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Evangelicals and Muslims: Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?

Evangelicals and Muslims: Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?

March 12, 2012

The Muslim population in the U.S. is steadily rising, and with the rise, more and more questions arise about how evangelicals and Muslims will co-exist in modern America. An imam in New York has already begun to call for Muhammad's birthday to become a national holiday, while legislators in Oklahoma are trying to pre-empt the possibility of Sharia courts in the U.S., as they have been established in England.

Most recently, an effort by Rick Warren's Saddleback Church to reach out to neighboring Muslim communities in Southern California produced a firestorm of controversy over whether Warren would be compromising the Gospel in his efforts. Warren sharply denied he was downplaying the Gospel, but a larger question remains:

How should evangelicals view Muslim growth in the U.S.? Is it the harbinger of more conflict in an increasingly polarized American experience or is it the dawn of a new age of evangelism and witnessing for Jesus Christ?

This is the introduction to a multipart series titled "Evangelicals and Muslims: Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?" The series intends to cover the major aspects of evangelical life with a growing Muslim community, including efforts by some of the larger churches in the U.S. to build bridges to the community, the fears that some Christians have with Muslim law and Islamic radicals, and the theological underpinnings of the biblical tension between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael.

While it may still be premature to spot out any trends in bridge building efforts, The Christian Post will identify in Part One of the series some of the ways evangelicals are currently reaching out to or collaborating with Muslims in their local communities.

Part Two will look more closely at the fears and attitudes among U.S. Christians when it comes to the growing Muslim population and seeing a mosque built in their neighborhoods. Extreme positions held by such pastors as Terry Jones in Florida will also be addressed.

Part Three will cover the theology behind Christian-Muslim relations, starting from the biblical account of Isaac and Ishmael to the theological arguments surrounding the debate around cooperation.

Finally, Part Four in the series will answer the question of whether there is an appropriate way for Christians to approach evangelism and collaboration with Muslims and how evangelicals can go about obeying the Great Commission of preaching the Gospel to all nations while serving as loving neighbors.


Evangelicals and Muslims: Few Churches Overcome Fear to Build Relationships Part One in 'Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?' Series

By Alex Murashko
Christian Post Reporter
March 14, 2012

If there is any common thread to be found among evangelical churches in America when it comes to relationships with their Muslim neighbors it may simply be fear.

Geo-political battles around the world between Islamic and Christian influences translate to strained relationships between evangelical Christians and Muslims in the United States, according to several Christian leaders interviewed by The Christian Post for this series.

It may still be premature to spot out any trends in bridge building efforts by churches in the U.S., but that doesn't mean Christian leaders are not taking a closer look and developing strategies on how to navigate the mission field within their own borders.

LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer told The Christian Post that churches not only in this nation, but around the world are asking, "How can we engage with our Muslim neighbors?"

Still, there is the fear factor.

"There is a negative perception in America, Protestant churches and in particular, evangelicals towards Muslims and Islam," Stetzer said. "The trend is more toward anti-Islam sentiment rather than intentional engagement.

"Part of that trend is regarding world affairs, but there is more fear and anger than friendship and witness," he believes.

Stetzer doesn't view the issue so much as a reflection of the current limited amount of cooperation between churches and mosques, but part of the challenge of establishing relationships with the Muslim community "in a way that's biblically faithful."

"Lots of committed Christians are wrestling with how best to do that," he said. "From what I see, I think the trend is more of a rising protest against Islam than preaching the Gospel to Muslims. I'd love to see a trend of Christians sharing Christ with Muslims."

Although intentional outreach efforts to the Muslim community within the U.S. by Christians are still relatively hard to find, there are a few churches known for doing so.

Pastor Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, has been building relationships with Muslims for more than eight years now. And it's been that same amount of time since he stopped fearing Muslims, a group of people he knew very little about.

Roberts first began his efforts in Afghanistan and says it was through his Muslim and Christian bridge building efforts internationally that he was led back to the U.S. to do work in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

"It began three years ago with me, an imam, and a rabbi. We just wanted to get together," Roberts told CP. "We got together and I told them that I am not a proponent of interfaith, but I would be open to more of a multi-faith concept because I don't believe that all roads lead to heaven. I'm a Christian. I believe Jesus is the only way to God and that the Bible is the word of God. The best of my faith teaches me at a minimum that we have to get along."

Roberts said he went on to spell out exactly what his intentions were. "So, if you would all like to build a relationship I'm happy to do that. I'm not going to compromise my faith. I'm not going to be silent about my faith. I don't expect you to either, but we can build some type of relationship if you all want to do that," he recalled saying to them.

Northwood's ministry, like most intentional outreaches to Muslims by churches in the U.S., does not have a specific name, CP discovered in research for this story. Also, it's not a traditional ministry or missions project.

"It's more about building relationships, and then people just naturally talk about God," Roberts explained.

During the launch of the relationship building project with the Muslims and the Jews in the community, members of the different faith groups came together one weekend a few years ago.

"Friday we went to the synagogue, Saturday we came to the mosque, and Sunday we came to the church," he said. "It wasn't real big, probably two or three hundred at each place, except for Sunday at our church (filled to near capacity of 2,000)."

From the first "multi-faith" event, as Roberts likes to refer to them, there have been many more projects together, he said.

"Last year, my wife started a cooking club - a Muslim, Jewish, Christian cooking club. Some of our members came and restored some houses together," he explained.

The week after the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies, a leader of a local mosque and Roberts made separate, strong statements of faith at Northwood, he said.

The Imam talked about Muhammad and Roberts talked about Christ. The mutual ground was that they both talked about wanting to build a strong relationship, Roberts said. The church was filled to over-capacity, with 2,500 people attending.

Two weeks ago, a few pastors and imams from the Dallas-Ft.Worth area went on a retreat.

"So, the first thing that we are trying to do is to build relationships," Roberts said.

Recently, one of his pastors developed a special class which covers "How to relate to people of different faiths" and focuses on the fruit of the Spirit.

"We use the Bible as our source, obviously. They (local mosque) are writing their own curriculum. Then we are going to do a couple of projects together this summer and fall at some kind of a gathering - whether it be restoring a senior center or a building a playground, being in a cooking club, just tons of different things," he said.

"What we are trying to do is to focus on the people to people relationship, versus the preacher to preacher, or cleric to cleric relationship," Roberts continued.

There has been some fallout from his efforts. When the programs first started, Roberts said his church lost 200 members. The leader of a local Tea Party group went public with opposing the church for its Muslim outreach by saying members of the Islamic community would infiltrate the community with more mosques.

However, Roberts is not bothered by opposition and points to the fact that to some degree, there has been a huge growth in the number of mosques in the greater Dallas area already.

In 1973, the Dallas metro community had one mosque. Now, there are 43 mosques, he said.

Still, Roberts sees no problem with being a Christian leader who mingles with people of different faiths.

"I make no apologies. I love Jesus with all my heart. I want the whole world to know about him and hear about him. There's no way that's going to happen unless we are first friends. I'm trying to be friends with Muslims like I would anybody else," he insisted.

Although current research on the evangelical church may not show a blip on the radar screen in regards to Muslim outreach, J.D. Greear, founding pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., told CP he does see increased awareness.

"Increasingly a lot of younger pastors in metropolitan areas have become aware of Islam for two particular reasons. One, is you have major geo-political things happening. The other reason is that because in large cities, especially in places like ours with a lot of universities you have a lot of very bright and articulate Muslims who are trying to extend their faith, trying to propagate their faith, so it's brought to the forefront," said Greear, author of Breaking the Islam Code.

He said his church has a number of individuals and teams that are involved in reaching out to Muslims.

"Sometimes it takes the form of befriending students. Sometimes it's an adopt-a-student program, where families open up their home for Muslim students. Sometimes it takes the form of getting involved with a mosque - of doing joint projects together in the city," Greear said. "We've had Muslims that have come to Christ through that. We've also have just a better understanding of community of what it looks like to live civilly in the same community."

For Greear and his church, the relationships have continued to improve.

"There's been three or four times in the last few weeks that we've had somebody in our congregation with the full [hijab headscarf and other hijab-compliant clothing] on. We've seen a lot of interaction," he said.

When it comes to the political implications of evangelical outreaches into the Muslim community in the U.S., Greear said his church tries to steer clear of any controversy.

"I do think there is a time that believers have to speak into politics, but right now it's not really helpful. We do not do anything at all that smacks of joint worship where you come and say let's do two songs that we can all agree on, God being the Almighty Creator, and then stop and say 'I'm going to pray to Jesus right now and then I'll pray to God, and now you can all join back in,'" he explained.

Stetzer agrees with approaches such as the one Greear and his church take.

"It seems to me you have two broad categories. Those who are not approaching the Muslim community at all and those who are approaching the Muslim community by blurring the distinctions. Being blind or being blurred is not the answer," Stetzer said.

"I'm not a blurrer. I ultimately want to point out and learn the distinctions, and then share the Gospel. I would say the churches that are doing it right are those who are showing that we can love our neighbor, but part of loving our neighbor is to tell them about the eternal truths of the Gospel.

"What I think we need to do is be biblical and that means to love our neighbor - kind, gracious engagement - but to share the biblical truths of the Gospel with them," he concluded.


Evangelicals and Muslims: Experts Urge Both to Shed Fear, Build Mutual Respect
Part Two in 'Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?' Series

By Katherine Weber Christian Post Reporter
March 15, 2012

With the U.S. Muslim population steadily rising, experts in evangelism are asserting both Christians and Muslims should first shed fear, and then work to form mutually respectful relationships as a foundation for sharing the American experience. While it is incumbent on Christians to cast fear aside and follow Jesus' call to "Love your neighbor as yourself," Muslims also have a responsibility, according to academics interviewed for this series, to take a "courageous stand" against radicals overshadowing their faith with violence.

"We're not trying to build a relationship based on theological agreement. We're building a relationship based on the need of a civil society," Bob Roberts, senior pastor of Northwood Church, located in Keller, Texas, told The Christian Post. Northwood Church has had an extensive outreach to the Muslim community for the last eight years.

Roberts' church seeks to connect with local Muslims by forming relationships around common interests, such as cooking, hunting and camping. Recently, Roberts and six other pastors partook on a hunting and camping trip with seven imams, or Islamic religious leaders.

"I think after 9/11, the whole thing about [Muslims] doing it in the name of God sort of felt like it was an attack against America and an attack against Christianity. I don't agree with that perception, but I think that's why [American Christians] have those fears," Roberts told CP.

As Al Fadi, co-author of the book The Qu'ran Dilemma, explained to CP, "Islamophobia" comes from a lack of understanding and knowledge of "the other." This lack of understanding, Al Fadi argued, breeds fear.

The term "Islamophobia," dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, refers to an irrational prejudice against, or fear of, Muslims. The term gained popularity after the 9/11 attacks.

"Although I agree 90 percent of all [Muslims] are just nominal, cultural Muslims that are loving people, it is only a portion who are considered to be violent Muslims. It is the ideology that teaches some of them to go as far as committing violence and terror," the former Muslim stated.

Al Fadi moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia as a devout Muslim over 20 years ago. After building a relationship with a Christian family and attending a Christian Mass, he decided to convert, dedicating his life to Jesus.

Roberts believes that Americans must remember those committing terrorist acts comprise a small minority of the world's Muslim population.

"We have irreconcilable theological differences," he affirmed. "One similarity we have is we're both expected to keep peace in the society without compromising our faith."

Through his experiences working to bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians, Roberts has found that it is the clerics, not the people, who preach violence.

"The people are ready to build relationships; the clerics are petrified they're going to lose members. As a result, they're acting out of fear," Roberts said. "I think when they do that, they have a very low estimation of their view of God."

Abdul Karim Bangura, a professor at Howard University and American University in Washington, D.C., argues that the "mega-media" is partially to blame for America's "Islamophobia," as it only portrays a snippet of the Muslim culture.

"[The mega-media] tends to focus on the bad things Muslims do because that sells, that attracts the viewers," Bangura told CP.

Bangura, a Muslim who emigrated from Sierra Leon, West Africa, to the U.S. in 1974, contends that other negative perceptions are based on stereotypes and misconceptions.

"We have a lot of people out there who are doing really good work. Unfortunately, they are not getting the media attention they deserve," Bangura lamented.

Religious leaders on both sides exacerbate the distrust, say these experts.

Florida Pastor Terry Jones made international headlines in July 2010 when he threatened to burn 200 Qurans on the 2010 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He deemed this controversial event "International Burn a Koran Day." Although international pressure convinced Jones not to burn the Qurans, his threat caused riots in the Middle East and Asia.

Then Jones sparked controversy a second time when he burned a Quran while inside his Gainesville church on March 20, 2011. His defilement of Islam's holy book prompted massive riots in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Protesters attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission, killing ten U.N. officials, according to ABC News.

As Texas Pastor Roberts argues, aggressive acts such as these create a destructive cycle of violence.

"If we still feel fear towards them and we act in fear, then it makes them feel fear towards us," Roberts noted. "When you're driven by fear, it leads to lots of negative behaviors. Whether it's more violence or over-the-top responses which make someone else go over the top, back and forth, tit-for-tat."

Al Fadi believes Muslims should try to "truly present the peaceful side of Islam in a strong way."

In what he says requires a "courageous stand," Muslims should further seek to strengthen their relationship with Christians, "trying to take a public stand against the radical, fundamentalist Muslims who apply those [violent] passages from the Quran."

"We can strategize and come up with a better solution - not by isolating the Muslim community, rather to get closer to them and work with them and really encourage the majority of peaceful Muslims to denounce the teachings," Al Fadi added.

Professor Bangura believes that forming a strong relationship between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. will take time. "It's very interesting: when [American] Muslims travel, they become the ambassadors for the United States. And they can get very defensive about the United States," Bangura told CP.

"At the end of the day, we are all here, we are Americans."


Evangelicals and Muslims: Theologians Say Isaac, Ishmael Story Not Significant
Part Three in 'Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?' Series

By Michael Gryboski, Christian Post Reporter
March 17, 2012

When examining the issues between evangelical Christians and Muslims, many point to the history of Isaac and Ishmael as a source of the tension. However, some experts believe the history surrounding Isaac and Ishmael does not play a major role.

According to Steve Strauss, chair and professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the Jews and Christians trace their spiritual ancestry through Isaac while Muslims trace their spiritual ancestry through Ishmael.

"Of course the biblical evidence is clear that Isaac is the physical progenitor of the Hebrew people," said Strauss in an interview with The Christian Post.

"In Galatians 4 Paul uses Isaac as an example of 'children of promise,' of which he includes New Testament believers. This would be the biblical roots of Jews and Christians tracing their lineage through Isaac."

Strauss explained that in the Quran Ishmael is identified as being a prophet of God and present when Abraham establishes his "House." Although the Hebrew Bible says that Isaac was the son of Abraham who was nearly sacrificed, in Islam most believe it was Ishmael instead.

"When the Quran speaks of the near sacrifice of Abraham's son (Surah 37:100-109), the name of the son is not specified, but most Muslims assume it was Ishmael," said Strauss.

Isaac was born of Abraham's wife, Sarah, while Ishmael was born of Sarah's handmaiden, Hagar.

Despite the different lineage, Strauss believes that the efforts of Paul of Tarsus to convert Gentile believers show that the different spiritual lineages should not be an issue.

"By application we can use [Paul's words] to address any system - Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, even works-oriented Christianity that seeks to please God through ritual and good works," said Strauss.

"So I would not put the Ishmael-Isaac distinction at the heart of understanding the difference between Muslims and Christians."

Kamal Nawash, founder and president of the Free Muslims Coalition, told CP that he believes that the Isaac and Ishmael matter is also minor.

"The story of Isaac and Ishmael is NOT significant at all in terms of understanding the theological prospective of Christians and Muslims," said Nawash. "Muslims revere both Isaac and Ishmael equally as God's prophets."

Nawash went further and also stated that "Muslims do not trace their lineage through Ishmael. This is a confusion by many in the West."

Strauss found the treatment of religious minorities to be a greater difference between the worldviews of evangelical Christian and Islamic societies.

"Traditionally, Muslims have been hostile to Christians when they (the Muslims) were in power in a society," said Strauss. "The hostility has ranged from limiting Christians' public rights ... and higher taxes on one extreme, to intense persecution on the other extreme."

Scott Horrell, professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, agreed with Strauss, telling CP what differed between evangelical Christianity and Islam on that issue. "In theory, Islam is explicit theocracy, with divine authority from top down in all parts of life; there is little if any theological room for democracy, much less for freedom of religion," said Horrell.

"Christianity including evangelicalism professes a triune God (three Persons in one essence); implicitly this allows for personal diversity, and more implicitly it allows for freedom of religious belief."

Strauss also felt that the evangelical mindset was fundamentally a democratic one.

"Evangelicals have traditionally recognized that one can only be a true follower of Christ based in his/her decision to trust and follow him; the decision cannot be coerced," he explained. "So evangelicals have tended to favor an open society with a free interchange of ideas."

Nawash, meanwhile, believes that the religious intolerance noted by Strauss and Horrell is more the product of recent political movements in the Middle East that use religion to gain legitimacy rather than a long-standing theological viewpoint.

"Currently, people in the Muslim world are euphoric about religious political movements because of the belief that they will rule justly with no corruption," said Nawash.

"I expect this to change in the next few years as the winners of today may not be able to produce the prosperity that the people expect."

Regarding cooperation between Muslims and evangelical Christians in the United States, both Strauss and Horrell felt that this could be found in mutual views on faith and morality.

"We can cooperate with non-Christians to advance biblical values that we share in common," said Strauss. "For example, we could cooperate with Muslims in issues like opposition to gay marriage, opposition to abortion on demand and opposition to wider access to pornography."

"Certainly much is similar in our understanding the nature (attributes) of God. Indeed, on this level Christianity and Islam have far more in common than with secular states or non-theistic religions," said Horrell.

"This provides a solid foundation for ethical and social harmony on many issues. There are reasons to join together in fighting abortion, pornography, homosexuality, abuse of women, violence, etc."

Nawash believes that a strong issue that created tension for evangelicals and Muslims in America was their largely different positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the perception that "evangelical leaders have attacked and defamed Muslims over the last 30 years."

Nevertheless, many Muslims in America hold a high opinion of evangelicals due to their "pious nature and obedience to God," according to Nawash.

"Many Muslims in the South of the U.S. prefer to live in neighborhoods with majority evangelicals to avoid the corrupting influence of the cities or secular society," he said.


Evangelicals and Muslims: Where Do We Begin?
Final in 'Oil and Water or Fertile Ministry?' Series

By Alex Murashko Christian Post Reporter
March 21, 2012

Evangelical leaders on the forefront of establishing relationships with Muslims in the United States admit they face unprecedented challenges. For Christians, the question remains - how do fruitful relationships between people from the two dramatically different faiths begin?

While some Christians embrace efforts to reach out to their Muslim neighbors, others are leery and point to a religion they believe is not about peace, but aggressive domination over others, including over Christians and Jews. For the latter, any association with members of the Islamic faith is seen as a "selling out" of Christianity.

Most recently, an effort by Rick Warren's Saddleback Church to reach out to neighboring Muslim communities in Southern California produced a firestorm of controversy over whether Warren would be compromising the Gospel in his efforts. Warren sharply denied he was downplaying the Gospel.

Several Christian leaders interviewed by The Christian Post for this article and series, "Evangelicals and Muslims: Water and Oil or Fertile Ministry?" said that building relationships with Muslims is part of the Great Commission and that is what believers in Jesus Christ are called to do.

Carl Medearis, who is an international expert in the field of Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations, was asked by CP whether there is an appropriate way for Christians to approach evangelism and collaboration with Muslims within the U.S.

"There are three primary challenges for Christians who take the biblical mandate to 'make disciples of all people,'" said Medearis, author of Muslims, Christians and Jesus.

"We have to understand that evangelizing Muslims is fraught with historical, cultural and political baggage," he explained. "When we preach 'Christianity,' Muslims hear 'Imperialism.' Some of that is understandable and justified, some is not. But the fact remains, that when a well-meaning Christian can't effectively define to his or her Muslim friend the difference between the religious system called 'Christianity' and believing in and following Jesus Christ, the encounter will likely be unpleasant."

Secondly, Medearis said that an Eastern Muslim thinks differently than a Western Christian.

"I can't count the times that I've tried a logical approach like the Four Spiritual Laws or C.S. Lewis' famous 'Lord, Liar, Lunatic' only to be rebuffed by Eastern logic stating that my argument made no sense. It made sense to me, but not to them - thus draining any potential power of it being good news to the hearer," he said.

The third challenge that Medearis described may be one that Christians face in evangelizing to any person of any other religion. However, the ties to their religion for Muslims may even be stronger because of the cultural strings attached as well.

"Muslims don't want to become Christians. They already have a religion to which they are often very committed. And their religious identity is connected to their cultural identity," he pointed out. "Telling an American Muslim that he should become a Christian is paramount to telling him he should walk away from all the conservative values he holds dear - why would he do that?"

But are Muslims in the U.S. open to relationships with Christians regardless of whether they are trying to evangelize them or not?

Evangelists such as Medearis say Muslims are open to building bridges. He recently met with Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Webb is the new imam of the largest mosque in New England.

"I attended the Friday noon service, then sat through the Muslim prayers and then listened to the imam preach a very modern and relevant sermon to several thousand in attendance. I was impressed; and the imam indicated he would like to work with me in the future," Medearis said. "In fact, whether speaking to Muslim leaders in America or in the Middle East, the most common response I get is, 'Can we work together?' Sometimes that means 'for peace' other times for 'better mutual understanding.' But they always want it, and typically initiate it."

Still, the perception and understanding by many people, including former Muslims is that Islam is not a religion of peace.

Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, became a Christian and wrote the book, Son of Hamas. Two years ago, during a press conference with Christian journalists he was asked about the current and past White House administrations' categorization of Islam as a religion of peace.

Yousef answered, "First of all, with all due respect for Mr. President, there is a huge misunderstanding. I encourage them to read the Quran. I encourage them to read the chapter 9, verse 5 and verse 29 that put a death sentence on everybody who doesn't believe in Islam. This is not new. This is not the idea of a radical Muslim. This is the ideology of the God of Islam himself."

He went on to say, "I don't care what the entire world says about Islam, what Muslims say about Islam. The reality is very clear and very simple and anybody can go to the Internet today and read and understand what the Quran is all about."

However, it is evident that the evangelical leaders in the U.S. who are outspoken about their conviction to build relationships with people of all faiths, including Muslims, are not deterred by the teachings in the Quran.

In CP's interview done by email with Medearis, he wrote, "So how can we be good neighbors to the Muslims in our midst and remain faithful to the biblical mandate to share the Good News of the hope that is within us? I believe the answer can be found in the Great Commandment and the preceding question and story found in the New Testament.

"The man speaking to Jesus answered his own question, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' by correctly by saying, 'Love God and love my neighbor.' But he needed clarification of the definition of 'neighbor,' which Jesus explained by sharing the story of the Good Samaritan," Medearis continued.

"In that well-known parable lies the correct approach to Muslims in our midst. Don't miss the point - it's the despised man, the Samaritan, who is the hero of Jesus' story. Not the 'good guys.' Not us. 'We' were the ones who crossed the road to ignore the man in trouble. It's the 'foreigner,' with whom the traveler was to have no contact - Muslims in our telling of the story today - who stops and gives aid.

"Jesus does not say that the Samaritan has inherited eternal life or that he's saved, simply that he's the one who did the right thing and acted out the Great Commandment. What if some of the Muslims around us are like the Good Samaritan? We need to treat them as if they were," Medearis concluded.


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