by Phil Parshall
This article is a response to: “Courage in Our Convictions: The Case for Debate in Islamic Outreach” by Jay Smith, January 1998 EMQ.
RESPONSE TO: "Courage in Our Convictions: The Case for Debate in Islamic Outreach" by Jay Smith, January 1998 EMQ.
Jay Smith’s provocative postulate is not a new paradigm. Rather, it is a rehash of that which has been tried, tested, and found wanting. Even in contemporary times, we have had Anis Shorrosh boldly taking on Ahmed Deedat in a debate provocatively entitled, "The Qur’an or the Bible? Which is God’s Word?" Some 12,000, mostly Muslims, gathered in Birmingham, England, on August 7, 1988, for this highly animated face-off. Shorrosh took off his kid gloves and sought to academically undermine Qur’anic authority.
Perhaps he was too "successful." For in July, 1990, Shorrosh journeyed to Deedat’s home turf in South Africa only to be met with a wildly antagonistic and even violent response from the local Muslims. An article in the Durban newspaper headlined the story, "Controversial Christian Theologian Leaves the Country After Death Threats." Both England and South Africa are nominally Christian countries.
Even so, Muslims were highly offended by being forced to endure a type of harsh criticism of their revered holy book. This, in spite of the fact that Deedat has long been the master of scorn and ridicule aimed so provocatively against our Bible.
Do we have a tradeoff? Are there specific conversions emanating from the Smith-Shorrosh polemical approach? Both men have been engaged in their ministries of undercutting Islam for some years. To my knowledge neither of them has seen Muslims come to Christ, at least not in any significant numbers. Conversely, a great deal of antagonism has been generated. If this is where all of this leads, it is only fair to seriously question the validity of their strategy.
Are there alternative methodologies? The following are some suggestions, most of which have been tested in varying contexts.
1. Interaction, not confrontation.
"Will you come and participate in our Muslim-Christian interaction?" The intelligent, young Filipino convert from Seventh-day Adventism to Islam put this unique proposition to me. He requested I simply give a 20-minute testimony of what Christ means to me. After being assured that this would not be in a debate format, I accepted the invitation. Once before, I had observed the group’s interaction in which only about 40 people attended.
On the appointed evening I approached the band shell in Rizal Park. To my considerable consternation, I was confronted with a sea of 700, almost all Muslim, faces. Many were in full Islamic dress. On the well-lit platform were two posters proclaiming, "Dr. Phil Parshall – Special Speaker on the subject, `Is the Bible the Word of God?’" As I walked up I heard a young Filipino at the microphone forcefully explaining why he, as a Baptist pastor, had renounced Christianity and become a Muslim. Quite an introduction for me. I had been duped!
Nevertheless, I proceeded to give a clear testimony of my conversion and the rationale for my biblically based faith. Microphones had been set up in the audience and for the next two hours. Muslims questioned me regarding biblical authority and other "easy" issues like the Trinity and how the crucifixion can affect mankind today. When the audience didn’t appreciate my answer, the cry of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) rolled over the bandshell!
At the end, several Muslims came up and said they had never heard Christianity explained in such a manner. The next day a Pakistani and a Saudi who had been in the meeting came to my Reading Center. They were most gracious and concluded our time together by purchasing a Bible, which the Saudi assured me he would be shortly taking with him back to his homeland.
In my talk I never once denigrated Islam. My presentation was a positive affirmation of my Christian faith. Somehow I managed to be gracious to myMuslim host, even though I admit to a bit of anger against him for his duplicity.
Perhaps this format could be successfully utilized in a public setting. One word of warning. Some Filipino pastors have engaged in these interactions and done very poorly. Only those trained in Christiantheology and in Islamics should attempt this method of evangelism. The Muslims have been schooled in Deedat-style argumentation and know how to play hard ball.
During the mid-’70’s, I had the privilege of being part of a team which pioneered a contextualized approach to evangelism in a Southeast Asian country. As a result, thousands of Muslims have become Christians. This outreach is still being utilized by many different groups within that country.
One of our most successful venues for making contacts with Muslims was through bookrooms or reading centers. In 1980, my wife and I were part of a team of four couples who went to work in a district of 1.5 million Muslims. To our knowledge, there had never been a convert in that area. Our team rented small rooms in rural village markets where the people would congregate weekly to buy and sell goods.
The centers were set up to be religiously attractive to Muslims. Scripture verses in Arabic were hung on the walls. We wore clothes appreciated by Muslims. Sitting on mats on the floor, we projected an image of a "holy man" or a religious teacher.
Contextual literature was shared with the visitors. At first Muslims would drop in out of curiosity. But soon meaningful conversations took place. Within six months we began to harvest the first fruits of our labors. Today there are over 500 baptized Muslim background believers in just that one area. For the past 13 years, I have had a bookroom bordering the Islamic community in inner-city Manila. This "Reading Center" is likewise attractively decorated with Islamic art decor. But, as is appropriate in the city, simple chairs and stools are provided. I show the "Jesus" film in Muslim dialects four afternoons a week. Two tables of literature are set up on the sidewalk just outside the center.
Hundreds of Muslims have watched the film. Many have been deeply touched, especially by the crucifixion reenactment. A great deal of literature has been distributed. Visible fruit has been minimal, although perhaps the No. 1 witnessing convert in all of the Philippines commenced her spiritual pilgrimage as she stepped into the center and was befriended by an OMF missionary lady who led her to Christ and discipled her.
In restrictive Islamic countries it may not be possible to have a bookroom outreach. But among minority Muslim populations and in more open societies like Pakistan, Indonesia, and a number of South Sahara countries, such centers are a valid option. This would be true throughout Europe as well. Each context would call for a unique approach that would be appreciated by the target community.
The major impact in mission to Muslims in the new millennium will be, of necessity, related to tentmaking strategies. By the year 2000 few Islamic nations will be granting visas to openly declared missionaries. In extreme fundamentalist countries, even Christian lay missionaries who are overt in witness will find themselves declared persona non grata, or worse yet, as with Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, some will end up with extended prison terms.
Yet, the nature of the Great Commission demands an inclusion of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Political and religious barriers must be looked upon as challenge rather than the last word as closed doors. There will always be "means" to somehow penetrate even the most difficult of Islamic lands.
Many evangelical missions have now launched departments similar to SIM’s "alternative ministries," which addresses the need for creative entry strategies into Muslim countries.
Frontiers has fielded probably the largest force specifically targeting the world of Islam. Its team-based approach has given maximum flexibility in professional options.Minimal bureaucracy within Frontiers has had a compelling appeal to the younger generation of Xers and Boomers. Few of their secularly well-trained personnel have had extensive preparation in theology and Islamics. Yet, in Frontiers’ 15 years of existence, over 500 staff have been fielded,and scores of small Muslim background believer fellowships have come into being.
Islam, in its early years, was propagated through the influence of a dedicated network of laypeople. Members of this army of traveling businessmen took every opportunity to share their faith with those they met. This is why Asia today embraces almost two-thirds of the Muslim population of the world. The tentmakers were amazingly successful. It is now time for Christians to implement a similar strategy. These approaches will need to be characterized by a spirit of innovation and flexibility.
We have not begun to adequately experiment with contextual radio programming for the Islamic world. Much of the present effort is wrapped in Western dress and filled with Christian clichés unintelligible to the average Muslim listener. Felt needs are not a focus.
Sensitive programming could include talk shows on issues relevant to Muslims, health hints, poetry, Scripture quizzes, reading from dramatic books, a soap opera with a compelling, emotional presentation, biographical drama, chanting of the Arabic Bible, talks on moral issues, discussion of the spirit world, farming information, nutrition helps, relevant indigenous music (both vocal and instrumental), question and answer interaction, relaying of personal messages, marital counseling, on-site interviews of interesting people, and finally, the offer of a free Bible correspondence lesson for all who request it. Most of these ideas could be incorporated into a low-key, one-hour daily program presented in a Muslim dialect.
One health worker, in cooperation with FEBC and SIM, is developing a radio program which assists rural people with their health needs. Considerable potential for such programming exists in the Muslim world. Where medium-wave broadcasting is not allowed, shortwave is always an option.
Some entrepreneurs are considering using television to present Christ to Muslims. I can only hope the programming will be culturally and religiously relevant to the Muslim mind. I fear it might be but a rehash of Western Christian TV presentations. That would be sad indeed.
5. Spiritual dynamics.
The Western missionary specializes in methodology. We have our gurus like Ralph Winter, who is perhaps the world’s greatest living missiologist. And we pay him due respect for his amazing innovation and productivity. But what about a missionary guru known solely for spirituality? Can there be a consensus that such a man or woman exists? Oh, yes, we may have our individual nominations, but I doubt that anyone would garner over 50 votes. There appears to be no living missionary in the lineage of a spiritually intense Hudson Taylor or Adoniram Judson.
Why? Have our families, churches, Bible schools, and even missions misdirected our steps? Why all the emphasis on statistics and success? Is this now what drives our mission community? "Doing" has somehow overshadowed, and in some cases obliterated, "being." Does this possibly explain our general impotence as we stand before a nearly impregnable Islam?
Recently Jim Plueddemann, general director of SIM, called together the mission leadership in London. The most pungent part of that consultation was the morning hours when Jim led us into a time of deep spiritual soul searching. On our knees we sought the living Lord for forgiveness, humility, purity, and empowerment. It was a time few of us will ever forget.
Bill Bright, in his seventh decade of life, issued a call for Christians to be involved in a 40-day, juices-only fast and time of prayer. He has set a personal example by keeping this fast for the past three years.
In 1996, 13 of us in the Philippines who are involved in Muslim evangelism also followed this style of fast. Ourtwofold focus was personal holiness and a breakthrough in Muslim evangelism. We fasted during the 30-day Ramadan fast and then for an additional 10 days. Each of us testified to a new spiritual sensitivity as a result of self-deprivation. A few had a major revolution in their personal walkswith the Lord. There were some gains in Muslim outreach as well.
I realize the brief confines of this article do not allow for a thorough presentation of all of the missiological options for Muslim evangelism.
Others can fill in the blanks. But I would conclude by emphasizing the absolute imperative of prioritizing a "classic" approach to a revitalization of spiritual reality among us missionaries who are called to be light and salt to the "Sons of Ishmael.’
PHIL PARSHALL has served in Asia among Muslims for 35 yeas. The author of many books, he and his wife, Julie, are now working on a book concerning women in Islam.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 38-42. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.