Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?
These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.
“He is very close to becoming a Muslim!”
“What do I say to this dear coworker who is using the Qur’an so much in his attempts to share the gospel that the local Muslims believe he (and the rest of us, by implication) is interested in becoming Muslims?”
This problem was posed to me as the missions pastor by one of our local missionaries. This missionary had joined a group of other local missionaries to start an English as second language ministry among the hundreds of Muslim immigrants in our neighborhood. It was opening some significant doors in building relationships with these Muslim neighbors. They started meeting in the recreation room of the apartment complex across the street from our church. The apartment manager eventually decided to close the recreation room to this kind of gathering, so they agreed to meet at our church across the street—-something they would never have agreed to do a few years ago.
But a new challenge arose shortly before Easter in 2003. One of the local missionaries sought to explain to the Muslim students what the Easter holiday was all about. This particular missionary had recently received some training in reaching Muslims on the basis of the common ground that Christians and Muslims share in matters of faith. This training taught him how to use portions of the Qur’an in an attempt to build a bridge to biblical truth.
The Muslim students came away from the missionary’s Easter message excited. In small group discussion afterward, one missionary asked his group, “What did you like about that message?” He was not prepared for the answer. One of the Muslim participants said, “We are happy to hear that the teacher is so close to becoming a Muslim!” They were impressed that he had such knowledge, respect, and interest in the Qur’an. It seemed to boost their confidence in the power of their holy book and in their Muslim faith. This was not the message the missionaries hoped to communicate.
So the missionary from our church finally came to me asking, “What is our church’s position on gospel contextualization among Muslims? Are the pastors and elders comfortable with this kind of a presentation of the gospel at our church?”
Contextualization and the Insider Movement
This launched me into a study of the contextualization debate, particularly among Muslims, for the next several years. I investigated the local “insider” training, interviewed Muslim-background believers (MBBs) and veteran missionaries in Muslim fields, and read numerous books and articles on the subject. I read about the arguments on the issue with great interest and examined all the biblical texts that I could find in relation to their arguments.
This informal researched motivated me to write a position paper for the leaders of Bethlehem Baptist Church. I gave the paper to some veteran missionaries working among Muslims and some MBBs for their feedback. I received both glowing affirmations and notes of alarming concern. The concerned felt that the paper made the issue too “black and white”—-oversimplifying the challenge. I agreed.
So after thinking, praying, and talking with trusted missionaries and ministry colleagues, we came up with the idea of turning our previous statement of boundaries into questions with biblical considerations.
Questions for Mission Candidates
We now ask all of our missionary candidates seeking to reach Muslims for Christ to answer these questions and to offer their biblical rationale for their answers. We find that this allows the missionary candidates to think through the issues before accepting (uncritically) a packaged training on Muslim evangelism with claims of amazing results.
So far, those who have answered these questions have found them helpful in developing their position. They have given us an opportunity to enter into dialogue with our missionaries about the issues in question, rather than simply laying down a law. We realize that every context for ministry among Muslims is different. So we want to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. At the same time, we want to be careful that we are not unwittingly affirming Islam or diminishing the true nature and work of Jesus Christ.
We have also sent these questions to our missionaries working among Muslims in other parts of the world. One of our supported missionaries in Central Asia gave copies of the document to some of his coworkers. Most of the responses that he relayed back to me were very positive. He reported that one missionary said, “I have been out here for several years now and must admit that I have never been asked to articulate answers to such questions.”
In the end, the various evangelistic approaches being promoted to reach Muslims in our neighborhood have forced us to articulate questions and biblical considerations that we may never have felt the need to do otherwise. I hope and pray that this document written by and disseminated for Bethlehem Baptist Church will help our sent-ones think, act, and speak among Muslims in such a way that Jesus Christ is clearly exalted, embraced, or rejected as “the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Questions and Biblical Guidelines for Missionaries among Muslim Peoples
I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:22-23).
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:2).
It brings us great joy to see God raising up laborers from our midst to enter into his harvest among the millions of unreached Muslims throughout the world. As we interact with other missionaries and agencies at work among Muslims, we are encouraged by the praise-worthy progress of the gospel through many creative and culturally relevant means. At the same time, we also recognize the potential for dangerous misunderstandings as a result of certain contextualization strategies. Therefore, we believe that it is of strategic importance for our missionaries to articulate the biblical values that guide their missiological practices, particularly as it relates to gospel contextualization among Muslims.
We believe that the Bible both governs and fuels missiological practice. Our strategies, therefore, must stem from a biblical-theological understanding rather than pragmatic considerations. Our ultimate aim in contextualization is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God, through the exaltation of Jesus Christ, for the joy and deliverance of all peoples in bondage to Christ-denying religions—-particularly the millions in bondage to Islam. We long to see members of our body establish missiological strategies that fly the banner of this glorious aim.
General Theological Presuppositions Regarding Culture and Contextualization
We believe that some level of contextualization is necessary for the gospel to be effectively proclaimed and understood across ethno-linguistic cultural barriers (e.g. Jesus’ use of parables in the Gospels; Paul’s use of redemptive analogies and indigenous pagan poets—-Acts 17:28-29; Titus 1:12-13). We believe that the ultimate goal in contextualization ought to be the exaltation of Christ to the glory of God (as revealed in the Bible) for the transformation of peoples from all former Christ-denying practices and into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:12-15, 20-24; Col. 3:9-10). We believe that God created all languages on earth (Gen. 11:1-10) and that he is gathering worshipers from every tribe, people, and language to exalt the risen Christ through their mother tongues (Acts 1:8; 2:1-5; Rev. 5:9; 7:9). And while language and culture are intimately linked, we believe that the gospel aims to transform culture, rather than to simply redeem culture.
As regenerate men and women seek to bring their lives into conformance with Christ, social behaviors, local customs, and religious practices radically change (Col. 2:18-23; Acts 19:18-20). Everything once done in ignorance is now to be made obedient to the will of God (1 Peter 1:13-18; Rom. 12:1-2). Some cultural practices must be abandoned as they are examined in light of the Scriptures—-especially those practices that are identified with a local Christ-denying religious system (Acts 15:28-29; 19:17-20). Other cultural practices may be identified as biblically permissible and be reoriented to clearly magnify the greatness of God so that all things are done to the glory of God in Christ (1 Cor. 10:28-31).
The following questions aim to help our missionaries consider how to most faithfully and clearly communicate the gospel in their respective contexts. We consider these biblical considerations to be the key texts and issues that should help inform your answers. As a cross-cultural minister of the gospel joyfully called to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18-20) among a particular people (particularly Muslim people groups), we ask:
1. How will you help a new believer express his identity in Christ within his community?
Biblical guidelines to consider: The person who trusts in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17-18). He is one whom God has miraculously rescued out of the darkness of idolatry and rebellion and into his own family (1Peter 2.9) that they might be to the praise of his glory in Christ (Eph. 1:12). The new believer’s personal identification with Christ is a declaration of this change of allegiance (1 Thess 1:9, cf. 1 Kings 18:21). Ethnic, social, economic, gender, and class distinctions no longer primarily define a new believer (Gal. 3:28-29, 6:15). Rather, for those who are in Christ, their identity is organically tied to Jesus himself and those elect for whom he died (2 Cor. 6:14). Thus, the new believer’s identity is not to be understood in purely individualistic terms, nor simply hidden within former religious community terms, for he is part of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13-27).
Sub-questions to consider:
What aspects of the culture and former religion should be considered “darkness,” from which new believers in Christ should repent and walk in “newness of life”?
When does the missiological goal of “staying within one’s community,” as new believers in Christ, violate Christ’s warnings in Matthew 10:32-39 of loving family more than him?
2. In your ministry context, what aspects of the local culture may be retained, and which aspects must be rejected?
Biblical guidelines to consider: While “culture” is a morally neutral term, there are positive potentials and intrinsic vulnerabilities in every culture. In a culture intimately tied to a religious system, discerning what should be retained and what should be be rejected is crucial for the clear communication of the gospel—-both in the lives of new believers and through their lives to the larger community. The new birth, allegiance to Christ alone, identification with the local and global expression of Christ’s church, and the implications of persecution and suffering will deeply affect answers to this question (Acts 19:17-20). Our emphasis must be the clear communication of the gospel and a clean conscience. We must encourage what cultivates faith and removes confusion (2 Cor. 4:2; Heb 12:1-2). We must also be careful not to advocate liberties or adherence to former religious practices that would violate the consciences of new believers and miscommunicate/confuse the gospel message within his/her community (Romans 14, 1 Cor 8:1-13).
Sub-question to consider:
What terminology (or terms of identity) of the surrounding culture is so closely tied to the predominant non-Christian religion that, if the new believer were to continue using them, would cause the non-Christian community to believe that the so-called new believer still adheres to the non-Christian religion?
3. As a minister of the gospel, how will you communicate your identity in Christ to those whom you seek to minister among?
Biblical guidelines to consider: While there is no biblical mandate to call oneself a “Christian,” our aim is to communicate in a way that honestly and clearly identifies us with the Christ of the Bible (2 Cor. 4:5-6). Language is important (Psalm 19:14; Matt. 16:15-18; 2 Cor. 2:17). We must reject any community-dominant religious terminology that would bring reproach upon Christ or leave our identity with the God/Christ of the Bible in question (Daniel 3; 2 Cor 4:2)
4. How will you communicate the identity of Jesus in the language and culture of the context in which you minister?
Biblical guidelines to consider: The identity of Jesus is at the center of the gospel (Mt. 16:13-18; Acts 4:12). The Gospel writers go to great lengths to show the significance of Jesus’ unique and historically significant titles. Jesus, in fulfillment of prophecy, is the Messiah, the one-of-a-kind Son of God (a title for the Savior, Jesus, used 37 times in the New Testament), and the divine Son of Man (a title for the Savior, Jesus, used 43 times in New Testament, 29 times in Matthew’s Gospel alone). Jesus is the one by whom, and for whom, all things were created (Col. 1:13-20). The resurrected Christ taught his disciples that only through an understanding of the Old Testament will the deep significance of his death, resurrection, and global proclamation be seen as the apex of all of redemptive history (Lk. 24:44-49). From the beginning of the church age, the apostles’ task was to communicate these deep realities in different cultures and contexts—-even when the concepts themselves were highly offensive (or ridiculous) to their hearers (1 Cor. 1:18-31).
The confession that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God, first ventured by Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:16), is the heart of the Christian faith. This confession makes one a Christian, and all Christian theology is thinking in the light of this confession. The first major theological decision of the church resulting from such believing thought was the affirmation of the essential deity of Jesus as the Son of God. As such he was declared to be of one essence with the Father and the Spirit (the dogma of the Trinity promulgated at Nicaea, AD 325).
5. What will cross-bearing look like for new believers in your context? And in what ways are the new believers to be “salt and light” in their communities? Are new believers truly ready to suffer for Christ? How will you prepare them?
Biblical guidelines to consider: While there are many places in the world where visible persecution on account of Christ does not occur, the Bible anticipates suffering as part of every believer’s experience (Phil. 1:27-28, 1 Pet. 4:12-19). The apostle Paul experienced great persecution as a missionary and reminded fellow believers that anyone who desires to live for Christ will also be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus taught that his followers would experience suffering and persecution on account of him, sometimes coming from their own friends and family (Matt. 10:16-33). When persecution occurs, there must be prayerful discernment whether to stay and endure persecution or to flee from it (Matthew 10:23; Luke 21:21; Acts 9:24-25). The all-surpassing pleasure to be found in Christ enables and drives radical self-denial in the life of the believer (Lk. 9:23-26).
Sub-questions to consider:
When does “salt lose its saltiness” in your host community? How is the light of Christ shining, or hidden under a bushel in your host community (Mark 9:42-49)?
How are God’s “chosen ones” proclaiming the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9)?
6. How will you present the gospel in such a way that Jesus is the stumbling block (not cultural practices, leadership style, dress, customs, habits)?
Biblical guidelines to consider: Paul strove to communicate the gospel clearly and compellingly both in his speech and his lifestyle. When his financial support was an obstacle, he made tents to support himself (1 Thes. 2:5-9). His aim was to orient his life in such a way that the only stumbling block to faith was the message of Jesus crucified (1 Cor. 1:18-31). He rejected the notion of avoiding persecution by adhering to former religious practices (Gal. 6:12-14). Paul’s evangelism was grounded in the reality that, though Paul planted and Apollos watered, only God could give the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Because of this precious reality, there was no impetus for Paul to impress people with flawless oratory or esoteric knowledge (1 Cor. 1:17, 2:1-5).
7. How will you proclaim the gospel with gentleness, respect, and with all boldness in your host context (especially in highly restricted areas)?
Biblical guidelines to consider: The apostle Peter teaches that in a hostile environment we should communicate the gospel with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). Yet when Peter is dragged before local leadership, beaten, and told not to preach the name of Jesus, he declared “we cannot but tell all that we have seen and heard.” This was followed by fervent prayer with the body of Christ for greater boldness as the Word of God was fulfilled (Acts 4:29-30).
As ministers of the gospel, we are being sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves (Lk. 10:3). Jesus exhorts us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) in our gospel-ministry. When we are dragged before religious authorities and secular governors we will have opportunity, in the midst of persecution and physical suffering, to communicate his supremacy. We find confidence in the Father’s promise to give words to speak by his Spirit (Matt. 10:19-20).
8. What role will the predominant holy books of the people (like the Qur’an) have in your ministry? How will you demonstrate the supreme and exclusive authority of the Bible among peoples whom revere other so-called sacred texts as the supreme authority?
Biblical guidelines to consider: While the New Testament indicates that there is a place for using brief quotes from local religious or cultural literature as a pointer to Christ (Acts 17:23, 28; Titus 1:12), the apostles were exceedingly careful to show that God’s Word alone is the ultimate and authoritative truth (2 Tim 3:16-17). The ongoing comparative study of the Bible with any other religious book is unheard of in the New Testament and runs the risk of subtly affirming the other religious book as equally authoritative to the Bible. We must be careful in our discipleship to distinguish the supreme authority of the Bible above every other “holy book,” striving to understand the uniqueness of the Word of Christ and its purpose in redemptive history (Jn. 17:17; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Romans 10:17).
Sub-questions to consider:
Will using extensive quotes or studying local “holy books” (like the Qur’an), in an attempt to point to the supremacy of Christ, serve to undermine or confirm one’s faith in its divine inspiration?
If the local “holy book” is regarded as “divinely inspired” (even in part) by the missionary, how does he explain the canonicity and ultimate authority of the Bible? (A 1995 survey of national C5 MBBs, representing 68 congregations from 66 villages, revealed that 96 percent still believed that the Qur’an was divinely inspired; 66 percent said that the Qur’an was the greater than the Bible; and 45 percent felt peace or close to Allah when listening to the reading of the Qur’an.)
9. How will you instruct the new believer in Christ regarding his/her involvement in former institutions of worship (like the mosque)?
Biblical guidelines to consider: The new believer’s understanding of his/her identity in Christ and the implications of being a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:7, 27), will affect his view of former institutions of worship (Eph. 19:18-20, 26-27). There are significant redemptive-historical differences between the interaction of early church believers with the Jewish temples and synagogues, and the believer’s interactions with other religious institutions (mosques, temples, shrines, etc.). Jesus himself declared, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus and the apostles preached a gospel that has the power to save all who believe solely from the Hebrew Scriptures (Lk. 24:44-49; Rom. 1:16).
Therefore, we must be careful not to assume that any religion or religious writings that bear similarities to Judaism (like Islam) be essentially equated with Judaism. Salvation is not from any other people or religion, nor do any other religious writings have the power to save. New believers who are truly repentant and growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ will eventually and inevitably feel compelled to sever all connections with their former Christ-denying religion and way of life. (Acts 19:18-20; 2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, we should be careful not to violate the teachings of our Lord Jesus, or the consciences of new believers, by instructing them to remain cultural/religious “insiders” (Mt. 10:21-25; Lk. 9:59-62).
Sub-questions to consider:
For Muslim fields, will saying the shahada (explicitly or implicitly by being in a mosque at prayer times) be understood by the local community as your adherence to Islam?
What are other Muslim phrases or practices that could give the false impression to the community that you are a Muslim?