Current events have turned the world upside down and it would be easy for Christians to turn inward and insular. Many of us have been isolated—not necessarily by choice, and hopefully temporarily. However, this is not a time to be self-focused. It is an opportunity to serve one another and love our neighbors, especially those who are without the hope of the gospel.
Consider, to be specific, your Muslim neighbors. We can use this time of isolation, to learn about them and be reminded that they need the Lord whether or not there is disruption in our schedules. I believe that in order to communicate the gospel well to our Muslim neighbors, we need to understand our Muslim neighbors first. One step in this direction includes becoming familiar with Islamic theology in order to know how our neighbors will understand our message.
“I believe that in order to communicate the gospel well to our Muslim neighbors, we need to understand our Muslim neighbors first.”
I have personally encountered several distinct ways that Islamic theology complicates gospel communication. I have also found that it’s helpful to understand Islamic theology specifically from the perspective of a confessional Christian hoping to help other Christians love their Muslim neighbors well. With that in mind, here are three ways that knowing about the worldview, language, and theology of Islam encourages meaningful gospel communication—which is of course the deepest form of neighbor love.
1. Loving Your Muslim Neighbor
First, taking the time to know some of the basics about your Muslim neighbor’s faith allows you to ask informed questions that provoke deep conversations. As you familiarize yourself with what your Muslim neighbor holds most dear, you convey that you care about them. Though study and research seem like strange forms of neighbor love, the fruits of your labor expressed in thoughtful, informed questions will communicate your desire to truly know your neighbor.
The missiological purpose for research into other religions is interpersonal application. Understanding Islamic theology—though helpful in prompting and shaping questions—is not the same as knowing a Muslim person. Thus, as you learn different aspects of Islamic theology, make sure you do so in a way that helps you ask thoughtful questions of your Muslim friends. As you demonstrate that you have taken time to look at the world from their perspective, you exhibit a willingness to engage in meaningful conversations rather than mere intellectual sparring matches.
2. Understanding Your Muslim Neighbor
Demonstrating your love for your Muslim conversation partner is not the only reason that it is vital to study Islam. Your understanding of Islamic theology and the traditional accounts of historical development will shape your knowledge of the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity.
Understandably, many Christians are tempted to view the death and resurrection of Jesus as the primary point of contention between Muslims and Christians. While it is certainly the most significant difference, the stories each faith tells diverge long before the incarnation. Likewise, as you grow in your understanding of Islamic theology, you will become more aware of barriers to understanding the gospel that arise uniquely from Islam. Recognizing such barriers leads to the third—though arguably the most important—motivation for learning about your Muslim neighbor.
3. Avoiding Gospel Confusion & Achieving Gospel Communication
I lived in the Middle East for several years. One of the things that struck me early on is that it is shockingly easy to talk about God with Muslims—even in “gospel hostile” places. However, the longer I was there, the more I became convinced that actually communicating the gospel to a Muslim friend is vastly different than merely speaking the gospel.
“Actually communicating the gospel to a Muslim friend is vastly different than merely speaking the gospel.”
On the surface, Islam and Christianity admit many apparently shared concepts and characters. Appearing in both faiths, ideas like sin and forgiveness alongside characters like Abraham and Jesus often tempt a person towards a naïve assumption that these are points of common ground. Yet often upon inspecting such common ground one finds only superficial similarity. Assuming a shared foundation can complicate true communication.
Many of the words that are essential to the gospel—sin, salvation, atonement, and Jesus, to name a few—come pre-loaded with Islamic meaning for your Muslim friend. Your desire should be to develop sensitivity to the way that shared words often convey divergent concepts. If you don’t know how your audience is hearing what you are saying, you don’t know what you are actually communicating. By developing a sensitivity to where Islam parts ways with Christianity, a Christian can develop reflexes for defining and explaining how these apparently shared concepts and characters feature in the Bible.
A Prayer for the Reader
My prayer for you is that you would be moved to a deeper love and compassion for your Muslim friends and neighbors—especially in these hard and uncertain days. In addition, I pray that this love would motivate you to listen to your neighbors more carefully, to ask incisive and clarifying questions, and to lean into fruitful gospel-communicating conversations. In the end, it is not our argument that will win people to Christ, but the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we steward the message entrusted to us by laboring to present the gospel clearly and without confusion. I pray that the Lord will bring the fruit of such preparation to bear in the lives of your Muslim friends.
Matthew Bennett and his wife, Emily, served with the IMB for almost seven years. He holds a PhD in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.