Experiencing Dialogue

David Shenk 02 Mar 2010

A response to Chawkat Moucarry’s ‘A Plea for Dialogue

Commending Jesus Christ is my yearning in the many opportunities for dialogue that I experience. “A Lifelong Journey with Islam” is just that kind of winsome defence for a dialogical engagement with Muslims that commends Christ. That I affirm. So rather than reiterate the themes Moucarry has developed, this response will be a reflection on some four decades of personal dialogical engagement with Muslims. My lively engagement with Muslims commenced in the early 1960s when our family joined a mission team in Somalia, which was 100 percent Sunni Muslim. We realized the calling to bear witness among Muslims would involve long-term immersion within Muslim society with a lively Christ-centred dialogical engagement. 

Presence and Dialogue in a Restrictive Context: Somalia

Our mission had already been in Somalia for a decade when we arrived. The excellent schools and medical programs the mission had developed earned trust and appreciation. Then the first Somalis became believers. Their exuberant but insensitive efforts to share the treasure of the gospel brought strong repercussions. One of the mission team was killed by a self-appointed jihadist, the mission was closed for three months, and the religious freedom that the constitution of newly independent Somalia guaranteed was changed to make it illegal to propagate any religion except the “true religion of Islam.” The department of education assigned faculty to teach Islam in each of our schools. While we were considered honoured guests, we were greatly restricted.

Yet the Holy Spirit was not bound, and “Nicodemus” persons sought us out inquiring about the gospel. Although public dialogue was impossible, our servant ministry “was a letter from Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3) read by much of the Somali nation. We were a dialogical presence. God was very important for Somali Muslims; occasionally we sat in the tea shops in the evenings with friends; inevitably the conversation became an informal dialogue. Some of those engagements I will never forget, especially explorations of the nature of the peace of Islam in comparison to the peace of the gospel! Our Muslim colleagues had never before had the opportunity to engage Christians about their faith. Remarkably the Holy Spirit called forth unobtrusive fellowships of believers in the locations where we as well as a sister Protestant mission served.

Then a Marxist coup overturned the democratically elected government of Somalia. Before long all Westerners had to leave. It was the Marxist, not the Muslim authorities who required our mission to leave.

Presence and Dialogue in an Open and Pluralist Context: Kenya

Our family moved to Kenya, which borders Somalia to the south. Kenya is predominantly Christian, so we settled into the Somali-Muslim area of the city of Nairobi. We rented and moved into an entire apartment complex (five apartments) across the street from the Sufi Muslim mosque. The apartments became the homes for a multi-ethnic Christian community. Members of our community cultivated lively dialogical engagement with the Muslim Sufi congregation on our block.

The dialogue touched the whole community. We developed a reading room and on Saturday nights would often have events with the youth focusing on areas of interest such as wholesome sexuality. The leaders of the mosque occasionally joined us for an evening meal where we would explore core matters of convergence and divergence between Islam and the gospel. These were exceedingly candid engagements. And the Holy Spirit called into faith a fellowship of Muslim background believers, a fellowship that has experienced enormous transitions over the years, but that, nevertheless, still continues three decades later. The respectful dialogue and collegiality between the mosque and our centre were vital to providing space for the emergence of a fellowship of believers.

Over time we purchased land bordering the apartment complex in order to expand and become a multi-ministry community centre that touches thousands of people. Known as The Eastleigh Fellowship Centre, this centre is another of those “letters from Christ” that is recognized with appreciation. The nomadic ethos of Somalis means that participants in the centre’s programs are often transient, but a consequence is that thousands of Somalis throughout the Horn of Africa have in one way or another been served by the presence of this centre. It is a dialogical presence within a significant crossroads for Muslims of North East Africa. There is one especially designated room in the centre just for dialogue!

A Dialogical Bible Study

Convergent with this ministry of a witnessing presence was the development of a Bible study course for Muslims that is known as the People of God. Working with a team of Muslim background believers in Somalia, we had begun developing this course before we moved to Kenya. Now in Nairobi a notable team of eight joined hands to develop a dialogical course that was authentically biblical and truly contextual to the Muslim worldview. We invested four years in this effort. We would take the draft lessons into Muslim communities and ask their response and then revise as we heard their perplexities. The bottom line was the conviction that the gospel is good news for Muslims and that the Holy Spirit has been at work among Muslims for a long time preparing them to hear and believe that good news.

This includes some statements in the Qur’an that are signs of the gospel. That was a challenge, for, as Moucarry says, we must not distort the Qur’an by making it say something that is not faithful to its intention. For example, Jesus as Messiah in the Qur’an may open the door for dialogue. However the meaning of Messiah in the Qur’an is quite different from the biblical meaning of Messiah. So our stance was not to distort the Qur’an, but to use these hints of the gospel within the Qur’an, such as Jesus being the Messiah, as an open door for inviting Muslims to search the gospel in order to understand the biblical meaning of Jesus as Messiah.

We even sought counsel from a polemical Muslim theologian who preached on our street. He and his disciples occasionally participated in dialogical engagements with us, often over a meal. He was put off by the chapter on the Fall of Adam and Eve. So he agreed to help me write this lesson in ways that Muslims could understand what we were communicating. He concluded saying, ’Although I totally disagree with the theology, I can now hear what you are saying.’ Seeking advice from this potential antagonist was important in trust-building with the Muslim community. We did nothing secretly.

This approach has been fruitful beyond our expectations. The four-course series is now in some 45 languages, and to our knowledge wherever it is used it has been well received by Muslims. Around the world we hear reports of many who have come to faith in Christ. This is a contextual dialogue that has caught the appreciative attention of thousands.

Peace-Building Dialogue

In a quite different approach, a Muslim professor colleague of mine at the Kenyatta University College in Nairobi joined hands with me in writing A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. He is Professor Badru Kateregga, a Sunni Muslim from Uganda. In the first twelve chapters he shares his faith winsomely with me, a Christian. I respond to each chapter. Then in the second half I present the Christian faith and he responds to each chapter. The book is confessional, rather than an apologetic that seeks to score points. We have both been astonished at the receptivity of this book by both Muslims and Christians.

In some places such as Indonesia Muslims and Christians have joined hands to jointly publish and distribute this book, in order to build bridges of understanding. I do not mean agreement, but respectful understanding. I was in Indonesia for the official launching of the book, which included the Hizbullah. This movement has historically been militantly opposed to disciples of the Messiah. So a small team of visionary Christian leaders has been working at bridge-building, and in that spirit we were invited to introduce the Dialogue to Hizbullah officers. We were sat in a circle as the Hizbullah shared their mission—to fight to defend Islam. Then a pastor handed the commander a copy of this Dialogue. As he paged through the book, he began to weep. Then he said, ’I am weeping for this book shows another way. Instead of fighting to defend faith, share faith respectfully. This approach can transform Indonesia.’ Then he ordered 50 copies of the book for all his officers.

The lead pastor in this peace-making effort told me that this transformation could only happen through drinking lots of cups of tea together, undergirded by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

Dialogue as Bearing Witness

My life motto as I engage in dialogue with Muslims is the same that Moucarry has highlighted (1 Peter 3:15): Be clear in my confession of faith—Jesus is Lord. Give account of this reality to all who ask. Bear witness with gentleness and respect.

After a marathon three-hour dialogue to a packed-out audience in the Central London Mosque, my Muslim dialogue companion said, “David, you have confessed the gospel with clarity. We all listened with complete attention. The reason is that you love and respect us.” I am amazed how the doors open for lively dialogical witness when we embrace those three principles: commitment to Christ, bearing faithful witness, respect our Muslim friends.

Take note, 1 Peter 3:15 calls us to move beyond respect into a lively commitment to bearing witness to the gospel. For that reason I have written a sequel to the Kateregga-Shenk Dialogue. This book is Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, Exploring the Mission of Two Communities. Journeys is written to help equip Christians to engage Muslims both gently and boldly as we respond to their questions and even objections to the gospel. After all, we cannot be careless theologians when Muslims press their questions and voice their objections.

’A Christian Became My Friend’

In Sarajevo several years ago I asked a half dozen former Bosnian Muslims, “Why have you become believers in and followers of Jesus the Messiah?”

A woman responded with tears caressing her cheeks, ’I became a Christian because a Christian became my friend.’

Let us ponder this Bosnian woman’s tears of gratitude.

David W. Shenk serves as a consultant with Eastern Mennonite Missions.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)