Communicating the Gospel to Muslims


1. Our Attitude and the Spirit of our Approach to Muslims.

Before exploring the actual subject of witnessing to Muslims and the most effective methods of communicating the Gospel to them, it is my intention to say a few things about our whole attitude and approach, in other words, the spiritin which we must conduct our witness. In any field of evangelism our manner of approach is very important, but especially in the field of Muslim evangelism. The impact of our message will soon be tempered if we do not present it in a tactful and charitable way.

Let me begin by saying that the fundamental principle to be observed, and the one that is the foundation of all the points I will raise in this section, is that we are dealing with people and not with robots, objects or insensitive creatures. Our witness must at all times have a thoroughly personal flavour with a keen sensitivity towards the needs, fears, attitudes and, at times, prejudices of those we intend to evangelise. Our object must not be to score points or to win arguments but to win Muslim people to God's Anointed Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The first thing we need is a right approach. We must see our witness in a person-to-person context and endeavour to establish a relaxed atmosphere of conversation and dialogue. A spirit of mutual inter-communication is vital if we are to effectively convey the Gospel to Muslims. We need to be open to discussion and allow the Muslim complete freedom to join in so that he can state his needs, fears, beliefs and misgivings as well. Above all he must feel completely free to express himself and not feel threatened in any way. If we show Muslims that we care for them as people and that our witness is intended purely to benefit them and that it comes without obligation or strings attached, we are far more likely to win their confidence and gain willing ears.

Later on in this chapter I will show why it is, therefore, essential that we study Islam and know the beliefs of the Muslims so that we can engage in profitable dialogue, but let me say here that it is at least essential that we be willing to listen as well as talk. When Muslims find that they are free to express their own feelings and beliefs, and when they realise that the Christian is not just interested in seeing them baptised at the first opportunity, they become more willing themselves to hear what the Christian has to say.

Some years ago I saw a cartoon which showed a typical householder opening the door to a stranger who was obviously representing some religious cult or sect. "I have come to convert you", he said to the bemused and somewhat affronted owner of the house. While we may immediately disown such brashness, there are many more subtle ways in which I believe Christians are falling into this very trap, where the expression of Christian witness takes the form of a monologue with the only object being the earliest possible persuasion of the hearer to become a Christian.

It is for this reason that I am very wary of certain modern methods of evangelism. One takes the form of an impersonal approach where the Christian sets out, step-by-step, a presentation of the Gospel according to a prescribed formula he has learnt from someone else. These package presentations probably do make witnessing easy for those who distrust their ability to present the Gospel effectively in their own words, but they are so stereotyped and formal that they inhibit inter-communication and a genuine person-to-person approach and take the form of a pure monologue instead. Worse still, they invariably encourage the Christian to attempt to get the hearer to pray a prescribed prayer at the end of the one-two-three, step-by-step presentation, to receive Christ as Saviour. The object of the exercise is obvious - obtain a formal commitment before the end of your first and only appointment with the object of your witness.

The Muslim must feel free to introduce subjects he wishes to discuss and will soon feel threatened if he senses that the Christian motive is to get a conversion commitment at the first possible opportunity. We need to be extremely patient with Muslims and it is only rarely that Muslims come to Jesus Christ without much time, heart-searching, learning and reflection first taking place.

This leads to the second thing we need and that is a keen sensitivity towards Muslims. It is a very subtle form of pride that makes Christians want to chalk up as many convert as they can in the shortest possible time. The same malady accounts for the spirit of triumphalism we see in so many of our churches today. Short-cut methods to elicit an early response or force a formal decision can do untold injury and harm to Muslims. Just as an untimely birth will damage or destroy a child, so a premature commitment will injure a Muslim and many have, in fact, turned against the Gospel permanently as the result of such hasty, insensitive approaches.

The Apostle Paul taught that, on the Day when our works will finally be tested by God's refining fire, the wood, hay and stubble will be consumed and only the gold, silver and precious stones will remain (1 Corinthians 3.12-15). We must seek to work as closely as possible with the Holy Spirit and ensure that the outward effects of our ministries correspond to the real inward work the Holy Spirit is doing. No Muslim should be pressed into a premature commitment. Let the Spirit of God give the growth while we plant and water and only when the Muslim himself shows a genuine desire to become a true Christian should he be persuaded to do so. Too often today Christians appear to be interested only in boasting about the numbers of converts they are seeing, as though head-counting is a proof of the Holy Spirit's work and presence. Such Christians often fall very quickly into a temptation that we should all avoid - the making of converts through "easy believism". Jesus cautioned again and again against such an approach, with warnings such as this one:

When a scribe made a formal commitment, saying "I will follow you wherever you go" (Matthew 8.19), Jesus replied:

He called on the man to count the cost of conversion be fore he made such declarations and we must do likewise. The cost of discipleship is great for all men, but especially for Muslims who will invariably suffer much persecution and rejection for their faith. The temptation today is to obtain formal commitments at minimum cost. This may give the appearance of power, progress and the work of the Holy Spirit, but it is both illusory and insensitive. How many Christians today would not have joyfully counted that scribe among the followers of Jesus upon such a declaration without further reflection? On more than one occasion Jesus was surrounded by people who appeared to be only too willing to believe in him. On one of these we read that "as he spoke thus, many believed in him" (John 8.30). We would probably have enrolled them in our churches immediately, but Jesus tested the sincerity of their faith and thoroughly examined their motives until, finally, they accused him of being possessed of a demon (John 8.48) and sought to stone him (John 8.59). After he had fed five thousand men besides women and children with bread, they flocked after him but, by the time he had finished with them, not even his regular disciples were keen to continue with him (John 6.66). A fine summary of the whole problem and Jesus' acute awareness of it is found in these words:

We too need to be sensitive, not only towards Muslims as people with needs and misgivings, but also towards the Spirit of God who alone can convert people, who "blows where he wills" (John 8.3), and who is not impatient. We must be discerning, as Jesus was, and discover patiently those with whom the Holy Spirit is really working and not seek to prematurely reap the fruit before it is fully ripe or, worse still, mistake leaves for fruit by enticing Muslims to make commitments who are nowhere near genuine conversion. Even before the wood is thrown into the fire, five ounces of gold are of greater value than five hundred pounds of wood.

The third thing we need to be is charitable in our witness, to speak graciously and courteously, and to be truly Christian in all our ways when discussing with Muslims. One of the things about the Scriptures that always appeals to me is the sense of balance that is so often advocated insofar as our attitudes and manners are concerned. It is always tempting to go to extremes, but the Bible constantly calls on us to be balanced in our approach. A good example of this is found in the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Christians of Colossae. He begins by saying:

In his letter to the Ephesians he shows that his desire to make the Gospel "clear" means a willingness to speak with authority and he thus requests prayer that "utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak" (Ephesians 6.19,20). Twice in that passage he speaks of the need to boldly declare the mystery of the Gospel, yet in the very next breath in his letter to the Colossians he says:

Note, therefore, the beautiful balance he maintains in his exhortation - be bold, but at the same time be gracious. On the one hand he cautions against a spirit of timidity and appeasement (so also 2 Timothy 1.7), but on the other he likewise warns against a spirit of arrogance and offensiveness. How well this applies to Muslim evangelism. A so-called "loving" approach that makes no allowance for argument, challenge, apologetic or debate, is no more tolerable or spiritual than a triumphalistic approach that is purely confrontational, dogmatic and overbearing.

We need to develop a spirit of gentle aggressiveness, to "show perfect courtesy toward all men" (Titus 3.2), and yet to speak with such boldness and confidence that those who dispute with us will not be able, as the Jews were with Stephen, to . "withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke" (Acts 6.10). Stephen had the right approach - he was "full of grace and power" (Acts 6.8) - and we need to be likewise in Our approach to Muslims.

In passing let me add that we must also remember precisely who we are. We are already children of God, heirs of a kingdom certain to be revealed at the last time. Nothing in all creation can disturb our assured hope. Thus all true Christians are for God and live on behalf of every man in every nation. In truth and love, therefore, we are for all Muslims everywhere, wishing they could be as we are this day, redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and his kingdom. We must, therefore, never see ourselves as a militant people, an earthly community whose identity must be preserved at all costs. We are not against the world, nor are we at war with Islam. Our aim, therefore, must not be to defeat Islam or to seek its demise, but to win Muslims for Christ. We must not see ourselves, as I am afraid many Christians do, as a community opposed to Islam and its community with a duty to fight against every form of Muslim influence in society.

In the same way Christians must avoid taking sides against Islam, especially in the Middle East context. There are some Christians who believe that God still has a place for the nation of Israel in his plans for the future and that the State of Israel, as we know it, is directly relevant to his purposes. The temptation, accordingly, is to side with Israel against the Muslim world. Ali Muhsin, a Muslim scholar, recently cited Muslim grievances in this respect, saying at the Chambesy Dialogue Consultation in 1976:

A common Christian car-sticker nowadays reads "Christians for Israel". This can only mean, to the Muslims of the world, "Christians against Islam". We need to develop a spirit of love towards all men and to avoid taking sides in political disputes. Love must be the supreme motivating factor in our relationships with Muslims. Their confidence in us will soon evaporate if they sense in any way at all that we secretly harbour militant attitudes towards them.

Lastly let me say we need to maintain at all times a spirit of fairness. Christians, in imitation of Jesus Christ, must be thoroughly sincere, always composed, trusting quietly and patiently in the truth and in their own integrity.

Christians must endeavour at all times to be gracious in their conversations with Muslims. Never become flustered or lose your temper - you are seeking to win Muslims to Christ, not an argument for Christianity. Muslims are people for whom Christ died, not opponents to be silenced and downgraded by all means. Never become angry when Muslims debate relentlessly with you. Argue on behalf of the truth by all means, but do it charitably and tactfully and, above all, avoid sheer confrontation and quarreling.

When the occasion arises where you are obliged to expose some of the weaknesses of Islam, never be directly critical or judgmental but speak sensitively and purposefully.

A Christian who can "keep his head when all around are losing theirs" will give a salutary witness to the quietness of his confidence in Christ as well as the fact that love for all men is the real motive behind his message. A Christian writer wisely counsels that a sense of humour and patience are prime virtues for you to acquire in dialogue with a Muslim" (Register, Dialogue and Interfaith Witness with Muslims, p. 17). Remember at all times that you are dealing with people and that genuine love is the only proper motive in evangelism.

There is a story that the sun and the wind were one day having an argument. "You have no power", said the wind, "you are just stuck up there in the sky, bound by the forces of gravity, impotent and immobile". Just then a man with a coat walked past. The sun said to the wind, "If you are so strong and mobile, see if you can blow the coat off the man's back". The wind blew furiously, but the man just pulled the coat all the more tightly around himself. "Stand back", said the sun, "and let me see what I can do". The sun poured out its warm rays upon the man who soon became uncomfortable and duly removed his coat.

If we desire to see Muslims remove their opposition to the Gospel and shed their beliefs for the faith of Christ, we too will only succeed when they feel the warm rays of Christian love and compassion rather than the cold winds of arrogance and point-seeking confrontation.

2. The Christian's Attitude to Muhammad and Islam.

Just as Christians will want to speak of Jesus to Muslims, so Muslims will soon seek to introduce Muhammad into the conversation. Very often the Christian will be faced with a simple question - "What do you think of Muhammad?". On many occasions, where relationships are amicable, this question will be purely one of inquiry. The Muslim is just interested to know what the Christian's assessment of Muhammad really is. On other occasions, in the company of Muslims who are heated and provocative, the question will come like bait attached to a hook. The Muslim, spoiling for a good reason to vilify the Christian, will seize on anything that sounds like disrespect for his prophet to give him a solid mouthful. Christians must be sensitive to Muslims, irrespective of the atmosphere, and handle the question as fairly and as objectively as they can. Those who seek favour with Muslims by lavishing praise on Muhammad will only discredit their own witness, while those who are immediately forcefully critical of him are likely to alienate their hearers and injure their feelings. Once again there is a deep need for a sense of balance in our attitudes and perhaps the best approach is neither to praise nor to bury him.

We should avoid trying to prove that Islam is false and that Christianity is true. It is far better to show that Christianity is superior to Islam and that the absolute perfection of its founder and the standards set by him are far higher than the character of Muhammad and the laws he sanctioned. Above all, Muhammad should never be stigmatized by the Christian as a false prophet.

In the companion volume to this book I have shown that Muhammad certainly was not a deliberate impostor and that he sincerely believed he was a true prophet. A tactful and objective presentation of some of the shortcomings we observe in his conduct, such as those discussed in the first volume, is perfectly acceptable, but we must avoid becoming judgmental or derogatory. Rather, we can comfortably give "respect to whom respect is due" (Romans 13.7) and have nothing to lose by commending him sincerely in whatever way we can. Christianity does not need to discredit Islam to vindicate itself, it stands firm and sure on its own foundations. There is much in Thomas Carlyle's attitude towards Muhammad that Christians can freely take to heart:

Muhammad grew up among a people steeped in idolatry and it took great courage and a sustained sense of vocation to confront them with the error of their ways. He delivered the Arabs from idolatry and certainly raised their lifestyle to a more dignified level. I hesitate to call him a "reformer" as he himself certainly never had such a relative view of his mission, but a Christian can, without conceding anything to Islam, openly commend him for the extent to which he civilised and transformed Arabian society. This exhortation does appear to be appropriate:

If you have to make any comment on Muhammad, let it be a favourable one, e.g. how he converted an idolatrous people to worship one God, or how he established unity and order among warring tribes. (Christian Witness Among Muslims, p. 42).

On the other hand I find myself unable to agree with another sentiment expressed on the same page, and one often found in Christian writings, that the Christian should never compare Muhammad with Jesus. In the companion volume to this book I have shown why the Christian has every right to do so in the light of the common Muslim claim that Muhammad was the greatest of all the prophets and at least the equal of Jesus, if not superior to him. Such comparisons can hardly be avoided, especially as the final object of Muslim evangelism is simply this: from Muhammad to Jesus.

Once again a sense of balance is needed. Those who suggest that a Christian should never be critical of Muhammad or Islam do no more service to the ministry of the Gospel than those who seek to discredit them both by every possible means. We must give credit to Muhammad where this is due and in the first volume I have endeavoured to do this, but an integral part of Christian witness to Muslims is to expose the defects and shortcomings of the whole of Islam when compared with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is set forth in the Bible. The important thing is to be objective and charitable and to avoid giving unnecessary offence wherever we can.

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