By The Rev. Chris Royer
On a packed, beat-up bus, filled with smoke, deep in the heart of an Islamic nation, I was chatting with my new-found friend, who me told me that though his mom and dad were Muslims, he’d didn’t really believe it anymore.
After a few more minutes of conversing, the bus stopped abruptly– no gas station, no rest stop, nothing in sight. What followed absolutely amazed me. Every single man got off the bus, spread out in two lines on the frozen dirt of the high mountain plateau, and began doing the Islamic prayers. Even the guy sitting next to me, who had just told me he didn’t believe anymore, was joining in!
Though many of us understand some of the historical, political, social, and religious events that have led American culture to become increasingly “tolerant”, relativistic, and post-modern, wrapping our fingers around the world’s second largest religion can be downright baffling. Where is Islam today? How does it differ, country to country? Where might global Islam be heading? And most pertinently, when I meet a Muslim, what are some things I might say or do to draw them nearer to Christ.
In our global age, over 6,000 people groups, representing over 2.0 billion people, live in areas inaccessible to the Gospel. This is why Anglican Frontier Missions exists, to bring Jesus and to be Jesus to those who have no access to churches, relationships with Christians, or the Gospel. This Unseen 1/4th of our world is not only unconverted (those who can learn about Jesus but chose not to), but unconvertible—even if they wanted to, they could not become Christians because they have never heard: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them” (Romans 10:14)?
However, not every one of us is called to go to these groups. (If you think you may have a call, contact AFM!). Significant numbers of Muslims continue to come to America. In fact, large numbers of Middle Eastern students are flowing into Tulsa, where I live, to study petroleum engineering. Accordingly, as our world continues to become more global and as Muslims continue to flow into the USA, it’s important that we acquire a basic understanding of how we can effectively communicate the gospel with our foreign guests.
In America, we not only encourage, but we also extol the virtues of diversity, individualism, and finding and expressing ourselves. However, for the sixteen years I lived in the Middle East, I experienced a culture that esteemed just the opposite. K-12 public and private schools had mandatory uniform requirements; many schools even enforced how the girls and boys cut and wore their hair! (Some of us parents might dig this!)
As kids become young adults, they do not begin a quest to “find themselves”, or “discover their way in life”. The majority see their life mission more akin to conforming to their community, to what they’ve been taught in their family, extended family, and religion, and then practicing it– even if they have serious reservations like my friend on the bus!
In Western society, however, the tendency has been to place the responsibility for individual development squarely upon the shoulders of the individual. “Where will I go to college?”, “What will I study?”, “and “Who will I marry?” are all questions that the individual must answer for herself or himself. But Muslim societies view these decisions, as well as religious decisions, corporately, not individually. In Islam, it is simply not heroic or noble to ‘stand up against the crowd’ or ‘to find one’s own way’. The simple fact is that Muslims tend to conform to those whom they respect and view most authoritatively, whether in their family, extended family or community.
So how can we reach out to folks like this in the USA? How can we model Jesus to them? First of all, it’s important to note that every culture is unique and will stress greater degrees of individualism or conformity to the norms of the community. Islamic cultures are on the “conformity to community” end of the spectrum. Secondly, it’s important to note that there’s a certain a beauty and dignity in community-oriented cultures. From teaching English in a middle school in the Middle East, to my interaction with high school and college students as well, it was refreshing to discover that the majority of kids were not a quest to find themselves, or discover who they were, because their community had already answered these vital life questions for them. By-and-large, their identity and self-concept came from their family and community, which can lead to a settledness, a rootedness, absent in many American kids today.
Theologically, although we know that each of us must make an individual decision to follow Jesus Christ, salvation is never worked out individualistically, but in community: “Continue to work out your [2nd person plural] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you [again, “you” is plural] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13).
Jesus Christ came not only to save individuals, but also to create communities of saved individuals, which we call the local church. One significant challenge that I faced as a church planter overseas (one that all church planters in unchurched, pioneer mission fields face) was to model church when there was no church, when the Christian community in our city was only two people (my wife and me). However, we are privileged in the USA to have not only at least one church per city or town, but churches everywhere, sometime right next to each other on the same bock!
Therefore, when we meet and befriend Muslims in our cities or on our campuses, it’s imperative that we not only share our personal testimony, which is almost always more effective than debating theology. It’s also imperative that we invite them into authentic Christian community: into our families, our weekly life groups, and Sunday worship. Unless Muslims can experience an alternative and authentic community, committed to them and to their needs, they will be hesitant putting their unwavering confidence in Jesus Christ because they know that the consequence of conversion is being cut off from their familial and religious communities. I cannot emphasize enough the number of Muslims I’ve shared with who made the final step of trusting Jesus Christ, not through reading the Bible, not through dreams and visions, and not even through deep friendships with believers (all these are important and aided them in their journey), but through experiencing the supernatural community of love, grace, and forgiveness that we call the church!
As we move deeper into the 21st century, demographers inform us that the number of Muslims will continue to increase in both America and the world. The good news for both them and us is that God has created a new community of people, the church, which is the hope of the 21st century and our ever-globalizing world.