Friendship Evangelism among Westernised Muslims


1 The Need to Establish Personal Contacts.

Muslims are unlikely to become your brethren until they first become your friends. True friendship is one of the strongest bonds in this world and where Christians are able to build and develop such friendships with Muslims, they simultaneously lay the strongest possible foundation for an effective witness to God's grace in Jesus Christ. This means that it is imperative that we should seek to establish personal contacts with Muslims, praying to God to create opportunities, and to cultivate these until solid personal relationships grow between us and them. In recent years the need for a sustained ministry of friendship evangelism among Muslims has been noted by missionaries who have had many years of experience in reaching Muslims with the Gospel. One comments:

Professor George W. Peters made a similar observation when presenting a paper entitled "An Overview of Missions to Muslims" at the North American Conference for Muslim Evangelization in 1978. Speaking of well-known missionaries like French, Goodsell and Zwemer, he said:

Doors are opening all around us in the West to make contact with Muslims and develop these into lasting friendships. I have often been made acutely aware of the host of opportunities that do exist when I have spoken to Christian groups on this subject. Again and again, either during a short question time directly after my talk or during a period of informal discussion over a cup of tea afterwards, Christian folk have mentioned the contacts that they have made without even intending to specifically reach Muslims with the Gospel. I have already mentioned a few of these but can go much further.

Some Christian women regularly shop for materials at Muslim shopping centres and get to know the Muslim women employed there. Others find themselves working side-by-side with Muslims in banks, offices and stores. Many have Muslim landlords or tenants. These social contacts provide God-given opportunities to develop friendships and relationships, not just casual acquaintances, but real, genuine friendships where Christians can show their true character and the meaning of the knowledge of Jesus Christ in their lives. In this way the Christian gets to know the Muslim as a person and with this knowledge will come an appreciation of the Muslim's problems, hopes, frustrations, interests, joys and sorrows. When this experience develops into a sympathetic attitude towards the Muslim's needs, a willingness to share his fears and expectations, and an open desire to rejoice with him in his joys and feel with him when he suffers, the Muslim will begin to know what true Christianity is and what really motivates the Christian believer. It need hardly be added that this is one of the most important steps on the road to leading him to the knowledge of the source of genuine Christian love - the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

These two quotations, which both express very positively the need for the development of personal relationships with Muslims, also allude to another of the great reasons why we need to emphasize friendship evangelism as the ideal form of reaching the adherents of Islam with the Gospel. The establishment of mutual trust and confidence between Christians and Muslims is one of the vital factors affecting this field of evangelism. A brief survey of the history of Christian Muslim relationships over the centuries will soon reveal why this is so.

2. Building Confidence in Muslim Hearts.

The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the almost total colonisation of the Muslim world in later centuries, have all left their mark on Muslim attitudes towards Christianity. The recent revolution in Iran was a reminder of how deep Muslim suspicions about the Christian world are to this day. Rightly or wrongly, the "Christian" West is perceived as bent on exploiting the "oppressed" Muslim countries of the world. Whatever the West does is automatically identified as the action of the Christian world. It does not occur to the Muslim to distinguish between the Christian Church and the Western world. Because the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and the western parts of Asia are almost exclusively Islamic, the Muslims view these regions as dar-al-Islam, the world of Islam. The European and American nations are, accordingly, in turn identified as the "Christian" world, simply because these regions have always been dominated by the Christian faith and represent the heritage of Christendom. Needless to say, gross misunderstandings arise in the minds of the Muslims as a result of such an over-simplistic world view.

It does not help to moralise about this matter, nor to point to the equally censurable ills in the Islamic world, both historical and present. It is not our duty to prove points, justify Christian history, or defend our heritage. Our real duty is to win Muslims to the love of God and the grace that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. "What matters is not that men have thought ill of Christianity but that they have forfeited the Christ" (Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p. 248). It is therefore incumbent on us to do all we can to remove the barriers between us.

We must begin with a desire to overcome the prejudices that are rooted in centuries of misunderstanding. Until the great missionary movement stretched its hand out towards the Muslim world in love in the last century, it was customary for Christians and Muslims only to meet on the battlefield. A more inappropriate setting for a Christian meeting with me of other faiths can hardly be imagined. In patience and understanding the proper objective and purpose of the Christian approach to Islam can only be the expression of the benefits we have received through our faith in Jesus Christ so that Muslims, too, may become "partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (Ephesians 3.6). Your motive as a Christian witness of the grace of God as it is revealed in his Son must be "that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ" (Philemon 1.6).

This requires much patience and longsuffering but, as these are two of the positive fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22), we can expect them to produce results. What is needed, primarily, is a desire to win Muslim confidence - to build up a spirit of mutual trust and a bond of true friendship. This is why it is so important that we endeavour to build lasting relationships with Muslims we hope to win to Jesus Christ. It matters not whether their prejudices are warranted or not, what does matter is that we remove them by giving proof that our real motive is to build others up and benefit them, not to exploit or to dominate. Once Muslim confidence is earned and established, the Christian will find it much easier to share the truths of the Gospel. There is no more appropriate background against which to declare the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ than genuine love and trust.

Friendship evangelism among Muslims is, on reflection, surely the most suitable form of ministry we can pursue and the one most likely to be effective. It takes in the whole man and meets him in all his needs. It should be added that friendships must be aimed at purely for their own sake and to benefit our Muslim contacts. It is not imperative that we should always be witnessing and it is quite wrong to make the pursuit of such friendships conditional upon conversion. We need to aim at pure friendships, based solely on a desire to express the love of Jesus as we have come to experience it. Just as it is paradoxically true that it is only he who is prepared to lose his life who will find it (Luke 9.24), so it is also true that confidence and trust, which often lead to conversion, are most likely to arise when we are motivated by nothing else than a desire to do good and show sincere, uninhibited affection towards the Muslims we meet.

Muhammad himself was not unaware of the likelihood that Christian-Muslim friendships might lead to conversions to Christianity and he, most unfortunately in our view, warned against this very thing in the Qur'an, saying:

The caution against developing friendships with Christians is also attributed to Muhammad in another source: "The Muslim is warned in a tradition from the Prophet, which all, I believe, accept as genuine, not to be on terms of friendship with any unbeliever" (MacDonald, Aspects of Islam, p. 273). Christians must therefore expect to find official opposition and efforts to dissuade responsive Muslims from becoming too closely involved in friendships with Christians. In turn, however, the Christian may well appeal to the Qur'an itself in another verse from the very same Surah which says:

I have often found that Muslims, who speak against the development of friendships with Christians, have no answer to make and are compelled to reflect when a Christian replies that it is strange that the Qur'an should, in one place, commend Christians as those most likely to warm towards Muslims in love and friendship, while in another place it forbids Muslims to do likewise. In any event many Muslims are only too willing to establish close friendships with Christians they feel they can trust.

It is also important to consider seriously the whole foundation of the kind of Christian love that Muhammad speaks of in the Qur'an and which he must have experienced. Christians should indeed be "nearest in love" to all men because they have an example that transcends all others - God's unsearchable love in giving his Son that we may be redeemed. "By this", Jesus said, "all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13.35). When Muslims experience such love they will be all the more willing to share their lives with us and grow in confidence and trust towards us.

Some years ago a close Muslim friend of mine knocked or my door one evening. He had come for help because his marriage was coming unstuck. Although there are many thousands of Muslims in my home town he said "I have come to you because you are the only person I know who can help me". I was deeply encouraged by this gesture of confidence and trust. When we learn to so love Muslims that they sense there is a greater depth of compassion and sincerity in us than in all other men (solely because "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" - Romans 5.5), we will begin to communicate. A local Muslim magazine once commented that when you see Christians visiting the sick, consoling them, praying with them, and caring for their needs, then know that they are getting through to the people! We need to seek every possible opportunity to express genuine Christian love towards the Muslims we meet.

There is a deep need to overcome the instinctive suspiciousness that characterises Muslim attitudes towards Christians: By sincerely pursuing friendships and establishing relationships this barrier can be overcome. Muslim confidence and trust will be won and our witness for Jesus will carry more weight.

3. Practical Methods of Developing Personal Relationships.

One or two practical hints and suggestions, in conclusion, appear to be appropriate. The need for developing open family friendships has been recognised by virtually all who work among Muslims. The family unit is one of the most cherished values in the Muslim world and, wherever possible, Christians should seek to befriend whole families and involve their own spouses and children in the family-to-family friendship. In such a way lasting relationships develop where true friendships are best established.

Hospitality is, likewise, a most important factor here. Muslims are given to hospitality and Christians should welcome invitations to share meals with them. There need also be no scruples on the part of Christians in sitting at table with Muslims. I have often been approached by Christians who believe we should object to halaal symbols appearing on poultry, margarine, etc., in our supermarkets, fearing lest we be in some way affected by Muslim practices. I believe there is no need for such reactions. We are a free people, delivered from scruples about food and drink (Colossians 2.20-22), and have clear exhortations in the Word of God to be quite open in this matter. Jesus Christ himself encouraged his disciples, whenever they were well received, to "eat what is set before you" (Luke 10.8) and the Apostle Paul directed:

Christians likewise must be willing to invite Muslims to their homes in return. Few Muslims will object when a Christian says grace before a meal begins as this is common in Islam as well. Likewise, when Christians are careful to find out in advance which foods are acceptable to Muslims and which are not, and make it clear they wish to respect Muslim scruples, Muslims are soon put at ease. "Make a point of learning the acceptable social norms of the Muslim lest he or she misunderstand your intentions" (Register, Dialogue and Interfaith Witness with Muslims, p. 23). Christian liberty is so extensive that we are not only free to eat and drink whatever we choose, but also to refrain from eating in circumstances where we might injure others who still have scruples about foods, even though such things neither commend men to God nor condemn them (Romans 14.20-21, 1 Corinthians 8.8-9). The Qur'an plainly states that the food of the Christians is acceptable to Muslims:

In the Qur'an Christians and Jews are commonly called "the People of the Book" (Ahlal-Kitab or, as here and elsewhere, allathiina uwtul Kitab - "those given the Scripture") and the text quoted opens the door for Christians to show open hospitality to Muslims. Indeed we cannot but emphasize yet again our conviction that Muslims are most likely to be won to Jesus Christ, discover eternal life, and reap the benefits of all the blessings God would bestow on them, when they are befriended by Christians and experience true Christianity in action.

Muslims need to experience the warmth of true Christian friendship and fellowship. The development of personal relationships will soon be found to be one of the vital ingredients in effective evangelism among the sons of Islam This is a way that hardly requires the expertise of the trained missionary - it is laid open before all Christians of whatever standing who come to know Muslims and discover opportunities to establish contacts and long-lasting friendships The Church has yet to see what can be achieved when Christians go out of their way to share the love of Jesus Christ with others on a friend-to-friend basis.

The Christian Witness to the Muslim: Table of Contents
Answering Islam Home Page