NEW YORK—When radical Islamic terrorists brought down the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers 15 years ago, they didn’t realize their actions would also help bring down walls to reaching Muslims with the gospel.
But that’s exactly what happened.
In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of Unengaged, Muslim Unreached People Groups (UMUPGs) in the world has decreased by nearly 20 percent, from 1,333 in 2001 to 1,077 today, according to statistics provided by Vision 5:9, a coalition of Christian missions organizations focused on reaching Muslims.
That translates to 32 million fewer Muslims living in groups with little or no access to the gospel than when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Missiologist and former Southern Baptist missionary David Garrison argues more than 80 percent of history’s movements of Muslims coming to Christ—defined as at least a thousand Muslims from the same people group being baptized over 20 years or less—have occurred in the 21st century.
Nik Ripken, a worker in the Muslim world whose story is chronicled in the book and film “The Insanity of God,” said “prior to 9/11 there were hundreds of Muslims coming to Christ. Since 9/11 there is a significant segment of American culture and a significant segment of Muslim culture that realizes hate and war does not change anything. It makes it worse.
“So now, where we saw a trickle of Muslims coming to Christ, we’re seeing tens of thousands,” Ripken told Baptist Press.
At the same time, however, some believers have withdrawn from missions to Muslims out of fear, and some of the evangelistic opportunity has been squandered.
‘Advance the name of Christ’
Greg Belser, pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., told BP, “Overwhelmingly, the response of our church has been, ‘If this is the condition of the world, then we need to be all the more urgent with sharing Christ.’ … Our church has responded aggressively as a result of the so-called cultural conversation surrounding 9/11.”
Morrison Heights’ sense of urgency eventuated in the church’s adoption of a UMUPG in Central Asia in 2013 to whom they have sent one couple to live fulltime and are preparing to send another. Short-term teams from the church also travel to the people group periodically, and a local contact person, or “man of peace,” has been established.
“Do we know that there are people (in the world) who have terrorist intents?” Belser asked. “There’s no getting around that. We know that. But Jesus came into a violent world, and we live in a violent world still, and we will continue to advance the name of Christ whenever the Lord gives us opportunity.”
Closer to home, the church is active in showing hospitality to and engaging in gospel conversations with Muslim students at nearby Mississippi College.
Mike Edens, a professor of Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary who formerly served as a missionary in the Muslim world, told BP that Morrison Heights is representative of a larger trend.
For 25 years before 9/11, Edens said, the evangelical missions movement had begun to focus on the concepts of unreached people groups and the so-called 10/40 Window, a region spanning parts of Europe, Africa and Asia in which many of the 865 million Muslim residents have little or no access to the gospel. Sept. 11 inspired a more widespread interest in those concepts across the evangelical world as believers became more attuned to Islam.
“9/11 changed the attitude in a broader spectrum of the church,” Edens said. The deadliest terrorist attacks ever on American soil “changed the ground-level understanding in one way or another in the average Christian.”
As Western evangelicals became more eager to share the gospel with Muslims, a segment of the Islamic world became more open to receive it, said Mokhles Hanna, pastor of the Atlanta-area Arabic Baptist Church in Lilburn.
“When Sept. 11 happened, when ISIS came, when al-Qaeda came,” some Muslims “started reading more about whether (terrorism and violence) was really the teaching of Islam,” Hanna told BP. “Some of them started realizing, ‘Wow, this is the Islam we didn’t know. … Muhammad killed. His followers killed. And this is what the Quran is teaching.’”
Hanna added, “Thousands of them left Islam,” with some becoming secular or atheist and others turning to Christ.
According to Garrison’s book “A Wind in the House of Islam,” 69 of the 85 movements of Muslims coming to Christ in mass since Islam’s founding have occurred in the 21st century. Garrison told BP that 9/11 is one of multiple factors to have caused some Muslims to abandon their faith. Other factors include activities of terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Hamas, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
“It’s hard to draw a one-to-one correlation” between Muslims coming to Christ and 9/11, Garrison said. “But there is a correlation.”
Muslims, he said, “have been awakened by 9/11 with a jolt” and are thinking, “Is this who we are? If this is who we are, then I’m not sure I signed up for this.”
Regarding violent Islam, the Pew Research Center reported this summer that “in many cases, people in countries with large Muslim populations are as concerned as Western nations about the threat of Islamic extremism.” Pew also reported, “Muslims worldwide mostly say that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam are rarely or never justified.”
‘It surprises me’
While Hanna rejoices in the Muslims who have come to Christ, he is surprised American Christians haven’t responded to Muslim spiritual openness with greater gospel witness.
“It surprises me that American churches still don’t get it,” said Hanna, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 2006. “They still don’t understand the true nature of Islam and how much more work we need to do to reach out to them.”
Ripken thinks fear stemming from 9/11 is partially to blame for the less-than-ideal evangelistic response.
“After 9/11, the church’s first response was to be afraid and withdraw from sending its sons and daughters and its second-career people to change the heart of Islam, to change the mindset so that things like 9/11 would not take place,” Ripken said.
Though fear continues to be the predominant emotional response among some Christians, Ripken’s wife Ruth told BP, gradually missions-minded Christians returned to the field with a courageous yet wiser perspective on security.
Missions organizations’ “initial response was, ‘Let’s pull everyone out (of Muslim areas). Let’s get everyone to safety,’” said Ruth Ripken. “But after they took a deep breath, many organizations spent time in prayer. They put people back into their locations and realized, ‘We can’t be a kneejerk organization. We have to be an organization prepared for situations like this.’
“They began to evaluate how to equip workers on the field to be better strategic thinkers, to be more aware of their surroundings, and most groups began to implement security plans so people knew what to do in the event of” future terrorist attacks, Ruth Ripken said.
Moving forward, organizations and individuals should continue to engage the Muslim world wisely and strategically, the Ripkens said. The most effective means they have found to reach Muslims are house churches, engaging entire families at once rather than individually and using the Arabic language.
In their travels to churches across America, they plead for more followers of Jesus to be on mission to Muslims in North America and internationally.
“The only places where Muslims are not coming to Jesus in significant numbers,” Nik Ripken said, “are those places we don’t go.” (BP)