Several years ago the Lord directly called my wife and I to join a local church effort in reaching Muslims. This may sound good, but what I didn’t like was being put in charge of the ministry. I had led outreach efforts in the past, but, to me, Muslims were in a different category as being the most resistant to the gospel. I actually liked them and honestly wanted to reach them, but just didn’t know how. As if sailing on a sinking ship of inadequacy, I feared it would just be a matter of time before the church figures out they have the wrong guy.
We moved to a Muslim community to take this new position. Shortly after I made a few Muslim friends and had even visited the large mosque nearby. Seeing the hundreds of men coming to pray was overwhelming, so as they would pray I would sit alone in the back and silently pour my heart out to God asking him to help me in some way to reach them. In hindsight, this is a great place to begin. The simple prayer “Lord, if you don’t move through me nothing will happen, so please have your way with me” can accomplish much. To my surprise the mosque leadership didn’t mind me visiting even when I told them I work at a nearby church. About every other week I would go to the mosque, see my friends, and pray in the back that the Lord would provide a breakthrough.
About six months in to this new adventure I was able to learn some new methods of sharing with Muslims and found someone who could mentor me in applying this material. In the past I basically told my Muslim friends that Jesus died for them and then, as usual, hit the brick wall of hearing a million reasons why this wasn’t true. Making friends was easy, but when we spoke about spiritual things it was like watching a child pull out the tablecloth on a nicely set table. A new idea for me was to gauge my friends spiritual openness and then, if they were open, start with the most basic things that they can actually understand. During this process I would continue to share new truth but only as much as they could receive. These basic foundational truths started with talking about the Kingdom of God (the main message of Jesus) and then stories from the Old Testament that would serve as building blocks for the gospel. This way, once I got to Jesus, they had a background of understanding his death and resurrection. It also became clear to me that what I previously shared was outlandishly confusing to my friends. Muslims know Christians believe Jesus is God, so when I say, “Jesus died for you” they think I’m saying “Jesus is God, Jesus died, therefore God was dead for three days.” Without realizing it, they were hearing me say things I never meant to say.
I was also challenged to look more into what Muslim believed. In my opinion, I already knew all I needed to know about Islam, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I read the Qur’an it was nothing like I’ve been told. Large portions of it are simply a retelling of Biblical stories along with Islamic moral philosophy. Yes, there is much other material, but it wasn’t the ultra violent or anti-Christian message I was led to believe. In fact, I found many similarities that I could use as a starting point for a spiritual conversation. Perhaps I was finally starting to understand why Paul went and observed all the idols in Athens as it gave him a place to start a conversation (Acts 17:16, 23).
Desiring to see if these things really work I threw myself in the deep end. The local mosque leader, the Imam, had become a friend (probably because I hadn’t yet shared the Gospel) so I called him to arrange a meeting. He told me to come by the mosque and see him after the 6:00 evening prayer time. I thought, we would just go get coffee or tea and talk somewhere else, but I was clearly wrong.
The evening prayer time has a much lower attendance than that of Friday afternoon, so I sat in the back watching the 20 or 30 men pray as usual. When the prayer time was over about half the men left, but the other half stayed to continue their own personal prayers. The Imam then looked up and saw me in the back and clearly waved for me to come join him right in the front of the praying men. I was mortified. What about coffee? Not only did I not know what to say in front of several praying men, but I had another problem: I don’t whisper very well. Perhaps this is what a bed of nails feels like. Thankfully the Lord does speak, even in a mosque and to an Imam, so as I approached him I prayed, “Lord, this is not what I want, but if this is what I need to do to introduce him to Jesus in a fresh new way then please just use me.” As I sat down my Imam friend was clearly honored that I came and greeted me with a big genuine smile. He made small talk for about a minute not realizing my discomfort with the situation and then politely asked “So why did you want to see me?” I replied, “Imam, I’ve been learning some new things about Islam. I know that you worship the one God of Abraham. You know that I work at a church down the street and at that church we only worship the one God of Abraham. So if we both are worshiping the God of Abraham, shouldn’t we be in fellowship based on this?” “Why, yes.” he happily replied. I continued, “I want to make you a promise. I never want to argue with you about religion. If I do, we will probably end up dishonoring each other. If I dishonor you I am ultimately dishonoring God, and I never want to dishonor God.”
His already happy face blossomed even more. With a strong voice he responded, “Well, of course! We believe 95% of the same material. The only difference is you stop at Jesus when we stop at Muhammad. Feel free to come here as often as you want and bring as many people as you like.” I was shocked. Did he just speak highly of, at least, most of what I believe? If nothing else this was a clear sign that he was handing me an olive branch which is far more than I have been offered in the past when speaking about spiritual things with a Muslim.
As nice as this meeting was, I was still surrounded by doubt and a lack of faith that God could use me. The only thing to do then is to keep trying more. The next summit for me was to introduce my friends to the concept of the Kingdom of God. The Imam was incredibly busy and difficult to see regularly, so as I continued my mosque visits I got acquainted with another young leader. Like the Imam, he agreed to meet but this time it would be in my home. Forget speaking in a mosque in front of a group of praying men. This time I would be in control of the environment! Everything was set, but then, to my horror, my friend contacted me shortly before our appointment and asked if we could meet in the mosque. He reasoned his next meeting was there and so by changing the location we would have more time together. This was not what I wanted, so once again I had to cry out “Lord this is not what I want, but if this is what I need to do then just use me.” In hindsight, it’s clear how often I tried to control what God was doing instead of just following His lead. A friend I look up to, John, was also learning to reach Muslims, came along. However, instead of leading, which I hoped he would, he said, “I’m only learning about this, so I’ll just watch what you do.” My situation had not improved. Now I’m, in essence, teaching what I don’t know how to do.
John and I arrived at the mosque and waited outside the prayer room, but again things continued to get worse. Our friend arrived 25 minutes late and then insisted on making what turned out to be quite lengthy prayers. When he was finally done he came over to us and said, “You didn’t want to meet regularly did you?” Why were we off to such a bad start? You would almost think I had shared with him before. My sinking self-confidence sank even further when I learned that he is a university professor. Honestly, at this point I was afraid of being outwitted and was hoping to meet a dumb guy. Since the situation couldn’t get much worse I thought I would go ahead and share with him. I began, “I’ve started reading some of the Qur’an and I really love that opening prayer in Sura 1 (which is the first passage of the Qur’an). Could we read that together?” He smiled brightly, carefully opened his Qur’an and recited Al Fatiha, which in all honestly is a very beautiful prayer. The content is basically “In the name of God who is great and merciful. God, would you please guide us on your straight path.” My friend explained the meaning of each line and when he was finished I replied, “This is very similar to what my parents taught me when I was a child. Can I read that for you?” My friend was now not only happy for me to do so, but quite curious. I got out my huge black study Bible, read Proverbs 3:5-6 and then in similar fashion explained each line. To my utter amazement, right in the main prayer room my friend said, “That’s beautiful.” What??? Did we really just read the Bible with a PhD inside a huge mosque and hear that it was beautiful?
Since Proverbs 3:6 and Al Fatiha talk about God’s straight path I explained what God’s Kingdom is and then drew a diagram for my friend to visually explained we can both walk God’s straight path right into His kingdom. Not only did he agree, but he took the pen and paper and drew how Muslims, Christians and Jews can come into God’s Kingdom as equals. It seemed like the only thing worse to talk about than Jesus in a mosque would be the Jews, but here it was happening. All of this was taking place, once again, in full view of other men coming to pray. Somehow, in spite of my continuing discomfort, John and I were able to discuss significant spiritual matters with this our friend and left having become closer. Although we hadn’t gotten to Jesus as the only way into God’s kingdom, this meeting showed me that my friend was spiritually open and hungry for truth.
So what was happening here? Why was this now so different? One great tool for me was to not feel pressure to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness at every meeting as I had done before. Instead now I found myself looking for an open person and beginning our time together by simply turning his head towards the Kingdom of God. By starting with what we have in common I was no longer offending them but rather honoring them. Since honor can be considered the key to their hearts, many of them actually enjoy our discussions.
Even with these surprising conversations self-doubt still plagued me. It seemed plausible that we could talk about commonalities, but I thought when get to Jesus I’ll be back to the same old brick wall as before. However, proclaiming Jesus as the only way into God’s kingdom would clearly be the next step. I learned a simple gospel presentation that covers many major characters in the Bible and prepared to use it. My PhD friend moved to a new city shortly after our meeting, so now I needed someone else who is open.
A matter of weeks later on a Sunday night, a local university student walked into our church and said, “I’m a Muslim from Morocco, but can I attend your service?” This is not what usually happens, but, as you can imagine, we invited him in anyway. I got to know him in the coming weeks and we quickly became friends. Like me, he is a motorcycle fanatic, so we had an amazing time taking our bikes all over town. One of the best parts was that we usually had short but significant spiritual discussions. I showed him our diagram about the Kingdom of God and he loved it. One evening he wanted to go to a restaurant populated by other bikers where you walk through the mouth of a skull to get in, so we got our gear on went. After some greasy burgers, the subject became spiritual again. We talked about God’s straight path into His kingdom and I asked, “What do you think that straight path is?” He gave an answer, which seemed more like a guess, so I said, “Can I show you what I think this straight path is?” We had already developed a wonderful friendship, so I had great freedom to share. I drew another diagram showing how major figures from the Old Testament (who are also in the Qur’an) were pointing to Jesus and how He is the only way into the Kingdom of God. Each prophet is a study on its own, so my hope was to just get him to agree to study with me further. To my shock, once I finished he simply said, “I believe this.” It was one of those moments you ask God for, but when I got there I realized I had no idea what to do next. Although I was stunned by how readily he agreed with me I was internally humiliated by a lack of knowledge about what to do next, so we just talked about motorcycles again.
His answer seemed too good to be true, so the next time we got together I wanted to see if he really did believe it. Thinking this would bring some clarity I asked, “So who would you tell your family who Jesus is?” Again his answer was quick and simple: “The Savior.” This was followed by another one of my long pauses as I sat in disbelief. This wasn’t a word I had used with him, so it was his word for Jesus. Yet again, the next time we got together I asked, “Have you ever asked God to make Jesus your Savior?” “No,” he replied, “but can we pray and ask God to make Jesus my Savior?” That night on my back deck, at about 1:00 in the morning, my friend became my brother in Christ and entered the Kingdom of God.
He then had another question. “My dad is coming in a few days to watch me graduate, can we share this with him?” “Of course,” I said. His dad came and threw a wonderful party for his son’s graduation. Very late that night I began to show his father what we had been discussing. His English was quite poor, so my friend came to translate. As we went through the Kingdom of God diagram and the straight path diagram it became clear that I was merely starting each point and then my friend would share the bulk of the meaning. He really wanted his father to know this as well. At the end his Dad said, “This is great. I’m not sure I’m at a place to believe all this, but this is a fine belief.” Unlike the stories I’ve heard a thousand times, this father accepted the new belief of his son.
One great advantage to help get this acceptance is that although my friend demonstrated he was now a follower of Jesus he didn’t use the term “Christian” to define that belief. To my friend, he simply discovered that Jesus is the straight path to God and wanted to tell someone. I had learned that most Muslims believe that being or becoming a Christian means you are embracing a sinful western lifestyle so I hadn’t insisted on this term. From is Dad’s point of view, his son was still submitting to God, so he accepted it even though following Jesus was a new idea for him. Just as the first believers in the book of Acts were simply people who decided to follow Jesus, my friend was taking similar steps which naturally included telling those he is close with. Shortly after this my friend was on a plane back to his home country and I was left with a small idea of how Philip must have felt when he was miraculously transported away from the Ethiopian who had just come to faith. To this day I greatly miss being with this friend. In a short time he seemed to become a member of our family.
I savored how my friend came to faith but within a few months began to doubt it would ever happen again. We were already training students to reach their Muslim friends and I began to fear this would be my only one point of credibility, as if there would only be one star in my night sky. However, one night we got an email from a student telling us he had just led a lady to the Lord. “Couldn’t be,” I thought, “This lady must just be a ‘fan’ of Jesus now.” The student and I had already been meeting and, although he had been through our training, his method of outreach was pretty much the opposite of how we instructed him. He was academically brilliant but just didn’t seem to be catching on. After having lunch and hearing of how his efforts to convince his friend that Jesus is God only produced fights (which was of course familiar to how I started) I told him to start with the basics and then work through the Old Testament so when he gets to Jesus his friend will understand. To make matters worse, he was doing this across the country through email and across gender lines. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Jesus broke many commonly understood “rules” by talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4, so I helped him but mentally wrote him off as a serious student. Over the next few weeks he studied each prophet and presented it to his friend. The response was “Praise the Lord! I now understand that Jesus is the missing component to all our relationships to God. I’m going to share this with everyone who is struggling with faith.” It seemed too good to be true, but when I met with him again he told me, “She said Jesus is her Lord and her God, and then she advised me how I can share this with the rest of her family.” Jesus is her Lord and God! Something was definitely happening here. I didn’t actually believe one of our students could do this, but here it happened. Perhaps I was looking for the wrong things in the students I trained.
Despite my doubt I finally believed this student had led his friend into the Kingdom, but then again I began to think this would be the last one. The Lord is so patient with me, because despite my disbelief more friends came to faith. Several weeks after a training course we offered, I was at a meeting with a group of students who wanted to be further discipled in how to put the training to use. We started each week by asking if anyone had a victory story so we can celebrate them as they put the training to use. Several had taken some small steps so we celebrated it all. However, just before I moved on our quietest student whispered, “I shared the Kingdom with my friend and she came in.” Absolute silence followed until I said, “Sorry . . . what was that?” This meek young lady then told us how she had led her friend to faith. A few weeks later my wife and I had her and her new believing friend over for dessert. The lady who came to faith was an attorney who had recently arrived from Egypt and said she had studied the Qur’an her whole life. As the evening progressed it was clear she had committed her life to the Lord and was now living as a servant of Jesus. It’s still remarkable to me how the Lord uses the meekest among us to do what we think is a job reserved for the experts.
Yet again, as if I was just handed the last cold coke on the planet, I thought this would be the last one for a while. However, yet another student emailed me and said his friend from Central Asia had just come into the Kingdom. To top it off, this new believer went and got baptized on his own. Then a few months later I got a call from another student who shared how his friend had come into the Kingdom. Finally, a good friend of my wife’s came in as well. In only 18 months we had now seen 8 of our Muslim friends embrace Jesus as the only way into God’s kingdom.
So what happens to these believers? They are being discipled by the person who led them to the Lord. Some have attended our church while others prefer to have a fellowship in someone’s home, and sometimes they move away shortly after coming to faith. Whatever the case, we focus on getting them to study the Bible and teach them to pray so they can feed themselves spiritually. By doing these simple two things they can begin to hear the voice of God in their life and changes everything in the best possible way. We’ve made, and continue to make, many mistakes, but getting new believers to a place where they are not dependant on someone else for their spiritual nourishment is crucial. Once they come into the Kingdom we find the Holy Spirit opens their mind and their spiritual understanding skyrockets. As already said, shortly after one person came to faith, she simply stated “I get it, Jesus is just God coming to show us the way to Him.” We could have tried to hammer this in, but the Lord did it for us. Isn’t it interesting how the same thing happened with Peter in Mt. 16? After he proclaimed who Jesus is, Jesus replied in verse 17, “This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father heaven.” When new believers read God’s word and pray, we find that the Lord will speak to them in incredible ways.
So what is the future for us? We are still doing outreach and training others. Just like the Samaritan woman in John 4, our goal is to see new believers take the good news back to their own communities. When this happens there is potential to see an explosive response to the gospel and have a church planting movement begin. This doesn’t mean that we become disengaged, but the Kingdom of God has power to move itself far beyond what we can do. What I love about the mustard seed illustration in Matthew 13 is that, from my understanding of botany, the mustard plant itself is really only a bush. However, like the Kingdom, when it is the work of God it becomes bigger and greater than we could possibly imagine. Oh Lord, may it be so!