Due to the incredible turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere and the resulting mass migration of many Muslims to Europe and the Americas, the Church has an unparalleled opportunity to build relationships with Muslims and introduce them to Jesus. Many in the Church would like to respond to this opportunity but wonder how to go about connecting with Muslims. Responding to this growing need a number of ministries have stepped up their training efforts to help.
The ministries primarily involved in these training efforts advocate for one of three approaches: Polemics, Apologetics, or Building Bridges. In this post I will take a look at these three approaches and identify some strengths as well as some weaknesses. After doing so I will present a fourth alternative. Let’s call it Life Together.
Now, some wonder which approach is the best. Well, there is no best approach. The approach each person adopts depends on gifting, training, preferences, and one’s context. Even though people may get training in polemics, apologetics, or building bridges, some find that none of these approaches match well with their personalities, gifting, and their life contexts. Life Together is an approach that is doable for most people but the least known. As more and more learn about this approach, they are invigorated in the discovery that this aligns best with who they are and how they naturally connect with others.
Let’s look at the polemic approach. Polemics by nature is confrontational. It seeks to counter the truth claims of another faith. So, the polemicist is somewhat aggressive, pointing out the errors in the internal logic of the Quran and the Hadith. The polemicist also highlights the historical errors that surface in Islamic sacred texts and in the narratives that have developed over time surrounding the Prophet of Islam.
Nowadays, the expert Christian polemicist is Jay Smith. No one does the polemic approach better. Jay regularly debates Muslim evangelists in Hyde’s Park in London; and some of his debates and presentations are accessible on YouTube.
Not to be outdone, Muslims have their polemicists as well. Zakir Naik, from India, is currently the most popular. Zakir Naik has about 16 million Facebook followers and 150,000 Twitter followers. In 2006, Naik founded the satellite channel, Peace TV, and televises his many public presentations. In his presentations he identifies in rapid succession what he considers to be the inherent flaws in Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, or secularism. Though someone trained in the faith will find his arguments against Christianity weak, Naik’s rhetoric is convincing to his particular audience and his style is entertaining.
As you can imagine, the strength of the polemic approach is that it negates the truth claims and highlights the flaws in another faith. Thus, those who are seriously thinking about matters of faith or who want their own faith strengthened may find the arguments helpful. However, there are weaknesses. First, it takes a special calling, a good academic background in Islam and Christianity, and considerable expertise to do polemics well. This is not an approach for the average person. Second, since the polemic approach attacks the beliefs of others, if people were to use these arguments with their Muslim colleagues, neighbors, and friends, this could end the relationship.
The second approach Christians use is the apologetic approach. Whereas polemics seeks to negate the truth claims of other faiths, apologetics strives to defend one’s own faith by uncovering the flaws in the arguments used against it. The current Christian apologist par excellence is Nabeel Qureshi. You can see Nabeel Qureshi in action on YouTube.
Apologetics is less confrontational than polemics; so, it is not as potentially harmful to one’s relationships. However, it does frame discussions in an “us against them” manner, which is often detrimental for relationships. Apologetics as an approach can be helpful for those who are seriously considering the claims of the Christian faith. It answers many of the questions that they are asking. It is also helpful for strengthening believers, new and old. Apologetics helps people see through the arguments used against the faith, as well as see the value, substance, and rationality of the faith.
Like polemics, the apologetic approach requires a strong background in the Christian faith, in Islam, in logic, and in debate. When people see Nabeel Qureshi in action, they quickly realize how much talent and anointing are needed to do apologetics well. So, the average believer probably lacks the gifting. In addition, if apologetic arguments are used poorly or at the wrong time, it could end a potentially meaningful relationship.
The approach that may be more suitable for the average person is the Building Bridges approach. It encourages believers to make meaningful relationships with Muslims and spend time with them. Muslims are to be seen as potential friends, not potential threats. These relationships are intended to function as bridges for the Gospel.
The main advocate for the Building Bridges approach is Fouad Masri. Fouad grew up in the Middle East and knows intuitively how Muslims value their relationships. Fouad understands that these relationships can create the platforms by which believers can have spiritually oriented conversations with their Muslim friends. When these relationships are formed, Fouad suggests that we be intentional in directing our conversations toward matters of faith.
The beauty of this approach is that it encourages everyone to build caring relationships with Muslims. Not everyone has the gifting or skills to adopt the polemic or the apologetic approaches; but, building bridges is something everyone can do.
Even though this approach works for Fouad, and he is very good in what he does, others may find that the approach doesn’t fit well with their personalities and giftings. First, Fouad advocates for directing conversations toward sharing something about the faith. Most people can tell when topics are forced. Consequently, most of us are uncomfortable directing conversations in this way. Second, Fouad adopts a subtle form of apologetics in his conversations. Third, some of the ways he describes our faith are schematized, which reinforce some of the misunderstandings Muslims have about our faith.
This is where the fourth approach stands apart from the other approaches. It is what I call Life Together. This is something everyone can do. It allows us to live out and talk about our faith in natural, integrated, and non-intrusive ways.
So, what is this approach?
It is simply taking the time to enjoy friendship with Muslims, bringing them into our lives and doing stuff together: eating, going to the movies, celebrating birthdays, weddings, funerals, going to Christmas parties, and other special religious events, like dedications and baptisms. When we do life together our Muslim friends get to see how we live and how we act toward others. They see the life of Jesus flowing out of our lives.
There is nothing more authentic than doing life together. It demonstrates who we really are.
In addition, if we are authentic followers of Christ, Jesus shapes our thoughts, our words, our actions, and our relationships. As a result, our faith is integrated into our lives. The Gospel isn’t relegated to a forced conversational sound bite about how Jesus died for us. The Gospel is the visible reality of Jesus’s life and death shaping our lives, expressed through what we say and what we do not say. They see the confidence the Spirit brings into our relationships. They see that we are not immoral, that we are not drunkards. But they see so much more. They see we don’t tear others down to lift ourselves up. Others feel safe in their relationships with us. This is the fruit of the Spirit emerging in our imperfect lives.
Doing life together provides many opportunities for deeper discussions. For example, after watching a movie, we can openly reflect on what we saw, what we liked, and what we didn’t. Nowadays, even in PG-rated movies the protagonists end up sleeping together while unmarried. We can say that we don’t like that; and we can explain why.
In this kind of interaction our Muslim friends discover our values. And from where do our values come? From the Word of God. It is only natural to bring up the source of our values in such a conversation. It is natural to talk about moral ethics and the Ten Commandments in a conversation with Muslims. Muslims respect it when we point to our moral law.
As we do life together, our Muslim friends see and hear in authentic and natural ways how our faith shapes our lives. This is the fragrance of Christ emanating through us. Our friends discover that the Gospel is more than a set of beliefs about Jesus – the Gospel is that which produces a “being transformed” life, a life infused with the incredible gift of the presence and power of the Living God.
There are two reasons why doing life together is so important.
First, Muslims have deeply held, negative stereotypical images of who Christians are. Most think Christians are drunkards, immoral, that our families are totally broken, that children don’t love their parents (this is why we put them in nursing homes), and that parents don’t love their children (this is why children leave home when they are 18). They also think that we are unfaithful in marriage and divorce freely. Since few Muslims ever get a chance to hang out with Christians, they rarely get to find out if their stereotypes are wrong.
The vast majority of Muslims in the world have never met a Christian. This is true even of many Muslims who have lived in Europe and the Americas for decades. Since most Muslims have never personally met a Christian, the images Muslims have of Christians are created by the news and Hollywood movies.
Second, our Muslim friends’ understanding of Christian faith is also distorted through religious stereotyping common to all religions. The common ways we talk about the Gospel tend to reinforce these stereotypes.
I once asked a Pakistani man what he thought the major difference was between Islam and Christianity. He said: “We think that when we sin we get punished. When we do right we get rewarded. You think that when you sin you get forgiven.”
What was he saying? He was saying what many Muslims think. They think we believe we can flagrantly sin (that is, commit immorality, get drunk and use drugs) and not worry about the eternal consequences because Jesus Christ will forgive us. They have a healthy fear of the Day of Judgment and a reason to at least try to do what is right. Christians, on the other hand, do not fear judgment and, therefore. have no reason to reflect on their actions.
The way we talk about our faith unfortunately reinforces this misperception. We love to use the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 or the Woman caught in Adultery in John 8 to talk about the wonderful grace and forgiveness of God. What Muslims hear when we use these parables is Christians can shamelessly sin and not worry about the consequences. Look at the story of the Prodigal Son. He didn’t suffer any consequences for doing wrong. He came back home and all was well. It is the same with the Adulterous Woman.
These stories are immensely powerful if a person is feeling guilty about their sin and looking for forgiveness. Yet, for many from honor and shame cultures guilt is not their foremost concern. In addition, a healthy sense of guilt typically comes through exposure to the Law of God or the Law of Christ. Therefore, if we listen to these parables through the ears of a Muslim, we can see how these stories reinforce their thinking that we Christians believe we can unabashedly sin and think we can get away with it because Jesus will forgive us.
Is this what we mean when we use these stories? No. But, this is what Muslims often hear. This only makes sense when we think about the stereotypes they hold of Christians.
So, how do we overcome these deeply entrenched stereotypes of who we are and what we believe?
These cannot be broken down by short conversational sound bites. We break down these stereotypes by doing life together. It is by doing life together that we allow our Muslim friends to see what we really are like and to see what we really believe. This is an authentic and integrated approach to life and ministry.
But at this point someone may say: Well, when do you share the Gospel? By this they mean: When is Jesus’ death on the cross and the need to turn from sin specifically mentioned?
This is a good question. The Life Together approach expects us to be the kind of follower of Christ that integrates our faith into our lives. It builds on the understanding that our faith is not built solely on content – though there is certainly content. Our faith is built upon: 1) the very life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus; 2) the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us when we turned to Christ; and 3) the instruction that comes from the Word of God.
Let’s unpack this a bit more. Even though the Good News includes vital content, the Good News is so much more than content. It is fundamentally an ongoing transforming relationship with the Living God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit guided by the Scriptures. Think about what this means. God has definitively acted on our behalf in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; and Jesus, when we turn to him in repentance and faith, pours out upon us his Holy Spirit. The Spirit sets us free from that which enslaves us and makes this freedom evident in our lives.
Another significant and vital aspect of the Gospel is the Spirit’s ongoing transformation of our thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, and actions. These are changing and are being gradually conformed to the standards we discover in the Scripture. This Spirit-directed process of learning and changing is the outworking of the Gospel. This integration opens our Muslim friends’ eyes, minds, and hearts; and they see that our beliefs connect us to God who transforms our lives.
Integration is so vital, but it is hindered by our tendency to compartmentalize the faith. Our educational and cultural training in the west teaches us to compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives. We divide up our educational spaces into different subjects, such as, math, biology, chemistry, history, English, and more. We put students in grades according to their ages. We compartmentalize people according to ages and marital status. We also treat the aspects of our lives as different compartments, as different drawers in a cabinet. Work, family, hobbies, church, and faith all become separate drawers in the cabinet of our lives.
Yet, our faith is not supposed to be relegated to one of the drawers in the cabinet of our lives. When we turn to Christ, Jesus comes to live within us. He not only lives within us, he becomes the center of our lives. Jesus and the Spirit are like leaven, permeating and transforming everything we think and do.
Therefore, our faith is more like a spider’s web than one of the drawers in a cabinet. Anywhere you touch a spider’s web, you connect with the center. In like manner, if you touch any aspect of a believer’s life, you connect with Jesus. This is integration.
Doing life together is a valid and necessary part of proclaiming the Gospel. When our Muslim friends see the impact of Jesus upon us, they become open to listen to our explanations of who makes us the way we are.
So, when do we share the Gospel?
In the compartmentalized life, the Gospel is treated as a special set of words, relegated to one drawer in the filing cabinet that often stays closed because we rarely have the opportunity to open it and pull out the contents.
In contrast, when we integrate our faith into our lives, we are always in some way sharing something about the Gospel, no matter what we are doing, no matter what we are talking about. As our relationships deepen, our sharing also deepens. People want to know the source of the hope and the love that they see in us. As relational respect grows with our Muslim friends, we have more and more natural opportunities to proclaim Christ crucified, risen, ascended, living within us, and calling all to live under his loving Lordship. In this way the richness and the beauty of the Gospel is proclaimed fully, and we find ourselves doing what Jesus commanded us to do in Matthew 28:20: “teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.”
P. Krayer is the executive director of the US office of Interserve. He worked in South Asia for nearly thirty years.