Talking about Jesus with our friends can be challenging. Whether the person we’re talking to is a close family member, a friend we know from the gym or someone we sit next to every day at work; finding the right words to express our faith isn’t always easy.
As much as we think about ‘evangelism’, read about it and even pray about it, there is probably always going to be a part of us that finds talking about our faith something that makes us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.
At the same time it is true that friendship is the best context within which to talk about Jesus. This is certainly the case when it comes to relating Jesus to people from Muslim a background. Until you can use the expression “friend” of a particular Muslim person, you are not in the best position to discuss the good news about Jesus with them. Friendship is the ‘first base’. This may take some time – but why rush?
This approach is not ‘pie in the sky’ because it ties in with teaching from within Islam itself. Muslims are encouraged to relate to non-Muslims with respect (S16:125) and in the ‘best possible way‘ (S29:46); even to ‘make friends of enemies‘ (S41:34).
Remember, friendship is time-consuming. There is no quick fix (see 2 Corinthians 4:1-2), which is partly why Christians are easily tempted to ignore the issue all together. It is only as we gain the trust of a Muslim friend, that we can start the process of discussing spiritual issues. The more trust between us – the more right we have to speak and to be heard.
Always try to put yourself into the shoes of a Muslim person. It is possible to ask things, which rather than challenging them, can affirm them as an individual who may be seeking after God. It is common sense to help the person feel comfortable to answer more honestly. For example “How does it feel to fast and what spiritual benefit do you feel?” As trust grows we earn the right to go deeper. This is the essence of ‘proclamatory dialogue‘, which is simply dialogue where we listen, as well as have something to proclaim. To experience this with a Muslim friend we usually need to take the initiative.
We can find the principle of proclamatory dialogue in the life of Jesus. Even as a boy, he modeled it. Notice how he genuinely listened while humbly having something to say in response to what he heard. Observe him doing five things in his conversation with the elders in the Temple in Luke 2:45-46 where he was…
sitting among the teachers
gaining and exhibiting understanding
giving answers to questions asked of him
This is the pattern for us to follow with our Muslim friends. Remember that you are only a cog in the wheel or a link in the chain of God’s activity in their lives. They may even be further on than you think. For example what about Cornelius’ story just before he met the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:1-6? God was aware of Cornelius’ prayers long before he heard the good news about Jesus from Peter and became a believer. This also tells us something about God’s dealings with Muslim people, even before they hear the gospel or believe in Jesus. Many believers in Jesus from Muslim backgrounds change heart-allegiance to Jesus after a process of God’s activity in their lives, as well as through a crisis of intervention that triggers the change to faith in Christ.
Asian and Middle Eastern cultures were heavily influenced by the ‘honour and shame’ social code, long before they became Muslim. This means that people in these societies instinctively try to defend what they think is right; to not do so is to bring ‘shame’ on themselves for betraying their identity and heritage. The author of the book Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift said: ‘You can’t argue someone out of something they were never argued into in the first place.’
So to try to argue a Muslim person out of what they see as their identity is counter-productive because it leads to a “slanging match”; it is also counter-intuitive because belligerent confrontation provokes the Muslim person to react to avoid being ‘shamed’.
This is why it is relatively easy to get into controversy with a Muslim, so don’t start arguments if at all possible. Controversial issues include their popular understanding that – all British people are “Christians”; the Bible has been changed; the Trinity means Christians worship three gods; Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’ means Christians believe he was the biological offspring of a sexual union between God and Mary; Jesus didn’t die on the Cross; the West is intrinsically “Christian” by definition; all Christians support Zionism and the political State of Israel; all Christians drink alcohol and eat pork; and there is a western political conspiracy to destroy Islam. This sort of issue is covered well in the recommended books – ‘A Muslim’s Pocket Guide to Christianity’ and ’10 Questions Muslims Ask’ and ‘Dear Abdullah’ (see the end of the blog).
Here are a few tips:
Resist the temptation to quarrel (2 Tim.2:23-26).
Try to avoid blatantly criticizing Islam (Mat.7:1-5).
Try to remove misunderstanding by asking why your Muslim friend thinks as they do.
Try to distinguish between issues that are essential and non-essential; central and peripheral; primary and secondary within Christian and Muslim belief. This helps us not to become deviated into unhelpful cul-de-sacs.
Be prepared to admit – and even ask forgiveness for – any violations committed against Muslims by Christians in the past and present (Ps.106:6; Rom.2:24). See if your friend is willing to do the same.
Take every opportunity to say what you believe and why you believe it (1 Pet.3:15).
The aim is not to win an argument but the person. It is possible to lose the argument and still win the person if love is our attitude.
Be patient. Muslim people take time to assimilate and respond to new truth, just like we do.
Of course, it goes without saying that we should also be very prayerful about our interactions with a Muslim friend. Pray for them and for wisdom as you slowly build up an accurate picture of the whole Bible with your friend.
Much of the material in this blog posting is taken from “Friendship First”. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, we recommend the Friendship First course and website.
‘A Muslim’s Pocket Guide to Christianity’, Malcolm Steer (Christian Focus Publications, 2001)
‘Your Questions Answered, E. M. Hicham (Evangelical Press, 2009)
Dear Abdullah’, Robert Scott (IVP, 2011)
Steve Bell is the National Director at Interserve GB & Ireland. A mission leader, analyst, trainer and author, Steve is a recognised cross-cultural communicator with 35 years’ experience in 100 countries. Steve is author of Friendship First, Grace for Muslims and Gospel for Muslims and co-edited Between Naivety & Hostility. Steve is married to Julia, a senior teacher and they are “owned” by a mentally deranged Siamese cat called Izzy.
You can find Steve's blog at graceformuslims.org