Of ‘Jesus mosques’ and Muslim Christians
Are mosques for Muslim believers in Christ a form of syncretism, or is God doing something we need to take off our cultural blinders to see?
They leave their shoes at the door, and ritually wash their hands, feet and heads. They kneel on mats in unison and bow their heads to the ground. They recite chants in Arabic, pray five times a day, and worship on Friday, not Sunday.
These Muslims look and sound like other Muslims the world over. Except they worship the God of the Bible, believe Jesus is the Messiah and only source of salvation, and follow Him. When they pray, they face Jerusalem, not Mecca.
Missionaries Alejandro and Bertha Ortiz, searching for ways to spread the gospel among Muslims in Benin, felt led by the Lord to start such a place of worship (see “A different kind of mosque” on pages 14Ü15). It has helped them reach into the Muslim community. They believe it will help new believers in Christ—who feel out of place in traditional Christian churches—grow in their faith, and pass it on in their Muslim culture without being summarily rejected and cast out of their community.
The Ortizes’ fledgling house of worship is not the only such place in the Muslim world. “Jesus mosques,” as they sometimes are called, also can be found in the Middle East and Asia. In one Muslim nation, more than 100,000 Muslims reportedly worship Jesus as Messiah in 100-plus mosques. Some “Jesus mosques” start from scratch, like the Ortizes’ initiative. Others are traditional mosques transformed by Muslims who embrace Jesus as Lord. In still other cases, individual followers of Christ remain in typical mosques, quietly worshiping God as they seek to be “salt and light” among Muslims.
The “Jesus mosque” phenomenon is creating excitement in mission circles, but it has plenty of detractors.
“It is syncretism,” charges Warren Chastain of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies. “The motivation is good, but the price you pay is too high. You’re making Muhammad another of the religious authorities—someone besides Jesus and the apostles setting up your practice and theology for the church.”
Chastain began churches among Muslims in Indonesia as a missionary. He has no problem with “contextualizing” the gospel—removing the cultural trappings missionaries bring with them and communicating Christ in ways that are understandable in the listeners’ culture. The Apostle Paul used the Greeks’ own monument to an unknown God to preach Christ to them. Paul spoke of becoming a Jew to the Jews, a Gentile to the Gentiles, “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
So why not “become a Muslim to the Muslims”?
“Because Paul didn’t compromise with any of the pagan deities or false religions, whether Jewish or Greek,” Chastain answers. “You don’t find Paul starting a Jesus- Diana temple or a Jesus-Apollo temple.”
Muslim forms cannot be divorced from their meanings, he contends. A “Christian mosque” is neither fish nor fowl. It confuses converts and outrages Islamic leaders, who see it as a deceptive lure for ignorant Muslims. Other Muslims may see it as an admission of defeat, a sign that Christians are adopting their “superior” form of worship. Westernized, urban Muslims may just laugh at the idea, since many of them no longer practice the traditions of their own religion.
Followers of Jesus
Yet a rapidly growing number of Jews are worshiping Jesus (“Yeshua”) as Lord in Messianic congregations—many of them in Israel itself—and boldly sharing their faith in Him with other Jews.
They don’t call themselves “Christians,” a word the Romans first coined as a contemptuous term for the early church, a word loaded with the memory of centuries of hatred and persecution for Jews. But these believers follow Jesus the Messiah. Could worshipers in “Jesus mosques” be doing the same?
“There was something special happening in Cotonou,” IMB writer Mark Kelly says of what he witnessed in Benin. Muslims who go to the house of worship begun by the Ortizes hear that the Jesus they consider a prophet is in truth “the Messiah, that He died to pay for your sins, rose from the dead, and only through Him can you have a relationship with God and hope for eternity.”
Missionaries must cope with the danger of creeping syncretism and other heresies in every culture they enter. How to preach the simple gospel—undefiled by the missionary’s own culture or the one he enters —is a continuing challenge.
“Have we erected a wall rather than God?” asks Avery Willis, IMB senior vice president. “Does the look of a building make a difference? Does how you kneel make a difference, or that you pray five times a day, if you transfer that into a Christian context? We need to struggle with that. God is doing a work in the people of other religions; a lot is going on in Islam. When we get past the gatekeepers and among the people, they respond to Jesus. If Jesus is Lord, that’s what it’s all about.”
Reprinted from the August 1997 - COMISSION