Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community


Jim Leffel


This paper seeks to unite sending churches, mission organizations and field teams on the nature and extent of contextualization among Muslims. We believe that the strongly held consensus of these three parties is essential to long-term effectiveness. We consider models of contextualization as it relates to Islam, critical problems with these models, and strategic application of the model we advocate.

The Central Problem of Contextualization

Missiologist Darrell Whiteman defines contextualization as a process that involves,

"[A]ttempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people's deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture."1

Contextualization, then, seeks an effective, long-term Christian witness in a culture foreign to the communicator. This definition rightly presumes that the gospel is a transcultural message capable of being authentically embodied in the wide embrace of human societies. This principle is implicit in Jesus' teaching (John 4), directed the leading of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8) and became axiomatic for first century Christian missionaries (1 Corinthians 9). In taking the Gospel beyond Palestinian Judaism, evangelists to the Gentiles clearly separated cultural Jewish wineskins from the wine of the Gospel. Reaction from Judaizers was both swift and predictable, but God's wisdom prevailed and the Apostles affirmed that salvation is independent of conversion to Judaism. The scriptural question, then, is not "if," but "where" and "how" contextualization should shape the missionary enterprise.

The present concern is to consider how theological principles might provide some direction for how and where contextualization techniques might be used in evangelism and church planting among Muslims. To do this, we must address a problem that is implicit in Whiteman's definition. He states that contextualization means, "allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture." While he appropriately distinguishes the Gospel from culture and non-Christian world view, the vast majority of people in the world regard personal identity and culture to be fundamentally inseparable from religious tradition and belief. In their understanding, conversion to Christianity, by definition, implies abandoning one's native culture in exchange for another.2 Put simply, the dilemma is this: how can a fellowship of biblical believers grow and witness for Jesus, yet remain authentic, active members of their overtly non-Christian culture? The relative failure of Christian outreach to Hindus and Muslims illustrates this dilemma and reinforces contextualization as a strategic imperative.

Models of Contextualization

We begin by describing six contextualization models.3 After a brief summary of C1-C3 and C6 models, we will focus attention on the C4 and C5 models, considering theological issues relating to them, and how they might be incorporated into a church planting strategy in the present Muslim context.

Model Description
C1 Model: Traditional church using non-indigenous language. Christian churches in Muslim countries that exist as islands, removed from the culture. Christians exist as an ethnic/religious minority.
C2 Model: Traditional church using indigenous language. Church uses indigenous language, but in all its cultural forms is far removed from the broader Islamic culture.
C3 Model: Contextualized Christ-centered communities using Muslim’s language and non-religiously indigenous cultural forms Style of worship, dress, etc. are loosely from the indigenous culture. Local rituals and traditions, if used, are purged of religious elements. May meet in a church or more religiously neutral location. Majority of congregation is of Muslim background and call themselves Christians.
C4 Model: Contextualized Christ-centered communities using Muslim’s language and biblically permissible cultural and Islamic forms. Similar to C3 except believers worship looks like Muslim worship, they keep the fast, avoid pork and alcohol, use Islamic terms and dress. Community is almost entirely of Muslim background. Though highly contextualized, believers are not seen as Muslims by the Muslim community. Believers call themselves "followers of Isa Al-Misah," Jesus the Messiah.
C5 Model: Christ-centered communities of "Messianic Muslims" who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Believers remain legally and socially within Islamic community. Aspects of Islam incompatible with the Bible are rejected or if possible, reinterpreted. Believers may remain active in the mosque. Unsaved Muslims may view C5 believers as deviant and may expel them from the Islamic community. If sufficient numbers permit, a C5 "Messianic mosque" may be established.
C6 Model: Small Christ-centered communities of secret/underground believers Isolated by extreme hostility, usually individual believers but sometimes in small groups. Believers typically do not attempt to share their faith, others suffer imprisonment or martyrdom.

C1 and C2 models represent little accommodation to Muslim culture, other than the C2 use of indigenous language. These models import much of traditional Western culture into the Muslim context, including Western-style buildings, denominational affiliation, and worship. While we must respect the courage of the few Muslim converts to these churches, we consider the models inadequate for two reasons. First, imposing unnecessary cultural forms to the non-Western context inhibits long term efforts to found a truly indigenous people movement from taking root. The church will always be seen as a cultural outsider. Second, the distance from Islamic culture to these churches is an unbiblical constraint on conversion and Christian discipleship. In effect, it erects extra-biblical cultural roadblocks to the Gospel.

C3 contextualization accommodates non-religious aspects of the indigenous culture. At the same time, there is a conscious attempt to break from all visible elements of Islam - such as observing Ramadan, dietary laws, association with the mosque and so forth. This moderately contextualized model assumes that Islamic cultural forms can not be purged of their religious meaning, and should be abandoned to avoid fostering syncretism. C3 is a form of contextualization that most Westerners are comfortable supporting because it sharply contrasts Islam and Christianity. Conversion means parting from Islamic identity and coming into a new one. However, the problem is that to the eyes of the Muslim world, there is little real difference between C3 and C2, with the consequence that C3 amounts to an "extraction" strategy. In some contexts C3 strategy may directly subvert the goal of birthing an indigenous people movement because,

"[e]ach convert extracted from his own cultural situation reinforces in the minds of Hindus and Muslims the misunderstanding that Christians are opposed to their cultural traditions. In this sense, one could defend the thesis that each convert won from these faiths at present actually represents a setback to winning large numbers from these communities."4

C6 is more of a survival strategy than a contextualization model. These believers are forced to choose between rejection from the community or martyrdom and complete anonymity. While it may be best in the short term for a convert to remain in a C6 position, it is certainly no long term plan. Building an indigenous church or igniting an indigenous people movement is virtually impossible under these conditions. This strategy may be necessary in some countries where conversion to biblical faith is illegal and an underground church is still in the making.

Basic Elements of C5 Contextualization

Because C3 contextualization in the Muslim context has been only marginally successful, missionaries have been experimenting with "injection"5 forms of contextualization, and examining the scripture with these concerns in mind. In this section, we will discuss C4 and C5 models, assessing the theological assumptions they make and their possible application to long term church planting strategy.

C4/5 contextualization is not merely a quantitative step down the C3 continuum. The qualitative leap from C3 to C4/5 models involves incorporating traditional Islamic religious forms into biblical faith and Christian community. However, significant qualitative differences also exist between C4 and C5 models. For this reason, and because C5 is really at the heart of the current controversy in Muslim missions,6 we will focus our attention on the strategic and biblical case for C5 contextualization.

C5 communities are, by all accounts, experimental and of rather recent origin. The paucity of information about these works makes assessment difficult, but there is at least one study that has generated some helpful discussion.7 A C5 community was formed in Muslim Central Asia in1983. Converts from Islam are encouraged to express their new faith almost completely within the Muslim social and religious fold. They do not view themselves as Christians, since in context, that refers to traitors against the community, Western materialism and other counterproductive baggage. Converts are encouraged to see themselves as "Muslim followers of Isa," or "completed Muslims," or "messianic Muslims."

These believers usually attend the mosque, commonly pray traditional Muslim prayers, fast, and do all the things their Islamic neighbors do. Yet there are two key differences between Muslims and Muslim followers of Isa. First, some Islamic teaching is reinterpreted along biblical lines, while some Islamic doctrines are rejected completely. Second, a community of biblical believers meet regularly for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. This provides a venue for Bible teaching and instruction, discipleship, and community building.

The C5 work in Central Asia appears to be an example of successful contextualization. Convert estimates vary by a factor of 10 (from 4,500 to 45,000), but even on the conservative end, it is a startling accomplishment. Clearly, this community shows that something has taken hold among one of the most unevangelized, spiritually hostile people groups in the world. As a method of infiltrating this heavily resistant field, the C5 model seems to hold promise. It avoids the problem of converts being rejected by their families and communities, keeping them both safe (at least so far) and able to carry on an evangelistic witness.

To assess this work and its value as a potential model in other Muslim contexts, we need to consider not only the impressive number of converts, but also the content of their belief. Are these Muslim followers of Isa genuine believers in the biblical sense, or are they syncretists not unlike the substantial number of Christo-pagans of Latin and South America? A survey was conducted in 1995 of 72 key indigenous influence people converted through this C5 ministry. While their responses may not be representative of what many or most of the other members of the C5 community believe, it does indicate what, through a process of discipleship, this form of contextualization can accomplish.8

The good news is... The bad news is...
  • 76% meet once per week in biblical worship
  • 16% meet more than once per week for worship
  • 50% continue to attend mosque on Friday
  • 31% attend mosque more than once per day, uttering standard Islamic prayers affirming Muhammad as God's prophet
  • 66% read or listen to the Gospels daily
  • 21% read or listen to the Gospels weekly
  • None study the Koran since they do not know Arabic
  • 96% say there are 4 heavenly books (standard Muslim belief)
  • 66% say the Koran is the greatest of the 4
  • 55% say God is Father, Son, and Spirit
  • 97% say Jesus is the only way of salvation
  • 93% say Allah loves and forgives because Jesus gave His life for me
  • 100% say people can be saved from evil spirits by faith in Jesus
  • 97% say Mohammed's prayers do not save them
  • 45% do not affirm God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • 45% feel peace or close to Allah when listening to the reading of the Koran (even though they do not know Arabic)

What should we make of this report? A number of things need to be carefully considered. It seems that key essentials for salvation are present: "Jesus gave his life for me" and "Jesus is the only way of salvation." This is fantastic! Yet, the questions are somewhat ambiguous. What does "Jesus gave his life for me" mean? There is no survey data on belief in Jesus' crucifixion and bodily resurrection, necessary for biblical saving faith (1 Cor. 1:23; Rom. 10:9). In light of the Muslim rejection of the doctrine of Christ's crucifixion and bodily resurrection, this would be vital information to have in formulating our conclusions. The high regard for the Koran, repetition of Koranic verses, and rejection of the trinity are also problematic. After 12 years we still see crucial aspects of syncretism and this, apparently, among the crucial players in the C5 movement.

Perhaps, as some observers have commented, C5 strategy is a good starting point for Muslim evangelism, a necessary means to get a foothold in the culture. The question is whether or not establishing a biblically orthodox community will require shifting strategy to the C4 model. Some C5 advocates argue that orthodoxy can be established in their model and that if we allow more time, it will likely occur. More importantly, these advocates argue that shifting to a C4 or some other model betrays important biblical principles. For them, C5 strategy is a natural extension of the biblical process of the Gospel moving from a Jewish to Gentile culture. The assumption at the heart of the C5 position is that true Islam or moderately adapted Islam is compatible with biblical faith. Let's consider the biblical argument for C5 contextualization.

Biblical Case for C5 Contextualization

The key text C5 advocates appeal to is 1 Corinthians 7:17-24:

"Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called."

Verses 17, 20 and 24 are key. The principle three times repeated is "let each man remain in that condition in which he was called"-relating to marriage status, slavery, and being Jew or Gentile. A concern for on-going Christian witness seems to be very much in Paul's thinking (see verses 14, 16). C5 advocates see in this text theological support for their position. Richard comments, "Is there not actually a command to retain the position in life that one had when called to Christ? As Paul specifically applied this principle to the main distinctive of Jewish or Gentile culture (v. 18, 19), should it not today apply to Hindu and Muslim cultures also?"9

Whether or not this passage supports the C5 model depends on two factors, each requiring close analysis.

Conversion and Culture

First, in what sense did Gentile converts "remain in the condition in which they were called"? What did Christian conversion imply for these pagans?10 On the one hand, as this passage makes clear, it did not mean becoming a Jew. This point is emphasized throughout Paul's letters and Acts (see Galatians 1-3; Acts 15). Indeed, calling the Gentiles to convert to Judaism for salvation was tantamount to apostasy (Gal. 1:8, 9). On the other hand, Christian conversion did mean a radical change religious beliefs and practice that had a direct effect on cultural and religious identity.

Consider, for example, the conversion of Ephesian Gentiles. Part of acknowledging their new faith in Christ meant parting ways with their pagan religious practices.

"Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver." (Acts 19:18,19)

The text draws attention to the public nature of this event resulting in immediate, virulent opposition from pagans who saw this display of Christian faith as a betrayal of community and culture.11

"And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. And not only is there danger that this trade of ours fall into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis be regarded as worthless and that she whom all of Asia and the world worship should even be dethroned from her magnificence.' And when they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.'"(Acts 19:26-28).

Along with publicly burning idol-related artifacts in Ephesus, Gentile converts were also warned against giving the appearance of pagan cultic affiliation. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul issued warnings against incorporating pagan practices and beliefs into Christian faith and community. He instructed women not to present themselves as "her whose head is shaved," a reference to pagan temple priestesses and prostitutes. Even religiously neutral practices that could be construed as having pagan religious significance were handled carefully. For the sake of the "weaker brother," the Gentile whose conscience was not biblically informed, Paul urged against eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:7-10). The principle is that the weak brother could not distinguish between paganism and eating the meat sold in markets that came from pagan temples with the consequence that he was tempted to collapse into syncretism. This principle seems particularly appropriate in the Muslim context where outward forms are intimately tied to Islamic beliefs.12 Among local Muslim in our target field, the issue is even more significant, given their tendency to mix animism with Islam. The survey cited underscores this problem for C5 contextualization.

Paul, the master contextualizer (1 Cor. 9:19-23), sometimes showed remarkable insensitivity to the religious dimension of Gentile culture, saying, "You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led" (1 Cor. 12:2). There seems to be no interest in accommodating pagan identity to the church. But perhaps more to the point, notice the verb tense, "you were pagans." Apparently, for Paul, Gentiles remain non-Jews, but their religious identity changes. These converts were no longer at home in the spiritual milieu out of which God called them. It seems very much out of step with the New Testament to speak of a "messianic" or "completed" pagan. Similarly, it also seems to be a breech of theological integrity to speak of a "messianic Mormon" or "completed Muslim." Biblical theology is simply not compatible with what these faiths affirm.

Finally, when C5 contextualizers cite 1 Corinthians 7 in support of converts maintaining Muslim identity, they fail to take note of the meaning of the term Gentile as the Bible uses it. Gentile is not a particular cultural identity, but a term for non-Jews. Biblical use of the Jew/Gentile distinction relates to Israel's distinctness as God's people. The hope of the Gospel is that the "Gentiles in the flesh" who were "excluded from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise" have "been brought near by the blood of Christ," thus" reconciling both in one body to God through the cross" (Eph. 2:11,12,13,16).

We conclude that the "remain as you are" principle as it relates to the Jew/Gentile question did not relate to the religious identity of pagans and can not be extended prima facie to explicitly religious aspects of Islamic culture or Muslim identity. Of course this does not preclude accommodation in non-religious aspects of culture as affirmed in C3, or perhaps some religious aspects of Islam that have a clear biblical corollary, as affirmed by C4 contextualization. With this in mind, we need to raise the second question: what Islamic forms might be preserved in the biblical community and which ones will need to be rejected?

Islamic religious practices

We consider the key elements of Islamic religious tradition, belief and practice in terms of if, and to what extent, they can be incorporated into biblical faith and practice.

Fasting is clearly emphasized more in Islam than in Judaism or Christianity. Further, the legalism associated with fasting in Ramadan is inconsistent with a biblical understanding of it. Yet, fasting is associated both with Jesus' ministry and the early church. Consequently, it seems that fasting can be viewed both as a valid spiritual discipline and a way of expressing cultural identification with Muslims.13 Biblical believers can use the fast as an opportunity to explain the difference between spiritual discipline as a response to grace and spiritual discipline as an attempt to gain merit. Also, since observable differences between Muslims and "infidels" can be greater during Ramadan, it is perhaps wise for those attempting to stay as much within the culture as possible not to give unnecessary offense by observing the fast. However, just as observing the fast is an individual decision Muslims must make, the same flexibility should be extended to converts and C4 workers. It should not be seen as an additional ritual like baptism or communion.

Alms-giving is an important part of Muslim culture and religion. Just as with fasting, the underlying theology is substantially legalistic.14 However, the Bible affirms that giving to those in need reflects God's love (1 John 3:17, 18) and that God's people are called to a life of financial generosity (2 Corinthians 8, 9). Especially in impoverished areas, Muslims may perceive sacrificial material giving as a welcome indication of authentic faith in God, providing a counter-example to the materialistic and stingy witness Christians have historically offered. Generous giving to meet real needs in the name of Isa Al'Masih may be an important way of establishing identification with the community.

Yet sound judgment needs to be used in this area. Some Muslims consider receiving Christian aid as a betrayal of Islam. They suspect that aid is being given in an attempt to convert the recipients. So paradoxically, giving in the name of Isa could be counter-productive to effective witness by polarizing people against the biblical believer. Where such perceptions are present, aid should be associated primarily with the giver as the outworking of their faith in Isa, lending credibility to the giver's witness, rather than as an explicit act of organized Christian generosity.15

Prayer represents a more complicated aspect of cultural identification. In terms of externals, when believers in Isa pray, how they pray, and where they pray are not per se biblical issues. Praying within public notice or on prescribed occasions throughout the day is acceptable. Muslims who never see believers in Isa pray may conclude that they are impious. Prayer meetings of the Isa community that involve believers on hands and knees or with hands held upright rather than folded may preserve a reverence for God that is natural to the religious affections of Muslim converts. Holding mosque-style prayer meetings may also be strategically helpful in making a bridge from the Islamic to biblical community. Even holding prayer meetings among biblical believers at the mosque is not unbiblical in any obvious way and may be the only space available for such meetings. However, to avoid misrepresentation and the charge of deception, using the mosque for such meetings requires informed consent from relevant local authorities. We note that in our target field there is a case of a genuinely converted Muslim holy man who has begun Bible study and prayer meetings in his mosque.16

The primary tension with contextualization is not prayer in the sense that Christians understand it, but relates to the content of Islamic ritual and participation at the mosque with practicing Muslims. To understand the problem we need to first consider the meaning of Muslim prayer. One the one hand, Muslims view petitionary prayer much the same way Christians do. New converts have demonstrated the ability to make a transition in their own personal prayer life from the authority of Muhammad to the authority of Isa as their intercessor before God in prayer.

Yet, for Islam, the salat is more important than petitionary prayer. Salat involves recitation of the creed, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." Combined with ritual bowing and kneeling during recitation, the salat defines Muslim brotherhood and Islamic faith. Salat is universally understood as an act of worship and is the foundation for daily Mosque rites.17 The question we must address is whether it is appropriate for a biblical believer to participate in this ritual in the name of contextualized outreach. Consider the following points.

First, in Muslim understanding, daily salat is the primary means of achieving merit for salvation. Parshall notes,

The eschatological importance of prayer is seen in this Hadith: 'Of all a man's actions, the first to be examined on the day of Resurrection will be the Prayer. If it is found to be complete, it will be accepted of him along with the rest of his works, but if it is found wanting, it will be rejected along with the rest of his deeds' (Ghazali 1983, 23). There is then a salvific dimension to prayer that promotes observance.18

The salat is directly antithetical to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. The danger here is obvious. The C5 survey (page 5) implies a correlation between attendance at the mosque during prescribed times of Muslim prayer and syncretistic beliefs. This is to be expected. Attendance at the mosque centering on recitation of the creed may sustain the appearance of cultural identification with Muslims, but unfortunately may undermine the spiritual integrity of the worker's witness because prescribed times of Muslim prayer based on salat can not be purged of legalistic merit-seeking. David Racey makes an important point:

"To practice Islamic rituals in the name of contextualization, and preach the gospel of grace, is a contradiction. It is naive‹ to suppose that these rituals can be performed as prescribed by Islamic law and make them mean anything other than what they have always meant to Muslims. What you may hope to convey by your participation is irrelevant."19

Second, the salat also presents an unacceptable christology. The de facto elevation of Muhammad and the legalistic meaning of salat constitute a direct challenge to the unique person and work of Christ. This strongly argues against the C5 model as a goal for Muslim converts, much less as a strategy for reaching them. It simply isn't possible to truly embrace the heart of Islam, embodied in salat, and grow in the grace of Isa.

Some have suggested that the salat can be reinterpreted in such a way that biblical believers can, on some level, affirm, and therefore stay within the Muslim fold. Perhaps Muhammad can be understood as "a" prophet, not "the" prophet; and maybe we can understand prophet as a less authoritative "messenger". The idea is to lower Mohammed's stature a couple of notches so that the believer can affirm Isa as the authoritative revelation from God. But such semantic gymnastics seem disingenuous and dangerous. They are dangerous because they foster syncretism as the survey data show. They are disingenuous because they intentionally mislead. Chastain correctly observes,

"In communication with other humans, a person has the obligation to use words and actions that do not purposely mislead. Islam has proprietary rights over its own religious terminology and practices. For those who are not in sympathy with the goals of Islam to take upon themselves the right to use those terms and practices for their own private purposes... violates a basic ethical demand in communications... and gives the Muslim the right to suspect us of deception."20

The Muslim's creedal affirmation of Muhammad as God's prophet (or messenger) carries with it an explicit understanding of Muhammad being the recipient of definitive revelation. It is unethical and inappropriate to affirm the salat by importing a Christianized spin on the meaning of this term when it clearly means something different to Muslims.21

Similarly, identifying ones self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense, or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading. Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context. It is true that the term "Muslim" literally means "one who surrenders [to God], " something clearly true of biblical believers. However, being a Muslim carries unambiguous religious content that simply can not be reconciled to biblical orthodoxy. The ends of evangelism or discipleship do not justify potentially cult-like manipulation of language.

Finally, the goal of C5 contextualization, unlike C6 is to give witness for Isa from within the Islamic fold. But once it becomes evident that the believer in Isa holds views that only Christians can accept, opposition will almost certainly follow. What do we think is in the best interest of Muslim evangelism and the goal of church planting: rejection from the community as an errant Muslim, or expulsion as a professing biblical believer in Isa? It seems clear that confronting opposition as a biblical believer rather than an errant member of a false religion is a crucial part of our witness for Christ in the world.

The authority of the Koran, as the survey findings indicate (see earlier chart), is deeply etched in the Muslim psyche even for those who have never read it. For instance, folk Islam uses koranic verses superstitiously as magical incantation.22 Muslims are also taught that the Christian scriptures are full of error. Only the Koran is authoritative. Clearly, spiritual maturity can not be developed with the traditional Muslim view of the Koran and the Bible. Without a foundation in truth, spiritual growth is impossible (John 17:17). This is perhaps the central challenge in training Muslim converts.

However, this does not mean that ambassadors for Isa should avoid the Koran all together. There are important areas of common ground between the Koran and the Bible and this may be a valuable starting point for biblical witness. When the Koran is used for evangelistic or pre-evangelistic purposes, two interpretative principles relate. First, evangelists should not proof-text the Koran in support of a biblical doctrine. As just noted, to say that a text in the Koran that affirms Muhammad is a "messenger" means something less than his final authoritative status is inconsistent with what we know to be true of the grammatical-historical meaning of Mohammed's identity. Communicators should attempt to be as faithful to the authorial intent and clear meaning of the Koran as we are with the Bible. This does not mean that biblical communicators need to interpret the Koran through the Hadiths. Rather, it means that we should interpret specific koranic texts in light of the entire Koran.

A second and related point needs to be made. Based upon the fact that the Koran accepts on some level the authority of Christian scripture, some argue that the New Testament legitimately provides the interpretative context by which one should understand the Koran. Indeed, Islam teaches that Mohammed's purpose was to call a polytheistic people to the true faith in biblical Abraham. However, there can be no doubt that the Koran radically reinterprets New and Old Testament scripture and attributes to the work of Satan those biblical teachings that contradict the Koran. Therefore, it is simply inconsistent with the Koran's teaching about itself as the final, authoritative revelation from God, to hold the New Testament as the authoritative interpretative grid when doing koranic exegesis. We understand the motivation to approach the Koran in this way, both for long-term C5 strategy and for evangelistic purposes. However, we are convinced that the point of contact between the Koran and the Bible is valuable primarily in terms of shifting the basis of the discussion to the New Testament and what it teaches about Isa, not attempting to build authentic faith from the Koran.

Comparison of C4 and C5 models
C5 C4
Consider self Muslim even if other Muslims don't see it that way. Do not consider self Muslim, though may not accept the term "Christian" either. A believer in Isa or a believer in messiah may be preferred. Calling self "Muslim" is inaccurate and misleading.
Accept the Koran except where it conflicts with the Bible. Muhammad is considered to be a "prophet" in some weaker sense than a biblical prophet. Reverence shown for the Koran and Muhammad. Do not consider Muhammad as a prophet or the Koran as prophecy from God. However, some biblical concepts are translated into terms familiar to the Muslim. Some Koranic texts, grammatico-historically interpreted, may be useful in pre-evangelistic attempts to create common ground since they speak of Jesus and affirm the Ingel.
Maintain mosque attendance, lifestyle requirements of Islam, repeat reinterpreted Muslim prayers. Believers bring no unnecessary offense to their Muslim neighbors. May observe non-moral lifestyle dictates of Islamic culture such as dietary laws, fasting, abstinence from alcohol, etc. Believers will emphasize prayer and alms-giving as ways of expressing their faith and giving witness to the community. However, they will not participate in solat or pray traditional Muslim prayers.

Practical Implications: Contextualization, Conversion and Church Planting

Some of the tensions in contextualization may perhaps be reduced some by considering the differences between evangelism and church planting, and thinking through a process in which converts can be brought into the believing community. Lets think of this in terms of stages from pre-evangelism through evangelism and conversion, to incorporation in the biblical community and the visible witness of the believing community.

Pre-evangelism: The process of developing a relationship in which the messenger can be taken seriously and the message can be understood. Pre-evangelism attempts to find areas of common ground from which to communicate. The principle is that "people can take in a new idea only in terms of ideas the already have."23 To borrow a sociology term, the Gospel must come to fit within a person's "plausibility structure" if it is to be a live option. Communication across cultures and across world views requires a contextualized strategy. Specifically, use of relevant texts from the Koran and Islamic terminology may be necessary to effectively communicate shared notions. For example, Sirat al Masih (The Life of the Messiah, Global Publications, 1992), offers a loose paraphrase of the Gospels using Islamic terms and Arabic language to introduce Muslims to Jesus. Use of redemptive analogy and story are also potentially valuable. This application of contextualization does not affirm the truth of Islam or the Koran, but recognizes the biblical example of entering into redemptive dialogue in terms, concepts and sources of authority recognized by the audience. Presuppositional apologetics commonly uses this tool, as Paul did when approaching the Athenians in Acts 17. The goal is to create interest in more information based on tension from within the Muslim world view. At this stage of the communication process, very little needs to be communicated about the meaning of biblical faith. The focus is on what the Muslim believes and the dilemma it presents.

Identifying common ground and creating tension
diagram1.gif (2168 bytes)
  • God is absolutely just and righteous
  • Man is sinful
  • There will be a time of accountability to God
  • God is merciful
  • God reveals himself through his prophets

Being a credible witness is, of course, a precondition for even being able to enter into meaningful discussion about spiritual things. Christian background workers and Muslim converts involved in C4 (pre-)evangelism will need to maintain some essential outward identification with the culture while contributing socially in biblical ways.

Providing an inviting life style witness
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  • Maintain healthy respect for civil and religious authorities
  • Practice generosity and compassion in dealings with the less fortunate
  • Maintain dietary habits consistent with Muslim neighbors, including the fast
  • Participate fully in neighborhood activities
  • Present one's self as a spiritually active and mature member of the community

Evangelism and conversion: The process of resolving the dilemma of man's sin, God's justice and mercy, by effectively communicating saving faith in Isa and assisting a Muslim to receive the gift of forgiveness. This is a particularly difficult area to discuss, because it almost certainly assumes that the Muslim, if responsive to the Gospel, will bring into his new faith elements of Islam that are incompatible with full biblical orthodoxy. That's why we must emphasize process in conversion. Evangelists need to focus on what is required for an authentic decision resulting in salvation from a longer process of teaching and discipleship that transforms saving faith into biblically maturity. To hold out for complete biblical orthodoxy for salvation does not seem to be supported by the scriptural examples of conversion in, for example, Acts 8, 10, 16, 17. However, there are several truths that must be understood and accepted for salvation. These truths are alien to the Koran and require a shift from Islamic belief to a biblical faith (even if the full authority of the Bible as the sole authority and Word of God has not yet been accepted).

The Gospel is God's Solution
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  • Substitutionary atonement understood
  • Legalism and ritual is a dead end, trivializing the justice and righteousness of God
  • God's justice and mercy (love) fully expressed in the death of his Son, the Isa, on the cross
  • Sole sufficiency of Isa's death for man's sin demonstrated in his physical death by crucifixion and resurrection.

The believer is now at an important crossroads in terms of spiritual growth and cultural identity. Indwelled by the Holy Spirit, a deeper work of God is possible. The Spirit will work with scriptural teaching as the convert is discipled into an increasingly orthodox faith. Those involved in discipleship need to devote substantial time to reading the Bible together, explaining biblical teaching and responding to Muslim misunderstanding of truths centering on the person of Christ and the authority of scripture. A conscious, deliberate goal needs to exist in the mind of the Christian worker to move the believer in Isa from a substantially syncratistic faith to a C4 faith. All Christian workers should agree that C5 contextualization is not the goal for discipleship and church planting.

As new believes in Isa grow into a deeper and more orthodox faith, the question emerges: how and when will the converts communicate their biblical faith? This is clearly an individual decision and disciplers need to individualize counsel based on the strength of the convert's biblical convictions and life situation. However, this is a crucial time to extend the work of God to the broader family and close associates. Believers in Isa may never have a better opportunity to reach those closest to them than in the months or years following conversion. For this reason, it's best to allow several months or perhaps years of individual discipleship and efforts on the convert's part to stimulate investigation by their family before encouraging public statements of faith, such as baptism, separation from the mosque, and so forth.24

Corporate witness of the biblical community: There are two features of a biblical community that should be seen as clear and distinct goals of a successfully planted indigenous church. First, living out biblical corporate faith that provides concrete evidence of the Gospel's truth to Muslim neighbors; and second, providing the necessary resources for converts to grow to spiritual maturity and equipped for effective verbal witness and leadership.

In some Muslim contexts, a visible biblical community may be a long time in the making. On the other hand, in some contexts conditions are more permissive. Those who are willing and able to express their personal belief in Isa as savior could be brought together into a C4 community of faith and witness. There currently exists a working model in the field team's present context for such a community of C4 believers. Working within the neighborhood and family social structures the church can provide visible witness to Isa in ways that are potentially disarming. This would include concrete ministry to address poverty and other pressing social concerns. Altruism in the name of Isa may be resented by some,25 but will offer to others a new and refreshing understanding of biblical faith.

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  • Visible community of professing (publicly baptized?) followers of Isa
  • Invested in good works for the sake of the broader community
  • Culturally meaningful structures for meetings that move as far toward the indigenous community as the moral and doctrinal norms of scripture will allow

The believing community needs to be a context for social and spiritual development. As converts are marginalized from their normal social contexts, or even persecuted, the biblical community needs to be able to meet basic physical and social needs. As the early church flourished in a spiritually hostile climate, so too, perhaps, will the church among the Muslims emerge. A strong ethic of suffering will need to continue, where courage and risk-taking are highly valued. The love of the body of Christ is essential to strengthen converts' resolve to continue on in faith in Christ while facing likely hostile reaction. In addition, the biblical community must be strongly truth-focused, offering educational alternatives to the mosque. Church leaders need to direct themselves to the long-term viability of the community by prioritizing biblical teaching and theology. This requires high standards of training in biblical orthodoxy and apologetics among emerging indigenous leaders.


1. Darrell L. Whiteman, "Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 1997, 2.

2. That's why missionaries are commonly accused of being agents of Western imperialism and destroyers of culture.

3. Adapted from Phil Parshall, "Danger: New directions in contextualization," EMQ, 34:4, 407-8.

4. See H.L. Richard, "Is extraction evangelism still the way to go?', reprinted in Mission Frontiers Bulletin September-October 1996, 15.

5. See Don Eenigenburg, "The pros and cons of Islamicized contextualization," EMQ, July, 1997, 310-315. See also Phil Parshall, "Danger! New directions in contextualization," EMQ, 34:4, 404-417.

6. See Parshall, ibid. Note especially Dean Gilliland's response (415-417).

7. Summarized in Parshall, ibid, 406.

8. See Parshall, ibid., 406. I assume that these 72 people surveyed represent the best trained and consequently most orthodox members of the C5 community.

9. See H.L. Richard, "Is extraction evangelism still the way to go?', reprinted in Mission Frontiers Bulletin September-October 1996, 15.

10. Our primary concern here is to focus on the ethnic-religious tension between Jew and Gentile. However, it is worth noting that Paul's instructions for those married to non-Christians is to stay in the marriage for as long as the non-Christian spouse will allow it. It presumes that active witness is occurring and that at some point, it will polarize the non-Christian either to Christian faith or out of the marriage.

11. We should also note that similar public episodes were caused by Jewish reaction to the early church movement. See Acts 18:5-17.

12. We are not suggesting that Islam is the same as paganism. The point is that the early Christian movement made a conscious distinction between religious and cultural identity-even in contexts, such as Ephesus, in which that distinction was very difficult to make and resulted in extreme opposition.

13. For a brief discussion of the possible benefits of fasting during Ramadan, see Erik Nubthar, "What I learned by keeping the fast," EMQ, July, 1996, 309-310.

14. See Sura 24:56-finding Allah's mercy is the motivation for giving alms in this text.

15. There have been attempts by C2/C3 missionaries to give rice with Bible verses pasted on the package, and even one attempt to use church bulletins as a rice container. These attempts were met with confusion and a measure of resentment by the recipients.

16. The reader should be clear that mosques are used not only for Islamic religious purposes, but also serve as community centers for a wide range of civic activities. We find nothing inherently dangerous in using a mosque for Christian purposes as long as we are being open and honest about how we are using it.

17. For a discussion on Christians and the salat, see Warren Chastain, "Should Christians Pray the Muslim Salat? International Journal of Frontier Missions, 12:3, July-Sept, 1995, 161ff.

18. Phil Parshall, The Cross and the Crescent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989), 77. Because of the theology necessarily associated with Muslim prayer, Parshall strongly contends that remaining active in the mosque is either "compromise or deceit." See Beyond the Mosque (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985), 184.

19. David Racey, "Contextualization: how far is too far?, EMQ, July 1996, 308.

20. Chastain, ibid.

21. In the final section of this paper, we will discuss the appropriateness of Muslim converts simply rewording the salat along biblical lines.

22. Parshall, ibid., 50-52 provides numerous examples of Koranic verses repeated over and over in an attempt to curse enemies, secure good health and prosperity and other concerns.

23. Andrew F. Walls, "Old Athens and New Jerusalem: Some Signposts for Christian Scholarship in the Early History of Mission Studies," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October, 1997, 146. I think Walls goes too far with this principle and applies it in ways that are neither presumed by the New Testament nor helpful in the work of biblical theology.

24. Phil Parshall has suggested that the time frame for a public statement of faith should be in terms of months, not years (an opinion given in personal correspondence with the author).

25. Parshall warns that reaction from Muslim clerics to material or medical assistance programs is not uncommon. This is not an argument against this form of witness, but does show that there are limitations. See Parshall's Beyond the Mosque, 205-210. 1 15