Missionaries in Islamic countries stand the test of Time
Back in April, when the conservative media got hold of an internal Time magazine assignment memo to reporters outlining a major story on Christian missions work in Islamic countries, they pretty much freaked.

World magazine called it "a sensational cover piece" that could expose missionaries to "imprisonment, torture, or death." Focus on the Family's Family News in Focus similarly reported that "the slow, painful progress of evangelism in these countries could be significantly hindered" by the piece.

WorldNetDaily columnist Craige McMillan seemed ready to storm the gates of AOL Time Warner. "In an era when most mainline media outlets have abandoned reporting the news in favor of channeling public opinion in the hope of directing events, Time's approach stands out as particularly insidious," he wrote. "God is increasingly sifting nations and people—indeed, the whole world. … It is His intent to find where our loyalties lie. With this decision, Time has left no doubt into which camp they fall. Time's battle is now with God."

Now that readers are finally able to judge Time by its fruits, writers like McMillan may be eating some crow. David Van Biema's piece, "Should Christians Convert Muslims?" gives missionaries pseudonyms and doesn't mention the countries where they're working. There's nothing new here that will put missionaries in danger of violence or expulsion. (In fact, much of this ground was covered in Christianity Today's September 2002 cover story, "Doors into Islam.")

But what is new—at least in the mainstream media—is the informed, fair, honest, and accurate reporting of evangelical attitudes and debates on this subject. "Evangelicals assert again and again that their message is based in love," Van Biema writes.

They are far better informed and more actively concerned than the average American citizen about the Islamic world's material needs, and their desire to share Christ springs in the main from a similarly generous impulse. Claims that Christian aid groups engage in charity as a "cover" for proselytizing do a disservice to the sometimes heroic humanitarian efforts by workers who believe that Christians should heed not just Jesus' message of salvation but also his example as a feeder and a healer. Yet there should be no question that while most evangelical missionaries love Muslims, they hope to replace Islam. Some cringed at [Franklin] Graham's "evil and wicked" description, but their critique was more about tone than substance.
Article continues below

There are, however, substantive critiques of how evangelism is done in these countries, and here Van Biema demonstrates the depth of his reporting.

"Many [evangelical missionaries] show exquisite sensitivity, sharing their Lord only with people whose intimate friendships they have earned," he writes. "But there remains a troubling contingent of indeterminate size that combines religious arrogance with political ignorance." That contingent (often consisting of untrained short-term missionaries) isn't just troubling to groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations—it's troubling to long-term missionaries and mission agencies.

"There is a lot more good than bad," says Robert Seiple. "But what I discovered is that well-intended people have in many, many cases eroded the message they were trying to communicate through inappropriate methodologies. Persecution results, and there are times you wish they had stayed home."

But Van Biema isn't writing for Christianity Today, so his concerns are broader than simply what this kind of missions work means for religious aid agencies and the Great Commission. "Missionaries often complain of suffering from an overall Muslim perception of Americans as purveyors of trash culture and libertinism," he writes. "But with the newly aggressive wave of evangelicals and the newly sensitive situation in the Middle East, the shoe may be on the other foot: the missionaries may actually affect the way the Muslim world understands America. … Sufficiently amplified, it could also presumably complicate American efforts to bolster moderate Islam in the Middle East. The Administration, however, does not see it that way."

Van Biema lets this point drop with little commentary, and it's probably for the best. His piece is already 5,500 words long, and exploring evangelicals and Mideast peace would require several thousand more. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that American evangelicals—especially American evangelical missionaries—aren't very concerned with how their work will affect American foreign policy. They believe the end of such policy is to promote justice and freedom, and to free the oppressed (whether from political or economic oppression). Similarly, they view their task as doing this same work directly: feeding the hungry, serving the poor, and freeing oppressed—but here the emphasis is spiritual oppression. Therefore, while evangelicals see the benefit of bolstering a moderate Islam against, say, Wahhabism, ultimately they view both as forms of spiritual bondage.

Article continues below

It's also worth noting that supplanting the Muslims' view of "Americans as purveyors of trash culture and libertinism" with the view of the missionaries portrayed in this article would not necessarily be a bad thing. There's no "holy war" talk among the evangelists quoted here, and it's abundantly clear that none are operating as agents of the American state. What comes through is their love for Muslims, not a hatred for Islam. "In addition to the Christian Gospel, which they consider their most precious gift, they have channeled millions of dollars in aid and put in countless hours of charitable work," Van Biema writes.

Furthermore, the conception that all Muslims are automatically opposed to Christian missionaries may need adjustment. Witness the story of Martin and Gracia Burnham. Their extremist Muslim captors were not opposed to their missions work. "Actually, they were impressed with us because we were reaching people who knew nothing about God," Gracia Burnham toldChristianity Today. "We were working with them, telling them about the one true God." The Abu Sayyaf was much more hostile to the other American, Guillermo Sobero, since he was seen as sexually loose. (Of course, if the Burnhams had been more involved in missions to Filipino Muslims, the Abu Sayyaf might have had a different attitude.)

Certainly critics can find things to quibble with in this article. The main critic quoted, When Religion Becomes Evil author Charles Kimball, doesn't have his attitudes examined quite as rigorously as the evangelicals do, and Van Biema could have noted that Kimball believes "absolute truth claims" are a warning sign of corruption in religion and is critical of all missions work (except for the silent witness of presence demonstrated by the Mideast's dwindling indigenous churches).

Similarly, Van Biema suggests that Presbyterian and Methodist workers in the Middle East have obeyed "local antiproselytizing laws and [focus] on building educational and charitable institutions and providing humanitarian" rather than engage in enthusiastic evangelism because they have spent a long time in these countries. In fact, that their "zeal is often tempered" has less to do with revelations experienced overseas than with those denominations' liberal drift here in the U.S.

Finally, the main objection to the Time cover story is also a reminder to the "religiously arrogant" contingent of missionaries that goes in thinking they'll win hundreds of coverts in a month or two. "Should Christians convert Muslims?" asks Time's cover story. Evangelicals will want to change that title, believing that only the Holy Spirit can convert Christians and change hearts. Christians, on the other hand, are called to bear witness, to make disciples, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. It's refreshing to see a number of missionaries doing just that, not only in Muslim nations, but in the pages of Time magazine.

Article continues below

More from the Time cover package:

Related Elsewhere

Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to weblog@christianitytoday.com

What is Weblog?

Check out Books & Culture's weblog, Content & Context.

See our past Weblog updates:

June 20 | 19 | 18 | 17 | 16
June 13 | 12 | 11 | 9
June 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2
May 29 | 28 | 27
May 23 | 22 | 21 | 20 | 19
May 15 | 14 | 13 | 12
May 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5
and more, back to November 1999