Occasional Paper

Understanding Muslims

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Prefatory Note

This Occasional Paper was produced by the Issue Group on this topic at the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization hosted by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in Pattaya, Thailand, September 29 to October 5, 2004


In 1978 the Glen Eyrie Report (Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 4) had probing questions to consider concerning missions to Muslims.  The health of missions to Muslims was not encouraging.  There was a sense that the Church had made many mistakes in taking the gospel to Muslims.  Why was the Christian world committing such limited resources to this vital work?  Why were Islam and Muslims so poorly understood?  Why were the methods used to communicate the gospel to Muslims so inappropriate and ineffective?  At that time there was little information available on how Muslims come to Christ, and how the faith responses of individual Muslims are best nurtured into worshipping fellowships, and then into larger movements.

In thirty years the world has changed greatly and so has gospel witness to Muslims.  On the one hand, there is an unprecedented response among many Muslims to the gospel.  On the other, the challenge of witnessing to Muslims has become increasingly pressing for the whole church and the challenge of reaching the Muslim world for Christ remains a vast one.

Evolving methodologies

All over the world, innovative forms of witnessing to and discipling Muslims are developing which are seeing greatly increased fruitfulness.  There are movements of Muslims to Christ numbering in the thousands, in diverse parts of the world, including regions which have been almost exclusively Islamic for centuries.

One key to the emerging harvest has been contextualization:  making the gospel at home in each distinct culture, rather than importing models of church and culture which were alien and imposed from outside.  There is also a greater understanding today than ever before of how Muslims turn to faith in Christ.  A further factor in this new fruitfulness is our growing understanding of the specific needs of Muslim background believers for care and discipleship after they accept Christ.

The impact of mass migration

As we survey the current vast surge of Muslim migrations across the world, the Body of Christ has entered an era, unprecedented in world history, where the majority of Christians and Christian congregations find themselves in communities which include Muslims.  Living as neighbours with Muslims has been the experience of Christians in the Middle East for centuries:  it is now the norm for the world church.  For Christians all over the world, Muslims are not only ‘over there’, confined to hard-to-reach people groups:  they are our near neighbours.  Thus understanding and relating to Muslims has become a pressing necessity for congregations from Stockholm to Sydney and from Seoul to Cape Town.

Growth in indigenous outreach to Muslims

Churches which lived long under Islamic law were conditioned not to evangelize Muslims, for to do so would threaten their tolerated status under the Shariah.  During the period of Western colonialism, when some of these restrictions were relaxed, those who undertook gospel witness to Muslims were often seen as outsiders to the cultures they were attempting to reach.  However, in recent decades many gospel communities have been developing in Muslim contexts, with their own indigenous leadership.  This is transforming the character of Christian mission to Muslims.

The Islamic Movement and Islamic Dawah

The Islamic Movement is a world-wide trend to revitalize the faith of Muslims and the strength of Islam.  One expression of this has been a movement towards greater Shariah adherence which can be observed in many Muslim nations.

The program of Islamic revival includes a vigorous commitment to dawah (Islamic proclamation) to non-Muslims.  The resources and effort going into this movement are considerable.  The numbers of converts to Islam is consequently rising, including thousands in what were formerly Christian lands.  This serves as a reminder that of all religions, Islam has been the one to effectively supplant Christianity in former Christian territories.  The movement of Christians into Islam, long familiar to churches living under Shariah conditions, is becoming a significant challenge for the whole church.

The Crisis of Islamism

Whilst the Islamic movement has been gaining momentum for decades, we are also entering into a period of disillusionment with its effects in Muslim societies.  Iran has been a case study of an Islamic revolution, ushered in with enthusiastic idealism, but which is now producing cynicism towards Islamist ideals among the next generation.  This is producing unprecedented opportunities for the gospel.  

Movements to Deeper Understanding

There is a climate of confusion about Islam.  As the public profile of Islam and Muslims is rising, there is a growing interest and openness in the church to know about Islam and to understand Muslims better.  This is awakening the desires of many Christians to develop relationships and share their faith with Muslims.   This provides many exciting opportunities for progress in reaching Muslims with the gospel.

New ways to overcome barriers

Many developments which took place in the twentieth century make it far easier for Muslims to hear the gospel than at any time in the past.  These include the impact of mass media, including radio, television and the internet; the massive movements of peoples in response to national disasters with international mobilization to support them; mass migrations out of Muslim lands; and widespread cultural and educational exchanges through the movement of students and workers around the world.


It is the right of every individual Muslim and every Muslim community to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The world-wide church cannot and must not put off the task of sharing the gospel with Muslims. The commitment which the love of Christ calls us to is to communicate our faith clearly and appropriately, in the context of genuine and life-giving relationships.  Whether it is the far-off unreached people group, or the Muslim family which lives just down the road:  all need to hear the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We call upon church leaders, intercessors, visionaries and ordinary Christians everywhere to place Muslim men or women, boys and girls, in the centre of their focus of their passion for the lost.

A New Heart in the West

As part of the post-modern trend, a cloud of confusion, suspicion and even aversion now inhibits mission in the Western world. This has brought a loss of confidence in the gospel.  Yet mission history is church history, forming the bedrock of Christian identity.   The church in the West needs to take confidence and find inspiration to re-affirm mission.  Its effectiveness in reaching Muslims for Christ will depend upon its willingness to take up the missionary calling of the whole church to the whole world.

A Stronger Heart for the non-Western World

The church in the non-Western world is already achieving successes in reaching Muslims with the gospel.  However, it needs to be challenged to make Muslim evangelism a higher priority.  It is time for renewed courage in the face of all the challenges that this great task will bring.


This is a time for the whole church to expect great things of the Holy Spirit in reaching Muslims for Christ.  We call the church to informed and intensive prayer for Muslims the world over, and to pray also for those who are being called by Christ to minister among Muslims.

We seek breakthroughs in the systems that are holding Muslims in spiritual bondage. We pray for the freedom of ordinary Muslims, many of whom want to follow Christ, but are held back through fear.  There are countless testimonies of Muslim men and women, boys and girls, coming to Christ through dreams and visions.  God is His own chief evangelist and the Holy Spirit does not need a visa or permit to work in Muslim lives.  The world-wide church needs to seek and receive the confidence to partner with the Holy Spirit in his never-ceasing work of reaching Muslims with the gospel.

We call upon the church to take the study of Islam seriously.  This should seek to explain the true nature of Islamic thought and history in all its diversity.  It will inform Christians about Islam and the diversity of Muslims, as well as the challenges of political and fundamentalist Islam.    The Christian gospel is about relationships:  mending, developing and enhancing relationships between people and God, and with others.    Without creating fear or hostility, the engagement with Islam must go beyond the academic to include ministry to Muslims.  Preparation for such ministry should be integrated into all levels of theological formation.


Key recommendations for reaching Muslims with the gospel relate to five areas:

  • Training (including theological education)
  • Mobilizing Christians, local churches and agencies for reaching Muslims
  • Contextualizing the gospel in Muslim cultures Overcoming barriers and threats to mission • Caring for Muslim Background Believers.

4.1  Training (including theological education)

We urge that all Christians in every local church and every training institution be motivated and equipped to understand Muslims and to minister among them. Training at the local church level should address the needs of both pastors and congregation members.  There should be a focus on:

  • overcome fear and prejudice towards Muslims,
  • motivating people to build positive relationships with Muslims, including information on how to live as neighbours with Muslims,
  • providing accurate information on Islam and the diversity of Muslims, and
  • how to welcome and care for Muslim background believers.

 Christian training institutions need to mainstream teaching about Islam and Muslims across all levels of learning.  Every seminary should offer some level of training on Islam.

 Practitioners, who devote themselves to witness among Muslims need specific, intentional training and on-going equipping throughout their ministry. We call upon denominations, mission agencies, theological institutions and local churches everywhere to provide for the training of people who specialize in outreach to Muslims.

We also call upon the church to invest research and development efforts in ways which support the whole church’s mission to Muslims.  There is an urgent need in training and research to focus on the needs of Muslim background believers and how best to care for them.

4.2 Mobilizing Christians, congregations and agencies for reaching Muslims

We call upon the world-wide church to mobilize people and resources in support of missions to Muslims.  This includes development and strengthening of networks, and raising up workers.  The foundation of this mobilization should be a call to prayer, leading to spiritual revival.

 Training (see above) is a vital component in mobilizing the church.  We call upon individuals and organizations with expertise to devote themselves to the task of motivating ordinary Christians in local congregations everywhere to engage in evangelism to Muslims, starting in their own community.  Muslim back-ground believers should lay a vital role in this.

It is vitally important that Christians maintain a presence as authentic Christ-like lives alongside Muslim neighbours, friends, colleagues and contacts.  Such a presence can assist to break down barriers and demonstrate the love of God for Muslims.  Therefore we encourage Christians everywhere, wherever possible to intentionally live out their faith alongside Muslims in neighbourhoods and workplaces, and not to retreat from contact with Muslims.

We believe that the Holy Spirit will continue to call people to go and minister among Muslims on a long-term basis.  Historically the church has overlooked or even ignored the challenge of taking the gospel to Muslims.  Even today only a small proportion of those involved in cross-cultural ministry are working with Muslims.  There is a great need for workers from all countries to be recruited and released by local churches everywhere for work amongst Muslims.

Mobilization requires the whole church to be attuned to possibilities for partnerships between agencies, and for creativity in cross-cultural outreach.

We urge the church to seek out, be aware of, and focus mission efforts upon neglected Muslim people groups (for example the Muslims of India).

We urge local pastors everywhere to use every opportunity to share testimonies of what God is doing to bring Muslims to faith in Christ.

4.3  Overcoming Barriers and Threats to Mission

Christ’s calling for his church to reach Muslims with the gospel meets many difficulties and obstacles.  The Islamic apostasy law remains a restriction upon the religious freedom of Muslims (this is discussed in the Issue Group report on the Persecuted Church LOP 32).  Today Muslims can proselytize freely among Christian populations, usually without fear of persecution, but Christians face many obstacles and even threats in taking the gospel to Muslims.  Many of those who work among Muslims are understandably cautious about publicizing their activities, given the risk of personal danger, or of their work being disrupted.

Another challenge to Christian outreach to Muslims is the international atmosphere of tension and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.  It is important that Christian witness include work which promotes peace and reconciliation at every level, as well as advocacy for those whose rights are threatened.

Missions work among Muslims should discern the body of Christ and wherever possible work through or alongside local national churches.

We recommend that

  • Christians co-operate wherever possible with Muslims in areas of community development, humanitarian issues and other areas of mutual concern.
  • Christians avoid the use of the language of control and aggression in dealing with Muslims, including such terms as ‘crusade’.
  • Christians everywhere advocate for and promote human rights of all oppressed peoples, including both Christians and Muslims.
  • The church inform itself concerning the geo-political issues which impact upon missions to Muslims and engage in the task of understanding the geo-political world view of Muslim communities. The church must also keep itself informed of the political situation in nations where Muslims are found, and take steps to understand the way that this impacts on existing Christian populations as well as on the practice of Christian mission to Muslims.

Christians should not abandon the public square when Muslims seek to occupy it.  We recommend that Christians pray for justice and peace, and take action with wisdom and courage in responding to persecution of the church which is created through the imposition of Shariah and the resulting status of dhimmitude (the repressed condition of non-Muslims who live under Shariah conditions.)

4.4  Caring for Muslim Background Believers

Effective care for believers in Christ who come from Muslim backgrounds is one of the greatest challenges in taking the gospel to Muslims.  It is a challenge for the whole church.  All new believers can face difficulties, but for those from Muslim backgrounds these can be especially critical.  Issues include the need to be welcomed into a Christian community, to grow in character and faith, and to deal with rejection from one’s former Muslim community.

Often local churches can be unaware of the intensity of the issues facing new believers from Muslim backgrounds and they may themselves reject new believers out of their lack of understanding, adding to the sense of isolation which they may already feel.

It is a specific calling to care for new believers from a Muslim background.   This is a calling which congregations and agencies should invite people into and support them in pursuing.   Whole congregations also need to embrace this calling whenever Muslims respond to the gospel and come to among them seeking a spiritual family to belong to.  The risk that local churches are not places of safety, love and nurture for new believers is all too real.  The local congregation should plan for and cherish contexts in which the Muslim background believer can grow.  The model of the family speaks powerfully into the Muslim context.  The church must be committed to long-term, painstaking and personcentred approach to caring for Muslim Background Believers.  The new believer in Christ needs family loved showered upon them. When they come to Christ, they need to come home.

4.5  Contextualization

We affirm the mandate to share in love the Good News with all people near and far, including Muslims, with a view to seeing culturally relevant expressions of the Body of Christ among all peoples.  Approaches to bringing the gospel to Muslims can take a wide variety of forms, ranging from a presentation in terms of an alien Christian culture, through to ‘insider movements’, where people commit to following Christ while still considering themselves to be culturally Muslims, and inside the community of Islam.  This diversity in degrees of contextualization of the gospel is an area of on-going discussion, debate and theological reflection.

The appropriateness of these diverse approaches must be considered in the light of the context in which they are pursued.  For example, evangelizing Muslims from an exclusively Islamic community is quite different from sharing the gospel within a tribal group which includes significant numbers of animists, Christians and Muslims in among its members.  In the first case to leave Islam may be tantamount to rejecting one’s whole culture and nationality.  In the second case, the change of religion may bring with it minimal cultural change and minimal loss of extended family connections.

There is a great diversity of approaches to reaching Muslims with the gospel around the world today.  The theological and missiological evaluation of this diversity of approaches is still in its early stages.

We do invite the church to learn about, investigate, understand and respond to these different approaches, and their successes and failures with wisdom, sensitivity and an openness to the word of God and the stirring of the Holy Spirit.

Certain key principles can guide the church’s efforts in contextualizing the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ:

  • Muslims are our neighbours, to be loved and honoured as such.
  • There is grace and freedom in Christ: cultural legalism has no place in developing authentic expressions of life in Christ among believers from a Muslim background.
  • We should avoid putting cultural obstacles in the way of people who are coming to Christ.
  • We encourage gracious dialogue and interaction, study and prayer among those who are exploring new models of ministry.
  • We encourage ongoing research, Biblical reflection and study of emerging new movements which are presenting a contextualized gospel to Muslims.
  • There is a diversity of Muslim cultural contexts, and there is a variety of ways God is working among and through them.
  • We encourage further research on Muslim peoples worldwide so as to increase our understanding, and to facilitate more effective and sensitive communication among them.
  • We encourage the development of training programs to help Christians to understand their Muslim neighbours better, and to minister among them with sensitivity.
  • It is essential to discern and affirm the Body of Christ and its unity across many and diverse expressions.


Muslims are found in all parts of the world, and the needs and concerns relating to evangelizing them varies from place to place and from region to region.  The Issue Group considered specific needs of the following regional groupings:

  • South East Asia
  • South Asia
  • Sub-Sahara Africa
  • Western Nations (the lands of immigration)
  • The Middle East and North Africa
  • A sixth group — Central Asia — was envisaged, but there were not sufficient representatives from this region to constitute a group.

Many concerns of regions reflected themes which have been outlined already.  Here is given only a brief summary of distinctives which emerged for each region.  Where the regional concerns closely matched the issues dealt with above they are given in less detail.

The call to prayer was a repeated theme in every part of the world, especially to raise up people for gospel ministry among Muslims.

5.1  South East Asia

The two key issues of concern which emerged for South East Asia were mobilizing the church, with an emphasis on raising up workers and the nurture of believers from Muslim backgrounds. 

5.2  South Asia

Priorities for South Asia centred in encouraging contextualized approaches to gospel ministry among Muslims, mobilizing workers for this task and facilitating the support of existing Christian churches.  Despite the vast amount of Christian work going on in India, only a few hundred workers are focusing on the two hundred million Muslims of that nation.

5.3  The Middle East and North Africa

For Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, persecution is a major issue.  This is, for example, one of the factors which can inhibit the church from welcoming believers who have left Islam.  The whole church is called upon to advocate for their brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Middle East and North Africa.

Associated problems are a sense of isolation from the world-wide church, disunity between denominations and the migration of believers out of the region.  Here, as in Sub-Sahara Africa, the economic problems faced by Muslim background believers are of concern.  Another issue is the impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict on interfaith relations.

5.4  Sub-Sahara Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, conflict along Christian-Muslim lines looms as an issue in several nations (e.g. Congo, Nigeria, and Kenya).  The rise of Islamism (Islamic Fundamentalism) is keenly felt in its impact on the political domain, with rising pressures for Sarah implementation.  Positive interfaith relations and actions to promote constructive socio-political action are called for.

There is an urgent need for training and mobilization, but a lack of available resources to do it with.  Africans are also calling for deeper theological reflection on the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and on best practice in missions.

Finally, poverty is a factor in the conversion of some to Islam and believers from a Muslim background often suffer financial difficulties.

5.5  The West / North (the lands of immigration)

This grouping includes a wide variety of nations:  Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.  The nations of South America face similar issues.  What all these regions have in common is that they have significant Muslim minorities due to recent immigration.

In the West there is a need to overcome confusion, ignorance and fear about Muslims and Islam.  We call upon local churches to mobilize to reach out to their Muslim neighbours with the message of the gospel.  There is a need in the West for theological reflection on the role of public governance and policy and the impact this is having on evangelism, whilst secular Western societies, formerly predominately Christian, are being transformed into multi-cultural, multi-faith communities.


Never before in the history of Islam have so many Muslims in so many different contexts been so open to responding to the gospel.  Never before has there been a world-wide movement focusing on reaching Muslims for the gospel.  Just a few decades ago what is happening now would have seemed impossible.  These are harvest times.  This emerging harvest is no ordinary one:  it takes skill, commitment and sustained care to bring it into God’s storehouses.

We call upon congregations, church leaders and individual Christians everywhere to reject indifference to God’s heart for Muslims.  We call upon the church to combat and overcome all forms of indifference, fear, or spiritual intimidation which inhibits mission to Muslims.  Be bold and sacrificial in setting people aside for ministry to Muslims, in training them, and in releasing and supporting them into the harvest.

Christians need training to develop Christ-like attitudes towards Muslims, dealing with and overcoming prejudices, anger, bitterness, hatred and fear.  The church in majority Muslim situations, suffering discrimination and persecution, should be encouraged to include and emphasize the theology of the cross in spiritual formation and take heart in pursuing its mission.  This effort needs and deserves the solid support of the rest of the world-wide church, using every means available to it.  We must also make conscious efforts to equip the church to help Muslim neighbours who want to follow Jesus, to integrate and be comfortable in the body of Christ.

In the current climate of uncertainty, tension and fear, we are resolved to send a message of hope and encouragement to the Church. There are new opportunities of openness to the gospel across the Muslim world.

Many emerging leaders in mission to Muslims were once followers of Islam, but are now passionate followers of Jesus.  In country after country, Muslims who have come to Christ are forming vital and growing faith communities.  These communities are living witnesses to the transforming power of the gospel.  This is already a season of harvest, but the great work lies before us.