The women gather at the Old Country Buffet in a Boston shopping mall. They laugh and chat as they dig into roast beef and ice cream sundaes.
They could be any group of young moms and college students enjoying a night out. But they're not. These women are recent converts to Islam, celebrating the end of Ramadan.
They symbolize a curious new phenomenon in the wake of September 11: A surge of Islamic conversions.
"I said the testimony, and poof, I was a Muslim," says Tiffany Motschenbacher, a University of Massachusetts theater major. And she adds, "I used to feel something was wrong with me because I couldn't grasp the concept of God. Now I finally had peace of heart."
When it comes to Islamic conversions, you can't help but count the ironies. Throughout history, Islam has spread through violent conquest. Today — after Islamic radicals killed thousands of our neighbors — Americans are voluntarily converting.
Another irony: Around the country, so- called "seeker friendly" churches try to attract people through pop music and sanctuaries that resemble shopping malls. Meanwhile, Islam — which just suffered a huge public relations debacle — attracts converts through what can only be described as seeker unfriendly elements: rigid rules of conduct, dress, and life.
Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the United States. More than thirty percent of mosque attendees are converts. What is going on?
Well, first, the attacks have sparked an interest in learning more about Islam, a religion that appears exotic to western eyes. Second, during times of crisis, religions with clear definitions of right and wrong look increasingly attractive. Karen Courtenay, one of the new converts who gathered at the Old Country Buffet, told National Post that many converts are attracted to "Islam's rich mysticism and clear theology and rules," its family values, sense of community, moral certainty. Some — especially Hispanic and African Americans — view the embrace of Islam as a return to their roots.
Whatever the reasons for Islam's gains, it's clear that Christians have our work cut out for us. We must educate ourselves so we can explain the difference between Islam and Christianity. New converts to Islam often display a faulty understanding of both faiths.
For example, Lisa, one of the diners at the Old Country Buffet, said, "I liked the fact that to become a Muslim, you don't have to disrespect Jesus. He is still a prophet, just not the Son of God." She doesn't seem to realize that placing Muhammad above Christ is the ultimate disrespect.
And we ought to rethink our seeker-friendly approach and instead boldly teach our doctrines — what C.S. Lewis called "Mere Christianity" — and do it in open and intentional community.
To learn more about Islam, read my new booklet, When Night Fell on a Different World. And then, invite your neighbors over for a potluck. Tell them you'd like to talk about the differences between Christianity and Islam.
In these tumultuous times, it's clear people are searching for God. We can offer them the simple, magnificent truth to which no Muslim may lay claim:
That God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son that we might live.