BuildingChurchLeaders.com editor Drew Dyck spoke with T.V. Thomas, who is director of the Centre for Evangelism & World Mission.
You grew up in Malaysia, so you're no stranger to other religions. How should Christians respond to the growing number, specifically of Muslims, in the United States and Canada?
Number one, I think we need to deal with our fear issue. I think a lot of Christians are fearful of all Muslims, and that's because it's formed by images on the screen and rhetoric in the media about what's happening overseas. This fear is counterproductive when relating to Muslims. A lot of Christians don't realize that most Muslims are nominal, and nominal Muslims are more apt to respond to the gospel if they can see Christianity lived out for them.
What are some of the obstacles Christians face in relating to Muslims?
Most Muslims think that Western Christianity is bankrupt. So that's one problem. From their perspective, Western society has become morally degenerate. They have a point. And unfortunately, they see this as a reflection on Christianity in general. After all, the West is a so-called "Christian" society. So my first piece of advice for Christians is not to use the word "Christian." I describe myself as a diligent follower of Christ. "Christian" means a lot of things. But identifying as a diligent follower of Christ suggests the kind of relationship I have and the faith I live by. And that really throws Muslims. It saves me from having to defend somebody else's activity, somebody else's lifestyle.
When talking to a Muslim, is it best to start with similarities between the faiths? Should a Christian focus on the common moral ground? Or is it better to delineate the differences up front?
No, definitely don't start with the differences. There is a lot of common ground. The Bible clearly calls for holiness, righteousness, and prayer. It also stresses the importance of the family. These are all commonalities that we should focus on. Of course, talking about these similarities often leads to discussion of the differences, but I think we need to focus on the similarities first. Muslims often use theological issues as a smoke screen. And I feel that when you relate to Muslims, you should appreciate some of the aspects of Islam—for instance, that they take daily prayer seriously.
Once you've established a rapport by talking about the commonalities between your faiths, how do you broach the differences? How do you talk about Jesus?
They have a great respect for Christ. I talk to them about Islam. That's when they find out that they didn't know Islam as they think they do. They are blown away because they thought they knew the Koran. I let them read in their own language what the Koran affirms about Jesus. Most of them don't know their own scriptures.
This is kind of a hot-button topic, and I know a lot of good people that fall on either side of this, but can you say to a Muslim that as Christians we worship the same god?
I would say we have the same name, but the God of the Bible is far different from the god of Islam. So at the beginning of our conversation, if a Muslim wants to use the name Allah, I'll give him room for that and not go and say, "Oh, you can't use Allah. Allah and God are not the same." You don't go and fight over it at the beginning because then you don't have any starting point. So I would say to a Muslim, "We can refer to Allah, but we need to carefully look at the God of the Bible and Allah that you refer to." Both have one common thing: they are supreme, but there are other attributes that make God and Allah different. Always start from where people are at.
For the average pastor out there who wants to reach out to Muslim people in their neighborhood, what can they do practically as a church to reach out to Muslims?
The Muslim woman is the key. They are not accessible because they do not always freely interact with others outside the home, but Christian women can reach out to them in their homes. Most Muslim women are stuck at home. But to go there and learn about their cooking and show them how to bake, or have women over to your house when their husbands are gone and say, "I'm going to teach some baking, some cooking." Women from the Middle East jump at this sort of offer. Stick to baking because it's neutral. Don't work with meat and halal food. Baking is neutral. The other opportunity to serve them is teaching ESL (English as a second language). Hold lessons at a location outside the church environment. Most Muslim women will not come to a church, or their husbands won't let them to go to church. But if you run ESL just for women in a neutral place, you sidestep those obstacles.
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