Lessons Learned from a Muslim Evangelist
by Martin Brooks
As I wrote about in my last post, there were some uncomfortable moments when the former Christian, now turned Muslim, tried to convert us. Overall, though, I appreciate the opportunity to have experienced what it's like to be on the receiving end of evangelism. I learned some things. Here are some lessons I learned from the Muslim evangelist.
1. Be Respectful
I appreciate our freedoms of religion and speech. I think anyone should be totally free to voice their opinions about important issues of faith. I value a safe place to do that. I also have a greater appreciation for “friendship evangelism” as long as true friendship is legitimately part of the deal. This guy had earned no right to speak into my life. He had me trapped at a social gathering. He proverbially “stuck his foot in the door” and started his spiel. How do you escape without making a scene?
The “golden rule” came to mind: “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” I did not respond well to someone attempting to dismantle my faith. As I encounter people of different faiths, I try to find value in their perspectives and experiences as I lift up what I believe to be beautiful and true about Jesus. I think some evangelists, both Christian and Muslim, figure they have one shot, so they better unload on the victim of their evangelism while they have a chance. It did not feel good to be on the receiving end.
Remember the story of Nicodemus? We see him three times in the book of John. At first, he is coming to Jesus at night saying, “We think you might be from God.” He then compared what Jesus said with his own understanding of God and, apparently, walked away. The second time we see him, he is still with the Pharisees but defending Jesus. Finally, toward the end of the book, after Jesus died, we see him claiming the body of Jesus. That fits with the passages that teach that one sows, one waters, and another reaps. Many times, this process of being reconciled to God is a lengthy journey.
2. I learned about “Experts”
The fact that someone comes from a particular faith tradition does not mean they understand or can accurately describe that faith.
This guy had been the son of a Baptist minister and had converted to Islam, but he was not articulating the core beliefs of Christianity very well. Conversely, we sometimes assume that Muslims who have converted to Christianity are experts about Islam because they “used to be Muslim.” It is not necessarily true. We do not assume that all Americans are experts about Christianity just because they come from a “Christian nation.” Why would we assume that all people from Muslim majority countries are experts in Islam? Still, many “converts” are pushed to the front of any crowd that will listen so they can set the record straight. My Muslim restaurant owner had found an “expert” that affirmed his suspicion that Christianity makes no sense. But as a practicing Christian, I knew the “expert” was misrepresenting my faith.
3. I saw the Cognitive Dissonance of a Convert
Think of the mental struggles this young convert to Islam had as he walked away from his family, the accepted norms of his culture, and the faith of his youth. As he talks about his decision, he wants to convince you that he made a good decision. He is motivated to tell you the worst things he knows to validate the obvious logic of his choice. He said very despairing things about Christianity, much like former Muslims sometimes say very negative things about Islam. There may be some truth mixed in there, but it is many times not a fair and balanced representation. The tendency seems to be to compare “our” best attributes with “their” worst attributes. That may make us feel good about our position, but it is hardly a virtuous way to make comparisons.
Just because someone lived in a Muslim country does not necessarily make him or her an expert. Christians who grow up in Muslim majority countries sometimes live under such persecution that they are hostile toward all Muslims. Muslims who become Christians are under enormous familial and societal pressure to justify that decision, so they too may be excessively harsh on what they left, much like our young Muslim evangelist was harsh and misrepresented Christianity.
Remember, too, there are many different types of Muslims. There are secularists, modernists, traditionalists, fundamentalists, militants, and terrorists. It would be a mistake to take someone from one of those backgrounds and apply their perspective to all 1.5 billion Muslims in the world without at least considering the filters through which they are speaking.
How did everyone respond to being “evangelized”?
So how did the guests at the Peace Feast respond to the Muslim evangelists? Some wanted to argue but did not. Most were offended. No one converted to Islam. Our Muslim friends were mostly annoyed and embarrassed by the blind-side attack. However, one of my Muslim friends defended the evangelist. When I talked to him later his response was, “Well, what he said was true.” So in his mind, this “truth” spoken by the evangelist justified the obnoxious behavior.
About two weeks later, I went to see the restaurant owner. When I entered he gave me a big hug and free tea and baklava. I think he knew he overstepped and may have been fearful that I would not return. He had offended me. I felt betrayed, ambushed. I had brought my friends to him, and this is the way he treated them? He sat at our table and told me how his Christian parents-in-law have told him he is going to hell. He spoke of a local Christian leader who brings his followers into the restaurant to practice “witnessing.” Perhaps he thought that was the way Christians and Muslims always treat each other. “You reap what you sow,” came to mind.
As we think about how to present the hope that is within us to others, I think there are many good lessons we can learn from the Muslim evangelist. Our attitudes and approach can be so offensive that we hide the beauty of Jesus. We are told to be wise in the way we act toward outsiders and to let our conversation be always full of grace and seasoned with salt. As we speak of our hope, may we truly do unto others as we would have them do unto us.