Islam 2013: Challenging Encounters for Adventists
by Borge Schantz
Of the current world population of a little more than seven billion, it is estimated that about 33 percent (2.3 billion) are Christians while 21.5 percent (1.6 billion) are Muslims. Over the last century Christians have remained at one third of the world’s population, while Muslims have almost doubled their number and their percentage has increased from 12.5 percent in 1900 to 21.5 percent today. 
Before the mid-twentieth century, most Muslims lived in isolation from the “Christian” world on the other side of oceans and deserts. Although the discovery of vast oil deposits in the Middle East gradually gave them a growing economic clout on the world scene, they had minimal influence on world politics, culture, and religion. Today, however, Islamic nations have found their place and are very conspicuous. Their exposure has been further strengthened among us as about 50 million Muslims have, for various positive and negative reasons, left their homelands and settled in Europe, Australia, and the United States, where they now are neighbors to Christians. These new immigrant Muslim settlements have posed hitherto unexpected challenges to their new hosts. Their demand for respect, time and space to follow Islamic rules and lifestyles has, at times, brought them into conflict with Western “Christian” laws, culture and customs.
This steady growth of Muslim minorities in the Western world should alert Adventists as it does other Christians. Muslim neighbors could be potential candidates for Christian evangelism and consider themselves members of a “missionary” religion with ambitions to convert the whole world to Islam, using tools of persuasion as well as force being seen as legitimate.
Adventist mission to non-Christian religions has for more than a hundred years generally been a somewhat one-sided enterprise. Missionary activities have been aimed at people with a religion based on oral traditions without significant, defining Holy Scriptures. The missionary, on the other hand, based his/her persuasion on the Bible as a divinely inspired book which calls one to accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of all humankind and accept the Advent message as the guide for their new life.
In the effort to evangelize Muslims, however, Christian missionaries meet people who have their own “sacred” book—the Koran. This makes the undertaking completely different, with two groups of people, both devoted to the “uniqueness and sacredness” of their faith and both keen in their efforts to reach each other with their faith. The process, where two groups try to converts each other could work peacefully as long as both groups work in a spirit of tolerance, equality, and freedom. However, where Muslims are in the majority and have political power, logical arguments do not count. Christian witnessing is often threatened. Muslims will generally do all they can to stop religious and political activities that infringe on the position of Islam as the dominate, if not sole religion. The Koran and Islamic laws are detailed in not only obstructing foreign religions, they also promote the Islamic mission enterprise Dawah (Arabic for the call to bring people to Allah). Such a religious phenomenon is neither new nor unique to Islam. History tells us that when a majority religion sets out to convert or conquer adherents of a minority religion—armed particularly with the notion of divine right or authority—conflict, persecution and intolerance often develop.
Double encounters: Christian missionaries meet Allah’s apostles
Muslims have been exposed to Christian witnessing for 1,500 years. Still, all mission agencies have reluctantly had to admit that results have been extremely meager, often non-existent. Islam is still like an impregnable fortress against which Christians (including Adventists), have no persuasive power.
The important geographical change in evangelizing Muslim is that the mission field now is often next door. However, even with this obvious and inexpensive neighborhood witnessing, results are almost non-existent. Over the years, different mission societies and the Adventist Church have developed various ingenious evangelistic approaches. These strategies have generally been focused on attempts to meet Islamic people in their own geographic areas and local cultural environments (Middle East, Asia and Africa). But very few approaches have been designed for the "diaspora" Muslims in areas where circumstances allow conversions.
The main reason for lack of success in these evangelistic programs is, no doubt, that in Islam there are warnings with severe threats against listening and converting to Christianity. Islamic laws, including the death penalty, could be put in practice for such transgressions. These rules are sometimes applied in liberal, Western settings. Families, Muslim groups and mosque leaders will at times carry out what authorities do in Islamic countries.
Evangelism to Muslims is an uphill, but not a one-sided battle. Today we in the West face locally a religious people who have the Dawah ambition to make converts among western people. Imams and Mullahs exhort immigrant Muslims to be active in promoting Islam. This call to Dawah remains central in Islamic writings, sermons, literature and a growing number of Islamic Web sites. Their strategies are not just to convert Christians but to defend, and sometimes even physically fight against, negative perceptions of Islam, Muhammad, and the Koran.
Exact data on Christian converts to Islam are hard to get, in part because they are not always correctly recorded. However, in the West the numbers of Christians who convert to Islam far surpass the numbers of Muslims turning to Christianity. There are reports of Adventist youth “converting” to Islam for various reasons. Among these converts are young women in relationships with Muslim men, including marriages.  Fortunately, we are not talking about large numbers. Still, Adventist Christians in a Western context who convert to Islam outnumber Muslims accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior.
To these discouraging facts must be added the fact that the few scattered Adventist minorities living in Islamic countries, often under constant heavy pressures to abandon their faith, are tempted to choose to live as “incognito Adventists.” A significant number of them immigrate to the West. The result is that an already weak minority of Christians is further diluted. The apparent negative results of the “Arab Spring” have made the Christian minorities in these countries very cautious, fearing that the future could be a time of less religious liberty and more persecution.
The General Conference has recently focused on reaching the main cultural and geographic areas of Islam, which is a welcome development. Such a move must be followed by a Bible-based strategy for Muslim evangelism to be pursued by administration, educational institutions, and people in the field. It should also take into consideration strategies for the 50 million Muslims living in countries with more freedom. Their conversion could provide important inroads to closed Islamic areas.
Religious liberty and freedom of expression
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."  This document is the basis for the existence and life of political parties, world religions and Christian denominations. Only 86 out of 194 countries have signed the declaration. This means that more than 2.5 billion people (35 percent of world’s population), the majority of whom are Muslims, do not enjoy these rights. The few Muslim countries that have signed the Declaration seem to interpret it to mean that Islamic nations (1) have the right to practice and proclaim Islam freely anywhere; (2) are protected in their areas from people who want to propagate non-Islamic beliefs; and (3) have the right to deal with apostates according to Islamic laws, which could mean execution.
In Western societies we take freedom of expression for granted. The question of religious liberty has always been a vital issue in Christian evangelism and missions. In pioneer situations, Adventists have often had to fight for religious liberty. These rights are still our basis for being able to proclaim the three angels’ messages and establish churches globally. The religious freedom to worship and proclaim which is denied Christians in Muslim countries are expected by immigrant Muslims in Western countries. Many Muslims interpret human rights to include that authorities will protect them from being ridiculed, criticized and questioned about their religion and lifestyle. This often includes the expectation that articles, news reports, drawings, pictures and other items that they interpret as blasphemous will be controlled. In situations where Muslims claim that the authorities did not protect them, they are known to have taken matters into their own hands.
One negative result of this is that, as a prophetic movement, Seventh-day Adventists with their warning message have become very careful in the way they deal with Islam. If even a fraction of the daily reports of bloody sectarian clashes, persecution, terrorism, infringement of the freedom of expression and the fight for religious privileges be attributed to the Roman Catholic Church, it would get headlines in Adventist publications. As Adventists, we believe in the soon coming of Christ and preach its nearness by pointing to "signs of the times" in the religious, political, environmental and criminal world. We are known for preaching about these signs of the end time. Is the Adventist reluctance to deal with Islamic religious/political news a question of self-censorship? Do the general threats of reprisals from Islamic sources keep us silent? 
Are we compromising faithfulness to our call? Has the time come for us to be ready to give satisfactory answers to the many faithful church members who today ask serious questions about the meaning of global events with religious overtones? They want to know whether there are answers in the Bible and what is the Adventist stand on the issues.
At times we hear pleas to “love the Muslims.” We must love all people, regardless of their religion. There are references to Islam and Muslims in Adventist periodicals and they are generally on uncontested topics and positive toward Islam. In my work as an administrator, teacher, pastor, and evangelist on five continents, my experience has been that church members are generally friendly and hospitable to Muslim neighbors and acquaintances. They want to be witnesses to Muslim neighbors. The problem is, however, that Muslims are discouraged from accepting Christian fellowship, and for that reason are reluctant and often skeptical of communication with people of other religions.
Personally, I know Muslims for whom I have high regard. Friendship was reciprocated. That does not mean agreement on doctrines. To love and respect a Muslim for whom Christ died does not mean to accept his or her unbiblical teachings, practices, and laws. The key to witnessing is to learn their ways and understand where they are coming from.
Where do we go from here?
The missionary call to “go and make disciples of all nations” includes Muslims, even if they are the most gospel-resistant people in modern mission history. The 1.5 billion Muslims can be divided into three groups.
1. About one billion live in Islamic nations where Christian approaches to Muslims are forbidden and conversion can mean execution. A few of these Islamic countries tolerate minority religious groups, but these groups are isolated and controlled.
2. Another 450 million Muslims reside in countries with limited religious freedom where there is a strong Islamic dominance. Local culture and laws are largely influenced by Islamic views.
3. Then about 50 million Muslims have immigrated to Western nations. They enjoy full religious liberty, but are under dominant family and cultural pressures.
Any plans for reaching Muslims in these three groups should take into account the late Donald McGavran’s excellent suggestion for evangelism and missionary approaches: Win the winnable while they are winnable.  We are called to witness to “all those who live on earth.” That certainly includes both receptive and resistant people. However, when people resist or governments forbid missionary activities, we should follow the counsel from Jesus to “shake the dust off your feet” and move on to winnable people (Luke 9:5; 10:10). Then, continue to look for possible future openings in both world mission and neighborhood evangelism.
The Muslim next door
Fifty million Muslims live where they have complete freedom to change their religion. They are in a context where they are theoretically winnable. They also have meaningful contacts with families and friends in the many closed countries. A fair proportion of the church’s personnel and finances should be steered to this Western Muslim group. However we face the additional issue that Muslim immigrants generally have more problems with the way Christians live than with the tenets of the Christian faith. The moral degeneration in so-called "Christian" countries is interpreted by Muslims as proof that Christianity is a religion with little influence on the lives of its followers. Muslims observe the free and open conventions between men and women, the easy access to pornography, the use of alcohol, the abuse of drugs and the offensive television programs, and as a result do not see any particular reason to accept Christianity. They argue that Muslims are more faithful and dedicated to God as they openly follow strict Islamic laws and fight for their “rights” in opposition to local cultures and customs.
The Holy Spirit can and does work on people who do not understand the inner faith dynamic of the gospel. Public meetings are not a recommended means because Muslims are watched by other Muslims and are reluctant to attend Christian events. Suitable literature could be of great help especially if it is in appropriate languages. No doubt friendly personal contacts with an individual Muslim or preferably the whole family will be the best approach. Sharing a meal where consideration is made for their dietary principles is an excellent occasion for conversation. Knowledge of the linguistic, national, and cultural background of the Muslim immigrants will be of great value. 
Whatever approach we take in reaching Muslims, we need to be honest and faithful to our Christian standards. The increased number of Muslim residents in some areas should call for churches to further educate members about Muslim beliefs and lifestyle. Be intentional. Win the winnable while they are winnable.
1. Todd M. Johnson and Peter F. Crossing, "Christianity 2013." International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2013.
2. British Advent Messenger, March 18, 2011, Grantham, UK: Stanborough Park.
5. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), 256, 257.
6. Borge Schantz, Your Muslim Neighbour and You (Watford, UK: Stanborough Press, 1993), 21f.