Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lessons from Missions to Muslims: Distaste for the Combative Approach

The history of Christian missions is filled with examples of those who have been willing to experiment with differing approaches to reach different cultures. These attempts have resulted in successes and failures, and a healthy debate over methodology. One striking example of such debate comes from missions to Muslims. In this context, missionaries and strategists have engaged in healthy debate over various approaches and aspects such as contextualization, specifically over varying degrees and models of contextualization known as the C1 to C6 contextualization spectrum.

Those of us in missions to the West can learn a lot from these missional experiments, and from the debate that results, regardless of the people groups we work with. For example, I ran across an article by Charles Kraft titled "My Distaste for the Combative Approach." Much of the concerns and criticisms he brings to combative approaches to Muslim missions is also relevant to evangelical approaches to new religions. For example, those who advocate a combative approach to Muslims look to Jesus' stern rebuke of Jewish religious leaders in the gospels for biblical support for their methods, as do those using combative approaches to new religions. But Kraft writes that

"Jesus was very hard on (combative toward) those who knew a lot but practiced little of what they knew (i.e. Scribes and Pharisees). He was, however, gentle toward those who knew little (the common people). To the latter Jesus adapted his manner of life, his language, his total approach to the mesage he came to bring. Indeed, he even identified with their in their criticisms of the orthodoxy of those who represented 'God's true way' to them. The question I seek to raise is whether contemporary Muslims fall into the category of those whom Jesus sought to combat because they lead themselves and others astray (Matt. 23), or into the category of those to whom Jesus would have adapted. Undoubtedly, there are some in each category."

We could further nuance Kraft's words above to make it more applicable to the context of new religions, but Kraft raises some important points for consideration. I and others have argued that the texts often used to support combative approaches to new religions are the wrong texts, taken out of context, misapplied to new religions, thus resulting in inappropriate methodologies. Kraft raises similar concerns about these texts as applied to Muslims.

Beyond this, Kraft notes that, in general, combative evangelical approaches to Muslims involves several questionable assumptions. I would argue that these to are shared by combative evangelicals approaches. I will quote again from Kraft's article and provide brief comments on a few of the points he raises.

"1. That all Muslims know better and that, therefore, we do right to condemn their whole aproach to relating to God (as Jesus did with the Pharisees)." Is it accurate to assume that most Mormons, for example, really "know better," and therefore it is appropriate to treat them as apostates or heretics?

"2. That the meager success of our combative approach to Muslim evangelism is the fault of the unresponsiveness of our Muslim receptors, not of the approach itself - we do not, therefore need to examine critically that approach and to experiment with new approaches." While evangelicals in ministry to new religions are loathe to admit any failures in methodology, not a few have lamented the apparent unresponsiveness of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other new religions. Are they truly unresponsive to the gospel, or does the combative approach really not communicate the gospel in their religious frame of reference?

"3. That we deny or compromise the truth God has given us if we strategize our witness in such a way that we focus first on those Christian truths most acceptable to Muslims, leaving more difficult truths for later in the process." How many times have evangelicals engaged Jehovah's Witnesses over trinitarian theology as part of an "evangelistic" attempt only to come away with both parties more deeply entrenched in their respective theologies? Is it possible that we put the doctrinal cart before the horse (not to mention unnecessary stumbling blocks) by asking the new religionist to assent to doctrinal truths that may not be paramount in the initial stages of convesion and which might well be apprehended better in growing discipleship? Is assent to creedal orthodoxy the best place to start with new religionists as potential converts? If it is, why then don't we start this way with our children where we are satisfied with simple faith rather than a systematic theology.

"7. That the lack of love we often manifest in our approaches to witness has nothing to do with the way hearers perceive the love of the Christ we recommend." I know that evangelicals feel they are loving when they stand outside the Manti pageant, or new temple openings, or other events and sites, and pass out literature or hold up signs viewed by LDS as demeaning of the sacred. But regardless of evangelical intent the perception on our hearers is that we are doing anything but demonstrating the love of Christ.

Kraft includes discussion of other assumptions evangelicals make in traditional approaches to Muslims, and then follows this with five aspects that inform a more culturally-sensitive aproach to Muslims, that are also applicable to mission to new religions.

After reading the article, and reflecting on Kraft's ideas, I have to say that I'm with him, in both Muslim and new religion contexts. I have a strong distaste for the combative approach. But unfortunately I don't think it will disappear any time soon.


Anonymous said...


The flip side of this issue is whether we should be more combatative towards unmissional evangelicals.

As you noted, Jesus saved his most combatative material for the ones who knew much yet practiced little.

I am of two minds with this. One the one hand, where a softer approach wins an audience, sure. But where hard heartedness towards the lost AND THEIR CONCERNS has set in are we justified blitzing them. Sometimes I find they don't respect you till you give them a theological bloody nose.

John W. Morehead said...

Sadly, I agree with you, Matt. I think there are many ironies here. Evangelicals shake their heads at the Pharisees and yet act very much like them when it comes to the new spiritualities (in my view). And while they believe that the biblical texts that describe Jesus' harsh denunciation of the Pharisees should serve as models for our approach to new religions, in fact, this may be the way we should approach evangelical religious leaders!

While I wish we could simply do our best to forumulate, experiment with and model a different way, I fear that with those who advocative a combative approach a combative response to them is the only thing that really "registers." Perhaps sometimes a theological bloody nose is in order within one's own theological camp, as Jesus himself exemplified.