Evangelical leaders of previous generations are in the process of passing the torch to younger leaders, for whom there are at least 10 fresh challenges. We’ve considered the challenges of Navigating Newfound Authority, Waging a Bloodless Revolution, Overcoming Spiritual Superficiality, Creating Culture, Returning to Virtue and Bridging to Everyday Relevance ; Resisting the Seduction of a New Social Gospel ; Learning to Communicate Again; Embracing the Diversity of the New Christian World; and now a 10th and final challenge (on this list):
Responding to Militant Islam
When it comes to Islam, American evangelicals have a difficult time balancing their emotions and rationality, their faith and their patriotism, their fears and God’s peace. It will be an area of great challenge for the leaders of the next generation. How do Christians relate to Muslims when we live side by side in the same society, and in contention around the world? The record of Christian-Muslim co-existence in places like Africa and the Middle East is not encouraging. Can we do better?
It will especially difficult if we don’t recognize the distinct yet intertwined aspects of our relationships with Muslims. As people of faith and as Americans we need to consider four points of interaction:
- Islam as a religion
- Islam as an ideology
- Muslims as American neighbors
- Muslims in need of Jesus
Islam as a religion
Young people are increasingly tempted to reconsider whether belief and trust in Jesus Christ is the only way to God. That’s just so last millenium. In that context, many leaders find it awkward to state clearly that as Christians we belief that Islam (as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) are spiritual dead ends—the end for people who follow these religions is spiritual, eternal death. We take no glee in this, but neither can we modify this truth. A first step for all Christians is to understand Islamic beliefs (aside from what we learn on television, talk radio, and the blogs!)
Islam as an ideology
There is, however, another aspect of Islam that many seem reluctant to acknowledge. Islam is more than a religion: It is an ideology with a clear sociopolitical agenda, the worst aspects of which we see through the radicalism of Muslims throughout the world. Meghnad Desai argues in his 2007 book Rethinking Islamism: The Ideology of the New Terror that the roots of the new terrorism are not in religion but in a political ideology which uses religious language—and that its purpose is like any other political ideology: to win power. This Islamic political ideology is dangerous for freedom loving people of all faiths. The dilemma for Christians is to effectively support political opposition to radical Islamic ideology and power, while at the same time loving Muslims as neighbors and finding authentic ways to share the gospel with them.
Muslims as American neighbors
How can we as Christians be good neighbors to Muslims, seeking their good whether they convert or not? Nabil Costa, who works with Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and Beirut Baptist School, says: “The Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan dictate how Christians are to respond to Muslims. If they are our enemies, Jesus said we are to love them. If they are our neighbors, Jesus said we are to love them. So, either we love them as enemies or love them as neighbors. That’s our only choice.”
An NPR story, related here, told of strident Christian opposition to Muslim neighbors in Southern California, and:
“On the other end of the spectrum is Reverend Williamson, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Tennessee. A local mosque had been burnt down and some had vandalized the remaining property with graffiti and swastikas. Instead of condoning the opposition and wishing Muslims to get out of town, Pastor Williamson gave the Muslim community the keys to the Presbyterian church. “This from now on can be used as your house of worship.”
Evangelical leaders in the days ahead will be called on to determine where the church should fall in that spectrum of response–somewhere between stridency and syncretism.
Muslims in need of Jesus
How will we as Christians attractively and effectively invite Muslims to consider the gospel? Evangelism in the Muslim community is, of course, the hardest in the world. Groups such as People International are laboring in difficult places such as Central Asia to share Christ with unreached Muslims. Leaders committed to the tough ministry of evangelism to Muslims would be well served to tap into the Zwemer Institute for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University.
Named after Samuel Zwemer, “Apostle to Islam,” the program was launched in 1979 and over the years has offered in-depth courses in Islam, produced papers, fostered dialogues and facilitated research on pertinent topics, earning an esteemed position in Christian mission circles. This is the place where Christian scholars, field missionaries and missionaries-in-training can access the most comprehensive information on Islam and Muslim-Christian relations available.