By David Van Biema
Posted Sunday, Time,
Growing numbers of Evangelicals are trying to spread Christianity in Muslim lands. But is this what the world needs now?
She wasn't a Muslim, but she would do for now. Last March, at just about the time American troops were massing outside
"It is not in the heart of all the Muslims to have violence," she said in broken English, alluding immediately to Sept. 11. "So sorry that people having dying. I'm wanting peace for my children. I'm thinking you wanting peace. It's the same." She listed Islam's five pillars of faith and reminded her audience that holy war is not among them. "We have a lot in common," she said, but she did wonder about the Trinity: "God Father plus God Mary equals God Son?"
A student, thrilled at the opportunity to explain, jumped in. After listening patiently, Shafira peeled back her garments and admitted that "I am not a true Muslim." Hardly. In fact, she was a longtime Christian missionary in Muslim lands. She had been hired to explain at several of 150 annual "Perspectives" classes how such evangelism should be done. She gave her real name. (Throughout this article, for the safety of missionaries working in potentially hostile environments or returning to them, pseudonyms are used. They will be indicated on first usage by quotation marks. Many locations will also be omitted.)
Over the next three hours, "Barbara," minus her burqa, dispensed lists of comparisons between Jesus and Muhammad ("Jesus arose from the dead and is alive. Muhammad is dead.") and of dos and don'ts of ministering to Muslims. (Do listen to their story. Don't argue about
For 21 months now, Americans have been engaged in a crash course on Islam, its geography and its followers. It is not a subject we were previously interested in, but 9/11 left no choice, and the
Not for a century has the idea of evangelizing Islam awakened such fervor in conservative Christians. Touched by Muslims' material and (supposed) spiritual needs, convinced that they are one of the great "unreached megapeoples" who must hear the Gospel before Christ's eventual return, Evangelicals have been rushing to what has become the latest hot missions field. Figures from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in
Approximately 1 out of every 2 is American, and 1 out of every 3 is Evangelical. Says George Braswell Jr., a missions professor at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: "We're having more now than probably ever before go out to people like Muslims." Sept. 11 appears only to have fueled the impulse.
Yet this boom has coincided with mounting restrictions on missionary efforts by the regimes of Islamic-majority countries and with swelling anti-Western militancy. The resulting tensions have sometimes erupted tragically: the past two years have seen the arrest and imprisonment of two American missionaries in Taliban-ruled
Such fears, plus the recent entry of evangelical missionaries into
“Islam is reaching out ... [similarly,] we must penetrate [its] heart.”
Just how large a proportion of Christian religious workers fit that profile? One reason it is difficult to know is that zeal is often tempered after some time spent in-country. Two centuries ago, in a similar burst of enthusiasm, such mainline denominations as the Presbyterians and the Methodists sent thousands of missionaries to the
But there remains a troubling contingent of indeterminate size that combines religious arrogance with political ignorance. Its activities would not necessarily raise eyebrows on the average
"Josh" is a new missionary, but not a foolish one. "I would never do anything stupid like blatant preaching on the street or going up to someone I don't know and handing out literature," he says. But at age 24 and after only eight months on the job, he occasionally gets antsy. "I'm impatient by nature," he says, "so maybe expectations are a problem." The son of missions workers with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination, he grew up abroad, but a palm-bedecked Arab capital is his first solo long-term posting. He strolls its working-class neighborhoods on errands for his day job as a youth worker with its small Christian community and wonders whom he will talk to today. He enjoys sharing Christ with cabbies, in part because their English is better than his beginner's Arabic. He points out three young men in a carpentry shop as part of his target audience: "They're my age," he says. "The younger generation is influenced much more by the West, and they're searching." Josh has his up moments, as when a neighborhood boy complimented him, saying, "You're a good Muslim ... I mean Christian." And there are times when he feels "overwhelmed. I'm just one person—what can I do to help?" But each morning he is reminded of why he is here. The muezzin's first call to prayer rings out at And pray Josh does. "I pray for the people responding," he says. "I pray that as they go to mosque, Jesus would somehow be revealed to them. I pray against that call—that it would not affect their souls." He prays he may help lift "this totally oppressive spiritual atmosphere."
In the broadest theological sense, Josh and other emissaries of Christ are answering Jesus' call in the Gospel According to Matthew, known as the Great Commission: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Since the Middle Ages, missionaries—revered by some, reviled by others—have been among history's great cross-cultural pollinators.
In the past century, as mainline Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church in the
Through the 1970s, the great missions fields were Latin America, where conservative Protestantism competed with Catholicism for the hearts of the poor, and (for the more daring) Africa and the Iron Curtain countries. Gradually, however, the focus shifted. A missions strategist named Ralph Winter suggested in 1974 that Christians turn their attention from areas already exposed to Christ to "unreached people groups" who had never heard the Gospel. The plan held special allure for those who read literally another verse in Matthew suggesting that when every nation is reached, the long-awaited end times can commence. In 1989 Argentine-born evangelist Luis Bush pointed out that 97% of the unevangelized lived in a "window" between the 10th and 40th latitudes. This immense global slice, he explained, was disproportionately poor; the majority of its inhabitants "enslaved" by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and, ultimately, by Satan.
In a later paper, Bush urged Christians, "Put on the full armor of God and fight with the weapons of spiritual warfare." (He has emphasized to TIME that he did not mean military action.) Of Islam specifically, he wrote, "From its center in the 10/40 Window, Islam is reaching out energetically to all parts of the globe; in a similar strategy, we must penetrate (its) heart with the liberating truth of the gospel." Many mustered themselves to the Window.
Only to find it closing. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam is the most ferociously opposed to the straying of its flock. Shari'a law calls for the death penalty for those who convert to other religions, and although the penalty is not binding in most Muslim-majority states, persecution is common. This alone would not retard missions work. Most evangelists accept it as a cost of sharing faith. What did slow their efforts was a more prosaic measure: the gradual elimination by most Muslim countries of professional "religious worker" visas. Established organizations built around salaried missionary lifers found themselves hamstrung.
Their clandestine status can turn some evangelicals into truth stretchers
So they were supplemented with something more maneuverable. The approach was called tentmaking, after the Apostle Paul, who supported himself at that trade while spreading word of the risen Christ through the
"Henry" and "Sarah" practice a kind of evangelism that might satisfy the staunchest agnostic. In the early 1980s they arrived in the North African country where they serve as missionary-team leaders. "We didn't want to run through, do our thing and preach," says Sarah. "We wanted to live." They founded an adventure-travel business and made friends. They talked sports and taxes and children with their neighbors, went camping with them and gathered with them on Muslim feast days. They didn't hide their faith, but they didn't press it on others, so when a friend's friend who had taken a Christian correspondence course approached them on behalf of his family, they shared Christ on his terms. "They pursued us," Henry insists. The two clans grew close and still are; eventually several of the Muslims embraced Christ. To tentmaking theorists, this is "relationship evangelism." Henry prefers to speak of the difference in connotation between two Arabic words, tansir and tabshir. "Tansir means to coerce people to change their religion," he explains. "Tabshir means to share, to be a witness."
At its most subtle, tentmaking embodies St. Francis' edict: "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words." ("Be someone's friend, not an Amway salesman," paraphrases one veteran.) But the sometimes clandestine status can breed bad habits. Visa bans turn many Evangelicals, usually straightforward to a fault, into truth stretchers, if only at the customs desk. They use encrypted e-mail and code words or smuggle Bibles. "Some," says a Christian minister in
Then there are the apparent attempts by some missionaries to camouflage their faith as a kind of Islam: inviting prospective converts to "Jesus mosques," publicly reciting the Muslim creed, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet"; or allowing themselves to be regarded as Muslim mystics, or Sufis. Such techniques are rationalized as part of "contextualization," the necessary presentation of new ideas in a familiar idiom. But Ibrahim Hooper, of the
Some of the secrecy may be unnecessary. David English, executive director of a tentmaking assistance agency called Global Opportunities, points out that even in
Such informal understandings, however, can evaporate when a regime cracks down or a missionary becomes more assertive. In August 2001,
In their book Prisoners of Hope, however, Mercer and Curry wrote of initiating Christian prayer with Muslims, urging them to listen to evangelistic broadcasts (in one case providing the radio) and showing at least two families a film on Jesus. "We understood that the Taliban prohibited non-Muslims from sharing their faith with Afghans," the women stated. But they claimed that this violated international norms, and wrote, "We believe the Afghans—like all people—should at least have the opportunity to hear about the teachings of Christ if they choose." To TIME, Mercer said, "I look forward to the day when the people of
Such sentiments are noble enough. But the women's acts were unpopular with a spectrum of
Intra-Christian recrimination also arose around the shocking death last November of Bonnie Witherall, 31, a nurse's assistant at the Christian and Missionary Alliance pre-natal clinic in Sidon, Lebanon, a facility funded partly by Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse organization. One morning as she arrived to open the clinic, an unknown assailant shot her three times in the head. Her murder may have been simple anti-Americanism, since it followed one of Osama bin Laden's bellicose edicts. But the New York Times reported that members of the
Such overtures are legal in
"Sam," 46, recalls the day Israeli soldiers spotted his white Citroen van on the shoulder of a back road outside the
Most evangelical missionaries love Muslims but hope to replace Islam
Paul Marshall, of the human-rights group Freedom House, says that although conversion is a crime in some Muslim-majority countries, "the biggest problem is that somebody else, a family member or local vigilante, will kill you, and the state will not intervene." A 2001 study prepared for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board by a strategy coordinator for "unreached people groups" in
Conversion is an act of free will, and the Muslims know the risks. But one must share the faith of Wally Rieke, candidate coordinator for the agency Serving in
For "Robert," the days of waiting appeared to be over. For months the globetrotting evangelist had kept a low profile, waiting for his latest chosen mission field,
It seems worth asking, however, whether that is a mandate with which Americans in general care to be identified. Missionaries often complain of suffering from an overall Muslim perception of Americans as purveyors of trash culture and libertinism. But with the newly aggressive wave of Evangelicals and the newly sensitive situation in the
Much was made of Franklin Graham's strange triple role as Islam basher ("a very evil and wicked religion"), Bush Administration favorite (he preached a Good Friday service at the Pentagon) and would-be provisioner of aid and the Gospel to the newly liberated nation. But Graham is just part of the Iraqi missionary wave, made up not only of nonproselytizing mainline charities but also of evangelical groups like his. Some offer only material aid; others aid plus the Good News. Others such as the International Bible Society and Discipling a Whole Nation (DAWN) will concentrate solely on spreading God's word. Not for decades has Evangelicalism enjoyed such an Iraqi beachhead. DAWN's Rich Haynie says that to the extent that the Allied bombardment induced Muslims to question their god, "we could say that the war was a ripeness moment."
This sort of language perturbs
Evangelicals assert again and again that their message is based in love. They are far better informed and more actively concerned than the average American citizen about the Islamic world's material needs, and their desire to share Christ springs in the main from a similarly generous impulse. Claims that Christian aid groups engage in charity as a "cover" for proselytizing do a disservice to the sometimes heroic humanitarian efforts by workers who believe that Christians should heed not just Jesus' message of salvation but also his example as a feeder and a healer. Yet there should be no question that while most evangelical missionaries love Muslims, they hope to replace Islam. Some cringed at Graham's "evil and wicked" description, but their critique was more about tone than substance. A few would suggest that only parts of Islam, and not its whole, are misguided. But most would subscribe to Luis Bush's generalization about Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism: "Satan wants to keep people as miserable as possible for as long as possible."
Clearly, this ideology is at odds with President Bush's statements that Islam is a religion of peace, his visit to a
The national debate over missionaries in
And wisdom, in the end, comes from above. The muezzin has called two more times, and Josh, the first-time missionary, looks out his window at a stooped old woman in a billowing cloak, picking her way up a neighboring hill. The sight fires some kind of synapse in the place of convergence among his youthful eagerness, the desire to share, the impulse to meddle and the conviction that God's providence will sort them out. "I see people like her, and I wonder, what's her story?" he says. "What can I do to help her? When I feel the calling on my heart, I don't see how it is possible to be here and not want to be able to speak to people, to love them, to get to know them. Every day I say to God: use me. Tell me what to do. Tell me what to say."
— With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr. and James Carney/Washington, Amanda Bower and Manya Brachear/New York, Jeff Chu/London and Matthew Kalman/Jerusalem
source : www.usislam.org