Christians, Muslims, and Gospel-Centered Friendships: An Interview with Dr. David Shenk

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As the global consultant for Eastern Mennonite Missions, Dr. David Shenk is a Mennonite and missionary with a passion for reaching Muslims with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Shenk has written, co-written, and contributed to several books on the subject of Christianity and Islam, including his award-winning book “Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship”, published in 2014.

As Kingdom Christians look outward to the nations hungry for the life-giving word of Jesus Christ, we appreciate Dr. Shenk for taking the time share his wisdom on how we can form friendships with Muslims and, in the process, be faithful and true witnesses of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Shenk, can you explain to our readers how you became involved in outreach and evangelism among Muslims?

My parents were pioneer missionaries in Tanzania among the Zanaki people. Bumangi was the name of their village. Illiteracy was 100%. I saw the Gospel touch people and I saw the Holy Spirit calling forth a redeemed people. My mission commitment was formed growing up within that missions experience. However, there were no Muslims living in our community. It was only many years later that I came in touch with Muslims; Eastern Africa was becoming mostly Christian.

However, when I was about six years old the Holy Spirit called me to follow Jesus.. By the time I was a teenager the call of God for missions was very clear. I built on that commitment, and in fact postponed marriage until my friend whom I was dating carried the same calling for missionary commitment that I carried.

Shortly after our marriage, Merlin Grove, who was director of Mennonite missions in Somalia, was martyred. God used his death to call us to Somalia and to the Muslim people. I knew that the man who pulled the knife did not know the love of God in Christ. So within a year of Merlin’s death our family of four was headed to Somalia for a four year term. We knew this was God’s appointment.

My introduction to your work was through your debates with Muslim apologist and scholar Shabir Ally (in which I took note of your irenic, non-combative approach to debating). How does a focus on the Kingdom of God shape both the issues we debate and how we debate?

The first day in Mogadishu I was invited to drink tea in the late evening. The conversation revealed that we could not serve in Somalia if we were not at peace with the people among whom we served. The first question the fellows asked around that tea table was, “Why did you come? If it is to convert us, go to the Hindus, but do not come to us as missionaries. We already know about God.

That evening I learned that I needed to earn the right to live and minister among the Somalis. After that evening I determined to earn my authority as a witness for Jesus by listening and firmly and gently share the good news of Jesus. And the questions about Jesus were everywhere. I did not need to invent reasons to share about Jesus. – everyone was curious about Jesus.

You talk in your book “Christian. Muslim. Friend.” about cultivating “real friendship” between Christians and Muslims. What is the difference between real friendship and “12 steps to get your Muslim friend to visit your church.” Or is there a difference?

I have just been in Uganda to celebrate with the university the publication of the Dialogue which was published forty years ago. Badru and I were the invited guests. A thousand people, mostly academics, were present to hear the two of us speak of our friendship. That is why people came. Not to hear Shenk and Badru but rather to observe our friendship.

Badru talked about the essence of peacemaking being tolerance and dialogue. I responded asking whether we should commit to truth, not just tolerance. I said that there is a Man standing within the hundreds present, and if we listen we will hear him say follow me! Who is that Man. Many years ago he also called me and I said yes to that call. In my dialogues with Badru you will hear me bearing witness that I have said yes to the call of that Man and so I am here to bear witness that I am his follower. From that moment our conversations were not just with one another – Jesus was also present.

Now I cannot arrange such dialogues; they come as surprises orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. These kinds of encounters come my way occasionally. Jesus needs witnesses. He does not need defenders. He is his own best defender. But he does need witnesses. I am one of those witnesses. Jesus does not need people who try to prove him, but he does need witnesses . I assure Muslims that I am not here to prove Jesus; I am here to witness. Jesus has called me and I am therefore his witness.

What are some of the most common misconceptions Christians have about Islam/Muslims. What misconceptions to Muslims have about Christians/Christianity?

There are four questions every Muslim has about the Christian faith. Each question is rooted in a misconception. We must answer each of those questions if we expect a Muslim to consider the Christian faith. These are the questions:

1) What do you mean when you say that Jesus is the Son of God?

2 ) What do you mean by Trinity?  

3) Have Christians changed and distorted their scriptures? 

4) How could Jesus who is the Messiah be crucified?

And, sometimes, what do you think of Muhammad?

On the Christian side, the overwhelming question is about terrorism. Every church and synagogue I enter has that question as the top question. Muslims must answer that question satisfactorily if they expect Christians to consider Islam.

The Internet is a blessing and a curse for those wanting to learn about other belief systems, including Islam. Where can a Christian begin to get accurate information about the diverse religion that is Islam?

Read my books. I am serious about that. I have written four books exactly on the question of what is Islam. The “Dialogue” is the first book to read. That describes the Muslim and the Christian faith. Then read the other three books in the “Christian Meeting Muslims.”

First, “Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church”. This carefully describes Muslim missionary theology compared to the Christian missions theology .

Then a must reading is the story of Ahmed Haile, Teatime in Mogadishu.

Finally the book on friendships. Each book can be summarized in a word: Dialogue; Witness; Peacemaking; friendship.

I have other books you might consider as well. For example, I have written a thirty hour video series on Islam. That is now being used across central Asia. Then there is a Bible study series written for Muslims. This study has been used in hundreds of Muslim homes.

What excites you about Christian work being done by Anabaptists/Mennonites to reach Muslims with the Gospel? What is left to be done?

The whole Muslim world is troubled by the many expressions of violence within the Muslim Umma [community]. The Anabaptist witness to the peace of Jesus is remarkably good news. Everywhere I go I introduce myself as an emissary of Jesus who is the prince of peace. The doors are never closed to that witness. As far as I can remember in my forty some years of bearing witness to Jesus and his peace, the door is always open and the invitation is always there to share the good news of Jesus.

Are there any general tips or guidelines one should keep in mind with sharing the Gospel with Muslims?

In Revelation 3 we have the promise that Jesus will open the door that can never be closed. The passage then describes the qualities of the church for whom Jesus is opening the door. Those qualities are: doing good deeds; commitment to the scriptures; acceptance of suffering; witnesses for Jesus; patience. These churches also keep their identity to Christ and to the church clear. These qualities enable Jesus to open doors! (Revelation 3:7-12)

If one of our readers feels a burden for doing ministry in an Islamic context, what advice would your give them to go about discerning this call and where they might be most effective?

The best way to test your calling for Muslim ministry is to become acquainted with Muslims and develop friendships. Every Christian needs a Muslim friend and every Muslim needs a Christian friend. It would be great to begin to learn Arabic. That would open doors! Invite a Muslim friend into your home. Hang out with Muslims in the teashops where they hang out. Get acquainted with Muslims. The overwhelming value in Islam is hospitality. Receive and extend hospitality with Muslims.

Four thousand years ago something terrible happened in the home of Abraham. Hospitality was denied to Ishmael and Hagar. The tragedy of that separation has never gone away. Every year in the pilgrimage

The pilgrims enact the account of Hagar looking for water for her son and the angel miraculously redeems Ishmael from death. As a Christian and Anabaptist community we are called to restore the ostracism of Ishmael. We offer the hospitality to Ishmael that was denied in the tragic day 3,500 years ago when Abraham sent Ishmael away into the desert

Pray that Ishmael may indeed be saved! (Genesis 21:8-21)

“God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, What is the matter Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy

up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.” (Genesis 21:17-20)

 

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