I looked at the simple yet attractively designed poster. A black silhouette of a Hagia Sophia-like mosque contrasted with the dark yellow background. I read the title: Adventist Muslim Relations Summit. I glanced at the list of speakers; I didn’t recognize any of them. But that didn’t bother me. If this was an event about Islam, I wanted to be there.
The event couldn’t have been timelier. I had been reading a series of books on the Middle East and Islam as part of a personal mission to better comprehend the world by better understanding one of its most consequential regions and religions. And like the rest of the world, I was trying to work my way through difficult questions about Islam and Muslims: Should fear of terrorism really lead us to reject Syrian refugees? What should we do with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram? How does the concept of jihad factor into all of this?
I also had many theological questions. How should Christians respond to Islamic criticisms about the Trinity and the alleged corruption of the Bible? Do Muslims and Christians really worship the same god? These were important questions, and the summit, I thought, was where I would get solid biblical answers.
Asking the Right Question
It was with this confidence that I joined Adventists from across Canada for the Adventist Muslim Relations Summit held at the Toronto Perth Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church from March 24 to 27, 2016. The summit was held in conjunction with the Ontario SEEDs Conference, a church planting event hosted by the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the North American Division Evangelism Institute.
I anticipated a weekend of brainy theological discussions with speakers who would explain why Adventism was right and why Islam was wrong and would provide expert commentary to help us think through issues such as the refugee crisis and terrorism. I was surprised, however, by the almost complete absence of such discussions. Instead, the entire weekend was focused on how to effectively communicate the gospel to our Muslim brothers and sisters.
With so many people turning their backs on Muslims, how can Adventists reach this still largely unreached people group? This was the overarching question addressed by the speakers. When I had looked at the event poster, I had somehow overlooked the bold black subtitle: “Come and learn how to effectively communicate Christ’s message to Muslims in today’s world.” I would get answers, but to a completely different, and perhaps more important and urgent, question.
Relationships, Not Debates
I was initially a little disappointed. However, this quickly faded as the engaging summit presenters shared humorous anecdotes and moving testimonies and drew from their wealth of on-the-ground experience to address key principles on effective ministry to Muslims. Ironically, one of these was: Don’t debate or try to prove a Muslim wrong because you will always lose. Not because our theology is weaker, but because debate tends to build barriers instead of bridges. For a Muslim, the Bible is a non-starter, and any criticism of Muhammad and the Quran is deeply offensive.
This was strikingly demonstrated by an experience related by Dr. Petras Bahadur, the director for Adventist-Muslim Relations at the General Conference. Once on a flight, he made critical comments about the prophet Muhammad and the Quran while conversing with a Muslim. For the remainder of the flight, the Muslim refused to speak to him. We may win the theological battle but lose the battle for the heart.
Instead, we must seek to win the heart by forming genuine relationships. How can we befriend a Muslim? First, it’s helpful to be designated “clean” by Muslims—and that means not eating pork or drinking alcohol. This may sound strange to Adventists, but it can mean the difference between a reserved or cordial relationship. In this respect, Adventists are uniquely positioned to reach Muslims since most other Christians have no qualms about drinking a glass of red wine with their pork chop dinner.
So, the next time you meet a Muslim, try greeting them with, “As-Salaam-Alaikum!” (“Peace be upon you.”) With a surprised and quizzical look, the Muslim will likely reciprocate, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam! [“And unto you peace.”] Are you a Muslim?” to which you should respond: “I am a Seventh-day Adventist, and I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol!” This last line is the punch line. You’re now clean (to a Muslim) and may find yourself on the way to a meaningful friendship and witnessing opportunity.
Having obtained the privileged status of clean, it is important to nurture an authentic relationship. This was a point emphasized by [withheld], an evangelist and Bible worker in England. We must resist the initial Adventist reflex towards reproving error and giving Bible studies. Instead, mingle with Muslims, listen to them, and express genuine sympathy. Offers of prayer and even fasting are especially meaningful to a Muslim and will rarely be turned down. We must approach Muslims with an attitude of humility, as a listener, not a debater.
Eating Goat Meat
An authentic relationship with a Muslim requires accepting and appreciating their hospitality. Muslims are very warm and hospitable, and rejecting their hospitality can be very offensive. Imagine visiting your Muslim friend and being offered a plate of goat meat for dinner. Would you eat? Stephen Dickie, an evangelist who has worked extensively with Muslims, shared how in this very situation, despite being a committed vegetarian, he chose to eat a little to show respect for the hospitality offered him.
No doubt this may be troubling for some Adventists and may smack of compromise. Is it? How far can we go to connect with others? Where do we draw the line? These are important questions requiring careful reflection. But regardless of where we individually land with the answer, the main point was clear: As much as possible, when Muslims extend their hospitality it’s important to respectfully accept.
From Friendship to Gospel: Start with the Quran?
The presentations I found particularly eye-opening were those addressing how to wisely transition from friendship to the gospel. One principle was: When speaking to people of other faiths, use their own scriptures as a starting point. For Muslims, this means the Quran, and in a fascinating presentation, Dr. Bahadur shared numerous Quranic passages that corroborate the authority of the Old and New Testaments and can be used to build a Muslim’s confidence and interest in the Bible. To buttress his case, he shared compelling testimonies of former Muslims turned Adventists who started to read the Bible when shown how positively the Quran spoke of it. Many of them later confided to Dr. Bahadur that, had he criticized their Quran, they would have never read his Bible.
Not surprisingly, some of the audience struggled with the idea of using anything other than the Bible for witnessing. During the Q&A session, one individual felt it necessary to remind us that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and another even quietly asked me: “So, is the Quran inspired?” Notwithstanding the potential for misunderstanding, Dr. Bahadur’s presentation reminded me of a basic witnessing principle we so easily forget: Start where people are.
For those preferring to stick with the Bible, prophecy (specifically the rise of Islam as predicted in the fifth and sixth trumpets of Revelation 9) is another effective means to open a Muslim’s heart to the Bible. In his remarks, Rudy Harnisch, the liaison for Adventist-Muslim Relations for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada, shared how Muslims are often fascinated when they learn they are mentioned in Bible prophecy.
However, the classical interpretation of Revelation 9 as referring to Islam is questioned in certain Adventist theological circles. What if, as some theologians assert, the fifth and sixth trumpets predicted the rise of secular atheism or the Counter-Reformation instead? Wouldn’t this undermine the usefulness of Revelation 9 as a tool to reach Muslims? Perhaps. Then again, the summit wasn’t about such theological and hermeneutical questions.
The Gospel as Story
When witnessing to Muslims, keep it simple. Share the gospel and spiritual truths as simple, relatable stories. This was a principle I learned from Gaby Philips, the director for Adventist-Muslim Relations for the North American Division. Middle Easterners love to tell stories and use them to transmit values. Adventists must do likewise.
Start with Genesis and contrast the perfect Garden of Eden with the sickness, death, terrorism, and oppression that burden the Muslim world. Share the gospel as deliverance from shame, since shame is acutely felt in Middle Eastern cultures and Muslims may go to astonishing lengths to escape shame and preserve honour (heard of honour killings?). Illustrate spiritual truths with the objects and experiences of everyday life.
Again, avoid debate and argument. Don’t curse the darkness; shine the light by helping Muslims find their place in the gospel story.
Is Contemporary Worship a Barrier to Effective Muslim Witness?
The numerous testimonies shared throughout the summit proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that, indeed, Muslims can find their place and God in the gospel story. I was most fascinated by the testimony of a former Muslim from Saudi Arabia who converted after witnessing the power of prayer in Jesus’ name through a young Christian woman (now his wife).
While his story demonstrated God’s ability to reach the Muslim heart, it also hinted at potential stumbling blocks. He mentioned how he was turned off at his first church, a Pentecostal church, by the loud music, dancing, and suggestively dressed women which, when contrasted with the simplicity and reverence of Islamic worship, appeared distasteful and irreverent.
Could current trends to contemporize Adventist – especially youth – worship services with more upbeat, sensual music styles actually hinder our witness to Muslims? Moreover, might we need to rethink negative attitudes among some Adventists towards dress reform and the practice of modesty? These are urgent questions Adventist must ask and answer as we become more serious about outreach to Muslims.
Christ’s Method Alone
It’s no coincidence that the principles for reaching Muslims are the same as the ones Jesus used in His ministry. In the familiar words of Ellen White, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me” (The Ministry of Healing, 143). Jesus mingled with the common people, attended their weddings and feasts, and demonstrated His love for them through healing, feeding, listening, and praying. He shared the gospel in simple parables, using everyday life experiences and objects to drive home spiritual truth. Jesus avoided debates and controversies. Christ’s method alone will prepare a Muslim to respond to the Master’s call to “Follow Me.”
Are We Asking the Right Question?
By the end of the summit, I realized that I had been interested in and asking the wrong questions. Not that my questions were themselves wrong or unimportant, but that the current cultural moment and time in history demand that Adventists focus on the more important question addressed by the summit, the one implied by the black subtitle on the summit poster that I had so naively overlooked: How can we effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims?
To solve a problem, we must first ask the right questions. Our generation faces a momentous challenge: Taking the three angels’ messages to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Are we asking the right questions? I hope that we are.