Contextualizing Western Workers – Gifts from the Muslim World

Contextualizing our message, methods and ministry to Muslims may overlook our greatest asset: the impact of Muslims upon Christian workers. Call it a gift from the Muslim world.

I first noticed this impact on my life when I started to counsel workers who were in ministry to Muslims. One couple made the comment that I had always been a gentle, retiring person, but no longer. My counsel to them was to the point, quick and almost bold-faced in its directness. The couple graciously received the counsel and said, “You are a changed person, radicalized and very direct from your ministry to Muslims!”

Muslims are virtually transforming Christian workers, making them radical. They are turning our discrete “Western” sharing into a more integrated lifestyle of speaking the word and life into an oral, Eastern context. Oral communication with Muslims will radicalize you.

Contextualization of the Western missionary is an acute need. When someone needs to change to make the gospel understandable, the person who needs contextual change most is the Christian missionary.

The Apostle Paul affirmed that cultures and peoples will find Jesus in their culture. Acts 17:26-27 reads, “So that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him, although he is not far from each one of us.” Is Paul trying to contextualize the gospel? Is he contextualizing culture as a path to the gospel? More than ever, I see Paul himself becoming contextualized, if you will, by finding a place in his heart for people of very different beliefs. I am all for contextualization. But much of the talk about contextualizing the gospel for Muslims forgets that it is incumbent upon us to open our hearts wider to people, not just to find a place for dishdasha robes and salat prayer rituals in a Christian context.

Muslim interaction can give us at least four contextualized gifts.

1. The Gift of Community
Community will radicalize Western missionaries. What we know about community as Westerners needs to be “ratcheted up” to where Muslims live. Muslims have keys to the Kingdom of God already within their cultural expression called the Umma. Umma is an Arabic word that means “community of believers,” a deeper meaning of community when compared to what we know in the West.

The most powerful example of public, oral communication is thus the Umma. Muslims are part of this Umma, the “underground railroad,” so to speak, of a “global Islamic community allegiance.” Muslims in London feel literally welded to and a cloned part of oppressed fellow Muslims in Palestine, for example. A rumor that the Quran was dishonored in one country caused a riot in Pakistan, an entirely different country.

Practically speaking, why is the Umma community such a gift to westerners? Here is an example. Dressed in a black covering from head to foot, Suade seemed hospitable but imposing. My wife Evey went with Ashley, our 26-year-old ministry intern, to visit Suade who pronounced the blessing of God as she entered her apartment. Suade then brought her husband Chafic to our home. As we began telling the Prodigal Son story (Luke 15), Chafic took over and started to read the story himself. Then he became animated, and began commenting on the story. “He insulted his father!” “He came back defiled. His father ran to see him?” “Why did his father do that?” I lost my job of telling the story! The secret was to turn Chafic’s hunger over to God, rather than to make myself the one with all the answers. My Muslim friend showed that the Spirit of God was at work in his life. Later, Chafic invited us over to his home for a traditional Moroccan meal. Hospitality was Chafic’s honorable way of saying that God was speaking to him and that he wanted to know more about God in the context of a meal together. God spoke. Hospitality was the response!

2. The Gift of Shame and Honor
Muslims are part of a shame and honor culture vastly different from the Western guilt and consequence culture. Biblical teaching contains many themes on shame/honor as well as guilt/consequence themes: Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2); “I honor my Father, and you dishonor Me” (John 8:49).

A Muslim who is shamed is a Muslim who feels defiled. Yet this concept of shame/honor is a gift to Western missionaries. What is often astonishing among Westerners is this: guilt in Islam must never be confessed, according to Muslim tradition, because it would result in a loss of honor which is worse than death itself. The Turks have a saying, “Even if guilt were made of silk, no one would wear it.” An Arab proverb is, “Any injury done to a man's honor must be revenged, or else he becomes permanently dishonored.”

Muslims are part of a shame and honor culture vastly different from the Western guilt and consequence culture.

Occasionally in ministry I have felt like a plumber trying to do heart surgery because I did not have the right knowledge of understanding the principles of shame/honor. Zacchaeus climbed a tree (Luke 19) just to see Jesus. Jesus asked him to hurry down from the tree so he could eat at his house. Reverse hospitality? Yes, and more. Jesus honored this man who confessed his wrong-doing all the way home.

We normally describe grace as the unmerited favor that melts the sinner’s heart. Among Easterners and Muslims, unmerited honor opens the door and melts the undeserving heart in the presence of the word of God, Jesus Christ. We often ask to eat or drink tea in a Muslim’s home—and we ask it with urgency. They feel honored, which opens the heart and home.

3. The Gift of Understanding Holiness and Defilement
Muslims have a concept of defilement which is not unbiblical. Ezekiel 22 records that “priests have done violence to my law, and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they caused men to discern between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.” (emphasis mine; see also 1 Timothy 1:9, Hebrews 12:16) Biblical concepts of defilement are strange to a Western worker who may have relegated such teaching strictly to the Old Testament.

North African Muslims often place a car tire over their homes, or carry the hand of Fatima or other talismans for protection against the jinn, or demonic powers. Being careful to eat with the right hand and to sleep on the right side, Muslims strive for a carefully balanced world. Muslims need deliverance from anxiety about the defilement or shame that could befall them if they violate food or life codes. Freedom in Christ from defilement is another way of describing salvation. The concept of the fitra among Muslims is the quest for harmony in a world of chaos due to defilement. Fitra is the harmony of all things physical submitting to what is spiritual and conformed to the orderliness of God. Yet disorder reigns for Muslims who will only find freedom from defilement in Christ.

When we focus mostly on grace and salvation from specific acts of wrong, it is hard to have the needed compassion and sense of urgency for people trapped in murky defilement.

A better consideration for evangelization is telling Muslims of Adam and Eve. Tell them that Adam and Eve were created without shame. They sinned and had to hide from their shame and defilement. Our Muslim background believer (MBB) church in Paris is led by an Algerian convert who came to Christ by reading the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. He saw that while Adam and Eve were defiled, God never left them. God called for the defiled couple, he clothed them, he corrected them, he gave a promise to them and he kept them alive.

Muslims have never heard that God “associates with” or dialogues with and cherishes and even loves defiled people. In fact, the greatest form of blasphemy in Islam is the concept of syirik, or associating with impure people. For Muslims, relational involvement with people diminishes God’s greatness. (God, they believe, never associates with humans because of an extreme view of defilement.) But in Christ, the Samaritan woman (John 4) went from “worthless and defiled” to useful and valuable to God. In Christ, Onesimus, who was branded for life as useless, became useful and valuable to Philemon and to the Lord.

Our understanding of holiness and defilement is also a gift to us. We are learning to minister with compassion to people with defilement or addictions and codependency issues. Muslims do not feel that they are worthy or capable of being in relationship with God, due to their defilement. Jesus’ carrying their sorrows and entering their darkness is more compelling to Muslims than logical steps or “to do” lists.

4. The Gift of the Story
The vast majority of the world’s unreached are oral peoples (literate and non-literate), for whom the nature of communication is telling stories. For these people, storytelling is not only the way they communicate, it is also the most effective way to spread the gospel. Oral peoples can usually recite back eighty percent or more of the stories they hear. By comparison, Western people can usually recite back twenty-five percent or less of what they hear.

Jesus used parables to communicate with the Jews, who were also an oral people. The Parable of the Sower allowed the listener to become an active participant in the story. No parable can so demonstrate the call of the gospel to be freed from religion as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The vast majority of the world’s unreached are oral peoples (literate and non-literate), for whom the nature of communication is telling stories.

Each story is a mirror of the heart. A nomadic Tuareg pilgrim to Mecca came to me and asked for more and more stories from the Bible. He was trained in Quranic verses. I wondered how he would ever allow me to share openly with him in a Western cultural form. Yet, as a storyteller, I was able to enter into his oral tradition world. He kept saying, “Don, tell me more stories from the Bible.”

David, for example, noted the importance of always being ready to communicate stories. Psalm 45:1 reads, “My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready writer.” Meaning? My tongue is always ready to communicate my heart and the heart of God my king, whether through stories, laments or songs.

Two significant treasures await the Western worker with this “gift of the story.” First, we do not have to be experts in Islam to tell stories to Muslims. No need to tell them the fifteen things that they need to change to become a Christian. Instead, stories allow the teller to let the receiver hear and decipher without imposing the pressure of interpretation.

Second, by telling stories as Jesus did, we do not have to serve as the go-between for Muslims to constantly interpret God to them. We do not want to become a mediator between Muslims and God because we know that “there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Becoming the mediator can run the risk of supplanting the role of Jesus. Also, we could become the “bookshelf of answers” that keeps the Muslim background believer from taking their questions directly to the word of God. Dependency is not the same as discipleship.

I continue to encourage the contextualization of our methods, our ministry and our message to Muslims. My finding, however, is that the contextualization of the Western missionary is the acute need. Contextualized workers may not wear all the robes or know all the rites of their Muslim friends. Yet they are learners, having taken on the gifts of community, the gifts of shame and honor, the gifts of holiness and defilement and the gifts of oral communication. I am taking a bottom up approach that says, “Yes, I am Western, but Muslims can see that my Western heart is assimilating an Eastern worldview in light of God’s word. Rather than a top down, sophisticated, culturally correct approach to the presentation of a contextualized gospel, let us get the word out that we need hundreds and thousands of unassuming workers with unstudied talent. We need Western and non-Western workers who are willing to be dramatically changed and strongly contextualized in their biblical thinking.

Don Heckman and his wife Evey work with Muslims in North Africa and Southeastern France. Previously, he was involved with planting disciple training centers with YWAM. He also planted a bilingual French/English church, a Tamil church for Sri Lankans and two French churches. He is the author of Christ Loves My Muslim Friend. He can be reached at [email protected].