By Greg Pruett
The room was a bit dark, and the West African sun had baked my sandaled feet to match the fine red dust clinging to my skin. I couldn’t help but appreciate my host as I enjoyed the hospitality of the couch in his small, tin-roofed home.
Omar had a gentle spirit about him as he asked his earnest question: “How can I get the prophets of the Bible to be my intercessor on the Day of Judgment?”
My reply was rehearsed, “The Bible says that only one man can be the intercessor: ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Without a moment’s thought, Omar spoke the mother of all questions, “Then how can I get Jesus to be my intercessor?” In an instant, Omar and I were on our knees praying to Jesus together.
This was not the Islam I had seen on television!
Suicide bombers, genocide in Darfur, 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, $10 billion a month spent on war in an unstable economy, the continuing threat of terrorist attacks, the ongoing war on terror—most people know we have a problem but don’t know what to do about it. The world’s Muslim population is 1.3 billion, and Islam is growing faster than any other world religion, producing a diversity of peoples ranging from peaceful to extreme.
Our government tries to solve the problem of terror; but ultimately guns won’t improve our relationship with the Muslim peoples of the world. Western civilization and the diverse Islamic community are clashing over differences of opinion about God. Our Western governments cannot address theology. That job belongs to the church. Guns don’t change what people think about God; the Word of God in their language does. God has given his church the peaceful solution to this conflict by commanding us to lovingly share his Word.
It’s not that the church isn’t trying to help. In every Bible college I visit, I meet motivated students who have committed their lives to share their faith with Muslims. Their families are nervous; churches hesitate. Do we have the courage to send young families into the Islamic world in the face of what we see on the news?
Maybe we are nervous, in part, because we think we know what will happen in these missions. We’ve seen other young people go and commit years talking to resistant Muslims, and in the end the investment yields only a handful of precious Christ-followers. It’s not that Christians don’t want to obey the Great Commission, but the church can see that continuing what we have been doing won’t be enough to introduce Christ to a significant portion of Muslims.
Why not try a more intentional approach? I propose we:
• Locate the most receptive Muslim peoples.
• Send large numbers of new missionary teams there.
• Apply culturally sensitive methods to plant churches.
• Translate Scripture into the local language in written, audio, and visual forms to mature churches.
• Partner with these churches from receptive Muslim backgrounds to reach out to nearby more resistant ones.
Using this approach we would gradually work our way from less resistant to more resistant Muslims, gaining capable local partners along the way.1 That would make sense.
Finding Receptive Muslims
When choosing where to share Christ’s love among Muslims we have paid little attention to the possible openness of the people to accept our message—perhaps assuming that all Muslim peoples will resist Christian teachings. Mission strategies often focus on prestigious cities at the heart of the Islamic world because people there are in a position to influence others. But these influential people have proven to be more invested in Islam and among the most Jesus-resistant people—even when we use culturally sensitive methods.
We need to discover responsive parts of each society even if they are less prestigious or more rural. So the burning, church history-changing question becomes: Where—and who—are the most receptive Muslim peoples?
Common sense and experience indicate some of the following would be more open:
• Areas around the edges of the Islamic world where Islam arrived more recently and is less entrenched.
• Cultures under greater secular influence (e.g., from communism in the former Soviet Union).
• Muslims who intertwine Islam with their own traditional religious practices (e.g., in Africa or Indonesia).
• Rural Muslims in marginalized, minority ethnic groups.
• Regions where Muslims don’t understand Arabic.
• Ethnic groups that became Muslims under the pressure of a jihad.
• Muslim ethnic groups with a larger existing percentage of Christians.
• Societies where Muslims live alongside an attractive example of a church.
In every part of the Islamic world we may seek out layers of society where people are oppressed or less invested in Islam. In short, we need to mobilize a new generation of missionaries to focus on the marginalized parts of the Islamic world.
Among these more receptive groups, a relevant message tailored to the local culture and language has great power. Muslim peoples in these areas often don’t understand the Arabic language and have no direct access to the meaning of their holy book. They may not know what they are praying five times a day, but they are required to pray in Arabic.
By providing clear access to the Bible in their language, we empower Muslims to truly know Jesus’ teachings. They may choose to believe a Bible they can understand and worship God in their own language over practicing an inaccessible religion in Arabic.
Jesus commanded that we be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth. I’ve been to “the ends of the earth” once. I remember a muggy African night when 50 of my closest friends and I piled into two vehicles and headed out to preach in a faraway Muslim village at the end of a dusty track.
We sang songs and preached in the local language, as usual, but to our shock, during the altar call most everyone who could hear us started jostling their way to the front, eyes aglow with hope. I reflect on that wild night and ask, “Do millions of open-hearted Muslims wait in unexpected places for us to come to them with a message they can understand?”
The people of that village and their ancestors waited for 2,000 years to hear about Jesus! Many others still wait. It is possible we don’t see much progress among Muslims because we have repeatedly sown seed on rocky ground when more fertile soil may have been nearby in less prestigious places.
For too long we have neglected the Muslim world, but it will no longer be ignored. I believe the church is ready to reach out more, but only if the plan makes sense. Let’s find people who are ready to hear, people like Omar I mentioned earlier.
A while back I heard that Omar had died of an illness. Over the years he had read the Bible and been baptized. His wife told a friend of mine that, as he was dying, he would go to sleep talking to Jesus and wake up still talking to Jesus.
The Lord has power to nurture and care for people—even in the Muslim world. When Omar awoke for the last time, I believe he spoke to Jesus face-to-face.
1M. Youssef, “Muslim Evangelism in the 1980s,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, by R. D. Winter and S. C. Hawthorne, eds. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 657-62.
Greg Pruett will write four “Reflections” columns during 2009.
Greg Pruett has served as president of Pioneer Bible Translators in Dallas, Texas, since January 2007. Prior to that, Greg and a his wife, Rebecca, and their three children ministered with Pioneer as Bible translators in France for a year and West Africa for more than 12 years. The people they served now have the New Testament in their own language and will soon also have the Old Testament, too. This is the first full Bible translated primarily by PBT missionaries!
He served as president of the 2003 National Missionary Convention.
Greg’s education was at Texas A&M and Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is currently a doctoral student. He also has linguistic training from the Summer Institute of Linguistics.