyrdoms. The Christian church is under fire in a hostile world — a world of disillusionment and hopelessness.
This was seventy years ago. It reminds us that there never has been an ideal time for a great missionary movement. The time is always now. Into this setting, Zwemer spoke the only message that he believed could carry the day in such a world: the message of the cross…
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.
Where Muslims are coming to faith, you typically find some sort of contextualized strategies. Obviously, contextualization gets widely debated in Christian mission circles. Translation is contextualization. So the question is not contextualization but how much is appropriate and effective. We need to remove unnecessary barriers in communicating the gospel.
Where Muslims are being won in large numbers, people have discovered ways to encourage national converts to stay in contact with their kin. 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. 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.
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.
The Zwemer Center can be traced back to “the Muslim Research Institute” of the US Center for World Mission, Pasadena, CA in September 1977. It was founded to undertake the concentrated research needed to finally open the Muslim world to the Gospel.
The following year, a “Muslim Evangelization” conference in 1978 was held at Colorado Springs, that co-opted the Board of the Muslim Research Institute. It added several members to it and commissioned them to develop an institute to serve the missionary community. The community they had in mind was yet a fledgling community of missionaries to Muslims. The Institute was to undertake much-needed research to discover who our Muslim neighbors (local and global) are, what they believe and practice, and then explore and experiment with new initiatives to present them with the Gospel.
Reaching back into history to find a suitable name, the Board chose the name of Samuel Zwemer. He was the greatest missionary America had ever sent to the Muslim world and earned the title “Apostle to Islam.” Zwemer lived and traveled in North Africa and the Middle East, mobilized students for missions, founded and edited the academic journal “Moslem World,” taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, and wrote about 50 books about Muslims and the religion of Islam. He also wrote tracts in Arabic for evangelistic purposes.