Why We Opened Our Church to Muslims
In a recent article on Christianity Today's website, Jason Hood raised issues about inviting Muslims to share worship space with Christians. Hood, who is a scholar-in-residence at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, referred to me and my church, Heartsong. While I couldn't tell exactly where Hood stood on the issue, it seemed that he had decided that our decision to allow Muslims from the Memphis Islamic Center (MIC) to use our Celebration Center for Ramadan prayers was made off-hand and without much, if any, theological reflection. Nothing could be further from the truth. My intention is not to refute Hood but to continue this important -- maybe even crucial -- dialogue.
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As a Jesus-following tribe, we could not be more evangelical and exclusivist when it comes to Jesus. We are 21st-century Jesus freaks, and we fly that flag on T-shirts, which many of us wore as we greeted the Muslims who came for Ramadan prayers each night. All we have ever done or will ever do is be witnesses to Jesus -- his teaching, his life, his death and resurrection, and the presence of the Holy Spirit with, in, and through us.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters know this about us because we always speak of Jesus and our love for him, and our love for them because of him, every time we are with them. There was no trading of theologies. They are Muslims; we are Jesus-followers; both of us are clear about that. Jesus said people would know we are his disciples by our love for one another, and that is just what is happening with the dear and gracious people of the MIC. They recognize us as people who have been with Jesus.
Allowing MIC to use our Celebration Center for prayer was done in the context of our relationship with them. We had been talking with them from the moment we knew they were moving next door to us. These were not enemies or strangers but neighbors, acquaintances, and friends. When they asked us if they could use our space, we felt honored because we knew they would never have dared ask us if they thought our answer might possibly be no. That spoke volumes to the quality of the neighborly love we had shared for almost two years.
They asked. So what do we do? How do we respond? On what basis? Our response has to be grounded in our love for Jesus and our commitment to follow only him. The first thing that came to me was the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus intentionally chose as the hero of that story one whom his hearers would most "naturally" have feared and hated. He said that the one they despised out of hand is the very one who was the neighbor -- the very one who fulfilled the second commandment. And then, he told all who would hear to go and be that kind of neighbor. We heard.
Beyond that "no brainer" decision to love our neighbors was the question of how we would do so in the case of inviting them to use our worship space. No thought at all was given to the political ramifications of that decision, either regarding those among our flock who might disagree with it or anyone anywhere who might attack or applaud what we were doing. The decision was firmly based only on our understanding of the mission and nature of the church. The mission of the church is to partner with Jesus to help as many who are lost and spiritually homeless as we possibly can, and to make it a home to them and their tribe (the church). The stated mission of Heartsong is: "Reaching out to the unreached as growing Jesus followers helping others to become growing Jesus followers." We are neither interested, nor involved in doing anything else.
Jason used the example of Ishmael capitulating to Queeg in Moby Dick as an example of going too far in loving our neighbor. I couldn't agree more. What Ishmael did was a total sellout of Jesus, if not at the least, pure syncretism. We didn't even need the New Testament to prove the folly of trying to mix following Jesus with any other faith system. But between the example Jason used for going too far and the rash and hateful approach pursued by the tiny church in Gainesville is a vast gulf. What every thoughtful Jesus follower needs to do is find ways and means to become all things to all people in order to save some. That is what motivated us to love our neighbor so radically (i.e. the root of following Jesus).
Having no qualms about Muslims using the same space we use for worship has everything to do with our understanding of the nature of the church. As we all know, the church is a people, not a building. Nowhere in the teaching of Jesus or the rest of the New Testament witness is the church referred to as a place. The church is the faithful who spend life with Jesus together, according to his teachings and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There is no space that is in itself more sacred than any other on earth. Find me a place in scripture where it says otherwise. A space is sacred only as it is being used for sacred purposes. It is sacred in the memories of the people who encountered God there, but not in itself. I can take you to a picnic table at Arkabutla Dam near the spillway that is a sacred spot for me. It is where I proposed to my wife over 40 years ago. But I'm sure it's not the same sacred space to the countless other picnickers who have spent time there.
The space we use for worship is also used for sports banquets, dinner theater, scout ceremonies, rock concerts, and zumba. If you believe a certain space is holy in itself, say a space named the sanctuary of a church, what happens to its holiness when that building becomes a restaurant or a bar or a bed and breakfast? Is it still a holy space? Where did the holiness go?
Every church has to make its own decisions about what to do. Our decision in this case and every case is based on our understanding of Jesus' teaching, his life, his death and resurrection, and his ongoing life among us as we are grounded in the Bible and led by the Spirit. Being infallible creatures we will not possibly get that right, but doing our best is our responsibility. We have and continue to do so.
One of the most troubling components in the current dialogue about relationships between Jesus followers and Muslims is the charge that Muslims do not worship the one true God -- that they are idolaters. I wonder if people who say that would make the same charge against Jews who also do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. The Muslims with whom I share relationships of love and trust tell me they worship the same God I do and the Jews do. According to my faith, they cannot do it to the fullest because Jesus is the full revelation of God -- God in flesh and blood. But who am I to say that they do not worship the one true God according to their understanding? Jesus reserved his sternest warnings for those who would dare take the place of God and pass judgment on the heart of another. Heartsong and I do not dare do this. Be careful, sisters and brothers, that you also do not.