We discover in Scripture that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:16) and God has given us the staggering responsibility to preach this message. So we must spend some time thinking about the process of evangelism. Most people I know consider the task of evangelism to be a difficult one, however if I ask them what the gospel is, most will quote me something from a book on Systematic Theology. For example, Wayne Grudem, in his excellent Systematic Theology, says that the facts of the gospel are:
- All people have sinned (Rom 3:23)
- The penalty for our sin is death (Rom 6:23)
- Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin (Rom 5:8).1
In my experience, when the gospel is told in this manner, listing the bare facts, Muslims seem to always take offense. In response they tell me:
- No! Prophets are sinless and children are sinless.
- No! Everyone dies; life is a test we must all endure; death is the way to paradise.
- No! Jesus did not die, and it is unjust to punish the innocent for the guilty.
Overall, they feel accused and manipulated by this kind of logic.
It seems to me that although the content of these statements are true (and we can’t back away from that truth), we have to ask ourselves if this is the only way we can speak about the gospel. I think it’s worth thinking through the way we express the gospel for Muslims. There are at least four basic components in evangelism: The message, the audience, the author and the God who is sovereign over all. Let’s take some time to consider how to evangelize with respect to each of these components.
The core of the evangelistic message
Jesus is clearly the core of our evangelistic message. As Paul says, “Him we proclaim” (Col 1:28). But the message of the Messiah is the centrepiece on a rich table of expectation. In the Law of Moses the cycles of judgement and mitigation end with a warning about future judgement (Deuteronomy 28-31); the Prophets all warn about future judgement; Jesus preached about the coming Kingdom in the context of judgement (Matt 25:34); and Paul says that his gospel declares the coming judgement (Rom 2:16). The gospel may be Christ, however it is Christ as the mediator of the imminent judgement. This judgement is clearly one of condemnation for some, and salvation for others (Dan 12:2), and this ‘Gospel of Imminent Judgement’ has an impact on everyone. It transcends culture, class, race, religion, age and empire. As the angel puts it in Revelation:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev 14:6-7)
So, no matter who we are talking to, our gospel must centre on Jesus in the imminent judgement. This is the eternal gospel for all people.2
An audience-oriented message
Now that we know the core message of the gospel, the next question is “How do we share the gospel?” And to answer this question, we cannot simply smooth over the diversity of ways in which the gospel is articulated as we did in the section above. The gospel is called the gospel of the Kingdom (Matt 24:14), the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24), the gospel of Christ (Rom 15:19), the gospel of salvation (Eph 1:13), and the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15). One person can explain the gospel in a thousand different ways depending on the audience and the circumstances. Paul says there is one gospel (Gal 1:6-12), yet he speaks distinctly of the gospel he preaches among the Gentiles (Gal 2:2).
Clearly we must preach the gospel in a language our audience understands. We have to subscribe to the vocabulary that is already in their heads. Therefore, we can’t give them something entirely new. Furthermore, in order to be clearly understood, we have to take into account not only our audience’s vocabulary, but also their knowledge of history, and the theology that they understand. Just as God has given our audience the common grace of food to eat and air to breathe, he has also given them some common knowledge to work with. But the knowledge we have in common with different audiences will, of course, be different.
In order to share the gospel with a Muslim, our first task is to understand our audience. God has given them felt needs and existential cries, and he has put eternity on their hearts (Eccl 3:11). He has given them an experience of creation that gives some knowledge about the Creator, and he has also woven some of the stories of the prophets into the Qur’an, giving them a small taste of special revelation. There is a lot of common ground for us to build on as we seek to persuade Muslims to trust in Jesus rather than their own good works.
One important difference between you and most Muslims is the fact that you are someone who is reading a journal article, whereas Muslims tend towards functional illiteracy, because their prophet is said to have been illiterate and it is him they want to imitate. Also, their Qur’an is written in a style intended to be memorized rather than analysed. This inherent illiteracy in the mind of the Muslim means that their way of thinking is quite different. Additionally, in their rejection of idols and images, they tend to emphasize the transcendence of God, describing him as largely unknowable. Therefore they tend to focus less on theology and more on the practice of religion. This lack of theology and literacy means they tend to avoid abstract thought and instead tell stories using more concrete language, with much more involvement of emotions.
For cross-cultural reasons, directly telling someone the gospel point by point may be a little too direct. Indirect communication through story telling allows the audience to opt in or opt out of identifying with characters in the story, depending on their own conscience. With all of these things in mind, then, a helpful transition for the evangelist is to move away from the ‘gospel according to systematic theology’ and move towards a gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
It is valuable to see how the four biographical Gospels are oriented to their original audiences: Matthew is well known to have been written to Jews; tradition has it that Mark wrote down the teachings of Peter while he taught in Rome; Luke wrote to a wealthy, elite Gentile, known as Theophilus; and John probably wrote to Hellenistic Jews in Ephesus. I want to outline for you a way of looking at these stories with an audience-oriented approach: to hear, affirm and understand the audience (affirmation); to persuade them to a point of view (development); and to warn them not to return to their old views (warning). This isn’t the only way to read the Gospels, but in order to communicate the gospel to Muslims through story-telling, this structure is very helpful.
An audience-oriented structure to Matthew’s gospel for Jews
Matthew 1:1-7:29 Affirmation
Matthew’s Israelite audience probably understood Jesus to be Israel incarnate. He has the right genealogy, he comes up out of Egypt, he goes through the water, he spends time in the desert and he gives an ethical exhortation from a mountain. He is presented as someone who affirms everything that is Jewish.
Matthew 8:1-21:9 Development
Those weird Gentile Magi who worship Jesus in chapter 2 are followed by a leper in chapter 8, along with a Roman Centurion who calls him Lord. Jesus may be the ultimate Israelite, but the Jews were nothing of the sort (8:10-12). It is the Gentiles who receive Jesus properly, not the Jews. The first will be last and the last first.
Matthew 21:10-28:20 Warning
The Jews had Jesus crucified. We need to obey Jesus because Judgement Day is coming.
An audience-oriented structure to Mark’s gospel for Romans
Mark 1:1-6:13 Affirmation
The Roman audience probably understood Jesus to be the ultimate powerbroker, a true Emperor of Rome. He has power over everything and gathers people under him.
Mark 6:14-12:44 Development
But his predecessor is killed and Jesus withdraws and re-gathers. Jesus may be all-powerful, but every single other person is pathetic (you included). Peter plays the typical Roman and grapples with the concept of a crucified Christ.
Mark 13:1-16:8 Warning
Judgement is coming and everyone deserted Jesus or contributed to his death (and so would you).
An audience-oriented structure of Luke’s gospel for Theophilus
If Luke is read from an audience-oriented perspective, he also seems to have a flow or a structure in how he treats his audience. But instead of it being one long treatment, he cycles his audience through a rhetorical process. If you read Luke imagining you are a rich noble with a Greek name and background like Luke’s audience, Theophilus, Luke’s gospel then becomes a cyclic emotional roller-coaster of remorse, repentance and comfort. As Luke cycles through his ever more challenging treatment of his reader, the most striking thing to me is his transition from warning to affirmation at the start of each new cycle. It feels like Luke leads his reader to remorse and then comforts them into repentance. From my reading, the beginning of each cycle in Luke occurs at 1:1; 2:1; 3:21; 7:1; 9:28; 12:22; 15:1; 17:1; 18:35.
An audience-oriented structure of John’s gospel for Hellenistic Jews
John’s audience are probably Hellenistic Jews from Ephesus. Despite our lack of certainty about his audience, it is still quite clear that John also cycles through the same rhetorical flow, moving his audience into grief, followed by consolation, and then into grief, and so on. From my reading, the beginning of each cycle in John occurs at 1:1; 3:9; 6:1; 9:1; 10:40; 13:1; 19:38; 20:30.
Loving our audience
We are told to love God and love our neighbour. We can love God by faithfully transmitting his message, but we love our audience by showing them respect, affirming them, developing their thinking using common ground, and warning them against idolatry. Perhaps the most vivid way to do this would be to string together a panorama of stories about Jesus that you have memorized and that function to affirm, develop and warn your audience.
An author-anchored message
It goes without saying that we can’t share what we don’t know, and God gives each of us what we need at the right time by his Spirit. Don’t forget the power of personal testimony—it’s not an infantile method of sharing the gospel, it was Paul’s method of sharing the direct revelation he received from heaven right through his life (Acts 26, cf. Gal 1:12). His witness of the resurrected Messiah was the centrepiece of his entire ministry, and he often proclaimed it as a personal testimony.
Jesus testified to what he had seen and heard (Jn 3:32). John testified to what he had seen and heard (1 Jn 1:3). Mark probably wrote down Peter’s eyewitness. Matthew was also an eyewitness. Luke was the only one who wrote about Jesus as an historian, however his unique two-volume testimony to Jesus demonstrates that his gospel acted as a prequel to his own experiences with Paul (2 Tim 4:11), as documented in Acts. A friend of mine shared the gospel beautifully with one of my Muslim friends and immediately afterwards the Muslim asked him how it worked out for us. There is something more authentic and convincing when we share the gospel as a personal testimony.
In evangelism, everything depends on God, and there is a lot that he does that we simply have no part in at all. The essential things for us are a relationship with God and prayer—acknowledging that it is his gospel and his work of salvation. There are cases when the gospel is proclaimed from wrong motives (Phil 1:15-18). I once had a man push his way into my group of friends. He wanted to impress one of the girls, so he did some walk-up evangelism in front of her, even though he did not believe the message. The girl was won over and I lost contact with them both, but a convert from this incident became my housemate a few days later. This simply proves God’s sovereignty. However, as we wish to serve him willingly, so we must prayerfully ask for and acknowledge God’s work in evangelism.
We have a tough task sharing the gospel with Muslims, but God has been working in their lives already, and he can give us the right words if we depend on him. They are often repelled by the cross or the way we call Jesus the ‘Son of God’, but if we respect them and carefully orient the gospel to their way of thinking, we can overcome these hurdles. And if we remember the core message of the Messiah of the imminent judgement, we please God (and perhaps many Muslims).
*David’s surname is withheld to protect his ministry amongst Muslims.