EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, John M. Klaassen, associate professor of global studies at Boyce College, discusses his new book, Engaging with Muslims, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: You spent time on the mission field in North Africa with Muslims. Describe your experience with Muslims and what you learned in your time there.
JK: We spent almost 20 years overseas working with Muslims and loving every aspect of what that was — developing friendships and relationships, and going deep with a lot of friends where we were able to share the gospel in a way that was meaningful and understandable. What we found when we went overseas is that the average Muslim is a friend; they’re family. And as you develop that relationship, you enter into their family and you become a part of who they are. And it’s an incredible experience to know and love and have friends that are Muslims.
CS: How are you reaching out to Muslims in your present context?
JK: We work through our church [Highview Baptist Church] to spend time with them, especially immigrants and refugees as they come into the country. Refugees, when they come into the country, are in desperate situations. They come with a suitcase or maybe two suitcases and nothing else. We help them set up apartments, we help them get food, we teach them how to go to the grocery store, and then we spend time teaching them English and working with their children in school. And through all of that we build relationships — they come over to our house and they eat with us, we go to their home and we eat with them, and we become family with them. As a result, we’re able to share the gospel, that Jesus loves them and he’s brought them here for a reason.
CS: How does that companionship reflect some of their cultural values of presence?
JK: Well, I write in my book the fact that we base our life in prayer for the people group that we’re reaching, but then you have to spend a lot of time with them. An adage that is often spoken is that Arabs like to feel your presence. As Americans, we like to talk about the fact that quality time is what matters. Well, in their world, it’s quantity time — so just spending time together. Sometimes it’s just phone calls, sometimes it’s just text messages, but it’s just time with one another. And by helping them and being in their home and sometimes — because we’re dealing with a lot of different languages, we don’t speak the language, we don’t understand, and you know the English is coming along slowly — just being together makes a huge difference in their lives because now you’re a part of their family and you really are able to share what’s most important to you.
CS: We’re witnessing the rise of militant Islam and many are examining Islam and its teachings maybe for the first time. What does your book say to those people and how does it help them journey through engaging with Islam?
JK: The rise of militant Islam is problematic all the way around — this is the reason that we have a lot of Muslim refugees coming into our countries. But the average Muslim isn’t like that, so what I try to emphasize in the book is the basics of Islam. When they’re doing Ramadan, why are they doing Ramadan and what does that mean? What does it mean to spend the month fasting when they do their prayers, what does it mean when they do their prayers, and what are some of the significances of that? It’s so important for us as Westerners to understand that militant Islam is a small section of Islam. Just a small population. The average Muslim isn’t militant; the average Muslim is just like you and me. They’re living their lives, they’re raising their kids, they’re trying to make a good living — they’re trying to make a good life for themselves and their family.
CS: How can Christians think biblically about their Muslim neighbors?
JK: I think the most important thing for Westerners to understand is that God is bringing them to our doorstep. There are places we cannot go in the world — it’s just too dangerous. But those folks are coming to us and we don’t need to fear that. I think sometimes we watch too much news, we read too many reports, and it breeds within us a spirit of fear. But God goes with us, he goes before us, and so we don’t fear our neighbor; we love our neighbor. When Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, he said to love the person who is different from you. And part of love isn’t just helping people but sharing what’s most important. I have found that when I love Muslims and they become my friends, I can share the gospel in meaningful ways.
CS: In your book, you have sections of “do’s and don’ts” with Muslim engagement. How have you seen some of those play out in your life?
JK: Those are really important, we want to be really careful with the don’ts. For example, for a man, you want to spend time with the husband and allow your wife to spend time with his wife. When you show that proper respect and distance, he is so much more receptive to you and your wife. It’s just amazing how that will open that door if you just show that proper respect. When you fix food for your friends that come and eat, just go to the halal butcher and get some chickens. There’s nothing simpler than that, but you go there and tell your friends, “I went to this butcher and I got the chicken.” Then they’re so much more comfortable in your home and so much happier. There are very simple things we can do culturally that take us deeper and create friendship.
CS: What is the key to success when engaging with Muslims?
JK: Success with Muslims isn’t like we typically identify success. I think it’s really important for us to add definition and to help people understand that success might initially be just being in relationship with a Muslim. Success is when we share our personal testimony and they listen to what we say. Success is when we sit down with our friend and we pray for them in Jesus’ name and then we go back to them and ask them about how God answered those prayers. Success is building relationships; it’s not a one-time event.
CS: What role do you hope the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam will play as the religion becomes more of a priority for our churches and in our culture?
JK: The Jenkins Center, I think, has a vital role to play here on Southern Seminary’s campus and really all over the United States and I believe the world. We want to train our ministers to engage Muslims so that they can train their church members to engage Muslims. One of the things that we need to understand is that it’s our church members that work with these folks every single day. They’re in their jobs; they’re in their neighborhoods; they bank where they bank; they shop where they shop; and we need to help to train our church members to do that. I think that’s one of the things that the Jenkins Center can do; it has experience, it has a knowledge base, it has a lot of things it can do to help train the church to reach their Muslim neighbors.
CS: I’ve been thankful to see so many resources published recently on Islam. What makes your book unique and what do you hope it accomplishes for the church today?
JK: What makes my book unique, I think, and what makes it important from my point of view is that it’s written for the average church member. I want the person in the pew to be able to pick this up and it’s a simple read. It doesn’t take a long time to read it, but hopefully it will give them the ideas and the understanding they need to engage that person next door, to engage that person that works with them. I wanted to produce something that was simple that anybody could grab ahold of and pull five or six things out of immediately to start working with their Muslim friend.