by Don Eenigenburg
Church planting within Muslim societies presents a major challenge for Christian missions. As the year 2000 approaches, mission agencies are scrambling for strategies suitable for reaching Islam with the gospel.
Church planting within Muslim societies presents a major challenge for Christian missions. As the year 2000 approaches, mission agencies are scrambling for strategies suitable for reaching Islam with the gospel. In the last few decades, the popularity of contextualization has spurred on the search for new ways of expressing the gospel in forming new believing communities. Context-ualization seeks to express the Christian faith in a way which is both true to Scripture and relevant to the cultural context of the recipients.
Recently, some missionaries to Muslims have suggested a different kind of contextualization. In this new approach, missionaries encourage believers from a Muslim background to remain within the Muslim community. Believers maintain their Muslim identity and learn to practice their faith using Islamic forms and terminology. They meet in congregations culturally distinct from existing Christian congregations in the area. We will call this approach “Islamicized contextualization.”
MAINTAINING A MUSLIM IDENTITY
David Teeter works with Muslim university students through a “Friendship Center” in the Bethlehem area. He writes about a “Muslim followers of Jesus” model he and his colleagues have employed. In this model, Muslims coming to Christ do not convert to Christianity. They remain with their families trying to maintain their support despite their “heretical” beliefs about Jesus.1
Some missionaries, attempting to identify with their hosts, have called themselves Muslims. Pointing to the example of Paul, who “became a Jew to the Jews,” they assert that to the Muslims they must become Muslims. One team in the Middle East has a policy of not allowing missionaries to identify themselves as Christians. Some team members identify themselves as Muslims with immediate or later qualification.
REMAINING WITHIN THE COMMUNITY
This enables believers to remain part of the Muslim community and display loyalty by their normal participation in Muslim communal life. John Wilder served for 20 years in the non-Arab Muslim world. He tells of a group of believers from a Muslim background who called themselves “Jesus-ists.” They remained separate from local Christians. Other Muslims considered them one of many Sufi or dervish mystical orders. Wilder maintains that a movement to Christ might begin from inside the Muslim community. He states that though a “Christian Muslim” sect would offend some Muslims, most might see the group as just one of many sects under the Islamic umbrella.2
Advocates of Islamicized context-ualization criticize Christian attempts to make Muslims leave their community. They compare Christians with the Judaizers of the first century who wanted to circumcise (proselytize) Gentiles before they could become part of the church. Paul condemned the Judaizers for placing unnecessary burdens on Gentiles coming to faith.
ISLAMIC FORMS OF WORSHIP
In Islamicized contextualization believers from a Muslim background practice Islamic forms of worship. Advocates say nearly all Islamic forms are redeemable. Some even maintain that believers should replace distinctly Christian forms (e.g., baptism) with culturally equi-valent forms.
Rafique Uddin, a believer from a Muslim background and an evangelist, relates an experience in training people to work with Muslims. Throughout the training period they prayed five times daily using the Islamic form of prayer (salat). When they returned to their villages after the training, they continued the Islamic prayers. Some of them even went to the mosques to pray. He says these trainees are aware that prayer and fasting are not obligatory for them. However, they have now become regular expressions of praise to God.3
Contextualization rightly acknowledges the need to select forms relevant to the new believer. What distinguishes Islamicized context-ualization is that Islamic identity, community, and forms are to show that the believer is still Muslim in essence. This claim requires redefining what it means to be Muslim (or Christian for that matter).
The rationale behind Islamicized contextualization boils down to historical, cultural, and evangelistic reasons.
1. Historical reasons. Proponents point out the historic failure of Christians to attract Muslims to faith in Christ. Previous approaches have been ineffective, they say, because they have not taken seriously historical barriers between the two faiths.
John Anderson presented a paper at the 1976 conference on “The World of Islam Today” in England. He reviewed the historical barriers between the Christian and Muslim communities. The church in Arabia at the time of Muhammad was divided into Greek Orthodox, Nestor-ian, and Monophysite sects. These divisions gave Muhammad a distorted picture of Christianity. Later, the medieval church created additional barriers by supporting the crusaders’ attempts to conquer Islam by sword. In the 1800s, missionaries infuriated Muslims by relying on controversy to attack Islam. More recently, Muslims have observed in the Western church an almost uncritical support for the State of Israel. Modern missions have largely bypassed the Muslim world to reach more accessible fields. Those who have focused on Muslims have often appeared subversive, unmoved by the impoverished, and insensitive to the culture of Islam.4
Anderson acknowledged other factors limiting the effectiveness of Muslim evangelism. Yet, he said, these factors often cover the blame that rests squarely with the church.
2. Cultural reasons. Islamicized contextualization identifies cultural differences between Muslims and Christians as a major barrier to conversion. Frederick and Margaret Stock speak from their experience in Pakistan. They say we often assume that the primary barriers to winning Muslims are theological barriers. In reality, many Muslims are theologically convinced of Christianity. However, they cannot get over the social and cultural hurdles.5 Muslims often have a low view of Christian morality. Christian dietary, hygienic, and dress habits are offensive to most Muslims.
3. Evangelistic reasons. Who is better able to reach family and friends with the gospel than the convert himself? If he leaves the community, or becomes a traitor (Christian), how can he influence his family and friends?
Near the turn of the century, missionaries baptized D.A. Chowdhury, a convert from Islam, in the Bengal province of India. That same day, they sent him off to Calcutta (500 miles from home). Chowdhury claims it took 10 years to rebuild the trust of his Muslim friends. He observes, “This uprooting of converts from their natural environment has been a serious hindrance to the propagation of Christianity amongst Bengali Muslims.” 6
Believers who remain within the Muslim community are arguably better able to reach family and friends for Christ. If believers continue to leave the community, hopes for a mass movement to Christ diminish.
To determine the validity of this approach we need to evaluate its presuppositions.
1. The fault of traditional approaches. Proponents quickly point out the failure of traditional approaches. They say these have largely ignored the tremendous historical and cultural barriers between the two communities. However, blaming traditional approaches for the lack of results ignores significant hindrances to the gospel. Satan has blinded the eyes of Muslims toward the gospel. Muslim leaders do not want to relinquish their control over their people. This assessment also ignores significant advances for the gospel in areas like Indonesia, India, and Iran.
Perhaps the major reason more Muslims have not responded to the gospel is that the church has largely neglected Muslim evangelism altogether. Greg Livingstone recounts how much effort missionaries expended in China, Japan, India, Korea and Colombia before Christianity began to take root. Until the church exerts the prayers and efforts in Muslim lands that it has exerted in other “difficult” lands, the church cannot expect a significant harvest.
I believe that remaining fully part of the Muslim community may not be the best way for new believers to win the community. One pastor who has baptized many Muslims has said that Muslims respect courage. If believers try to appear as part of the Muslim community, they will appear deceptive. Muslims would have more respect for someone who acknowledges he is a Christian and stands up for his beliefs.
2. Islam’s compatibility with the gospel. Islam’s presumed ability to accommodate the gospel is critical to Islamicized contextualization approaches. Some proponents argue that Islam is primarily a cultural rather than a religious entity. Anglican Canon Isaac Taylor read a paper at the Wolverhampton Church Congress (1887) in which he stated that Islam stands halfway between Judaism and Christianity.
The goal of Islamicized contextualization is to transform Islam rather than to replace it (7). John Anderson claims that Islam entails much “that appeals to the conscience of good men.”8
However, Phil Parshall, in his book Beyond the Mosque, sees sociology and theology as inseparable components in Islam. He lists four characteristics of Islam making a Jesus sect within Islam impossible:
1. The unacceptable exaltation of the prophet Muhammad.
2. The centrality of the mosque to religious expression within Islam.
3. The denial by Muslims of the Christian view of biblical authority as well as their rejection of our belief in the deity and atonement of Christ.
4. The desire of both Muslims and Christians to have an exclusive ummah (or community).9
Temple Gairdner has said, “Islam and Christianity are incompatible; they are different in ethos, in aim, in scope, in sympathy.”10 When missionaries ask a believer to retain his Muslim identity, they are asking him to identify with more than a sociopolitical entity. They are asking him to identify with a religious system whose theology is incompatible with the gospel.
3. Acceptance by the Muslim community. Another presupposition is that if believers from a Muslim background remain within the Muslim community, the community may come to accept them. Beyond that, the community may even allow a movement for Christ to develop within Islam.11
Greg Livingstone says that he is “empathetic of those Muslim followers of Jesus who seek to stay within the mosques as salt and light.” However, he agrees with Parshall’s conclusion that the nature of Islam has not allowed an Islamic sect of believers in Isa (Jesus) to arise within Islam.11
Muslims are not likely to permit a “Jesus sect” to take root within their community. It is more likely that Muslim reaction to being duped will result in an even greater backlash than if conversion followed normal lines. Missionaries cannot remove the offense of the cross.
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
An alternative to Islamicized contextualization is to enable believers to practice their faith meaningfully and relevantly, yet without demonstrating allegiance to Islam. Individuals still become part of a homogeneous group of believers from a Muslim background.
They develop their own meetings, religious terminology, and worship forms. The believer would not try to prove that he is still Muslim. If the government officially allows the believer to change his religion from Muslim to Christian, he would be free to do so. More likely, the government will not allow him to change his religion. In that event, the believer’s identity card would obviously continue to say “Muslim.”
The group of believers would have many issues to work through. These might include: prayer, music, terminology, giving, fasting, baptism, evangelism, meeting location, training, birth rites, marriage rites, death rites, holidays, celebrations, etc.
Paul Hiebert recommends a four-step process which will help the group develop forms that are both culturally relevant and true to Scripture: (1) study the local culture—believers should uncritically gather information regarding the traditional beliefs and customs associated with the given form; (2)study Scripture related to the question at hand; (3) critically evaluate past customs in light of the relevant Scriptures; and (4) arrange the chosen practices into a ritual that expresses the biblical meaning behind the form.12
As the group works through each of these areas, members will pool their insight into culture and develop ownership of the results. This process alleviates the concern by national leaders that context-ualization is another Western innovation being imposed on the churches of the East.
Keeping the matter of approaches in perspective is important. Faithful servants have labored in Muslim lands for centuries. In some locations they have seen excellent results using traditional approaches. This does not mean that the approach is unimportant. Those seeking to reach Muslims should use the most effective approach possible. They should also avail themselves of the best resources and obtain the best possible training. Yet, reaching Muslims goes beyond the matter of approach. Samuel Zwemer’s sentiment was this: “What is needed is not simply new methods, but new men and this happens only as men encounter Jesus Christ.”13
1. David Teeter, “Dynamic Equivalent Conversion for Tentative Muslim Believers,” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1990), pp. 306-7
2. John Wilder, “Some Reflections on Possibilities for People Movements Among Muslims,” Missiology, An International Review, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1977), pp. 310-11.
3. Rafique Uddin, “Contextualized Worship and Witness” in Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road, J. Duddley Woodberry, ed. (Monrovia: MARC, 1989), pp. 271-2.
4. John D.C. Anderson, “Our Approach to Islam: Christian or Cultic?” Muslim World Pulse, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Wheaton: Evangelical Missions Information Service, 1977), p. 2.
5. Harvie M. Conn, “The Muslim Convert and His Culture” in The Gospel and Islam (Monrovia: MARC, 1979), p. 100.
6. D.A. Chowdhury, “The Bengal Church and the Convert,” The Moslem World, Vol. 29 (Hartford: Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1939), p. 345.
7. Lyle L. Vander Werff, Christian Mission to Muslims: The Record (South Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1977), p. 332.
8. Anderson, p. 5.
9. Phil Parshall, Beyond the Mosque (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), p. 194.
10. Vander Werff, p. 219.
11. Greg Livingstone, Planting Churches in Muslim Cities (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 179.
12. Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization” in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1987), pp. 109-110.
13. Vander Werff, p. 260.
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