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.
To read the full series, go to "Evangelicals and Muslims: Water and Oil or Fertile Ministry?"