Last week seventeen high school students frommy Christian school went on a mission trip sponsored by Stand to Reason to reach Muslims in L.A. This was the first trip of its kind, so these students were really trekking out on faith! We were able to join an Iranian Christian Bible study, visit an Islamic center, engage Muslims in personal conversations, hear testimonies from former Muslims, get training from missionaries to Islam, share a meal with Muslims, and visit a major mosque. The students did not go unprepared -- they had spent the last seven months reading books and attending training sessions outside of regular school hours. My thanks in particular to Brett Kunkle, Alan Shlemon, and Dawnielle Hodgman for planning such a great trip. Here are some highlights and reflections.
Worshipping with Iranian Christians
The first night we visited with an Iranian Christian church in Beverly Hills to hear testimonies from recent converts from Islam. The first woman, Shareen, grew up in a Muslim home but became disillusioned with Islam. Her hunger for a father figure drew her most deeply to Christianity. She decided to read the Bible and was so enthralled by it that she read it straight through in one sitting! The love of God drew her in. Another young man, Mosen, also grew up in Islam. He was obsessed with the question of how a person can be good enough to go to heaven. No Muslims could give him a good answer, and they suppressed his questions, which burned him on Islam. He eventually read the Bible and was drawn in by the friendship and love of God. He cited 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” as his favorite verse, because he was transformed by Christ into a new creation.
Training for our Muslim outreach
The next morning we had a training session from Ramesh Wolf, executive director for Esther International. She talked about how Islam is growing by birth rate, but also by conversion. In fact, she cited the World Christian Encyclopedia, which says that each year there are 20,000 Muslim converts to Christianity but 50,000 Christian converts to Islam. There is one Christian missionary for every 400,000 Muslims. There are not professional Muslim missionaries because the typical Muslim sees himself as a missionary (unlike typical Christians). Ramesh pointed out that many Christians are reluctant to evangelize Muslims, but this is exactly what Muslims do to us!
She also made the very important point that Muslims are not monolithic. A Muslim in L.A. will likely believe differently than a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or China. Some are conservative while others are liberal. There are Shi’a, Sunni, Sufi, and even charismatic Muslims. Despite what many Muslim leaders claim, there is significant divergence with Islam. Thus, there is no formulaic way to share Jesus with Muslims.
Conversing with Muslims
In the afternoon we headed to Garden Grove to have conversations with Muslims. We split up into groups of two and went looking for Muslims willing to talk. My son and I met a 50-year-old Sunni Muslim named Ahmad who was eating with some friends outside a Middle Eastern restaurant. We asked if they were open to conversation and they warmly invited us to join them. After learning about their faith and background Ahmad asked me if I had read the Qur’an (although he admitted to rarely reading it himself). After sharing that I just finished reading it, he wondered what I thought. I began by sharing how I accept much of what it teaches in regards to certain attributes of God (omniscient, omnipotent, creator) but that I could not accept the claim that Jesus was not crucified (Surah 4:157). This goes against the historical evidence and makes God a deceiver. I asked him why I should trust a book written at least six centuries after the life of Jesus [the Qur’an] that contradicts the earlier historical documents [the Gospels], which are based on eyewitness accounts. He pointed to the one test for truth within the Qur’an—it’s beauty and organization. Neither of our views was likely changed much, but it was a fascinating and cordial conversation.
Visiting the Iranian Islamic Society
This night was one of my highlights. We had a Muslim professor from UCLA speak to our group on the Islamic view of Jesus and the similarities between our faiths. He focused on our shared beliefs that all humans are equal, the common pursuit of peace[i], and the importance of reason. When it came to Jesus, he emphasized that both faiths agree that Jesus was human, that he cared for the poor, and was arrested for causing disturbance in the marketplace. But he disagreed that Jesus died on the cross. He believed that someone was made to appear like Jesus and died in his place. After a few tough questions from students he made an interesting move—rather than defending the Islamic view of Jesus, he simply said, “This is our narrative. I’m not giving you a historical answer. I’m giving you an answer from faith. The historical data is unrecoverable.” This was surprising since he had just emphasized the importance of reason within Islam. He even proceeded to cite The Da Vinci Code as a reason to doubt the biblical Jesus. The students were quite shocked to see an Islamic professor take the postmodern route in defending his views.
After his presentation we were able to break up into small groups and enjoy a meal and fellowship with some young Muslims. I was able to eat with a 30-year-old (self-described) liberal Muslim. He was incredibly bright, kind, and sincere. He clearly felt hurt by organized religion, and yet maintained some of the cultural components of Islam. We had a wonderful conversation about objective truth, the person of Jesus, and the purpose of religion. Our basic disagreement came down to the nature of man—he believed humans are intrinsically good, whereas I believe people are made in the image of God but corrupted by original sin (Romans 5). Thus, the idea of Jesus paying for our debt of sin made no sense to him.
Studying the Qur’an
Wednesday afternoon we heard a lecture from apologist Joe Carey on the historicity of the Qur’an. He made some helpful and insightful points. The common claim by Muslims is that the Qur’an has never been changed since its inception. Carey showed that this is not true. At the time of Uthman, the 4th caliph, there was nearly a civil war over who had the correct Qur’an (competing Qur’ans had 111, 114, and 116 Surahs). Uthman chose Zaid’s translation and had the rest burned. Muslims often say the disagreement was over pronunciation, not content. But how would burning different Qur’ans change how people pronounce it? The debate was over content, not pronunciation. Carey also pointed out the myriad of scientific and historical inaccuracies in the Qur’an.[ii]
Overall this trip was truly life changing for the students. They learned a few lessons in particular. First, the Muslims we met were very open to conversation. They were eager to discuss religion and to hear what we believed about Jesus. Many of the students were quite intimidated to begin discussions but they quickly realized how friendly American Muslims often are. In fact, the Muslims were more eager to discuss religion than the typical secular American. Second, we met many Muslims who converted from Christianity. They commonly cited having questions about God that the Christians in their lives could not answer. They saw Islam as bringing order and purpose to their lives in a way that Christianity could not. The female Muslim converts all had one thing in common—they met a Muslim man who introduced them to Islam.
Third, for the past 5 years I have been partnering with Stand to Reason to take students on apologetics mission trips to Berkeley, Salt Lake City, and L.A. We have had between 25-35 students on each trip. This year we opened up the trip to all high school grades, and the cost was less than before. Thus, I thought this would be our biggest trip. I was dead wrong. We had only seventeen 9th-12th graders. Why? Many students (and parents) were fearful in reaching out to Muslims. Those who went on the trip tended to have Muslim friends and neighbors and so their love for them cast out fear (1 John 4:18). Second, many simply did not think reaching Muslims was important. I heard many comments such as, “It doesn’t interest me. I have other more important things to do.” It truly breaks my heart that more people are not interested in reaching Muslims. Muslims are the largest unreached people group in the world and, believe it or not, they want to hear what you think about Jesus. They are zealous for God but lack knowledge. Will you reach out to them?
[i] I do believe that individual Muslims want peace. Yet theologically speaking, the Islamic understanding of peace is very different than the biblical view. Peace in Islam comes when the entire world is under submission to Allah. “Islam” actually means surrender, not peace.
[ii] For example, Surah 20:85-87 says the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Horeb) was made by a Samaritan. Yet Samaritans did not even exist for another 700 years! The Qur’an also claims the sun sets into a murky pond (Surah 18:86). Some try to interpret this metaphorically, but the context makes it clear this is a story about Alexander the Great that is to be taken as veridical.