The team has committed two years to learning languages and culture before we dive deep into making disciples and forming groups of worshipping Christians. We are in agreement about this. If we start too early we may never learn their language. The article below sounds “ministry like,” but please understand that, though I am having many fruitful God-centered conversations with people, and even telling Bible stories, my main goal now is language.
Sharing Christian faith with the people of Ishmael has its obstacles for sure. For instance, perhaps the most important doctrine of their religion is that God is one and “He has no partners.” “He has no partners” is explicitly stated in the context of polytheism and those “people of the book,” Christians, who think God has a Son. Associating divine status to a “prophet” like Jesus is to commit the most heinous and unforgivable crime (called shirk).
Whenever Jesus is brought up, this unforgivable sin is at the forefront of their minds. In my conversations, I try to avoid this issue because their ears are not yet ripe to hear about the secret identity of Christ. This issue still comes up, and I try to handle it very carefully; you might say that I shirk it (pun intended) but without denying the truth.
Many of their doctrines, however, are in the favor of one speaking for Christ. The Quran demands belief in the former prophets who were spoken of in the previous Scriptures (the Bible). Some of these prophets include: Adam, Noah, David, and Jesus. This means that the Quran assumes the inspiration of the Bible, though many Muslims argue that Christians have tampered with it. This situation leaves an opening for serious conversations about what these prophets said and did according to the Scriptures. If these words are taken seriously, people will be ready to hear about Christ.
This is precisely why I have chosen to practice Swahili by memorizing stories from the Bible. I begin with the less threatening Old Testament and hold off on Christ until there is a solid foundation to stand him on, and until I have gained trust. Thus far I have only memorized three stories: the creation, the fall, and the flood (I am working on Abraham). The ideas therein are: God created everything good, sin causes death, and God must punish sin. These three ideas are almost enough to save the world (we still need Jesus for that).
There are other things Heather and I do to attain respect among Muslims as people of God. We show respect for local traditions. Doing this is not easy (please pray for us) because it is difficult for us to navigate through traditions that are often closely tied to religion. Some traditions are less closely tied than others; for instance, praying in a Mosque is obviously very closely tied to a certain belief that Muhammed is “the” Prophet of Allah. Other traditions are not directly tied to Islam but are close, like coving arms and legs and wearing a head covering. Heather and I do this: she wears a scarf, and I wear a cap. This does not communicate that we must be Muslims, but it communicates that we honor God. They may ask us if we are Muslim in the same way you might ask someone praying in a restaurant if they are Christian. Head coverings, in times past and present, have communicated Christian holiness (eg. Nuns, Amish). In their eyes, it is hard to understand how half dressed western women could ever be thought holy (are they wrong?).
Similarly it is hard for a Muslim to understand how someone could be holy while eating pork and drinking alcohol. Many of them know that the Pentateuch condemns eating pork as unclean, and those are “my” Scriptures. I learned quickly that they are going to ask if we eat pork and drink beer. They are fishing to find out if we are watu wa Mungu (people of God). I could say “Jesus turned water into wine and made all foods clean,” but they are not ready to hear that. Though we may have the freedom, we are keeping away from both of these taboos in order to preserve a hearing for Word of God.
It is also helpful to give proper greetings and respect their holy days. Simply understanding the meaning of their holiday and recognizing it is helpful enough. For Aid El Hajj I communicated my respect by memorizing in Swahili the story of Abraham sacrificing his son. Because we were invited, we also joined them for their day’s special meals and the evening dance. Heather was gifted a special blue and white delicate head-scarf; she wore it and looked like the virgin Mary. As it turned out, few people actually danced, but they dressed up and acted like they were about to. This is very similar to high school prom.
I have written about these things so that you can share more fully in our lives and in God’s mission. However, we must emphasize that no one will repent and believe because we did all the right things; God must come and convict people, and through his spoken word and the power of the Holy Spirit, draw people to himself. Our hope is to get out of the way and get in sync with Him who saves. We are already seeing signs of this happening. Pray for us as we stumble through this great task.
“I have become all things to all men so that I might save some of them.” –Apostle Paul