Where are we in missions to the Muslim world on this twentieth anniversary of 9/11? If we look only at surface realities, we may easily lose hope.
Just recently, of course, Afghanistan was completely overrun by the Taliban. Missionaries fled the country — if they could. America’s poorly considered and poorly executed departure resulted (and will result) in untold numbers brutalized at the hands of the Taliban. These tragedies mark an ironic and sad anniversary to 9/11, especially for Afghan Christians. Afghanistan alone seems to give reason to lose hope for missions in the Muslim world.
But Afghanistan is hardly alone. The Muslim world is known for head fakes of hope: the Arab Spring promised to move the Muslim world into a free society; the seeming openness of Saudi Arabia gave hope for a less medieval country; street protests in Iran offered light against the cruel and oppressive government. Yet all of these movements were crushed or discredited or snuffed out.
The list goes on: economic ruin in Lebanon, dystopian landscapes in Iraq, sectarian conflict in Egypt, refugee horrors in Syria, oppression of Christians in Turkey and Indonesia, ever-more-brutal sectarian conflict in Africa.
Even the most progressive and open countries of the Muslim world foster such unimaginable violations of human rights that most Westerners scarcely have a category to understand them or even believe them to be true. These realities make missionary-minded people feel like grasshoppers before giants.
Gardening One Fateful Day
I know such feelings well. I remember a day that threatened to crush my hope for missions in the Muslim world. What a day it was: clear skies and perfect temperature — just right for working in the yard. But my yard work wasn’t merely yard work; it was part of a vision for the Middle East.
We desired to do something not done before: develop student ministry on the new universities in the Arabian Peninsula. So a year before, after much research, we had set our course for Dubai, a gleaming modern city springing up out of the desert of the United Arab Emirates. We recruited a team of like-minded couples. They were skilled, gospel-centered, committed. We shared a long and deep friendship developed over the years in ministry together. We garnered financial support. We set up a business. We saw God’s favor all around us. I’m still astonished with how everything fell into place.
The last step before buying our plane tickets was to sell our house. “Let’s put it on the market mid-September,” I said. “How about the 12th?” my wife said. Done.
Thus, I was sprucing up the yard on 9/11 before hammering in a for-sale sign.
Falling from Buildings
That same clear-blue day, planes fell from the sky, ramming home death and destruction on unsuspecting victims going about their work.
I remember not quite believing the reports. I remember the rush to the TV and seeing the unbelievable. I remember the copper taste in my mouth as the world changed before our eyes. Not that we had any understanding of the implications, but we sensed it. The events made regular life feel small and insignificant — much like the discovery of a serious illness, or the sudden death of a close friend.
As I prayed with my young sons at bedtime that night, my oldest, fourteen at the time, said, “Daddy, I close my eyes, but I keep seeing people falling from buildings.” I so wished he hadn’t seen that. Yet it marked the horror of the day, and as I closed my eyes that night, I saw them too. I still do.
Following Jesus’s Words
As the story of 9/11 unfolded, it became apparent that this was a premeditated Islamic attack, and that two of the terrorists came from the United Arab Emirates. So we faced some questions. Chief among them was this one: “Since some of the terrorists came from the very place we intend to live, should we go at all?”
I felt the temptation to give in to fear and lose hope. And there were deeper questions.
- Do we believe that Jesus has “all authority on heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18)?
- Do we believe that, in the same breath he spoke of his power, he said, “Go” (Matthew 28:19)?
- And most of all, do we cling to his promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20)?
Yes, yes, and yes. The house sold on 9/13.
Later that year, we went to make our life in the Middle East, where we would live for the next twenty years through fears, war, threats, death, and great joy. We lived first in the Arabian Peninsula, and then later in Iraq.
It could not have been a better time to go. Going when circumstances looked so dark made a statement to our new neighbors: we weren’t afraid because we knew Jesus went with us. It also bore testimony that we loved the people of the Arabian Peninsula, and that we had something important to share with them.
And unquestionably, it has been the greatest privilege of our lives.
‘Give Me Nineteen Men’
We never expected to see the kind of fruit God granted.
On the plane to Dubai in 2001 (which was completely empty except for our family), I prayed, “O God, if you would allow me to see nineteen young men come to you, and have a heart for you, and be a part of more change than those nineteen young men who flew planes into buildings, I would be ever so grateful.”
“O you of little faith.” We will not know the number God provided this side of heaven, but it surpasses nineteen. Students came to faith — a trickle at first, then many, and then entire fellowships of believers, formed on campus. We discipled and evangelized and recruited more workers to join us. Many of those who came to faith on campus came on our staff team to be campus ministers themselves.
The staff and students were tightly integrated into churches that were rapidly being revitalized. We didn’t do all the work of church planting and revitalization, but our team helped see it happen. God was pleased to grant fruit that may grow until Christ’s return.
Reasons for Hope
So how about today? Where are we in Muslim missions as we mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11?
To talk of the “Muslim world,” of course, is a bit misleading. Muslims do speak of an Ummah, much like Christians speak of the body of Christ or the church universal. But in reality, the Muslim world is an incredibly diverse global community that is often at odds. So, we can speak of the “Muslim world” only in the broadest of terms. With that said, a survey of this diverse world offers reasons for hope.
First, many deeply committed indigenous Christians live all over the Muslim world. They give great hope for the future, and we have much to learn from them. Some come from historic Christian communities. Others have converted. Still others are members of evangelical churches. But for all, the boot of Islam rests on their necks. They need love and support from believers around the world.
Perhaps the greatest myth held by Christians in the West is that Muslims don’t come to Jesus.
People in the Muslim world are much more willing to talk about spiritual life than those in the West. They are more willing to read the Bible with a Christian than unbelievers in the West are. They feel drawn to genuine Christian community.
“Perhaps the greatest myth held by Christians in the West is that Muslims don’t come to Jesus.”
Furthermore, the harsh application of Islam does not help its cause. Thoughtful Muslims see the brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram and the Taliban, and they want nothing to do with this form of traditional Islam — but where do they turn? In my experience, many Muslims who hear of the love of Christ find faith in Jesus compelling.
Many people from Muslim backgrounds come to faith in Christ. Their stories are not trumpeted on social media: the death penalty for conversion in some Muslim communities is real (as prescribed by the Quran). But those who think about missions in the Muslim world need to remember that God will call to himself those he wills as we are faithful to proclaim the gospel.
Finally, remember the way of the cross.
The Christian faith shines bright to a world in despair. We have much to say to people who are brutalized by wicked religious men, because Jesus was brutalized by wicked religious men. Who would have foreseen that the Roman gibbet — an instrument of torture and death — would be the very tool God would use to offer peace and love and forgiveness to an evil world? What men intended as supreme evil, God used for supreme good.
In the same way, the horror of 9/11 was an evil event, coordinated by evil actors perpetrated on unsuspecting people who did not deserve to die at the hands of such a wicked plan. Yet it too has been and will be used by God for his higher purposes.
Over my twenty years in the Muslim world, I’ve also learned several lessons, lessons to know and remember when we think about missions in the Muslim world today.
There are more Christian workers in the Muslim world than ever before. Some are tentmakers, others are full-time workers with churches or agencies, some are on short terms, and many are with aid and relief NGOs. But the need is for even more Christian workers of all stripes in the Muslim world — and for all of us to be bold and clear about our commitment to Jesus and the gospel.
Do we have any choice but to obey the Great Commission? God does not rescind Matthew 28:18–20 in hard times. He never promises to spare us from difficulties. Actually, he promises difficulties. At the same time, he promises his presence.
“God promises difficulties. At the same time, he promises his presence.”
The fact is, if we wait to obey Christ’s commission until circumstances in the Muslim world are safe or calm, no one will ever go or speak. But we need to go and speak. We want to alleviate suffering, and even more importantly, we want to warn of the eternal suffering to follow death without Christ.
The Muslim world needs mature believers, who have years of ministry experience, to come and stay for decades, not months. The great need is for missionaries to focus less on technique or the latest missiological trend, and rely more on the ability to adapt and grow and share our faith while overcoming obstacles in a cross-cultural environment. This comes only from experience and maturity.
Our team left for the Middle East when I was 45 years old. Our combined ministry experience totaled forty years. We were at the top of our game in ministry. Our combined insights on ministry and missions proved invaluable for the work.
Though many may come to faith in Christ, if they do not become part of a healthy church, we might as well throw them to the wolves. Yet indigenous healthy churches are a rarity in the Muslim world. So, planting healthy churches is a first priority.
Surprisingly to many in the West, the Quran actually prescribes that Christians be allowed to establish churches as “people of the book.” (Anyone who is in a position to do so should press this truth home with Muslim friends or Muslim government officials.)
By healthy church, I mean a cross-focused, gospel-proclaiming, Bible-drenched church of baptized believers, covenanted together to care for each other in gospel love as a display of God’s glory under the leadership and teaching of the elders, who studiously practice the commands of the Bible for the church.
Their Only Hope — and Ours
So, are these dark days for missions in the Muslim world?
Nothing could be further from the truth. There have never been more opportunities for the faithful to follow the Great Commission in the Muslim world. Does doing so involve sacrifice and risk? Of course — what important pursuit doesn’t? But is it worth it? Unquestionably.
The hope of the Muslim world is not economic development, or military might, or political will, or better education. The hope of the Muslim world is Jesus. He is the only one who can transform a world locked in darkness into a place of marvelous light.