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.
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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.
The series continues this week with Part Two where we 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.