If you’re anything like me, you’re used to talking to people about faith who come from a secular, atheist or vaguely agnostic background. I’ve found that their queries often revolve around the existence of God, how the Bible fits into a scientific worldview and what we believe about the hot topics of our day.
In contrast, many of the people that you’ll meet from the Arab world will come with a completely different set of questions, steeped in an Islamic worldview. You’ll face questions such as: Why do you trust the Bible when it was written by so many different authors, has been translated so many times and we don’t even have the original documents? Why do you say you worship one God, when clearly you actually worship three? If Jesus is actually God, why did he say that the Father was greater than him?
We can choose to learn answers to these questions – and that can be a useful place to start. But a more sustainable approach is to grow in our theological proficiency. That way, we will be more equipped to answer whatever someone may ask us, not just the questions we have set answers to.
A deeper understanding is also important in translating the concepts of Christianity into a different religious context. It’s easy to assume that we share a common theological language with those we meet – that familiar words are referring to familiar ideas. But we should be careful not to take this for granted.
When a Muslim talks about a “prophet” for instance, they are referring to a specific idea that is quite distinct from the biblical equivalent, even if there is some overlap. This is also true for Scripture, pilgrimage, salvation and of course God Himself. If we are not careful, our preconceptions will lead to miscommunication between us and those we are witnessing to. We need to be able to explain familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways.
Here is a quick exercise for you. Try and define the following words using the minimum amount of Christian jargon:
How then can we be theologically prepared for cross-cultural mission?
I believe the key is to grow in learning to think theologically, not to just learn proof texts or answers to questions, as helpful as those can be at times. This means growing in scriptural fluency – being able to talk confidently about the overall narrative of Scripture, the way that concepts run throughout its pages and the way it culminates in Jesus. It means developing a theological method that allows you to apply what you know in a new context, so that we remain faithful to Biblical principles in unfamiliar situations.
A word of encouragement
Whilst it is helpful to grow in theological proficiency, we don’t have to be experts. In the Arab world, it helps to have some knowledge of Islam and how to talk about our faith in that environment. But as Peter tells us, this must be combined with a life that witnesses to Christ. Witnesses should tell the truth, they should be convincing, but they don’t necessarily need to have all the answers. The value of a testimony will be judged on the integrity of its bearer.
I pray that, ultimately, the Lord grows you in wisdom and understanding as you seek to do His will.
See part two for some resources that may help you to prepare theologically for mission.