I spent an hour on the phone yesterday with a kid who grew up in one of my previous churches. I have to be vague because he now works in a high-security Muslim country where it is illegal to share Christ. I was absolutely amazed at what God was doing through him and others in nations that we consider our enemies and which are often seen as closed to the gospel. For lack of time, I will simply give you a list of reactions to our conversation.
1. Don’t give up on those annoying kids you minister to at church. Many moons ago, I did Bible drill with preteens on Sunday night before the service. I was already exhausted from preaching twice and teaching Sunday School in the AM and getting ready for the PM service. My patience sometimes ran thin and this kid often danced on every nerve I had. Loud, boisterous, rambunctious – honestly, I wanted to throttle him at times. He wasn’t bad, but I never got the idea he was paying attention or applying himself.
I never thought I would have a conversation with him like the one we had yesterday. He is a warrior for the Kingdom of God doing work that amazes me. Sunday was one of those days where I wonder why I even bother to continue in ministry and then this amazing servant of God told me he was grateful for the grounding in the word that I gave him (and the pastor he had after his family moved to another state).
No, he does not serve with the IMB, but often cooperates with them in the country where he serves.
Interesting note: a lady who worked with me as a 7th grader came on Facebook after I commented on this and gave a loud amen. Not sure I appreciated her.
2. He told me about a movement of God going on among Muslims, remembering an older missionary group that labored for decades and saw a handful of converts. He made it clear that they were faithful witnesses and was not criticizing their work. But now, there are converts by the dozen – as many converts in a year or two as the older missionaries saw in decades. I asked if he thought newer methods had something to do with that or if it was just a matter of God bringing in the harvest. He said that they were always refining their methods and analyzing what worked and what didn’t to be more effective, but he did not think the younger missionaries were inherently better than the older. He gave credit to God. There is a mighty work of God going on in the Muslim world.
3. There is much hostility between Christians and Muslims in his country. He explained that younger Muslims are turned off by the violent extremism they have seen, the harshness of the religion of Islam, and many of its cultural aspects. He also shared about the negative impression many of these Muslims have of the Christian world. Their exposure to Christianity is rooted in the violence of the Crusades and hundreds of years of cultural hostility. I brought up Jonah and he said it was just such a situation. Jonah was mad at God because he wanted the Ninevites to die and go to hell. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he did not want God to save those slimeballs. I saw one of those IFB preachers recently “preaching” about how happy it made him when one of the “towelheads” was killed. We probably wouldn’t say it that way, but we often treat Muslims as enemies, not as those for whom Christ died. This has been the experience of these Muslims. In many of these cultures, there are ancient brands of Christianity (Orthodoxy, Coptic, etc) and the Christians and Muslims hate each other. The view of America is hardly positive.
One thing he told me struck me as funny. Strict Muslims do not drink alcohol, but the Christian groups do. So, when he introduces himself, the response is often, “Oh, you are a Christian, you can drink wine.” Ironic, eh?
4. This anti-Muslim hostility is somewhat understandable, after 9/11 and other terrorist acts. On a political level, America and the Islamic world are often at odds. But our highest order is the Great Commission and that extends even to people who worship other gods. Our model is the One who, hanging on a Cross, looked down on the people who nailed him there and said, “Father, forgive them.” We are not allowed to look at Muslims as dirty and disgusting and write them off. They are people made in the image of God and they need the gospel – both the ones still living in their homelands and the ones who have become refugees in our lands.
As Americans, we may have a natural suspicion of Muslims, but our orders from our Lord and Savior do not allow us to treat them as Jonah treated the Ninevites.
5. We must see Muslims as Christ sees them. I recently preached through the Life of Christ (chronologically through all 4 Gospels). Jesus and the Pharisees never got along and that antipathy continued when the church was established by the Apostles in the power of the Spirit. Often, the Pharisees treated people who were broken as worthless and unworthy, but Jesus never did. He healed them and raised them to new lives. The Pharisees scorned Jesus’ disciples as “unlearned and ignorant men.” Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 that God calls the weak, the poor, “those who are not,” to put to shame the high and mighty. The Pharisees sought to be high and mighty, to have worldly influence, and ignored (or at most gave lip-service to) those who were outside their circles. “Thank God I’m not a sinner like him!”
Has not our response to Muslims, to refugees, to those outside our social circles, often been more like that of the Pharisees than of the NT church? I am not trying to condemn, but to challenge. We must do better.
If our God is reaching down to isolated Muslim countries and pouring out his grace on them, shouldn’t we look at them with the eyes of grace?
6. We simply must distinguish Muslim terrorists and all Muslims. I visit a Muslim country twice a year. It is moderate and peaceful and its people do not want ISIS or Al Qaeda. My friend told me that one of the things that seems to be opening hearts to the gospel is general dissatisfaction with governments and clerics. The idea so often stated that the extremists represent everyone in Islamic countries is not true.
7. He shared a lot about evangelism in Muslim countries. You can’t just go out on street corners and preach the gospel. Well, you can do it once. Then you go home. He told me about missionaries from an Asian country who continually get sent home because they are too aggressive. Muslims are very interested in discussing religion, but it must be done within a respectful relationship. If you shout to them that their religion is false and they are hellbound, they will not listen. But if you sit over tea and have a series of discussions with them, over time, showing them what we actually believe and explaining the gospel, many will eventually come to faith in Christ. The idea of building bridges for evangelism was a huge controversy in Baptist Blogging a decade ago, but in Muslim countries, it is paying dividends in genuine converts.
I got some ideas in speaking with him that will help me when I go back to Africa in March.
8. There are two primary experiences that have been evident in the majority of converts my friend has conversed with and the irony of this was not lost on me.
- About half of the converts he knows had some kind of vision or dream of Jesus Christ that was a significant part of the process of their coming to faith in Christ.
- Many of the other half came to faith through reading the Bible and being convinced of the claims of Christ in the word.
There are some who will be deeply disturbed about this. I tweeted on this yesterday and Lee Strobel told me that he has a chapter on this phenomenon in his book “A Case for Miracles.” By the way, both groups were genuine converts who were continuing in Christ, from what my friend said.
I have ordered Strobel’s book and want to read more on this, but in an SBC with an intense war on cessationism and continuationism, this is an interesting fact.
9. Evangelical groups are cooperating in the country in which he works, even the IMB (we are not famous for cooperation outside our ranks). Simply put, a lot of the differences that seem so huge here disappear in importance when you are on the frontlines of spiritual battle. I heard the same thing when I taught a missionary group in Taiwan and mentioned some of the big controversies we are fighting here in America. “We just don’t have time to fight those fights,” they said. We are too busy with the work of the gospel.
10. He made some interesting observations about security. I asked him if he was safe. He said a measured yes. The likelihood is that if he transgressed certain rules, he’d get an invitation to leave the country. On the other hand, there’s always a chance he could end up on the wrong side of some crazy terrorist’s anger. You can’t do what he does if you want to remain 100% safe.
He shared an interesting conversation he had with another missionary who was deeply concerned with security. My friend talked about some of the conversations he’d been able to have with Muslims where he directly shared Christ and the gospel. “How do you do that?” the other missionary asked. My friend takes reasonable care for security, but he also knows he is there to share Christ and he does it. The other missionary is so concerned about safety and security that his ministry is not always effective.
I realize this is always a concern. On the one hand, you have the Asian groups that are so bold and aggressive they are getting kicked out of the country in droves. On the other, you have a missionary so safe and secure he is barely able to speak of Jesus. My friend spoke with some disdain of missionaries who “build relationships” but don’t proclaim Christ. Evidently, that isn’t just an American problem.
I just don’t have time to do reflections and to organize my thoughts better here, so I’m using the scattergun approach. Still trying to recount the caucus ballots and all. I was so moved at what this young man was doing. Amazing. I have heard stories of revivals rising up in Iran, and movements of God in other Islamic countries.
God is amazing and has some humor. God used the hostile Saul of Tarsus to advance the gospel. It wouldn’t be unlike him to use Muslim countries as the “headquarters” of the church in the days ahead, as America continues its moral slide. Who knows?