In Dearborn, Mich., home of the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States, students from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) learned about praying for and sharing the gospel with local Muslims during a three-day visit to the city.
M.Div. student Josh Hildebrand, center, reads from the Gospel of John with two Arab-American men, right, at a local bakery in Dearborn, Mich.
Led by faculty member Ayman S. Ibrahim, the team interacted with a number of the 100,000-plus Arab Americans who comprise at least 45 percent of Dearborn’s population.
The 13 students from Southern Seminary and its undergraduate school, Boyce College, visited local Arab bakeries and restaurants, starting conversations with Muslims and discussing the Christian faith. The team also visited the Islamic Center of America, which was one of the largest mosques in the United States when it was built in 2005.
Several students received contact information for the Dearborn residents they met, aiming to have follow-up conversations about the gospel.
“Evangelism is not impossible, beginning a conversation with Muslims is not impossible, and people are ready to listen,” said Ibrahim, regarding lessons the students learned from the Feb. 22-24 trip. “It’s completely worth it when you see you’re opening eyes and changing minds.”
The team not only saw the religion of Islam close-up when they visited the mosque but also spoke with practicing Muslims face-to-face, applying in real-time what many of them have learned in class with Ibrahim, director of Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam and the Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies.
Josh Hildebrand, an M.Div. student in Islamic studies who has studied Arabic at the seminary, said it was “really encouraging to have learned things in class about Islam and use that [in conversation]. Having the class definitely made me feel a lot more credible and a lot more respected.”
The trip gave students a more balanced perspective on Muslims, said Ashley Ulrich, a 2013 graduate of Southern Seminary with an M.A. in education. Most Muslims know very little about Christianity and likely have never talked at length with a Christian, she said, noting that American Christians should not equate all Muslims with ISIS or other terrorist extremists but recognize them as fellow humans created in God’s image and in need of the gospel.
“Muslims are just people. We build relationships with them in the same exact way that we build relationships with anybody. You find out the superficial stuff first and then you go a little bit deeper,” Ulrich said. “That’s how I get to know every other nationality of people; why would I treat them any differently just because they come from a different religious context?”
Engaging Muslims in conversations about the gospel in Dearborn gave her the confidence to share the gospel anywhere in the world, said Lenny Hartono, who is pursuing an M.A. in biblical counseling at Southern. Hartono is from Indonesia, which has the largest number of Muslims by raw population of any country in the world, according to the Pew Research Center.
“From this trip, I feel the Lord has equipped me to be a better evangelist when I go back to my country,” Hartono said, saying she thought Muslims with Mideast homelands who populate the Dearborn area would be much harder to connect with than her fellow Indonesians. “I thought the Muslims from the Middle East would be violent, not as open, scared of Christians and hate Christians. But they’re so open!” she said. “My own people – whom I know so well – will be even more open. After this trip, I will be able to be more courageous to share with my own people.”
The interactions in Dearborn required patience, Hartono said, since the students’ primary goal was to challenge Muslims to think about Christianity differently and begin to build relationships. Contrary to how most Westerners perceive Middle Eastern Muslims, she said they were welcoming, friendly and open to having deep conversations about religion.
Hartono added that the trip has given her more confidence to share the gospel with all non-Christians, not only Muslims.
“This trip was a good springboard. Muslims are the people in my head that are the most difficult, the most resistant, the most unwelcoming,” Hartono said. “So if the people I thought would be resistant are actually open, this can give me confidence that the Lord can use this to equip me to evangelize anybody He wants me to share the Good News with.”
For Ulrich, the trip also underscored the importance of prayer in evangelism. While visiting a restaurant, a member of Ulrich’s team reminded her she needed to pray for each conversation as it took place. She found herself praying for three different conversations going on simultaneously, even forgetting to eat her own dinner. The necessity of prayer in evangelism before, during and after a conversation became clear to Ulrich during the trip.
“I’ve never thought about [prayer] that way before,” she said. “… [T]he fact that God allows me to be a part of that because of His love and He invites us into relationship with Him … that’s kind of a big deal.”
More information about Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center, which seeks to establish a scholarly Christian understanding of Islam, is available at jenkins.sbts.edu.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Andrew J.W. Smith is a writer for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.)