“Abdul, have you ever considered becoming a Christian?” I asked a Muslim friend one day.
“Never!” he exclaimed. “But it makes sense to me that you would want to become a Muslim. We believe in one God, while you worship three gods: the Creator, His son and Mary. And our Muslim women behave properly with men, but most Christian women have very loose morals – have you seen Bay Watch, or those images of western women on the internet? I also cannot understand your eating and drinking habits. We abide by the laws that forbid us to eat pork, and we never drink alcohol. Yet I am told Christians love pork and wine, and that you even use wine during your worship services!”
As a Christian involved in holistic mission, I work predominantly in countries with a Muslim majority. I consider that a privilege and, in many ways, easier than working in a Buddhist or Hindu country. After all, Christians and Muslims have much in common. At the same time, working in an Islamic context has its challenges! One of the biggest challenges is the way Muslims perceive me, a Christian. I often feel looked down upon, because Muslims believe we have “doctored” the Gospel beyond recognition. I feel misunderstood when people think I believe in three gods. I get upset when local people think my wife and daughters are immoral because most of the western films they see portray western women in compromising situations.
The importance of holistic mission: Amongst Muslims there is much that pushes them away from Jesus and the Gospel, especially since many hold the misconception that every white person is a Christian, and thus share Abdul’s disdain of what is perceived as Christians’ lack of moral and spiritual values. How can this gap be minimized? Ultimately, only by the Lord Himself, but Christians who are in contact with Muslims can do a great deal to break down prejudices, to rectify misunderstandings and to remove cultural, social and political barriers to Muslims experiencing the reality of the Gospel. Holistic or integral mission combines the practical expression of the Gospel with the verbal proclamation: “Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”
Holistic mission is Biblical because it reflects all that God has been involved in since the beginning of time. It takes the whole Bible seriously, not just sections of the New Testament. I believe in holistic mission because that is the way the early church grew. There were no mission agencies, no teams, no church planting plans, no radio or TV ministries back then. There were new believers, whose lives had been turned around completely, many of whom were from the lowest social strata: slaves. Often their masters noticed the difference, became interested and believed in Christ themselves.
Also, in many Muslim countries, holistic mission is the only way foreigners can be involved. And it is effective! We see Muslims’ attitudes to Christians change as we work among them, to the extent where those in positions of authority tell us: “We need more people like you, with integrity and a commitment to the poor.” Others that we work alongside become curious: “By example you have taught us a lot about servant-type leadership. But I get the impression there is more to it — please tell me…” We then have a chance to share our personal story, and to point to our greatest example, the Lord Jesus.
If we want to relate to Muslims effectively, however, we need to try to see the world as they do. Awareness of the context helps us to communicate in ways that are appropriate.
During our first term in Asia we lived in a local village, in a simple bamboo house with no electricity or running water. Just before we left I asked one of our Muslim neighbours why he thought we had left our own country and family and now lived with them. We were taken aback by his response.
“Well, that is quite obvious,” he said. “You could not find a job in your own country, so you came here, and now you earn more than you could ever have earned at home.”
After the initial shock (my wife and I had both given up good jobs, and now lived on a rather low allowance), it did not take long for me to understand where my neighbour was coming from. There was huge unemployment in the country, and many of its citizens lived and worked in the Gulf: my neighbour had just put two and two together. In his mind, noone would leave behind his extended family unless pushed by unemployment and pulled by the prospect of a salary 5 to 10 times more than he could earn at home.
Throughout the Bible we see God speaking to men and women in their own unique context. The way He spoke through the apostle Paul is a good example. When Paul visited Athens, he “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). However, when he spoke with these ‘idol worshippers’, he didn’t condemn them, but rather sought to communicate with them in a way they could understand.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:22- 23). He then proceeded to introduce them to the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, and as a result some of them came to faith in Christ.
The challenge of violence Another major challenge that can come with working in a holistic way is the threat of violence. My wife and I currently work in a country that is at war, and that has a reputation for violence. All our expatriate workers have to deal with the possibility that they may be killed while working out their calling to holistic mission, but knowing that our lives are in God’s hands gives us a solid basis to work from, and a real peace of mind.
However, the violence still affects us – living under threat is not easy and our senses are always on high alert. Even on home assignment a fireworks cracker makes us dive to the ground and one time a jet fighter going through the sound barrier had me with my back against the closest wall.
Part of the challenge that violence poses is the choices we have to constantly make. The people in most need of our help are often in areas with the highest level of violence, and we have to decide when to move into areas of real danger, and when to withdraw. If Christians stay on when most foreigners leave, the local people notice, and interpret our presence as a sign of solidarity, a commitment. However, if we stay too long we may become a burden to them, as they often feel responsible for our safety. Most of us end up finding a balance in this matter, but at best it is always an uneasy balance.
In our organisation we do what we can to prepare people to cope, and even thrive, under the threat of violence. Most of us would not mind dying for the Lord, but we would mind dying out of stupidity. Everyone attends a three day workshop on how to avoid being kidnapped, and if they are, how to survive. We try to be wise as we go about our lives and do not take unnecessary risks. We make sure we know the language and culture and have good relationships with local people.
Do things sometimes go wrong? Yes, sadly they do. If colleagues are kidnapped or killed, we suffer with them. Those who need it can have professional and spiritual counselling and debriefing. To make sure nobody is under any undue pressure we have a rule that anyone can leave the country at any time if they feel the threat or the reality of violence is becoming too much to bear, and we will help make all the necessary arrangements, including support when they arrive home.
The ultimate impact Islam and violence both pose their own unique challenges and opportunity to Christians committed to live to God’s honour and glory through holistic mission. I have stopped worrying about the numbers and about the “quality” of those who turn to Him. I read that it may take up to 200 meaningful moments of contact before someone is ready to turn his or her life over to the Lord. So day by day I make sure that I do not miss the opportunities that I have for such contact to lead people closer to Him.
The biggest impact I have personally seen is amongst the local people who have left the violence and poverty of their home country to seek work or asylum in the West. I remember sitting next to an engineer in a plane; he was going home to spend a month with his family, I was returning to work there in his country for another year. It turned out that we had the same academic degree. With tears in his eyes he said: “Here I am, I have left my own people in order to earn lots of money in the Gulf, but you are going to work with my people. I am deeply ashamed!”
The author and his wife have lived and worked in Islamic countries for decades. They have four adult children who were born and raised in those countries.