A Strategy for Reaching Muslim Immigrants in Small Town America

Kevin is pastor of FBC Tullahoma, TN and director of Mission Surge.

Kevin is pastor of FBC Tullahoma, TN and director of Mission Surge.

God is bringing the nations to America.  While large cities clearly offer the most diversity, small town America is beginning to see people from other nations and tongues move into its neighborhoods as well.  While this change of landscape might be resisted by some, believers in Jesus Christ must recognize this transition as a great blessing from God.  We read in Acts 17:26-27, “and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”  God providentially orders where men live so that people might come to know Him.  If immigrants and refugees find their way into our neighborhoods, it must be because God sent them there.  

In a town ten minutes from my home, there are a number of Somali refugees who have been rejected and ostracized by the majority of the community, and ignored by local churches.  If God is indeed sovereign, His followers are missing a wonderful opportunity to get the gospel to some of the least reached people on earth, from the comfort of their own backyards.  If our role is to embrace the nations that God brings to our door, how are we to do so?  There are four primary ways that I believe we can reach the Muslim immigrant:  praying, giving, going, and sending.  This, in a sense, is the strategy Jesus Himself used.  

Praying

First, if we are to effectively reach the Muslim immigrant, we must begin with prayer.  Prayer clearly characterized Jesus’ ministry.   Over and over again we see Jesus slipping away to be alone in order to pray.  Effective missions and evangelism begins with prayer, and prayer begins with a burden.  In Matthew 9:35-38 we read,  “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.  36 Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38 Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”  In this text we see that Jesus preached the gospel, the good news, the optimistic hope filled message of the Kingdom.  What He saw however, was anything  but optimistic and hopeful.  He saw the crowds.  They were distressed:  literally battered, bruised, mangled, ripped apart, worn out, and exhausted.  They were dispirited:  literally dead or helpless.  They were directionless.  Like sheep without a shepherd, they had been left to the wolves.  

As Jesus looked out at the crowds, and saw their plight, He felt compassion for them.  The word compassion in this text literally means feeling with, feeling for, or sympathy, and implies that Jesus so sympathized with the crowds that His stomach was in knots.  As He looked out at the crowds He felt for them.  The harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few.  What was His response to this troubling situation?  He said in verse 38, “Therefore beseech the Lord of 

the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”  Beseech.  In other words, earnestly pray.  Pray what?  Pray that God would send out, literally in the Greek, squeeze out, fling out workers into His harvest. 

In order to successfully engage the Muslim next door, we must begin with prayer.  In order to really, earnestly pray, we must have a burden for them.  We must see them as lost, hopeless without the gospel, and like sheep without a shepherd.  We must feel for them. We must sympathize with them.  We must feel for them in our gut, as Jesus does, and we must pray.

The mission field is a battle field.  If we see the seriousness and danger of advancing the kingdom among the least reached, we will be motivated to pray.   In the words of John Piper, “Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.  It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den.  God has given us prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the kingdom of Christ advances in the world.”   There must be earnest prayer.  Stan Parks wrote, “One survey of effective church planters in a large CPM found that they were a very diverse group.  The main commonality identified was that they all spent two to four hours a day in prayer and had special weekly and monthly times of prayer and fasting with their teams.”  If we are to engage Muslims in our communities, we must make prayer a priority.

Giving

The second step in this strategy to reach the Muslim next door is giving.  Jesus was characterized by giving.  If one takes time to read Mark’s gospel, one will see that Jesus hardly ever stopped.  He was preaching, teaching, praying, and healing day and night.  He seldom got a break from giving of Himself.  John, in his gospel, recorded a number of miracles that Jesus performed, but we must recognize that we only have the highlights of His ministry recorded for us. John 21:25 says,  “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.”  Jesus was constantly working for the good of others.  He gave of Himself.  

If Jesus was characterized by giving of Himself for the good of others, then we must follow His example.  We must give of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures, for the good of others, specifically our Muslim neighbors.  We learn in Matthew 25:14-46 that some of the distinguishing characteristics of a follower of Christ is that they give of themselves to provide food, water, clothing, shelter, and comfort to the least of these.  Often immigrants and refugees are the very least in our society as they navigate new culture, new language, new landscapes, new laws, and a variety of types of individuals welcoming, and not welcoming them to America.  We must not only pray for our Muslim neighbors, but give of our time, talents, treasures, and of ourselves to show them the love of Christ.  

A good example of how to engage those who live among us, who are unlike us, can be found in John 4:3-42 when Jesus engages the Samaritan woman at the well.  As we reflect upon that story, we will notice that Jesus was intentional.  Jews usually walked around Samaria when traveling between Judea and Galilee, but Jesus “had to” travel through Samaria according to John 4:4.  He intentionally walked through the strange, untouchable, and uncomfortable area known as Samaria.  Not only was He intentional about passing through Samaria; He also put himself at a prime location for encountering Samaritans once He arrived there:  a well, where people would frequently come to draw water.  If we are to engage the Muslim immigrants that have come to our towns and neighborhoods, we must be intentional.  We must study them and learn where they are likely to congregate and be found.  Then we must intentionally put ourselves in close proximity to those areas and prayerfully wait upon the Lord to provide us opportunities to engage them with the love of Christ.  There are population segments around us with whom we rarely come in contact unless we make a point of doing so. 

Jesus was not only intentional, but He was engaging.  Jesus was interested in the woman as a person.  Most Samaritans hated Jews because of their superior attitude, and the feeling was mutual.  They would avoid touching one another and being exposed to each other.  Jesus however showed an interest in her, her family, her beliefs, her culture, and her hurts and needs.  He did not approach her with a superior attitude, but as a man desiring a drink.  We must show genuine interest in our Muslim neighbors if we are to gain their friendship and trust.  Just showing interest in someone as a person can open a huge door for the advancement of the gospel.  

Engaging people, even people from other parts of the world, is not that difficult.  People are people and they are the same in many ways no matter where they are from.  They experience emotions like we do.  They experience happiness and joy, sorrow and fear, loneliness and pain, and love.  If we will only take the first step of engaging our Muslim neighbors, we will find that there are many ways in which that we relate.  Jesus was engaging to the Samaritan woman, and we must be engaging with those we come in contact with as well.  

Jesus was intentional, engaging, and strategic in His encounter with the Samaritan woman.  These Samaritans needed to see Jesus and hear from Jesus to believe in Jesus.  This is exactly what occurred.  We must understand that a Samaritan would likely never have walked into a Jewish synagogue to hear the law, or even to hear Jesus for that matter, so Jesus came to Samaria Himself.  It is the same, for the most part, with our Muslim neighbors today.  People from other nations, tongues, and tribes may walk into our country and community, but they are not going to walk into our churches.  Jesus crossed the obvious cultural barriers to engage this woman, and we can cross those same barriers as well by giving of ourselves for them.  

One clear way that we can give of ourselves to show the love of Christ to Muslim immigrants is by opening up our homes to them.  It speaks volumes for a person from another nation, especially a Muslim nation, to be invited into an American home.  It speaks volumes for them to be ignored as well.  We had the privilege for two years, while we lived nearby a local college in Mississippi to befriend and share the gospel with Saudi Arabian and Yemeni students.  There was a Saudi Arabian student who came to America to attend college.  He brought a very special gift from his country to give to the first American family who showed him hospitality and invited him into their home.  After 2 years at the university, he was moving out of his dorm to return to Saudi.  A brand new Saudi student was moving in, as he was moving out.  Almost as if he had forgotten something, he turned around, fell down to the floor and began to look underneath his bed.  He pulled out from beneath the bed he had slept in for two years, the gift he had brought from his native country.  He handed it to the new student and said, “I brought this to give to the first American family who invited me into their home, but I never had the opportunity  to use it.  Here.  You have it.  Maybe someone will show you hospitality.”  One powerful way that we can give of ourselves for the good of our Muslim neighbors is by being very intentional about inviting them into our homes.   

In the words of Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  George Houssney wrote, “Hospitality is one of ht most enjoyable ministries I have done.  The beauty of it is that you can do it as a family.”  He goes on, “Hospitality should not be limited to international students.  There is a chance you will meet a Muslim in your neighborhood, recreation center, school, work, or in the park.  Remember that true love is taking a step toward someone.  Many Muslims living in the USA are seeking friendship from anyone who will offer it.  If we will simply be a friend to them, we may be able to introduce them to our friend Jesus.”  We simply need to be willing to open our doors and entertain strangers for the sake of the gospel.  We could find that some of these immigrants and refugees turn out to be angels in disguise.

Going

A third part of this strategy for reaching Muslim immigrants with the gospel is the most obvious:  going.  We must go to them with the gospel. Jesus set the example for us.  Jesus was always on the move.  What was He going from town to town doing?  We read in Mark 1:38-39, “He said to them, ‘Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.’ 39 And He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out the demons.”  Jesus’ ministry was characterized by going and preaching.

If we are going to be obedient to the Great Commission, we must go preach.  And if we are going to go preach, we must understand what preaching means.  Though there might be some differences in who comes to mind when we think of preaching, most of us all envision a church building, a platform, and a pulpit.  But what do we see in Scripture?  

The word preach, in its various forms, is used roughly 109 times in the English New Testament.  Almost every time, it either explicitly or implicitly points to preaching  the gospel message in the wilderness, in the streets, in the marketplace to the poor, the lost, and the hurting.  Only three or four times does it, without a doubt, refer to preaching or teaching in the context of the local church.  I am not implying that we do not need to preach and teach the Scriptures in the context of the local church.  However, based on what we see in the New Testament, if we take this definition of preaching, then we can assume that when Jesus went out to preach it looked quite different from what we think of when we think of preaching.  It likely looked more like men and women on the streets sharing the gospel with people who passed, getting to the gospel around a meal (or a well), or communicating the gospel after working a miracle.  

As we seek to engage the Muslim next door we must pray and give, but we must also go with the gospel.  We have to get to the Scriptures.  We must open up our Bibles with the Muslim immigrant.  Houssney wrote, “When we get into a discussion with a Muslim friend, we can pull out the Bible and read a relevant passage on that topic.  We should share the spiritual lessons God is teaching us, freely and often, opening the Bible to read the passage from which we learned each lesson.  This will not only open the Word of God to a Muslim in a non-threatening way, but it will also show him what it means to have a relationship with the living God.”  We must get to the gospel in our conversations.  Rolan Mueller wrote, “Our goal must always be to clearly communicate the gospel to the target culture.  In order to present clear messages, we must be clear ourselves about two issues:  our identity in Christ and our identity in the community.”  The beauty of making Christ, and His gospel, the goal of our conversations is that it keeps the focus where it needs to be.  Our goal is not to make them culturally like a westerner or politically like a conservative.  We run the risk of offending our Muslim neighbor when we fail to consider their culture and background as we try to make them become like one of us.  The goal is to make them like Christ!  In the words of Keith Swartley, “The only acceptable stumbling block can be Christ, not our cultural behavior.  Paul became like a Jew culturally to win the Jews and like a Greek culturally to win the Greeks.  Surely, we can do similarly for Muslims.”  While we can never compromise Scripture, we can let go of many of our own preferences in order to make the gospel known to those who do not yet understand.  Giving of ourselves to express for them the love of Christ, and our own love for them, will make the gospel less offensive.  A Muslim asked a friend of mine one time, “Do you love me because you want me to become a Christian?  Or do you want me to become a Christian because you love me?”  Our love makes all the difference.  

Sending

Finally, the fourth part of this strategy for reaching Muslim immigrants in small town America, is sending.  Jesus was always working towards sending.  In John 4, He saw beyond the Samaritan woman in front of Him.  He saw her as a catalyst to reach her family, friends, and community.  This is exactly what happened in John 4.  The whole Samaritan community came out and begged Jesus to stay with them.  As He traveled around Israel, those who heard His message and followed Him were invested in deeply by Him.  He taught them and trained them behind the scenes and eventually sent them out.  Mark 3:14 says, “And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach.”  We see Him do the same in Matthew 10:5-15.  

Jesus’ ministry did not stop with going to proclaim the gospel message.  It went beyond just going, to sending.  He set the example for 2 Timothy 2:2:  “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  He trained up laborers to send out into the harvest.  They went out, and God blessed their efforts, and multiplied His work through them.  We read in Mark 16:20, “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.”  Jesus was a reproducer.  He was a sender.   

Conclusion

If we are to be obedient to the Great Commission, we must pray for our Muslim neighbors.  As we pray, we must look for open doors to give of ourselves, our time, our talents, our treasures, and our hospitality so that we can go with, and proclaim, the truth of the gospel to them in love and grace.  We must intentionally, and often, get to the Scriptures with our Muslim friends pointing them to the hope that can be found in Jesus Christ alone.  However, we must go beyond going to them with the gospel message.  We must have, as our goal, sending back into the harvest those who believe.  We must make training up leaders and sending out leaders back into their people group and community, a priority.  

There has never been a better example of a missionary, preacher, disciple maker than Jesus Himself.  There is nowhere better for us to learn what it looks like to be a faithful witness than in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  How did He do it?  He prayed, He gave, He went with the gospel, and He sent others out to continue the process. I want to propose that an effective way to reach Muslim immigrants in our neighborhoods and towns is by praying fervently, giving generously, going intentionally, and sending strategically.