Time to Give Up the Idea of Christian Mission to Muslims? Some Reflections from the Middle East

By Chapman, Colin | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Time to Give Up the Idea of Christian Mission to Muslims? Some Reflections from the Middle East


Chapman, Colin, International Bulletin of Mission Research


After first articulating common challenges raised against Christian mission to Muslims, in this article I want to reflect on fundamental issues to be taken into account whenever Christians think of mission in Islamic contexts. Then instead of trying to arrive at a possible redefinition of Christian understanding of mission, I shall put forward some much more modest suggestions related to priorities in Christian thinking about our relations with Muslims at the present time. (1)

Articulating the Challenges

All the main arguments from history and experience that have been used in the last two hundred years to question the concept of Christian mission sound specially convincing when developed in relation to Islamic contexts. Here are several of the more common, which need to be heard and addressed:

The devotion of ordinary God-fearing Muslims puts us to shame. If Christians recognize the genuineness of this devotion, why should they ever want to encourage Muslims to change their religion and become Christians? A Western Christian who has lived in Turkey for a number of years expressed this view when he wrote, in a comment passed on to me, about his experience of living among Muslim students: "It has become harder and harder for me to imagine or even want them to convert. Many of them live more 'godly' lives than I do, or than most Christians I know. We should be talking about coexistence rather than conversion."

The social and political realities in the world demand that we should be talking about real issues in the world around us rather than trying to discuss theology. Terrorism, AIDS, poverty, corruption, Third World debt, inequalities in world trade, the population explosion, global warming, and injustices like the oppression of Chechnyans and Palestinians--surely these are the crucial issues that confront the human race, and they have little or nothing to do with our understanding of God.

Christianity has a terrible record in its relations with the Muslim world. Weaknesses in the Christian churches in the Middle East and North Africa allowed Muslims to gain control through their initial conquests and then gradually win converts over the next four centuries. European Christendom eyed the world of Islam across the Mediterranean with a mixture of suspicion, fear, and envy, and then it launched the Crusades. The mentality of crusading continued for many years, even after the Crusaders were finally driven out of the Middle East. Christian mission enjoyed a dubious relationship with the imperial powers that controlled Africa and much of Asia, and in these continents Christian mission in Muslim areas has been remarkably unsuccessful. The Muslim world sees the West as still being "Christian" in some sense, and as still engaged in a war against Islam.

When Christians and Muslim have so much in common theologically, it's pure arrogance for Christians to claim that they have "the truth." Anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity, the incarnation, or the atonement to Muslims knows how difficult it is. Anyway, what's the point of trying to do so? Christians are far closer to Muslims in their beliefs than to Hindus or Buddhists. We share belief in one Creator God and a moral law based on his revealed will. How can Christians claim that their understanding of God is "better" or "truer" than that of Muslims, or that their way of life is closer to what God requires than that of Muslims?

The conversion of individual Muslims is very difficult and often causes extreme suffering. Since Muslim communities are so close-knit and since the penalty for opting out of the Muslim community is so severe, converts can seldom continue to live in their own communities and therefore often end up being extracted from their families and their culture. The Christian community finds it very hard to provide an adequate substitute for all that converts have to give up. Why engage in an activity that is so obviously provocative in the eyes of Muslims and leads to so much heartache for those who do respond? …

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