by Phil Parshall
Some years ago, a zealous American armed with tracts asked my Syrian friend, Yusuf, to accompany him to the Street Called Straight in Damascus.
Some years ago, a zealous American armed with tracts asked my Syrian friend, Yusuf, to accompany him to the Street Called Straight in Damascus. Standing under the shadow of the wall where tradition says that the apostle Paul was lowered in a basket, Sam urged Yusuf to accompany him down the milelong street as he distributed tracts and called upon people to repent because the kingdom of God is at hand. Yusuf, with grace, declined the invitation and suggested he would wait for Sam’s return in the shadows of St. Paul’s wall. Remarkably, Sam returned intact, effusively reporting the calling of God upon his life.
Such actions by foreign Christians are one of a number of deterrents that give Christian nationals pause in initiating a witness to their Muslim countrymen. They are, for good reason, hesitant to be associated with a faith that has a fringe element that causes embarrassment and even danger to them. Nationals may have other concerns:
- A lack of precedent. The believers have never actually seen a sensitive evangelistic outreach in their town or village.
- Often the church is surrounded by a sea of Muslims. Members are intimidated by such an overpowering cultural-cum-religious presence. The normal response is to form a reactionary ghetto in which one feels maximally secure. “Don’t rock the boat” becomes the unarticulated maxim. Evangelism has the potential to create big-time waves.
- Jihad is a potent reality in certain Islam-dominated areas of the world. In two islands of the southern Philippines with large Muslim populations, tracts recently have been distributed informing resident Christians they must convert to Islam immediately or face jihad. In such a situation, believers hope for basic survival. They certainly are not going to upset Muslims even more with evangelistic forays.
- Some fear the overturning of the established Christian social, cultural, and religious traditions if suddenly many Muslims were converted. Believers are well established in their comfort zone. The whole concept of con-textualization is extremely threatening to the status quo. Thus, resistance.
- Then there is the issue of foreign financial assistance. Many churches in the Two-Thirds World receive significant gifts from the West. A sharing of these limited resources with a new body of believers may lead to diminished finances within the established church.
- If many Muslims came to Christ, would they seek to control the politics of the existing denominations? Some leaders are intimidated by such a thought.
- Lastly, there is the perennial doubt about the sincerity of Muslim converts. Stories, both factual and apocryphal, abound regarding those who professed and then reverted back to Islam. One or two case studies are extrapolated to embrace all inquirers/converts.
- Fortunately, there are usually small numbers of active witnessing Christians to be found in most Muslim settings. But, overall, their number is small and inadequate. Is there a way out of this conundrum?
In 1984, my wife, Julie, and I came to the Philippines to engage in Muslim evangelism. This was to be within a consortium effort of SEND, OMF, and our mission SIM. We approached the relevant church body for permission. As it was doing nothing among Muslims, the church wholeheartedly endorsed our efforts.
The Philippines has a minority Muslim community of 5 million people, or about 8 percent of the total population. They are clustered in the southern island of Mindanao as well as in regional centers throughout the Philippines. For various reasons, the Muslims have felt violated by Christians. They are therefore quite militant. Over the past decade, some missionaries have been kidnapped, a few raped, and several killed. This has led to a common saying among Filipino Christians: “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.” Alienation is pervasive between the two communities.
However, several steps have led to a turnaround among evangelical church leaders and members. Perhaps some of these will work in other Muslim settings.
1. In 1985, we missionaries commenced a five-day Consultation on Islam. Over the years, we have brought in top practitioners to speak to this consultation, which was attended by 44 persons the first time and has grown to over 200 for the most recent one. This has been a powerful tool to challenge Filipinos to the task. Only four nationals attended the initial gathering; 121 were present for the 1999 consultation. It is now largely administered by Filipinos.
2. In 1989, during Lausanne II, Filipinos organized a parallel Congress on Evangelism. They used local people as well as Lausanne plenary speakers. The Lausanne Congress was meeting less than a mile away. Florentino De Jesus, Sr., a 75-year-old Filipino, spoke and piercingly challenged his own people toward Muslim ministry. Over 1,000 people came forward as he gave the invitation. Of course, only a few of those have followed through, but it was a watershed moment. De Jesus, now deceased, had led his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination to have the greatest Muslim outreach in the Philippines. We all view this dear brother as the Samuel Zwemer of the Philippines.
3. In 1991, my colleague and close friend, John Speers, was visiting in Mindanao seeking to better learn a Muslim dialect. With him were his lovely, musically gifted wife and two children, ages 4 and 2.
John was one of the most intelligent and spiritually sensitive missionaries I have ever known. At 5:15 p.m., as John was returning from a language learning walk about, a Muslim came up behind him and, using a homemade pistol, exploded a bullet inside John’s brain. Entry into heaven was immediate. The story has been told and retold. If an American could so love Filipino Muslims that he would die for them, then how much greater is the responsibility of local believers to engage in a loving witness to the Sons of Ishmael. John’s impact has been greater in death than even in life.
4. We missionaries have sought to model what we have taught. Filipinos are very perceptive people. They want to see more than hear. For 16 years, I have had an outreach center in a Muslim area of inner-city Manila. Our street has been described by a local TV station as the most dangerous one in this city of 10 million people. One persistent Muslim fundamentalist has repeatedly threatened to kill me if I don’t close the center. Four afternoons a week I go and show the “Jesus” film and seek to distribute literature. This practical demonstration of involvement has challenged a number of Filipinos, some of whom now join me voluntarily.
5. I looked for someone I could disciple by example and friendship. The Lord brought Gene Lara into my life. He is a graduate of the most respected university and seminary in the Philippines. Gene at that time pastored the church we attend, which is made up of professionals and educators. Over time, Gene decided to resign from his prestigious church, join an OMF-related national missionary society, and work with me in our Reading Center. Gene has influenced scores of people toward Muslim ministry. He is a powerful speaker and seminar teacher. Before leaving his church, he helped it become the most involved single body of believers in the country in Muslim outreach. In many ways, he has now become my mentor.
6. A lesson from the above is the necessity of long-term and patient involvement. Our Filipino church had no ministry with Muslims when we started attending there 14 years ago. Slowly, that has all wonderfully changed. Amazingly, the godly pastor who followed Gene also resigned after four years and went into full-time Muslim outreach.
Scores of new initiatives have commenced all over the country. Most are community development-based. This practical dimension of help is appreciated. Recently, significant numbers of Muslims have turned to Christ in two areas of the country. Enthusiasm and optimism are at an all-time high, even though the political situation (and resultant danger) is as bad as it has been since the all-out conflict of the early ’70s.
I realize the Philippines is unique, both demographically and religiously. Other Islamic countries will have their own contexts. But perhaps some of these strategies will be helpful to others in thinking through options in regard to mobilizing the church toward active engagement in Muslim evangelism.
Phil Parshall has served among Muslims in Asia for nearly four decades and has written numerous books about Islam. He has a D. Miss. from Fuller Seminary and fellowships from Harvard and Yale Universities.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 44-47. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.