Ecumenical & Interfaith, Muslim Ministry
Is Our Goal to Dialogue or Evangelize Our Muslim Neighbors?
March 20, 2017
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In promoting dialogue with our Muslim neighbors (and here I am thinking of the more formal structured conversation rather than informal on the street interactions) I am often asked how we can do both dialogue and witness together. Is our goal to evangelize our Muslim friends? Or is to promote social justice, community cohesion and peace? If you want to evangelize - then you enter into dialogue with a hidden agenda and that doesn't seem right to some folks. On the other hand, if you only dialogue - there seems to be a spirit of compromise that also doesn't seem right.
But Jesus gave us both the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). It doesn't seem right that Jesus would give us two conflicting commands.
Therefore as we approach Muslims we have to hold these two commands in tension. There isn't an easy answer - except to enter into relationships with a spirit of honesty and authenticity. Ultimately the goal is to form relationships and appreciate that we are all image bearers of God who should be respected and heard. We in the Reformed tradition have new opportunities to explore through dialogue, theological, social and practical subjects with Muslims and followers of other faith traditions. Hopefully, out of these interactions, long term relationships will be formed, and the light of the Gospel will shine through.
Have you noticed the tension between the Great Commandment and the Great Commission? How do we balance dialogue and evangelism?
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Thank you for your post. Let me offer some of my responses here.
About 6 years ago, when I was still working in South Korea at a Christian University, there was a public festival where a number of different organizations set up their booths and advertise their organizations, one of which was Islam of Korea. So I visited there and asked about some "recent" violence caused by the Muslims around the world. The president of the group strongly emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace, that Islam never teaches people to do violent things against any other people in any religion. We all know that it is not true. It hasn't been true since the birth of Islam. As I visit the Central Asian countries, millions of Christians (Nestorian churches and the Church of the East) were murdered by Muslim conquerers and armies for centuries. The Egyptian Christians I met in Egypt 2 years ago shared with me a long history of systematic oppressions of Islam against Christians. ISIS have been trying to eradicate Christians in the region of Iraq and Syria. Let me say that Islam is not a religion of peace! In this context, the best way to love them is to evangelize them through the medium of relationship building, community support and whole different ways of showing love and care. If Jesus were here, he would do the same. His purpose is not just having conversation with them, but teach and demonstrate the truth about the Way, the Life and the Truth through loving care.
I know their tactic in Nigeria and Europe and Asia that have worked for centuries: Once they become the majority in their country and gain political power, then they begin to oppress others and Christians by quoting later parts of Quran. Islam is still a minority religion in North America, but if and when they become the majority in this continent, then it will be too late as our countries are of democracy and each person's vote counts. What Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France are doing have merits and keen point in saying, "If you don't like our democracy and freedom, get out of this country and go back to your country." Before they become majority in Canada and the USA, we should set a high priority to evangelize (as true purpose) them to become Christians. That's best way to love them and leave a legacy of peace in this country and all over the world.
Thanks Paul for sharing your global experiences of interacting with the church in different contexts. Much of what you relate is on the minds of people in North America and I have heard it expressed quite often. In the US there is the travel ban and in Canada M-103 to study Islamophobia. There is a lot of fear of Islam in our churches, mainly due to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Students of history also warn us of what can happen when Islam is in the majority. For example, the book The Lost History of Christianity speaks of the decimation of the church in the east. On the other hand, many Muslims feel very threatened in our society today - and I believe our first reaction should be to welcome the stranger and extend a cup of water (or coffee) to our Muslim neighbors. So while not downplaying the threat to democracy of any authoritarian idealogy - I want to emphasize neighborly love and welcome - respecting the other as an image bearer and making sure their rights are protected. All this I also hope will be a powerful witness and open doors to sharing the Gospel.
Greg, your comment that "many Muslims feel threatened " needs some explanation. If we can figure out what threatens them here, we can try and understand over a cup of coffee .... and sign language!
I’m wondering if the tension we sometimes feel is because we tend to believe that we can separate the gospel from justice and peace; or that we can actually have true shalom and love without Holy Spirit-fueled redemption. Isn’t that the message of the gospel: that love and peace and justice can finally break into the world because our sin is crucified and through faith we are becoming the righteousness of God? Obviously, this is a primary argument. There are all sorts of secondary issues when dealing with people and culture. Jesus didn’t just preach and die – he grew up and walked and ate and drank and lived and laughed with the sinners he came to save. “Lifestyle evangelism” (as some call it) is right on the money, precisely because living the witness of the Kingdom day-in and day-out is not a program; it’s an abundant life with our God which is shared with neighbors. So, I’m guessing Jesus didn’t feel a lot of tension between evangelism and promoting social justice.
As to the original paragraph of the article, evangelism only seems to be a hidden agenda if you believe you have to hide Christ to truly have peace. On the other hand, if redemption is the greatest step toward true peace and justice, why would you hide Christ? The answer to the question seems to depend on how you see peace and justice realized on earth. If the victory of God over sin can come without the Son of God, then put him away and be done with him.
Thanks Michael for your words of wisdom. I think that you are right in that we are not dealing with a binary situation - evangelism versus social justice. It is more of a continuum with redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the focal point. Without that it is all rather pointless. Perhaps some are reacting to a more aggressive approach to evangelism (proselytizing) that puts so much emphasis on conversion that the individual in question becomes a target and a box to check - as opposed to a more Reformed approach involving a Kingdom perspective involving all of life - and that allegiance to King Jesus is a critical part of that. I think Kingdom living and "lifestyle evangelism" is synonymous and so we are on the same page.
Is the Muslim neighbor first a "Muslim" or is she my neighbor? It seems the jump to twin ministry options is a sort of false dichotomy. The more basic way, that pioneered by InterVarsity, is that of good old friendship evangelism (see Rebecca Piper's Out of the Saltshaker & Into The World). The command to do good to all certainly applies, as does Peter's word about us always being ready to give an account for the hope that it is us. That's not the hope of some evangelism program, but the hope of a shared life. The division between evangelism and social justice likewise misses all the occasions where our lives do intertwine, volunteering say, serving together on school's PTA, etc. These are the places where we get to know other lives, and in doing so can hear their joys and their struggles, and if we have ears, their need.
So my word is, let's make a friend.
Yes, amen. Thanks Bill. If more people would make friends with Muslims I think many people would feel more positively about this group of people. Friendships break down all kinds of barriers, dispel misconceptions that many of us hold (and I am sure that this also applies to Muslim about Christians). The dilemma is that it is hard to get people to befriend a group that they are suspicious of or hold negative views of. So it is a Catch -22 senario. But I do agree that serving on neighborhood committees, PTA, volunteering - these are all good ways to connect with people who hold other world views. This can be a very stretching experience but necessary in an increasingly pluralistic world.
Our interfaith dialog group has openly addressed Greg's question a number of times.
I have been in a situation where I felt some participants in a dialog group wanted to show that we Christians and Muslims were basically the same. Neither I nor the Muslims in our group wanted to go down that road. It isn't fun to be "evangelized" in a dialog group; it made me feel unsafe.
We do urge everyone to represent their religion deeply and well. Our group dialogues have led me to dig more deeply into our tradition and find ways to express it in understandable language. This has really helped me grow!
Thanks for the practical example Michael. Doug Kindschi talks about thin dialogue and thick dialogue. If I understand the concept right, thin dialogue is thinking that we are basically the same. Thick dialogue is representing our faith deeply and well as you said.
Sounds like a dilemma to me. Do we evangelize or dialog? Which side do we err on? You mention that this concern is raised in the structured setting of formal conversation rather than informal dialog. But then you ask, is our goal to evangelize our Muslim friends? That sounds less than the formal setting.
If the conversation is formal with a goal of reaching agreement on social justice, community cohesion and peace, why would evangelization (talk of Christ’s saving benefits) even be brought into the conversation? That would incite division immediately. It would be seen as a Christian attempt to push the Christian religion as the religious answer to social justice or community peace. If the Muslim party involved in this dialog attempted to promote their religion as the answer to social injustice, you as a Christian would, no doubt, be insulted, as well. Most people don’t see religion as the answer to social and community needs.
As to personal relationships, I’d say, be careful. The only religion that is attractive to another is one’s own religion (a general principle). Just as the gospel is foolishness to those outside of Christianity, so the gospel of the Islamic religion is foolishness to those outside of Islamic circles. Test for yourself. What gospel outside of Christianity do you find to be attractive? Probably none. And those outside of Christian circles don’t really want to hear about the Christian faith. It is “foolishness” as Paul says. So if any of these responders came close to a good approach to a Muslim, I’d say Bill Harris comes closest. As a Christian, be a friend with no hidden agenda. If there comes a time in which your Muslim neighbor wants to talk religion, let them ask. Otherwise, just be a caring friend. And you and your friend will likely both be richer for the relationship.
Thanks for your comment, Roger. But as a Christian, I don't know why the agenda should be "hidden." We are called to be followers of Christ. Christ commanded us to spread the gospel all over the world, including our neighbors. Being a friend is wonderful. We need to do that. But having a hope for our Muslim neighbor to become a Christ-follower to be saved (as those suicide Muslim terrorists won't go to Muslim version of heaven although that's what they believe) is even greater. That hope should not be hidden agenda. It should be our agenda. Paul said that he became to all men to win as many as possible. His goal was not hidden at all, I don't think.
I think at least part of the answer about balancing evangelism and dialog lies in authentic relationship, being willing to be open and vulnerable with others. If I'm open with others, and Christ is in me, then others will see Christ there as I'm honest and open with who I am. We are called to BE witnesses; it's something we are not something we do. Although even that is a false dichotomy because our words and actions also come from who we are. We need to live as authentic Christians in the world, wherever God has called us. If we did that better, I believe we would see the Lord use us to draw others to himself. What if we truly loved our neighbor as we love ourselves? Can we even imagine it? The context of authentic relationship seems to me to be a valuable tool in God's hand. Cultivating those relationships, for their own sake is important. It's like working the soil so that it can perhaps be ready for any seed that might be sown (remember from the parable how important the soil is; preparing the soil is critically important in providing the right environment for the seed to sprout and grow). One might sow while another reaps, but it's God that does the real work. Spending time with others around areas of common concern is a great way to build genuine relationships. Justice and community issues provide a great opportunity. I loved working in the field of domestic and sexual violence, something I'm passionate about, with others who are not Christian. I often felt a greater camaraderie and fellowship with others in those circles than I did in some of my Christian contexts. They shared my passion; and I was also free to share in the intersection of Christ and his Church. We are called to love our neighbors, whoever they are, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who will guide each step.
Sounds like a healthy approach. Thanks Bonnie.
I appreciate you raising this question, Greg. I think it's timely. I also appreciate your conclusion.
I confess a rather strong negative reaction to the idea that wanting to evangelize Muslims (or anyone) contains some kind of objectionable hidden agenda. How could there be anything objectionable about wanting others to come to know the hope of Jesus Christ and therefore being vigilant for opportunities to share that hope with them? If we really believe the gospel, what more loving desire could we possibly have for someone? Even in formal / structured settings, my hope would be that we have the desire to be as winsome as we can in whatever ways we can for the sake of drawing others to Christ.
I want to insist that there's no need to hold the Great Commandment and the Great Commission "in tension." I can't see how they contain any opposing elements. One of the most important ways in which we love our neighbours is by making disciples of Jesus.
I appreciate your comments. I do agree with you 100%. I watched a documentary about a former Baptist Christian in Texas last night who got converted to be a Muslim just prior to becoming a baptist preacher... He and his wife are openly sharing with their neighbors and friends about the "true religion" of Islam with a hope that some day American would become a strong Muslim country. They believe that if USA becomes a Muslim country, then this world will become much more peaceful world. Having studied the history of Islam expansion last 14 centuries, I know no ethnic groups that used to be Muslim becoming Christian ethnic group, but I know TONS of the opposite realities. Islam is the FASTEST growing religion in the USA. They (the Texan White Muslims) were thankful to Allah to spread Islam all over the USA after 9.11. He was thankful specifically about 9.11 because after that, many ignorant white people became curious about Islam and in the process of learning more about Islam, they realized about the beauty of Islam and they got converted. I am sad about this trend and movement. I am deeply concerned about this reality of rising Islam religion in Korea (it's growing by leaps and bounds as well) and in North America.
Paul - I just posted an article on Muslims in Europe converting to Christianity and reviving the churches there - so that is encouraging. I would be interested to know about Islam in Korea and if it is increasing - if you have info about that please share it (or email me). I think it is important to point out that Muslims still comprise only 1% of the US population (higher in Canada) so we are a long way from the US becoming a Muslim country. On the other hand, we shouldn't be complacent in our outreach to Muslims. The challenge, according to a recent Christianity Today article, is that many evangelicals do not have Muslim friends (nor do they want to).
Let me share with you and all about the growth of Islam in Korea.
See the picture first: http://www.churchheresy.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=197
1. Reasons for the growth of Islam: There are many, but these are major ones. Low birth rate among the Korean population as people enjoy wealthy lifestyle. Low labor force population in the lower class jobs. Super aging population as people live longer with better health. Islam (Middle East) world's intentional strategy to grow Islam in Korea as a strategic and fertile location for East Asia region to reach out to Japan and China.
2. In Arab League News on July 11, 1988, there was an article about Korea. "100 years ago, there was no Christians in Korea. But now Christian population is about 25%. It shows an amazing growth of Christian population. Korean people must be very religious. There are only 30,000 Muslims in Korea now, but within a few decades, Korea will become a Muslim country."
3. As to the Muslim population, the growth is like this: In 1970, 3,700 people. In 1980, 22,000 people. In 2009, 70,000 people. In 2016 (last year), the unofficial number of Muslims in Korea has reached 400,000 Muslims! Everyone who read the Arab League News in 1980 thought it was a non-sense then. Now everybody thinks it has become a reality to grapple with. Leaders of Korea estimate that by 2050, Muslim population will reach 4 million people. Currently South Korea has 50 million population. It is nearly 10%. By that time, Christian (Protestant) population will be less than Muslim population. As Muslims become "majority" in Korea, they will show their true face to establish Sharia law. They will take advantage of Korean culture and technology to reach out to Japan and China.
4. Muslim nations use Oil money for investment, scholarships for students, Mosque building projects, International marriage (big reward of $65,000) for a Muslim man who gets married to a Korean woman, as their strategies. Muslim wives are expected to give birth to many more children than Korean women, which is their century old strategy to be dominant population.
5. When I was working in Korea at a Christian University 5 years ago, there was a news article about Seoul National University where a Muslim student who wanted to go out of the classroom to pray during the prayer time yet scolded or prohibited to do so by her professor mobilized other Muslim students to threaten that professor by emails and phone calls and etc as a revenge. Seoul National University (best in the country) was under a lot of pressure from the Muslim nations' embassies to have an accommodating school policy for the Muslim students in return for significant grants to the university.
6. Japan and China are much more difficult to penetrate into the society due to the strong government's policy, but Korea is much more lenient toward Islam, they realized. Thus they chose Korea. Also they know the potential of the Korean population in sending over 20,000 missionaries all over the world. The strong religiosity of the Korean people is what they are taking advantage of. It is so sad and frustrating! I don't want to see what Islam did to Turkey (by conquering Constantinople in 1453) happen in South Korea!
Thanks for sharing that Paul. Very eye opening. As a Korean that must be very sad and frustrating. I lament with you. I pray that the Korean churches will ramp up their outreach and focus on Muslims. I suspect that they will also have to find ways to co-exist with Muslims in ways that bear witness to Christ in every day life. We have talked briefly in the past - but what kinds of strategies does the Korean Church have to prepare for this change and to equip themselves for outreach to Muslims?
There are 5 strategies: 1. Understand Islam accurately (no need for Islamaphobia) 2. Make local churches healthier and become disciples of Christ in all areas of life and live as salt and light in society 3. Embrace increasing foreigners in Korea with love and care. If not, then they will turn to Islam. 4. Increase the rate of faith transfer from older generation to younger generation instead of losing the youth into secularism/consumerism/pluralism. 5. Evangelize the Muslims intentionally unlike the Europeans and Americans who without reservation accepted Muslim immigrants last 100 years, now facing unprecedented crisis everywhere (home grown terrorists from extreme Muslims, etc).
Thanks Craig. My comments come from observing a wide variety of Christians across the theological spectrum. I agree with you. I am also cognizant that our Muslim friends are just as eager to see us adopt their faith - so being honest about this is a good start. I am not sure if this would true for other kinds of dialogues with different faith traditions but it is true for sure with Muslim-Christian dialogue.
I appreciate your posing this "dilemma." This tension, as I have come to understand it, comes from misunderstandings I have had. Maybe somewhat like my misunderstanding about the spelling of "dilemma," which I--and I think many others—always thought was d-i-l-e-m-n-a.
My limited experience with Muslim people has come through volunteering to help in resettlement of Iraqi refugee families who have become very good friends, frequently welcoming me into their homes even for the 'breaking of the fast' feast during Ramadan. However, I have been interacting in various ways with Mormon people for over forty years in a variety of settings, including structured dialog. While there are many big differences, Muslims and Mormons have certain things in common--different scriptures, a revered founding prophet, Abrahamic ancestry, and high respect for an historic Jesus. These elements, especially the last two, provide a uniqueness in our response to the Great Commission as we relate to Mormons, and I would think. Muslims also. In my experience, dialog becomes the best context for an evangelistic witness to Jesus.
One misunderstanding that I have had, is to feel that somehow I had to prove Mormonism (or Islam) wrong before there would be any openness to my explanation of the truth. This approach was almost always met defensively, and the intent of the interaction became winning an argument and making sure I got the last word. On the other hand if I actively listen to their perspective, without thinking about what my rebuttal might be and even being open to learning something valuable from their experience, defenses are reduced and an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect--and "love of neighbor"--is fostered. In that context a reasoned account of my understanding and faith in Jesus can be presented much more directly, and I find it is heard in a way that is much more likely understood in the way I intended it.
A second and related misunderstanding is to feel my role is to convert. And if that does not happen, either I failed or this person is unreachable, and so the best thing to do is not “waste” more time relating to this person, but move on to someone else and try again. But is this what Jesus really commissioned and commanded us to do? I have found it most liberating to leave the converting role to the Holy Spirit, and simply find ways to build and enjoy loving relationships and look for opportunities to relate what a loving relationship with Jesus is and can be.
Then one more misunderstanding, the one implied in your raising the question: With dialogue “there seems to be a spirit of compromise that also doesn't seem right.” I suppose one might say giving a Muslim an audience to proclaim his faith is an admission of his faith being a legitimate alternative to Christianity. Two comments: I have not felt that I was making, or even understood to be making, such an admission, but rather giving a respectful acknowledgement of what is important to that person, and a genuine interest in understanding him or her more fully. Also, in the process I gain insight into the hopes and fears he has in his search for meaning, with which I likely identify, at least in part. This can lead to “deeper dialog,” and becomes a bridge to further conversation about what Jesus offers, something both Mormons and Muslims (I have met) are quite ready to discuss. The goal of the dialog then becomes a mutual desire to know Jesus more fully.
Thanks Bill for highlighting these misunderstandings and bringing some clarity to our discussion. The Mormon-Muslim comparison is interesting.
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