Muslim-friendly Christian Worship

by Herb Hoefer

If followers of Christ want Muslims to feel comfortable in Christian worship services, they need to consider at least seven issues.

We know well how many misconceptions there are among Muslims about Christian teachings. In fact, many of them come from misconceptions in the Qur’an itself (i.e., the sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity; the nature of the Trinity; Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and return). In order to address these misconceptions effectively, it is important that our public witness be clear and sensitive in these areas. The most frequent public statement of the Christian faith comes in public worship. Below are several areas in which Christians might adjust their worship practices to ensure a clear witness in Muslim contexts. If we want Muslims to feel comfortable in our Christian worship services, whether in Muslim countries or in Muslim contexts elsewhere, what issues do we need to consider?

Worshiping Jesus
The first area came to my awareness during a visit to our Concordia University–Portland, Oregon, campus by a group of Muslim academics in October 2004. Our university is on the regular itinerary of a State Department-sponsored program which takes Muslim educators around to visit a variety of college campuses. We are on the itinerary because Muslims often wonder how a conservative Christian university can responsibly teach about other religions in a respectful and positive manner. Our discussions were scheduled at the conclusion of our chapel, and the venue was in the fellowship hall of the church where daily chapel is held. The visitors arrived while the worship was going on and were invited to sit and observe.

The itinerary leader was a bit apologetic that this Christian worship was presented to them. However, the Muslim academics (from Saudi Arabia) expressed their delight and surprise at what they heard. They discussed that they could have worshiped with the same words they heard, for it so happened that the songs they heard only referred to God and not to Jesus.

This experience caused me to reflect on the Muslim misconception about Christian worship. They think we worship a human being. They understand that all throughout history humankind has had the tendency to turn the prophet of God into a divine being after his death; therefore, people commit the unforgivable sin of worshiping someone other than God himself.

Subsequently, I’ve reflected and researched our scriptures on this topic. I’ve asked the question, “Is it proper to worship Jesus?” We understand that the Second Person of the Trinity became a man named Jesus. However, is it still Jesus who is now on the right hand of the Father? As I’ve searched the New Testament, I find the instance of Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road where the Second Person identifies himself: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Prayers and worship are addressed to the Lord (and to the Lamb in Revelation). We are called to pray in Jesus’ name, but are we called to use that name as our object of worship and prayer?

The one possible reference in Paul’s epistles to worship a heavenly Jesus is the early church hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. In this passage, the direction is to “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The Second Person’s incarnated name is honored, but his resurrected and exalted proper title is “Lord.” Even if prayers and worship might justifiably be addressed to the name of Jesus, I would urge that such a practice is unhelpful as a Christian witness in a Muslim context. We have strong biblical authority for using the most common term “Lord” when addressing the Resurrected One. That term would not feed Muslim misconceptions as the name Jesus does.

Affirming God’s Oneness
A second area in which there are serious misconceptions is the Muslim understanding that Christians are polytheists. Muslims think we violate the oneness of God by worshiping three deities. During that same visit, for example, the academics expressed shock that Christians believe God is one God. I tried to explain that there is a great mystery in the oneness of God, for we understand that oneness to be expressed as three Persons.

How can we address this common misconception in our public worship? I propose we reconsider how our classical creeds are expressed. This matter was brought to my attention at a conference of missionaries that my Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Board for Missions held in July 2005. One of the participants, Rev. Carlton Riemer, urged that the conference members petition our church body’s worship commission, as they were in the process of producing a new hymnal. Rev. Riemer’s proposal was that the grammatical phrasing of the creeds makes the oneness of God clear. The conference affirmed his proposal and petitioned (unsuccessfully) that the creeds begin with grammatical phrasing that makes clear our belief in the oneness of God. The usual way the creeds are written out joins the belief in God with the First Person:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ… (Apostles’ Creed)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty… (Nicene Creed)

The suggestion was that the witness to our affirmation of the oneness of God would be much clearer in our public worship if the creeds were written out in this manner:

I believe in God, The Father Almighty … (Apostles’ Creed)
I believe in one God, The Father Almighty… (Nicene Creed)

Especially in public worship in Muslim contexts, this clear grammatical presentation of the witness of the creeds might be considered.

Revising the Creeds
The ancient creeds were written to address the heresies of their day. Might we revise the creeds in Muslim contexts to address their misconceptions? Picking up on the above discussion about Muslims’ typical misconception that we violate the oneness of God, might we add more emphasis to that part of the creeds? Might we bring in biblical adjectives on the nature of God, expressed in a manner similar to the way Muslims do in their recitations? We might then add something like this to our creedal statement in public worship:

I believe in one God, all-knowing, all-loving, and all-saving, The Father Almighty…

With the Qur’anic rejection of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, it is very helpful in our public witness that the second article of the creed references Pontius Pilate (“crucified under Pontius Pilate”). It grounds these crucial events of the faith in verifiable history. This historical grounding makes the testimony and the basis of our witness clear and open to scrutiny.

However, in the third article, we have a problem. The reference to the “Christian… Church” can cause misunderstandings, as can the term catholic. Missionaries and Christians in the Muslim world are very aware that these two terms are negatively loaded. The Christian communities in those lands are typically isolated and despised, and the Church is associated in Muslim experience with all the negative connotations of the Crusades, colonialism, and Western military/political aggressiveness and decadent morality. Rather than raise up all those negative connotations, might this statement in the creeds be revised?

The point of this statement in the creeds is that present worshipers are part of the long history of God’s people all over the world. We might clearly express this conviction (without feeding Muslim misconceptions) by stating our belief something like this:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, The holy, universal fellowship of believers… (Apostles’ Creed)
And I believe in one holy, universal fellowship and apostolic witness (Nicene Creed)

In addition, such a clear affirmation would relate meaningfully to the Muslim concept of umma. It would testify clearly that Christians also have an umma—a transnational fellowship of faith and support.

Using Epistle Readings
A fourth area in which we might reconsider our practices of public worship is in the use of lessons from the epistles. Muslims have great respect for Jesus and accept him as the Christ, the Messiah. They believe he taught Islam, but that his teachings were corrupted and perverted by subsequent followers. Therefore, the Gospels have much greater authority for Muslims than the epistles. One will often hear knowledgeable Muslims particularly degrade Paul. They deride Christianity as “Paulianity.” They attribute the subsequent loss of Jesus’ Islamic teaching to the influence of Paul. Of course, we affirm the inspiration of the whole Bible, including the letters of Paul. However, in a Muslim context, it may not be judicious to present them as our authority. Indeed, even Paul would understand his writings only to be a witness to Jesus Christ, and that should continue to be the clear focus of our public worship. Therefore, might we forego the reading of lessons from the epistles and focus wholly on the Gospels? Might we especially make the words and actions of Jesus the basis for our public preaching? Muslims would be much more attentive and receptive.

Using “Son of God”
Another instance of serious misunderstanding among Muslims is in referring to Jesus as the “Son of God.” Muslims understand from the Qur’an that we think Jesus was the product of a physical relationship between God and Mary, and frequently God states to Muhammad that God does not have a son. Of course, that is not the Christian understanding of the term. However, when we use the term, this is what Muslims think we mean, for it is what the Qur’an says we mean. Whenever we use the term “Son of God,” Muslims immediately think blasphemy. Rick Brown even characterizes the term as a taboo so that, for a pious Muslim, even to hear the term will provoke God’s fierce, eternal wrath (2007, 424-426). We need to explain to Muslims that the term is a biblical metaphor that is used of individuals and even of Israel. It is not a biological description, but a theological affirmation using a human metaphor. The Second Person of the Trinity participates in the same nature as the Father, just as a son does. We need to make that explanation, but public worship typically is not the proper venue for that discussion. It would be best simply to avoid the term in our preaching and guide our people also to avoid it in their witnessing.

Offensive Welcoming
At Christian worship, we tend to take our welcoming of each other, and especially guests, very seriously. With Muslim guests, however, our enthusiastic welcoming can be very offensive. Most Christians are aware that they should not shake hands, much less hug, between genders among Muslims. Even touching someone of the same sex may be too intimate, especially in a crowd. Men and women should not even make eye contact. Some churches practice the “passing of the peace,” and most have some ritual of welcoming in their worship time. It is best simply to give a nod of acknowledgement, unless the Muslim guest offers his or her hand first. One must even be cautious with using the traditional salaam alaikum greeting, as many conservative Muslims understand this term to be used exclusively between fellow Muslims. Related to these considerations is where a Muslim guest can comfortably sit. In mosques, women are happy to have a totally separate place of prayer, even out of sight of the imam who is addressing the crowd and leading the prayers. For a Muslim-friendly atmosphere, a congregation might train their people to sit with men on one side and women on the other. Couples and families who want to sit together might be instructed to sit at the front.

Using Wine, Images, and Music
Finally, there are some issues that can be very sensitive to discuss in our Christian circles. These have to do with theological and traditional matters that are very close to the heritage of some denominations. While some will be a big issue for one denomination, others will not.

1. The use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. The use of wine in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is very important in liturgical denominations, but is very problematic for Muslims. Christians typically have a bad reputation for drinking alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam. Besides foregoing the consumption of alcohol in our personal lives, might we also forego it in our public worship? Many Protestant denominations already prefer the use of grape juice. It would be prudent for liturgical churches in Muslim contexts to do the same.

2. The use of images and statues in worship sanctuaries. In liturgical denominations, crucifixes and statues of saints and pictures or stained glass windows of biblical events and figures are often integral to the worship atmosphere. However, the presence of such images can be very upsetting to Muslim visitors. When I was with a group of Muslims in Nagpur, India, in 2007, one of the Muslim leaders brought up the “idolatry” practiced by Christians. She assumed Christians were worshiping the images she saw in churches, just as Hindus do. Fortunately, the group leader had enough insight to explain that these statues have a different function for Christians than they do for Hindus in their temples. Christians understand that these images are just reminders of spiritual realities and historic examples; yet most Muslims will process these images in terms of the way the Qur’an speaks of them.

3. The use of enthusiastic music in worship. This third issue is more problematic for non-liturgical denominations. Once when I was conducting a series of Sunday morning classes at a church in Portland, I had a Muslim come for one of the sessions. He brought his two sons for the event. As they entered the church, a worship service had started in the sanctuary; there was a band and people were clapping and waving their hands in the air. The two boys were curious about what was going on and walked to the sanctuary door to observe. Their father said, “Please go and see what they are doing. They call that worship!” Muslim worship is prescribed in detail and is very solemn, reserved, and dignified. They find our enthusiastic, seemingly chaotic, worship quite confusing and strange. If we want Muslims to feel comfortable in our worship contexts, should we have music at all? If so, what kind of music should it be?

In all of these matters, the process of discussing the reasons for the changes would become a great opportunity for educating and training Christians as we try to witness effectively to our Muslim neighbors.

Brown, Rick. 2007. “Why Muslims Are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God.’” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4):422-429.

Rev. Dr. Herbert Hoefer is the mission chair at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. He is also Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) area director for South Asia. Herbert was a missionary of the LCMS to India for fifteen years.

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