Muslims in America: Mission Field or Mine Field?
- Rusty Benson Agape Press
- 2004 7 Jul
To many Americans the word Islam is synonymous with terrorism, violence and extremism. And yet six million or more Muslims live and work within our borders. They're our neighbors, co-workers, physicians, fellow businessmen and colleagues.
Should these people whose worldview is so alien to American culture be considered friend or foe? Should Americans view Islam as a fanatical religion that threatens our nation, or welcome it as a rich addition to America's diverse cultural landscape?
For a growing number of Americans in urban and rural areas across the nation, these questions are more than theoretical. And for Christians who believe that God superintends all of history, the presence of Muslims in our neighborhoods and workplaces raises the question: "What is God doing?"
"Despite the fact that it is creating a lot of chaos in the our society and in the world in general, I believe God's purpose in bringing so many Muslims to America is so they can be reached with the Gospel," said Jeff Marlowe. Marlowe is a missionary trainer with Enterprise, an Atlanta-based church planting initiative affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America.
Marlowe, a former missionary in Senegal and Quebec, said most Muslims come to America seeking economic opportunity. "Many come because they are very highly skilled, including many hi-tech workers and physicians. In a global economy, American industry is very ready to employ people from nations such as Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia," he said.
Still other Muslims follow opportunities in the service industry such as hotel or convenience store management, according to Rev. Ashton T. "Tat" Stewart, director of Persian Ministries for World Witness in Colorado. Stewart said service jobs are taking more and more Muslims into smaller towns and rural areas across America.
Political refugees from countries in war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East make up another significant group of Muslims coming to the U.S. Marlowe said his family recently shared their home with one such family from Somalia. The family had lived for 12 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before being relocated to Clarkston, Georgia, through a program of World Relief, a Christian organization.
Although Islamic terrorists in our nation are an obvious reality, Stewart contends that the number of Muslims who come to America with hostile political intentions is extremely small. They are generally identified with militant extremist within countries such as Saudi Arabia, he said.
Reflecting the scope of Muslim cultures across America, statistics from the Hartford Institute for Religious Research indicate more than 1,200 mosques in the U.S. They are attended by South Asian Muslims (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Afghani, 33 percent); African-America Muslims (30 percent); Arab Muslims (25 percent); Sub-Saharan African Muslims (3.4 percent); European Muslims (Bosnian, Tartar, Kosovar, etc. 2.1 percent); White American Muslims (1.6 percent); Southeast Asian Muslims (Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino 1.3 percent); Caribbean Muslims (1.2 percent); Turkish Muslims (1.1 percent); Iranian Muslims 0.7 percent); and Hispanic/Latino Muslims (0.6 percent).
"It is also important not to stereotype Islam as a simple religion that promotes violence," writes Abdul Saleeb (pseudonym) in The Dark Side of Islam, a book co-written by Saleeb and well-known Christian teacher R.C. Sproul (Crossway Books, 2003). "In fact, Islam has a rich tradition in its intellectual history and in its cultural achievements .... We must take Islam seriously as a coherent, systematic faith that presents strong challenges against the Christian faith."
Privilege and Price of Sharing Christ
For Stewart, fluent in Persian and Turkish, the motivation to take the Christian gospel to Muslims is found in the Bible. He cites: "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us" (Acts 17:26, 27, NIV).
"Islam is a religion of works, and in that way, very similar to modern distortions of Christianity," Marlowe explains. "They believe what many nominal Christians believe: 'I must make myself good enough so that God will accept me.' Islam is just another form of man's religion. Muslims need the hope that can only come from Christ -- just like I do."
But Americans must overcome some aspects of our western mindset, as well as cultural barriers to reach their Muslim neighbors with the Gospel.
"Americans are propositional thinkers," Stewart says. "We think it's a matter of showing how my Christian proposition is more correct than your Islamic proposition. But a much more effective way is to show your Muslim neighbor or co-worker that you see him as a person, not as a project. Be a friend. Friendship is a higher value than truth in the Muslim mind."
Marlowe says that focusing on a single Muslim group is another important strategy in earning opportunities to evangelize. "That means understanding something of their language, customs, food, etc. The whole key to reaching any culture is to reach the heart of the person, and you can't do that unless you understand their culture -- their worldview. And that takes time and hard work."
Most cultures of the world, including Muslims, are oriented toward the group (collectivist) instead of toward the individual, as Americans are, Marlowe explains. "Most Muslims are not going to think through something on their own, like hearing a sermon and coming to Christ. They have to see it lived out by a group."
Stewart says Muslims are attracted to the claims of Christ when they see Christians demonstrate authentic faith through a pure life. "Forget about apologetics, at least at first. That might come later. They must smell the aroma of Christ in your life," he says.
"For example, if you buy gas where there are Muslims, don't just walk in, pay the clerk and leave. Linger for just five minutes," Stewart says. "Ask questions about his family. Ask if you can help them adjust to America."
Dos and Don'ts
In an article titled "Reaching our Muslim Neighbors," Stewart writes that building bridges to Muslims begins with prayer and a sense of utter dependence upon God's Holy Spirit.
After that, "hospitality is the key to most Muslim hearts," Stewart writes. "Do not hesitate to call and ask to visit them. In most cases this will please them and make them feel honored. Be sure to take a gift, such as flowers or a basket of fruit, for this is their love language."
"When they come to your home be sure to stand up as they enter and introduce them to your whole family," he says. "Offer them something to drink such as hot tea or a soft drink; even if they refuse bring it anyway. If you choose to serve food, avoid all pork products."
In conversation, ask a lot of questions and make few statements at the beginning, Marlowe suggests. "We must get to the core of their worldview, but that takes time."
Be careful not to challenge their faith. Stewart says that people from shame-based cultures easily wound and may quickly become defensive.
On the other hand, Muslims respect genuine faith, so look for low-threat ways to introduce them to the things of God. Stewart suggests praying for the Muslim family in your prayer before meals; giving them a copy of the Scripture in their language and ordering a copy of the JESUS Film in their language.
Although Muslims take great pride in defending Islam -- at least in public -- privately many are interested in Christianity. "I have found that every time you break the friendship barrier with a Muslim and you sit in their home or they come to your home, and you start talking heart-to-heart, you are going to find a lot of questions about Islam and much interest in Christianity," Stewart says.
A Christian must be ready to answer those questions with the testimony of his life that displays a love for Christ through a love for his Muslim neighbor. An Afghani proverb says, "If you pressure me I will not follow you to heaven, however, if you are kind and respectful to me I will follow you anywhere -- even to hell."
Learn More About Ministry to Muslims in America
The Dark Side of Islam by R.C. Sproul and Abdul Saleeb (Crossway Books, 2003)
Rusty Benson, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is associate editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the July 2004 issue. Copyright 2004 AgapePress.