This is an article from the September - October 2003 issue: Muslims, Missions, and the Media

Evangelicals, Stereotypes, and Diversities

Evangelicals, Stereotypes, and Diversities

The cover story by David Van Biema, entitled “Should Christians Convert Mus­lims?”, in the TIME magazine issue of June 30, 2003 turned out to be far more balanced than many of us had feared.  Originally we received copies of an internal memo (sent to TIME reporters researching the article) that indicated a very negatively-biased attitude toward missionary work by Evangelicals.  Upon learning that the internal memo had circulated widely in the missionary community and discovering, as a result, that many missionaries were refusing to give out information, Van Biema circulated another memo that promised the greater balance the final article demonstrates. 

On the positive side, the article, for the most part, does not stereotype Evangelicals.  It indicates that they express a broad range of methods and attitudes concerning Muslims, and that some show exquisite sensitiv­ity.  It uses pseudonyms and omits many locations to protect those in or returning to Muslim lands.  Van Biema and his team of reporters note the missionary motivation of love and that claims that their deeds of charity are merely a “cover” for proselytizing do a disservice to them.  They rightly note that some of the unwise actions on the part of missionaries should be attributed to “short-termers” or to those sent without proper training by nondenomina­tional churches. 

TIME did some good background work.  For example, they correctly note the thrust toward “unreached people groups” resulting from Ralph Winter’s Lausanne presentation in 1974 and the focus on the “10-40 Window” coming from Luis Bush since 1989.  It points out the dan­gers of retaliation and even death to evangelists, but especially to converts from Islam, and the negative reper­cussions on pre-existing churches and aid groups.  TIME likewise notes the ethical issues that laws against proselytizing raise for those who feel called to witness in these contexts. 

Despite a better grasp of the vari­eties of Evangelicals and their history than is commonly reflected in the secular press, it is in these areas that the article’s major weaknesses are to be found.  First, it sometimes falls into the trap of associating the movements the authors considered sensitive to Islam with Mainline denominations and those they considered insensitive with Evangelicalism.  The article does not adequately portray the overlap between “Mainline” Protestants and “Evangelicals”.  Such Evangelical networks as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lausanne Com­mittee for World Evangelization, and AD 2000 and Beyond include many Mainline churches and individuals, e.g., Presbyterians and Anglicans/Episcopalians.  These Evangelicals are in denominations that are part of the World Council of Churches and that have influenced the World Council’s statements on world religions (including Islam) to include evangelism as well as the social gospel. 

Second, along this same line, TIME emphasizes Mainline Protestants’ and Roman Catholics’ focus on a social gospel that has stressed aiding the poor over preaching the gospel, contrasted with Evangelicals’ focus on evangelism.  However, they fail to note the holism of word and deed expressed in the Lausanne Covenant (a major statement of Evangelical principles), though they do mention the relief and development ministries of some Evangelical groups.
Third, the article does not reflect the ecumenical concerns of many Evangelicals.  It is true that many Evangelicals tend to ignore or scorn the indigenous churches of the Middle East, but other Evangelicals (such as groups like Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding) focus on under­standing and cooperation with the ancient churches.  Many in the secular press do not fully grasp the diversity and historical developments within Evangelicalism.  The breadth of the movement is one factor that has led both to internal tension and external misunderstanding. 

Fourth, although the article un­derstandably focuses on Christian ef­forts to convert Muslims, it does not mention the simultaneous attempts of Muslims to convert Christians.  Hence any onus that may be inferred is only on Christians.  In reality, both are missionary religions with a message for all people (Qur’an 25:1; 38:87; 3:20: John 3:16).  Both faiths claim the final messenger (Qur’an 33:45; Heb. 1:1-2).  Both groups are called to be witnesses (Qur’an 2:143; Mt. 28:19-20).  Both scriptures make exclusive claims for their mes­sage (Qur’an 3:85; John. 14:6; Acts 4:12).  Yet both are called to witness in a gracious manner (Qur’an 16:125; 29:46; 1 Peter 3:15). 

Finally, the article raises important issues for Evangelicals, such as the appropriate form of Christian witness at the present time in Muslim areas like Iraq.  Jesus certainly showed the importance of timing when he healed a leper and then said: “Tell no one” (Mt. 8:3-4).  Factors suggest caution in verbal witness in the current situa­tion in Iraq, where verbal witness can be seen as opportunistic and where American motives are mistrusted.  But ultimately witness includes both deed (Mt. 25:31-46) and word (1 Pet. 3:15).  We also should note that the Church has been resident in Iraq for years – including the Evangeli­cal (Presbyterian) Church as well as the ancient churches – and therefore whatever is done now by expatriates would be best done in consultation and cooperation with them.


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