Elaine Heath on True Evangelism and Our Muslim Neighbors

Elaine Heath

The following was written by my friend and mentor, Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. I asked her to comment on my Ramadan experience, and she graciously responded with this article:

This fall marks the beginning of my eighth year as the evangelism professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Every semester I teach a course that United Methodist students are required to take if they plan to be ordained.  It is known by the anxiety-inducing name, “Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Evangelism.”  For the first three weeks or so I must focus on deconstructing the bad theology that has hijacked the practice of sharing the love of God with our neighbors in the American church. Most of my students begin the semester dreading the thought that I might assign them homework that involves forcing something down someone’s throat.

It takes time to track down the origins of this pernicious theology in an ecclesiology shaped by exploitation, domination, and violence. Once we unpack the roots of bad evangelism we are ready to move into the theory and practice of the most wonderful adventure of the Christian life—becoming a people who love so well and so consistently, that others are drawn to a transformative relationship with God by their relationships with us.  And, as we engage those who are “other” in any way, we ourselves undergo conversion at deeper levels, for we must repent of bigotry and exclusion that now surfaces in our hearts. We must, like Peter in the vision of the sheet, look at the “other” and see someone whom God has declared “clean.”

As students gradually awaken to the real meaning of evangelism, the ones who are most resistant at the beginning of the class are usually the most passionate evangelists by the end.  This is because they learn to share the good news with every kind of neighbor by becoming a life-giving presence to those neighbors.  They discover how to live in a contemplative stance, one in which they show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome.

Drawing from the wisdom of the great Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich, I urge them to love with abandon regardless of whether their neighbor ever professes faith in Christ.  Because that is how God loves.  No one is ever brought into genuine Christian faith by being hated, I tell them.  No one is freed from bondage by being labeled, shamed, rejected, scapegoated, humiliated, tortured, excluded, or damned.  Only love can set people free.

The truly evangelistic life is one that is grounded in three practices: deep prayer, deep hospitality, and deep justice.  These practices are gifts given lavishly to every neighbor whether she is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, gay, straight, educated, mentally ill, is a child, or an old man.  We become actively available and engaged in prayer, in hospitality, and in justice for our neighbors.  This is what it means to become good news.  The outcome of this self-giving is God’s business. We release the outcome to God.

Should we use words to tell our neighbors about our faith in God?  Yes, if it is natural and the Holy Spirit lets us know the time is right.  Yes, if we can do so without coercion, violence, manipulation, or exploitation.  But we should speak of God to others only if our lives are credible witnesses to the words we speak.

This is where Wes Magruder comes in. I met Wes four years ago, not long after forming the first New Day community in Dallas.  Today there are two New Day communities in Dallas and one in a rural area outside of Mabank, Texas. New Day is a network of missional, new monastic communities located in multi-cultural and economically depressed neighborhoods. They are house churches with a strongly missional focus, led by a team of mostly lay people who follow a disciplined life of prayer, hospitality, and justice.  I started New Day communities almost five years ago in order to develop an alternative model of church that is deeply faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and that provides ordinary Christians with a place to serve in potent, transformative, disciple-making ministry. Wes Magruder came alongside and is now coordinating the Dallas New Day ministries and their emerging outreach with refugees.  In the large apartment complex where we meet weekly for a community meal and worship, and where we engage in many forms of outreach and supportive friendship, I see lives changed daily by the love of God.

When Wes told me he was going to fast with Muslim friends during Ramadan, I was excited. I knew that Wes would experience a deeper conversion to his own Christian faith in the process, and that Muslim friends near and far would experience a healthy Christian leader who knows how to show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome. They would experience Christian love and solidarity from a pastor who does not coerce, manipulate, exploit, or use violence to try to get other people to agree to loving Jesus.

May the rest of us learn from and follow Wes’s example in New Day ministries, and may we trust God with and release the outcome.

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8 comments

  1. Ansar

    In Islam, when the revelations and the Last Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mission began, in the early life in Makkah, he was taken the Heavens. There is one whole chapter (Q:17 The Night Journey) on the event. He was shown the future status of people on heaven and hell. He was shown people undergoing various punishments for specific sins they committed in this worldly life (eg. a dictator, a usurper, a miser, a murderer, an idol worshipper, etc).
    When he came back he was so concerned for the people that he wanted to convey to people and help them see the light.
    At this point the Almighty Creator specifically addressed this and conveyed to the Prophet (this is also in the Quran) that he is not worry himself about trying to bring people to see the light, all he has to do is give them the message of Islam. The giving of guidance to bring people to the right religion was His responsibility only.
    That is what Muslims follow as a rule, all we do is convey the message, have interfaith dialogues on common subjects. If people revert to Islam, they do so on the basis of their own research, and guidance from the higher authority, many bishops have come to Islam, and some other folks who came to Islam said thier priest never let them see the bible and so they had never seen the Quran either.
    Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the same roots, they all came from the Abraham and all the way up to Noah and Adam. So basically they are the same, and worship the same Creator.
    I had asked Wes the question of looking at the time of Constantine, when he gathered all the bishops and how he pick one group and on what basis, and what did he do to the other minorities. I have read about it and I have failed to understand how could King Constantine do what he did centuries after Jesus Christ had left.
    Regards

  2. Pingback: American Pastor partakes in the holy month of Ramadan - Page 3
  3. Fareeha Miandara

    Dear Elaine, Loving Jesus is something that Muslims know well and do well! Loving revering, following Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus and all the rest of the prophets is as rudimentary to Muslims as professing to the ONENESS and UNIQUENESS of God. No one can show Muslims how to love Jesus more than God has already shown us through Holy Qura’n. His true value and worth is acknowledged and embraced by all Muslims who eagerly await his second coming before the final day of judgment, may The Peace of God be Upon Him!

  4. Matthew Moes

    Dear Rev. Wes, I was blessed to share “iftar” with you a few weeks ago at Al-Hedayah Academy in Fort Worth where I serve as Principal. I have really appreciated your willingness to experience empathy (yesterday’s post!) with Muslims by fasting Ramadan. I am grateful that you shared your experience throughout on your blog. I think your mentor really sums it up, (and I believe it goes both ways really), when she says:

    “…becoming a people who love so well and so consistently, that others are drawn to a transformative relationship with God by their relationships with us. And, as we engage those who are “other” in any way, we ourselves undergo conversion at deeper levels, for we must repent of bigotry and exclusion that now surfaces in our hearts. We must…look at the “other” and see someone whom God has declared “clean.””

    And later when she sums up:

    “When Wes told me he was going to fast with Muslim friends during Ramadan, I was excited. I knew that Wes would experience a deeper conversion to his own Christian faith in the process, and that Muslim friends near and far would experience a healthy Christian leader who knows how to show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome. They would experience Christian love and solidarity from a pastor who does not coerce, manipulate, exploit, or use violence to try to get other people to agree to loving Jesus.”

    When we met I mentioned to you how much a perspective like yours could help me to share what fasting and Ramadan is all about with my family and friends who are not Muslim – simply because (it seems) whenever we start to share our faith experiences, the dialogue gets distracted with the conversion question. “Are you trying to convert me?” This mental question (suspicion?) gets in the way of going any deeper, of being able to draw each other in “to a transformative relationship with God…” regardless of the declared faith of the “other”. I hope that by sharing your experience of fasting as a Christian, other Christians would see that fasting is not just a “Muzlim thing”. Of course, that is if other Christians are open enough to listen to a Methodist, regardless of whether they are Catholic, Protestant, or “saved”.

    I once read an article by another Christian pastor who contrasted the importance of “interfaith work” vs. “interfaith dialogue”. The Quran advises us to “Come together on a common word between us…” and I believe that this “coming together” can be vastly more meaningful when we act together in ways that we can experience God in common, whether it be community service or fasting in solidarity, or otherwise – all the while respecting each others’ space when we differ on the particulars of creed and worship. As your mentor so eloquently explained, we need to focus on the effect that this outreach has on our own transformation and “release the outcome” to God. There are so many places in the Quran where God is consoling the Prophet Muhammad in the same vein, reminding him that his role is to set the example and that ultimately God is the One who guides.

    Again, I think all of us who consider ourselves among the faithful have much to learn from your experience and the advice of Rev. Heath above. Within the Muslim community as well, we need to engage the “other” in more meaningful, nonjudgmental ways. We need to be less concerned with “conversion” of the other and more so with our own “deeper conversion” – renewing our own faith by virtue of the caring relationships we have with other human beings. God has put the people around us in our lives for a reason and I am certain it is not to insulate ourselves from them because they are different or “unclean” or to aggressively “win” them over as if we are in a competition. “Compete with one another in goodness,” the Quran advises. As a Muslim, I must also be mindful that my work is not “for the sake of Islam”, as defined by a movement or someone’s interpretation, but “for the sake of Allah” [God] the Supreme, the Sublime.

    Thanks again for setting such an inspiring example and thought provoking reflections for Christians and Muslims alike.

    Matthew Moes

  5. Ansar

    Well said Matthew and I pray that your efforts with your family are fruitful and you all have a healthy dialogue and love in family unit.
    Every year most Masajid have an interfaith breaking of fast get together with local religious and city officials.
    This years event at my mosque was attended by about 400. From the religious community we had attendance from local Synagogues and Churches and several folks said they at least fasted once during the month and had good experience from it.
    I am really happy that Wes blogged about this subject and his experience, it gave us all an opportunity to come together for a nice dialogue. Thanks Wes.
    Regards

  6. noname

    Dear Pastor Wes,

    Do you ever ponder on the meaning of this;
    “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” ~ NIV John 14

    Peace and Blessings be upon you

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