Some weeks ago I was reading a post on a different forum and came across some thoughts I found fascinating. The author, John Holzmann, was describing a seminar he attended at which certain Christian workers in Muslim nations were discussing the cultural differences between Islam and Christianity. John has since been kind enough to post those thoughts to his blog, John's Corner of the World.
The crux of the issue John brings up here is this: Are Christian workers in Muslim nations creating artificial barriers to the gospel of Jesus Christ by insisting on cultural standards which are really unrelated to that gospel? For example, in Muslim countries, what clothing do followers of Jesus (Isa in Arabic) wear to church? What word is used to refer to God? What day(s) of the week do we worship? John mentions many other issues in his post as well.
It seems to me that these issues have been considered before in relation to Christian workers in other nations; however, I don't believe they have been thought through in detail in specific relationship with Muslim nations. Perhaps some things are worth making an issue about, and some are not. Is it possible that we are creating artificial barriers to the gospel and thus making enemies when we could be making friends?
What I am saying here is that if we want to reach out to Muslims and lead them to Christ, we need to be very sure that the decision point is specifically about Jesus, not about what kind of clothes they wear, whether they take off their shoes when they go to church, or what day they worship. By differentiating Christianity so drastically from Islamic culture, we make deciding to follow Jesus far more difficult than it should be, and we make it far easier for radicals to persuade Muslims that Christianity is evil.
In a different post, John shared this story which I think illustrates the type of approach I am considering here.
About 1995, he said, he began to see several young men (college students) come to Christ. Most of them were sons of very wealthy or powerful members of Lebanese society. One was the son of a billionaire businessman who was also a member of parliament (MP).
C was invited to a party where the MP was in attendance. The MP and C happened to meet, and the MP then invited C to call his secretary at the parliament and ask for an appointment. C followed through, was granted a 5-minute appointment, and, on the appropriate day, made his appearance.
As C was climbing the steps to the parliament, he noticed the billionaire MP walking DOWN the stairs with a bunch of aides. The MP noticed C, couldn’t quite remember where he had seen him or why he should know him, but greeted C and then invited C to his home. "Why don’t you come with me and let’s talk?"
Well, since the MP had obviously forgotten his appointment with C, and since a visit in the man’s home would be more personal and lengthier than a five-minute appointment at his office, C accepted.
A short while later, they found themselves sitting on the veranda of the man’s house, overlooking the Mediterranean. They had just sat down to coffee when C decided to open the conversation. "So. . . . How are things . . . [short pause] in Parliament?"
"Terrible," the man replied. "Terrible. There’s no hope for this country."
"No hope!" C exclaimed. "Why, you’re a leader in the country. Do you really feel there’s no hope."
"Yes. Our situation is hopeless here in Lebanon."
"I can hardly believe that," C tried to continue.
"So what do you do," the man asked.
I don’t know if it was the Holy Spirit or myself who replied here, C urged. I don’t want to saddle the Holy Spirit with foolish things that I might say, but I replied, "I’m a hope broker."
"A hope broker?" the man looked at him in astonishment. "What’s that?"
"I deal hope!" C confidently declared.
"Oh?" said the man. "And where do you get that?"
"I’ll be happy to talk about that in a few minutes," said C, "but first I’d like to hear more about Parliament."
"No, no!" cried the man. "Really. I must know. Where do you get this hope?"
Things were going a bit too quickly for C’s own comfort, so he said, "No. Truly. I will be happy to talk about that in a few minutes, but . . ."
The two men remained at a standoff for a couple more minutes until the man asked C, "HOW do you deal in hope?"
"Well. Okay," said C. "A friend of mine and I were talking a few years ago and we said, 'How can we help bring Christians, Muslims and Druze together here in Lebanon?' And we thought, 'Maybe we should get them to pray together for Lebanon.' So that’s what we did. We formed a number of groups around the country where Muslims, Christians and Druze get together each week and pray for Lebanon."
That worked well for a while. But then we realized people were getting bored. Y’know, praying for Lebanon is okay, but what else might we do? . . . So then we thought, 'Maybe we could talk about something. Maybe some important subject like, say, Peace. Or Economics. Or something like that.'
"So the groups began to talk about important subjects."
But then we realized that wasn’t working very well, so we thought, 'Maybe we should talk about an important person or what he taught. . . '"
"That’s a GREAT idea!" interrupted the MP. "And I know EXACTLY who they should talk about!"
"Yeah?!" said C.
"Yeah! GANDHI!""Well, yes," C replied. "Gandhi would make a great person to talk about, but that wasn’t who we decided to discuss."
"No?" said the man, a bit startled. He paused a moment. "Well, then . . . How about MOTHER THERESA!"
"Yes, Mother Theresa would have made a very worthy person to discuss as well," C agreed. "And both Gandhi and Mother Theresa are heroes of mine. But we thought of someone else. Someone both Gandhi AND Mother Theresa looked up to. Can you think of someone else?"
He paused while his companion thought. "I was afraid he might come up with NAPOLEON or something," C confessed to us.
But about 30 seconds later, the MP’s face brightened: "Oh! I know! JESUS! ["Isa," in Arabic and/or as He is called in the Qur'an."
"Yes!" said C. "That is EXACTLY who we decided to talk about. . . . So, anyway, we’ve had these groups--there are probably 40 or so of them now--. . . we’ve had these groups praying for Lebanon and talking about Isa for several years now. . . . "
"Is there one in Parliament?" asked the MP.
"No. There’s not yet," said C.
"So why don’t you start one?"
"Well, first of all," said C, "I don’t know anyone in Parliament . . . besides you, of course. And besides, . . . "
"What if I were to start such a group?"
"That would be wonderful!" C exclaimed.
"How would I do that?"
"Well, you could call some of your friends . . . "
And the man did that.The next week, they held their first meeting. C had laid down a few ground rules: "I will be happy to attend, but I WON’T LEAD. YOU must lead. You can ask me any questions you want BEFORE the meeting or AFTER the meeting. But during the meeting, I will remain silent. YOU need to lead."
"Well, I don’t know much about Isa," said the man. "Where can I find out about him?"
Oh, there are all kinds of places," said C.
"Yeah? Like where?"
"Oh, almost anywhere!" C replied. "There are all kinds of books written about him. I’m sure if you went to a local bookstore, you could find a few books. . . ."
"No, no! Where is the BEST place?"
"The BEST place?"
"Well, the best place, I’ve found is in the Injil [Arabic/Qur'anic word for the New Testament]. There are four books there called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And, personally, I’d recommend the book of Luke."
"So where can I get an Injil?"
"I’m sure you can buy one in the bookstore." [C WASN’T about to tell the man that he "happened" to have a stash of about a hundred sitting back in his apartment!]
So the next week the MP came to the first meeting with his newly-purchased Arabic Injil and an additional English copy that C had given him. (The MP speaks eight languages fluently.)
The group met. They had a fine time. And at the end they asked--since this was another ground rule, that a different person should lead each week’s meeting: "Who will lead next week?" Another man volunteered.
"And what shall we use as a source book to learn more about Isa?" --Another ground rule: "Any source you want."
The next week, the leader came with a book about Jesus that had been written by the Dalai Lama. And so they read that.
"It was very interesting," C told us. "The Dalai Lama had many wonderful things to say about Jesus." But at the end of the meeting, the group members looked at each other and said, "Y’know, the Dalai Lama just doesn’t match Luke in the Injil. Let’s read that again next week. . . . "
And so the group continued. They prayed for Lebanon and studied and talked about Isa.
About the 12th week, C said, he was sitting at the end of the table in the conference room in the parliament building where the group was meeting. He was facing the door to the room. The door had one of those small windows in it that permits people to look in (or you to look out). He noticed a man walk by, then back up and look in the window. The man left for a moment, then came back, peered in again, and eventually opened the door and walked in.
The meeting immediately stopped. Everyone stood up in somewhat embarrassed silence.
"What are you doing?" asked the man. --He was the political head of Hamas.
"We are praying for Lebanon and talking about Isa," said one of the men in the group.
"Really?" said the visitor. ". . . And who is your leader?"
Though he had specifically and vigorously refused to provide any leadership during the meetings, all the members of the group turned to C and pointed.
"Ah!" said the man. "Please come with me."
C followed him out of the room. "I felt like a child being led to the principal’s office," said C.
When they got to the Hamas leader’s office, the man invited him to sit down. "Please, tell me more about what you are doing. . . . "
So the two of them spoke for an hour or more. At the end of the meeting, C got up to leave. "I have always kept in mind something that Christy Wilson once said. I have kept it in MIND, but I have rarely done it. Wilson said that, whenever he left a person, he always asked if he might pray for them. And for some reason, that is what I said to the Hamas leader that day: 'May I pray for you?'"
The Hamas leader threw his hands up: "EVERYONE can use some prayers! Please! Pray for me."
"Do you have any family members? A wife? Children?"The man nodded. "Yes. A wife and five children."
"May I have their names? I would like to pray for them, too."
So C prayed. He said that normally he prays with his eyes open, but that day, maybe because he was scared, he had them fast shut. He opened them, however, just before he came to the end of his prayer.
He said tears were streaming down his companion’s face, down to the end of the man’s bushy beard.
After a few embarrassed moments as they said goodbye, C left.
The next week, just before their prayer-and-discussion meeting ended, the Hamas leader showed up again. He asked C to come with him to his office, just like the week before.
At the end of their meeting, as C got up to leave and headed toward the door, the man said, "Wait! Aren’t you going to do that thing?"
"'That thing'? WHAT thing?" asked C.
"You know! That thing! That thing"--and the man stretched out his hands and rubbed his fingertips together, each hand’s thumb rubbing the fingertips--"that thing that felt so good!"
C looked at him with consternation. "'That thing that felt so good' . . ." Then with a look of sudden recognition: "You mean you want me to PRAY for you?"
"Yes! Yes!" cried the man. "That!"
"But YOU pray!" C protested.
"Yes. I pray. But it FEELS different when you pray!"
"'It FEELS different,'" C repeated rather dumbly. "Why would it FEEL different?"
"I don’t know. It just does!"
"All right," said C. "I will pray for you."
And so he did.