|1 March, 2010
“I think I need to be honest,” the evangelist said, looking me straight in the eye. “I know that I am supposed to love the people I’m reaching out to, but when I think of Muslims, I think of terrorism, political posturing, and burqas. That’s why I’m here tonight: I need to learn to see the real people behind the stereotype of Islam.”
‘Here’ was a four-week series of seminars that I was running in Gloucester, UK, entitled Understanding your Muslim Neighbour. Aimed at people from local churches, the seminars were designed to inform and equip the churches, and help them build good relationships with their Muslim neighbours.
This is not the first such course that Urban Vision, Interserve’s cross cultural team in England and Wales, has held. Another course, called Friendship First, was developed by Steve Bell, the England and Wales National Director. About six weeks in length, the Friendship First course aims to bring about a deeper understanding of, and attitude change towards, our Muslim neighbours, and sums up the ethos of Urban Vision: how can we call anyone to Christ unless we first show them that they are loved?
Tim and Rachel Green have also developed an interactive course, which draws on the Friendship First material. It runs over ten weekday evenings, and helps people engage with their Muslim friends, and be able to present Christ to them in a culturally sensitive way. The most recent course (it runs every year in their home town) had nearly 40 participants from a dozen local churches. Now this model is spreading to other towns. The aim is for ordinary Christians to gain the vision, confidence and skills they need to share Christ with ordinary Muslim people. Mission to Muslims is not just a task for specialists!
The 2001 census revealed that about 1.6 million Muslims, from many different cultures and backgrounds, live in the UK. While that’s only 2.7% of the population, because of media coverage (including some Christian media approaches) and a certain strain of politically active Islam, many Britons have an underlying sense of fear and of ‘being taken over’.
Urban Vision is working towards breaking down that media-fed fear, and encouraging Christians to engage with Muslims in long term friendship. And as Christians step out of their comfort zones, lives are being changed and communities transformed – not just amongst Muslims, but also amongst those Christians who are reaching out.
While people from Muslim situations are used to living faith publicly, worshipping communally and praying together frequently, church-goers in the UK are used to praying in private and being slightly embarrassed about faith in public. To be open to the needs of new followers of Jesus from a Muslim background is to be challenged to be public, communal and family in ways that take us beyond our comfort zone, and modify our existing church structures.
And yet, isn’t this the challenge of Jesus Himself? Is this what we’re called to do and have maybe slipped away from?
Jesus calls us all to follow Him, from stereotype to neighbour, from fear to family. In doing so we too are changed and new family members are found and welcomed by the Father.
Colin Edwards is the Team Leader for Urban Vision. Originally from NZ, Colin is coming back on Home Assignment in August.