OT stories with Muslims

Recently I got this email after a seminar.  I cleaned up my reply and post, hoping  it helps others see some of the thinking that goes into choosing stories to share with our friends.

Hi Tim, I was following up with you on my question I had for you at Perspectives. I’m sorry I could not stay and hear the answer that evening. I had asked what five stories would you pick to share, starting with the old testament to the new to share the gospel. The reason I ask about bringing in the Old Testament is because i think it would be more effective to Muslim’s. I would love to know your thoughts. Thank you for your time and ministry.

 In Him,


Hey Amanda.  Thanks for writing me about this.  Here’s my quick thoughts.  Would be more than glad to talk more if you want.

I completely agree in many situations with bringing in OT stories with Muslims, for a few reasons.

1.  Common names and background (even if details are different) builds trust with Muslims as we talk about the stories.  We’re not combating them.  It also as builds credibility for God as you walk through stories about Him.

Semere Training2.  Many Muslims haven’t ever talked about OT people that Christians believe with Christians and think we only want to
talk about Jesus with them.

3.  The Koran says that the Book (Bible) is to be known.  While they believe that we have corrupted the Bible, by finding a more comfortable ground to talk with them on (OT) we invite them into some “softer” areas of discussion before we talk about Christ, which can be more tense.

4.  A friend once told me after he shared the Jesus Film with dozens of villages that he felt he was “giving them dessert before giving them a meal”.  How can you understand the gospel without understanding why the gospel had to be?

But what 5 stories would I share?  That’s a tough one b/c of all the variables.  Not to make it too analytical, but you have to consider how devout and how cultural Muslim are they, what are their views of Christians, of the Bible, how do they view Jesus, what is your relationship with them, and others probably.

But I’d think of using a story set along the theme of promise.

God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9, 17:1-8).

God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7).

Isaiah 52-53.

Then a story about Jesus having authority to forgive sins and heal such as the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2) or maybe Zacchaeus (Luke 19) b/c Jesus says this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham, tying it to the earlier story.

Then I’d condense the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection (a lot to put together) into one longer story.  This ties all three OT stories together.

Then end with Jesus time with the disciples before his ascension, which gives you the reason you are sharing this story with your friend in the first place, because the prophet Jesus who was the Son of God said to obey him is to tell others about him.

Street ViewThese could sound a bit dry since the first three are all prophesy sections, but you could add some context around the promises to make it more living.

Or take 2 or 3 stories from David’s life instead of Abraham and Isaiah.  The theme of promise still fits, but you frontload the stories with some non-conflict ones about a common person, David.  Maybe 1) David as King, 2) David and Bathsheba, 3) Nathan confronting David.  Shows that even great king David was a sinner like all of us and needed God’s grace, which leads to Jesus.

These are just thoughts.  I would hesitate to give you a prescribed list because the goal isn’t to just share stories that are redemptive, but to have the person engage in these stories.

Having said all that, I also would recommend Carl Medearis book “Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships”.  I agree with a lot of what he says about when talking to Muslims, keep it on Jesus rather than trying to use a lot of OT, for example.  You can share five stories about Jesus very effectively, breaching the barrier they have to his deity and sonship.  In some ways it can be much more natural because you are talking about a common figure both religions and discovering truth and differences.  This isn’t confrontation, it’s journeying together.

Cairo WomenSo, before I confuse you any further, I hope you’re seeing that there is no one prescribed good way to share stories with Muslims.  It totally depends on the person you’re friending.  Some will feel more comfortable beginning with a common footing in the OT and you can approach areas of redemption progressively.  Others you’ll feel more comfortable talking about solely Jesus and making a loving case for your friend to think about.



Why are we afraid of the simple?

As a culture, we are afraid of the simple.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but we tend to say we like simple more than we really do.  Think about it.  Our initial thought when something seems simple is that it can’t really be that way.  When something – an item, an idea, a project – seems simple, what do we usually end up doing?  We end up making it more difficult, adding to layers of complexity to it, as if that makes it better, more acceptable, or more effective.  Sometimes this is because we like a challenge and the simple wasn’t good enough.  Sometimes the more complex something is, the more “needed” it makes me feel.  Sometimes it’s because we just can’t accept something in its simplest form so it can’t be “right”.

Getting my girls to do 7th grade algebra has been a nightly tissue-fest.  One opens her math notebook with a melodramatic sigh, resigning herself to the inevitable torture chamber she is about to enter.  The other sets the notebook on the table and starts crying as if it she were getting ready to read her own obituary.  “I CAN’T DO THIS!  It’s too hard!  I didn’t understand what the teacher said!  It’s all her fault! (of course)”

But once we sit down and I can get them to shut their mouths long enough to show them a couple lines, they kind of eek out a whimpy, “Oh, that’s all you do?”

I was speaking at a church and somebody came up afterwards and said, “Storying isn’t really all the difficult, is it?”  Nope.  There are many great ways to communicate about God, teach from the Word, and help people see God, but something that is very common to all of us has been forgotten to be an incredibly effective way of helping people connect with God.  Or to put it another way, sometimes we forget that the simple way that Jesus modeled doing ministry and try to make it more complicated.

Here are a few simple reasons why storying, whether it’s done cross-culturally or within a community or even with our own families, is a good skill to be familiar with.

  1. Stories are natural.  There’s something that just seems normal about telling a story, not needing a high iq or a title or a high theological education to tell something that is very powerful.
  2. Stories are easy to reproduce.  They have images, characters, emotions, action, resolution.  If something leaves an impression on us, it’s easier to recall.  Can you give the three points from the last sermon you heard, or can you tell somebody the three stories used to illustrate those points?
  3. Stories are simple.  How many stories have bullet points, lists, and subsets to remember?  They just flow.
  4. Stories are done in community.  Unless you like telling a story in front of a mirror, when stories are shared it tends to deepen relationships.
  5. Stories are journeying together.  So instead of arguing over theological points, we are discovering things together, walking through the story and it’s take-aways.
  6. Stories lower the barriers that initially opening a Bible could bring with a person who isn’t a follower of Christ.  In some cultures or settings, this is a huge benefit to keeping doors open.
  7. Stories can be shared anytime.  You can be at a dinner table, in a coffee shop, on a plane, in a small group, on the phone, driving, or sitting around a roasting goat.
  8. For many people, the story you share might be the only Bible they ever encounter.  Maybe because there is no alphabet for their language, or maybe because it’s a risk in their context, or maybe because of past experiences have burned them on religion.
  9. Stories can be told by anybody.  We all tell stories.  Some better than others, but we all can tell a story.  People with no reading ability can tell a story!
  10. People like stories.  Simple enough.

I think when we look at Jesus’ ministry we see each of these.  Like I said before, there are a lot of great ways to help people connect with God.  Stories are one simple and powerful way.

I guess I could teach algebra with stories, but my girls hate word problems.

Lost vs Unreached

A couple days ago I had a conversation with a friend about unreached people groups and why people sometimes just have a hard time with that concept.  I wanted to share three of the basic important issues for the Church to consider that we talked about.

First, there is a critical difference between “lost” and “unreached” peoples.  Obviously each group has people that don’t know Christ in it.  The lost group is one where the gospel is present now, but isn’t well received by the majority.  The unreached group is one where the gospel is not yet.  We don’t stop doing ministry to people lost people groups in order to go to unreached people groups, but putting aside not yet places by placing them in the same category as is present now places would be wrong thinking.  They have different and strategic issues to consider on how to minister within.

Second, there is a biblical command to go to those peoples.  The Great Commission wasn’t the Great Suggestion, but we treat it often with the same attitude we have with those black and white signs with numbers on them along the road.  “I understand why they say 65 and I agree with it one hundred percent.  But we know they don’t really mean for us to drive that.”  In the last things we have recorded that Jesus said we don’t have much room to pick and choose if he really meant it or was it something flippant he said as if he were casually leaving someone’s house after dinner.  When Jesus says in Mt 28, “Go make disciples of all nations (ethne – people),” it means, well, all.  Acts 1:8 isn’t an either/or, but a both/and.  If we as a church don’t have that aspect in our missions engagement, we need to honestly ask if we are being obedient.

Third, semantics can be a real hang-up.  Some people just don’t like the phrase “unreached people groups” because it’s a jump-on-the-bandwagon thing.  I’ve also been told that it’s inaccurate terminology.  “If there’s a church there, technically it is no longer unreached.”  (Once somebody actually said to me, “They keep calling this group unreached, but we’ve sent missionaries there.  I think they are trying to sensationalize it so they can get more funding.”)  If wording is a problem, use different words.  Call them hard to reach, least-reached, frontier people groups, hidden peoples, beyond-the-church’s-touch people, it doesn’t really matter.  I like the definition of an unreached people group given in Operation World (962; 2010).

An ethnolinguistic people group among whom there is no viable indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize their own people without outside (cross-cultural) assistance.

The real presence of unreached people groups should cause a dissonance in us, either a holy restlessness as we join in what God is doing that is outside of our norm, or a holy discomfort as we wrestle with imbalances, obedience, or our historical thinking.

BMP Connections:  Yesterday I had an hour phone call planning to go to train believers in a Muslim part of Africa that hasn’t known peace for decades.  Storying is one way that we can help establish churches in this area.  Are we bragging, saying we “get it” while others don’t?  No way!  We are simply one of the parts of the larger Body that gets to focus on these places.  The Church can’t ignore either the local unchurhed, the lost, or the unreached.  There are other places we could go that have people who need Christ that would be a lot safer, we’d be more warmly received, have internet access, and eat better food.  But as part of the Church, this is a place where we (all of us, the Church) need to be going.

After 2,000 years there remain billions of people who today could not hear about Jesus if they screamed at the top of their lungs for somebody to tell them.  There is a reason the gospel hasn’t gotten into these hard to reach places – they’re hard to reach.  As you’re praying with us, you’re engaging in taking the gospel into some of them because God is inviting us to join Him there.

“My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard.”  Romans 15:20, NLT

Advice vs News

OK, so it’s been too long since we wrote a blog entry.  Much has happened, but much has not been communicated through here either.  I could make excuses and justifications, but it would be like my kids telling me why they didn’t get their rooms cleaned up – believable reasons, good reasons, even legit reasons, but the fact is the room still resembles a chemistry lab experiment gone bad.

Buddist TempleRecently I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s book King’s Cross and have several sections underlined. Very good stuff as the author walks through Mark’s account of Jesus’ life.  In chapter 2, Keller talks about what a gospel was in the times of the Romans, giving examples of it being “news of some event that changed things in a meaningful way…something that’s been done for you that  changes your status forever (p. 15).”

He then says,”Right there you see the difference between Christianity and all other religions…The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news.”

When I read that, I immediately thought of the people we’ve been with this year.  A few months ago, I was in a part of India
that has much persecution for believers.  One of my best friends and I were able to spend two weeks with different groups of men and women who have committed their lives to seeing the gospel known among their people.  As we shared with them the natural  way that stories communicate, one man said to me that hehad been trained in many methods of ministry, but stories were simple enough that he could see people telling others once they hear it themselves.  I believe there’s at least one simple reason why.

Advice is something that you feel you have to have a degree of proficiency achieved before you are able to give it to others; why would anybody listen to you otherwise.  News is something that is shared because it has an immediate impression on us.  What do we text, tweet, and FaceBook?  News.  Why?  We want to leave an impression.

Semere RetellingThe gospel – the whole Bible! – is news, but many people in the world either don’t know it, or have reduced it to advice. By telling other people the stories of this news, they are seeing it leave an impression on those around them.  A friend in West Africa recently took some of the training we did together and shared it with twenty-five other believers living in an almost all Muslim region.  They have since started many groups in remote villages who gather to listen to stories underneath trees and by wells.  It is news that is leaving an impression and spreading.

Looking forward to doing a better job at communicating more news to you in the coming months.

When an unschooled man believes God can use him

I recently got an email from a friend in Africa.  A couple months ago I did a training in Ghana (Storying in Ghana).  One of the men who came lives in a remote Muslim area.  For the past year he has been trying to start a church, but has not been able to.  He has never been to school and he can’t read.

Sharing stories to a groupMy friend wrote, “Since he returned from the training, he has been sharing the stories he learned.  47 Muslims have been coming regularly to talk about these stories.”

Why is this happening?  What was different from a year ago?  Probably two things that stand out to me.  Our friend saw that God wasn’t limited to just use people who have been educated (Memorizing vs Knowing).  And his village didn’t see his talking about Jesus as a threat or “infidel evangelism”; it was natural, relational, and simple.

It’s finding ways to get people into God’s Word and God’s Word into people with the fewest number of obstacles possible.

Day 2

I show up at the seminar room…and nobody is there.  This does not bode well after yesterday’s experience (previous Not Everything Goes Smoothly).  But most places around the world you have to add “-ish” to any time reference as relationships are much more important than punctuality.

So about 1:00-ish (which means at 1:45), the room started filling up.  Instead of several days of training with one large group, because of the language issues I decided to do one day in one language, the next day in another, and the third day in yet another.  There wouldn’t be much depth, but at least there would be an introduction that we could build on in the future.  So for this day, I had 75 people who spoke Hindi.

It might help to understand the make up of those who were here.

  • Most had been believers for less than a year.
  • For most, they were the only Christians in their village.
  • Each of them was trying to start a church in a Hindu village.
  • Of the 75, only about ten had been in school.
  • Most could not read.
  • Their Bible knowledge was minimal at best.

And so we began.  Rather than “instructing” them in traditional ways, I shared a Bible story and we talked about it, raising all sorts of points that were theological and practical.  I don’t think they even knew they were learning.  (In another blog I’ll share some observations I’ve made about teaching unschooled men and women.)

StoriesWe have people retell stories in groups and I try to get them to talk about it.  This is a simple model of how they can “have church” back in their village – non-technical, simple, and reproducible.  I had a few people retell the stories up front and from the expressions of many people, they were surprised they had learned the stories!  For many, these were the first Bible stories they had learned!

At the end of the seminar, I told them that the next day I was going to do the session in a different language.  They left and I wasn’t sure exactly how it had been received.

The next day, the same 75 people were there!  I don’t know if they misunderstood that it was going to be a different language today or if they had secretly told the other folks not to show up.  So we did a second set of stories and teaching.

The last day, the same thing happened.  So we did more stories.

What a difference 72 hours makes.  On this last day I had everybody in groups retelling stories.  They were animated and passionate.  Instead of a stoic “Bible study” as many of us experience, they looked more like a group of friends talking in a family room with a football game on the TV in the background.  After 30 minutes I asked my translator if he could tell if most everybody was done.  “I’m so sorry, but they don’t want to stop.  They’re still talking about the story.”

Sharing StoriesAfter another 30 minutes they were still going.  Most Americans don’t go that long on any one topic so I wasn’t sure if they were still on the story or not.  With help from the translator, I sat in a few groups and they were STILL talking about the story.  One man told me he was sorry, but this is the first time since he had become a Christian that he had ever been able to talk about Jesus or the Bible with others!

After they left, I admit a few tears leaked out.  72 hours before I was pulling hair out, wondering what in the world we were going to do.  Now, I had just spent 3 days with 75 unschooled believers who were learning the Bible and talking about how to plant churches in Hindu villages.

Not everything goes smoothly…

After visiting some time in the first village (previous First 48 Hours), I took another night train to a conference of national believers.  There were about 600 attending and I was coming to lead sessions on orality and using stories to plant churches.   Sounds simple.

 I walk into my seminar room and only two people were there.  Thirty minutes later only four.  But they hadn’t missed anything because the translator hadn’t shown up either. 

A few minutes later we got up to fifteen people and I snagged somebody to translate.  We started 45 minutes late, which for overseas is about on-time. Five minutes after starting another ten people show up and we make the circle bigger. I talk about 2 minutes and another 15-ish show up so we rearrange again and start again. Then my original translator shows up so we try to get him up to speed.  We now have an hour left and a good size group of thirty.  I start again…and more people come in. After ten minutes of trying to figure out how to arrange so people can see around the columns holding the roof up scattered around the room we started again. 150 people. BUT…

They spoke 6 different languages and most people only spoke one.  And the translator only knew 1 of them.  Some could understand another language they heard but couldn’t speak back in it.  We tried multiple language translation translating 6 times, which very quickly became obvious that was a ridiculous idea to try.

Hard to have an interactive session when people can’t speak to each other. So I changed plans again and started more lecture style knowing people were being left out. Have you ever tried to teach to a wall…it gives more response than I got.

So I tried an interactive exercise.  Well that went over lousy. 

Finally I told everybody what was obvious, that I had no idea how to work this situation and needed to think on it tonight. Of course only 1/2 understood what I had said after it was translated.

And I have 3 more sessions with this group. 

 That was Day 1 at the conference.  Fortunately, well, have you ever heard the phrase around Easter time, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’”?  Well, it’s Day 1, and Day 2’s comin’…

First 48 Hours in India

A few hours after my twenty-six hour flight to India, I was put on an overnight train, told to get off at some town that I couldn’t pronounce and some guy I didn’t know would meet me.  At 6’2” in a place full of 5’ people, when I got off I was easy to spot.  We got on his motorcycle for a dusty twenty minute ride while every person we passed stared at the “tall white man”, a phrase I have gotten used to over the past few months.  It was 115o.

We arrived at the small village I would be at for a couple days.  It’s in a region where believers have been persecuted in the past.  Though the town itself hadn’t had any problems, my host didn’t let me walk around the village by myself.  So when I had free time I would go on the roof terrace and pray, looking at the Buddhist shrine next to the house, watching people.

That morning I sat with 12 men and women and began to teach them how to use stories in their villages.  There is no alphabet, no Bibles, and no Jesus film in their village language, K.

Tree Adjusted That night we walked a few kilometers to a nearby village.  I stopped at a well as an old woman offered to draw some water so I could wash my hands and feet.  Nearby was a tree that looks a lot like our logo.  In many places of the world that image is what church may look like.  We prayed that this village would have a church soon.

We got to the village as the sun was setting and set up a TV and DVD player to show the Jesus Film in Hindi (one of the major languages of India).  Fifty people came and afterwards about twenty said they wanted to learn more about Jesus.  In a Hindu culture with 330 million gods, adding Jesus to your deities isn’t hard to do; establishing His singularity is.  We told them the next morning we’d come back and share some stories of Jesus.

A couple hours after sunrise we were back.  Thirty people – men, women, kids – were sitting under a tree.  And we told a story of Jesus in K.  Then we told another.  And another.  At that point an old man stood up.

Man with stories “When I was a boy (obviously a long time ago), a man from England came and told us about Jesus, but we didn’t understand.  Many years later, an Indian came and told us about Jesus in Hindi.  We understood what he was saying, but only in our heads.  Today, when you told us stories in K…I felt it in my heart.  Will you tell us more about Jesus?”

I told him I have a friend who lives not too far away.  If my friend came every two or three weeks, would the old man bring two or three others and meet him underneath this tree and learn the stories he would share?  And would he then tell those stories to people in the village underneath this tree?  The old man said yes.

So underneath a tree in a remote Indian village, Hindus are gathering now to hear for the first time stories of Jesus in K, learning why Jesus is unique from 330 million gods.

And that was the first forty-eight hours in India.

Memorizing vs Knowing

One of the questions I know I’ll get each time I’ve done a training anywhere – US and overseas – is “Don’t you feel it’s important for people to know where things are in the Bible?”  Absolutely.  But every situation it is not needed or sometimes even right to whip out a Bible and “get my preach on”.

In Ghana a cool scene occurred.  One guy said something like “I can’t memorize the Bible.  I can’t read and I only know a couple verses.”  We had just done four stories together and he had done an incredible job.  When I told him that the four stories were made up of over sixty verses, he got WIDE EYED and a huge grin and all the brothers around him started cheering him, rubbing his head, and making noise.  It was great.

Storying in Ghana

In Accra, the coastal capital of Ghana, the prosperity gospel is very present.  People name their shops after something about God in the hope they will be abundantly blessed, so there are thousands of places like “Halleluiah Redemptive Praise Hair Salon”, “Christ Fire and Salvation Repair Shop” or “Magnified Creator Our Savior Restaurant”.  My favorite was the “Though Millions Have Come To Heaven There Is Room For One More Motor Repair”. 

Several hours north of Accra I spent my week training people who had a different label.  Illiterate.  That adjective has affected how they view themselves being able to contribute to reaching the unreached people groups around them.  The first region I was in has the highest number of Muslims in the country.  Christians work all day in the fields and try to do ministry among their Muslim neighbors. They have felt under-qualified to do so because they can’t read.  The focus of this trip was to help a West Africa region ministry begin to answer the question “How do we train illiterate missionaries?”      

For two days we sat under a mango tree in this village with a mixed group of twenty literates and illiterates, sharing stories from the gospels.  During the first few hours, you could see those who could not read remain silent as those who could read started analyzing and questioning everything.  I tried very hard to not have us pulled this direction. The illiterates were used to these sorts of trainings and being left behind. 

On the third story, everything changed.  The illiterate men began to see that this method of ministry was something they could do!  The literate men wisely joined in instead of trying to take control.  Using the story content as our context, we talked about evangelism, church planting, personal spiritual growth, prayer, God’s character, the nature of sin, and salvation through Jesus.  At the end of the two days, one of the older men stated what had become obvious to everybody – “We can’t read.  We don’t need more training in methods.  We need you who can read to teach us more stories so we can reach Muslims!” Everybody’s head nodded and voices echoed agreement.

Driving several kidney-busting hours further, I spent two days in a village made up of mud and bamboo houses that doesn’t appear on any map.  The place we trained in is four bamboo posts on top of which lay bamboo leaves for shade.  After we arrived, fifteen men and women began to show up from the orange fields and nearby villages to meet the oburuni (white man) teacher.

At the end of the first day I gave an assignment.  Go share one of the stories we did with somebody, anybody.  Animism and traditional religion dominate this region.  People live in fear of evil spirits being everywhere.  The next day, every single one of the people who couldn’t read gave testimonies of sharing their faith with neighbors and other workers in fields through a story.  (Interestingly, most of the literate men did not share a story that night.) 

The story most shared was about the demon possessed man being healed (Mark 5) and many said their friends had never heard anything before about evil spirits being submissive to anything else.  One man stood up and said his friend demanded to hear more stories of Jesus because he was tired of living in fear.  He made a plea to his literate brothers, “PLEASE, teach me more stories so I can reach my village!”

In both these villages, national ministry leaders were present.  When I debriefed at the end of the trip, the West Africa director of mobilization said, “This changes everything we do.”  We will be talking more to see how throughout Africa training can be done so that the focus of the phrase “illiterate missionary” is on missionary, not illiterate.