Let me set the scene:
I teach a class entitled Missiology. We discuss the concept of the mission of God in our world – what that entails and many related topics. Such topics are covered as the church, the kingdom of God, the gospel, the mission that began in Gen 1 (not the NT), the work of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, modern mission movements, and a few other areas.
But one other topic addressed for merely 2 class sessions is that of Mission & Other Religions.
Learning needs to be practical. It has to work its way down deeper into our hearts and bodies, not just our cerebral capacities (though it includes that). Education is not simply dissemination of information. Rather, it affects the whole human. If you need more back up on this idea, check out Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom.
Consequently, in Missiology, I’ve tried to lay out a couple of very practical assignments where we experience mission of some sorts together.
The first was about serving the poor and disadvantaged in Memphis, which you can read about here. Yet, with the second assignment, I have a tad bit of trepidation in sharing the concept, mainly because of expected backlash from my evangelical friends and acquaintances.
In our discussion around Mission & Other Religions, I tasked the students with attending a mosque for the Muslim Friday prayer service. The goal was to learn, to listen, to observe, to engage as they could.
Tough one for many – and I presume for some students as well when I began sharing about the assignment at the beginning of the semester.
Upon arrival, we entered, were given a brief tour of the mosque and then took our seats in the rear of the prayer service. Now, there was a little lack of participation in that I wasn’t going to require the students to join in the actual prayers. It was to be a learning and observational experience, though ironically some of the girls were given head garb during the first visit and asked to join on the prayer mats. I actually thought this was a beautiful opportunity to show respect and grace – and I appreciated the respect they showed.
But, overall, this visit was a big step for many – mind you, it was my first actual attendance to an Islamic prayer service as well.
Yet, I tell you I walked away with great appreciation and deep respect for these Muslim friends (and I believe just about every student found themselves in a similar place, though I’ll find out when reading over the Reflection Papers).
Stay with me before the accusations arise.
You see, most Christians have their identity shaped by what and who they are against. It would work better to start with what we are for – not simply Jesus in an ethereal way, but Jesus and all of his attributes. We start with the formative idea that we don’t just follow our Lord, our Master, though we do. But we follow his example, how he lived, including the awkward atrocities to the religious elite.
You see, having our identity shaped by what we are against leaves us functioning with hostility towards others (other Christian groups and those in the world) rather than hospitality. The launching pad is flawed, I believe. We cannot properly consider a response of mercy towards “the others” when we identify them as the outcast. Imagine any group taking up such a call. Maybe that’s the underlining perspective behind the holy wars of old between Christians and Muslims, the wars of eastern European peoples, the Spanish Inquisition, the murders of the Anabaptist, the slaughtering of Jews, and many more.
And here is the thing: This statement about the difference between a hostile and hospitable approach to others – I learned this from a well-known speaker who’s name will remain anonymous, lest the motivational (or manipulative?) judgment be unleashed on a person who has been branded a heretic with nothing good to offer to the table of Christ’s people. Fortunately we live in the 21st century so that this person does not fall under the same death judgment of those like the Anabaptists.
Well, I could simply say that Jesus taught these same concepts of merciful hospitality towards others – both in word and deed. But somehow we would make it out as if Jesus never taught such. There would be a memory lapse to Jesus eating with actual slutty prostitutes, the dung-of-the-earth tax collectors of Rome, and conversing with pagan-mixed worshipping Samaritans (including their adulterous women!).
And interesting that Jesus affirmed some sense of the Samaritan worship in John 4 – you [actually] worship what you do not know…
But here I found myself in a mosque with a heart of gratitude for these Muslims. They are not jihadists and they have no desire to be. They proclaim peace, not war. They know to not run to certain texts in the Qur’an to support jihad holy war, just as most Christians know we don’t run to Joshua to support the extermination of Jews or Palestinians or [insert a certain despised group here].
Respect, appreciation, honor – all these I sensed for these Muslim friends. They are involved in great works of serving the poor of Memphis, even putting many a Christians to shame. Of course I believe they need to have a fuller revelation of Isa, that is Jesus the Christ. But I still believe it amazing they they are seeking Allah. Remember, Allah is the general Arabic word for God, like Elohim is the general Hebrew word for God – actually, Middle-Eastern and Indonesian Christian worship Allah, knowing it means God.
Their knowledge is lacking – just as the Samaritans, just as the philosophers of Athens we read of in Acts 17 – whom Jesus and Paul attributed some worship to the one true God, though it lacked full knowledge. And I’m not speaking of salvation here, but more of worship. Worship and salvation can be distinguished. Think of creation – it worships, but is not “saved” in the normal personal way in which evangelicals think. Jews or Muslims can worship the one true God without it speaking of their standing with regards to salvation.
In his book, Allah: A Christian Response, Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, offers these reflections from Martin Luther’s writings:
As Luther the preacher developed his position before the congregation in Eisleben, he invoked the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, recorded in John’s Gospel. In the course of the conversation about proper worship, this shrewd woman asks Jesus where one should worship God, on Mount Gerizim in Samaria or at the temple in Jerusalem. On the surface, the issue seems to be the place of worship. Deeper down, the issue is identifying whether the God of the Samaritans or the God of the Jews is the true God. “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know,” Jesus responds. He then adds, “We [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22).32 In Luther’s account, true Christians are like the Jews in Jesus’s statement: they worship the true God whom they know. All others—heathens, Jews, Muslims, even “false” Christians—are like Samaritans: they worship that same true God whom they do not know. (p70)
I believe Muslims are functioning at some level of worship to the one and only God. And many of their hearts are seeking, and I pray these sons of Ishmael do come to a full knowledge of the true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But here they are; here we were. Learning, listening, observing. I sense they struggle a bit in their own circles of backlash when interacting with Jews and Christians. But they’ve made headway. I want to contact Usman and Younis again to see about having coffee together, even listening of how we Christians could bless them – making Jesus actually real to these people.
Yes, I want the good news of the rule of God in Christ to be made known to them. But I don’t think some Romans Road plan will be too successful for Muslims that have their base in the center of the Bible belt. The gospel is the power of God for salvation – but that is not encapsulated in “four spiritual laws”.
And, so, the fearful motivations, or manipulations, will definitely exist. One might have to pay the price like a Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa (and I’m not saying that is what I would do, or where most Christians would end up) in standing up for and relating to the despised and outcasts. But we’ll never make any headway without taking those little steps of listening and dialoging.
Most atrocities and fear come from ignorance, not truth. A wise man once said: the truth will set you free. Perhaps the truth about who Muslims really are as human beings made in the image of Allah (or God), seeking Allah, serving Allah, might help us faithfully make Isa (or Jesus) known to them.