RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It isn’t that Muslims aren’t responsive to the Gospel, International Mission Board strategist Sam McAlister* says. The issue, he says, is that most Muslims have never heard it or seen a committed Christian live it out.
Islam claims nearly one-fourth of the world’s population — 1.57 billion Muslims. But fear — felt by both Muslims and Christians — ranks among the most significant barriers separating the Muslim world from the Gospel today.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Western culture collectively branded Muslims as suicidal jihadists bent on the Islamization of the globe politically as much as religiously by the fear-producing act of terrorism. Though these stereotypes are softening as Americans’ understanding of Islam grows, strong anti-Muslim sentiment endures as war with terrorist groups continues in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What’s more, Americans’ phobia toward Islam doesn’t appear to stop at the church threshold. A survey of more than 1,000 Protestant pastors released by LifeWay Research in December 2009 showed that 77 percent of evangelical pastors either somewhat or strongly agreed that Islam is a “dangerous religion,” though the study did not explore the specific issues behind their concern.
So what does all this mean in light of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations?
McAlister, who leads the IMB’s strategy for spreading the Gospel among Central Asian peoples, believes Christians must transcend their own prejudices if they are committed to fulfilling the Great Commission. The real problem, he says, is a “lack of love” for Muslims that causes believers to respond with fear and hatred rather than loving them as God does.
“The stereotypes that you see in the Western media are no more true of the Muslim world than to say all Americans are New York City gangsters or Wild West cowboys,” McAlister says.
MUSLIMS ARE RESPONSIVE
McAlister adds that there are widespread and deeply held misunderstandings among Muslims about what Christians believe. Unlike Americans, he says, Muslims don’t separate their religious and ethno-cultural identities — to cease to be one is to cease to be the other. And, they don’t understand how Jesus can be part of a divine Trinity if God is One.
These differences and misunderstandings help explain why the decision to follow Jesus as Lord is so difficult for Muslims and why many mistakenly assume that what they see in Hollywood-perpetuated American popular culture represents Christian ideals.
“The demonstrable difference in the lives of believers is a key witnessing tool, particularly in areas of honesty, morality, kindness and family life. These are huge adornments to the Good News,” he says. “Without exception, where we have planted ourselves and gone deep in language and culture, established relationships and stuck it out, we have seen fruit for the Gospel.”
FEAR HALTS WITNESS
It is particularly frustrating that American believers’ heightened fear of Islam can halt them from sharing the message of truth with Muslims at a time of unprecedented Gospel advance in the Muslim world, McAlister says.
Jim Haney, director of global research for the IMB, says some of the world’s most responsive people groups to the Gospel are Muslim. In 2008 alone, Southern Baptist missionaries and their national partners baptized more than 12,700 believers and started 1,300 new churches among Muslim people groups. Missionaries also engaged 30 unreached Muslim groups for the first time, totaling more than 35 million people.
But Haney points out that Southern Baptists don’t have to go to Asia or the Middle East to share Jesus with Muslims — they can start in their own neighborhoods.
“If you had an opportunity to see a Muslim in your community come to Christ, would you want it to happen?” Haney asks. “Or is your hatred for Muslims so great you don’t see them as someone in need of the Gospel? To us [Americans], Muslims are kind of like the Samaritans were to the Jews — we want to [avoid] their territory. But Jesus sought the Samaritans out.
“If we’re going to effectively engage Muslim people groups, it’s not going to be because of strategy, it’s going to be because we love them. Maybe love is the strategy.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.