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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

By Micah Fries

On a popular website, I recently saw the headline: “Muslim Population in U.S. to Double by 2050.” It was typed in all caps. The headline led you to think that Islam will soon overwhelm the U.S. The headline was used to strike fear in readers, inciting them to oppose immigrants from Muslim countries. Insinuations like this one are seemingly successful. Fear does exist in the U.S. over the growth of Islam, and there is a growing animosity toward Muslims in the United States. As a result many American Christians are paralyzed when it comes to showing and sharing the love of Jesus with their Muslim co-workers and neighbors. 

The headline is technically correct. Nevertheless, the statement itself implies something that is simply wrong. Yes, Islam is growing. Yes, Islam is projected to double in the next few decades. But when the numbers are taken into consideration, even doubling Islam, only a small percentage of residents in the United States will follow Islam. According to Pew Research, Islam is projected to grow from approximately 1% to 2.1% of the U.S. population by 2050. This data does reflect a significant increase. However, the current number of Muslims is a relatively small segment, and it will continue to be small even as it doubles in size. I suspect that the vast majority of Americans would be shocked to know that Muslims only make up around 1% of the current population in U.S.  I recently polled a number of people to see if they knew the percentage of Muslims in the United States. Of the people with whom I talked, most were college-educated, many with seminary degrees and careers in the religious world. Without exception, they gave a much higher number than 1%. The concerns about the growth of Islam have seemingly far outpaced its actual size. 

Some of the reasons for this growing concern are the media and those who overstate the information for political gain. The most troubling aspect of this situation is that Christians believe the misinformation and respond in fear. The fear stems in part from threat that Christianity will lose its dominant position in the culture. The threat of danger should not be dismissed because it does exist. It existed in our culture before the current migration of Muslims to the United States. But, I contend that false information has inflated the fear of danger. 

How should evangelical Christians then view the current growth of Islam in America? How should we react to it? Should we view it as a good thing? Or a concern? The immediate answer is that evangelicals should be concerned about the growth because it reflects the potential momentum of Islam, and yet simultaneously we should view it as a great opportunity to show and share the love of Jesus. While most evangelicals see the unique opportunity to engage Muslims who have moved to North America, few Christians engage Muslims in conversations about our faith. In a recent research project conducted by LifeWay Research, and sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table and World Relief, we learn the following: 

  • 21% of evangelicals say they have ever been encouraged by their local church to reach out to immigrants in their communities 
  • 53% of evangelicals agree they are very familiar with what the Bible says about how immigrants should be treated
  • 73% of evangelicals agree that the arrival of immigrants presents a great opportunity to share Jesus Christ 

Less than one-quarter of evangelicals are being encouraged by their churches to reach out to immigrants. Yet, more than half of the evangelicals surveyed are confident that they know what the Bible teaches about how to treat immigrants. The disparity between these responses is significant.             

Evangelicals are aware of the significant strategic opportunity Muslim immigration offers the church. Almost three-quarters of evangelical Christians believe the current arrival of immigrants offers a tremendous prospect for gospel advance, but they are not being mobilized to reach out to immigrants in their communities. Pastors and church leaders are called to equip and deploy their members to love and engage their neighbors. This includes their Muslim neighbors. 

God’s call to show and share the love of Jesus should be the only reason we need to engage Muslims moving into our communities. I fear that political and cultural concerns have eclipsed the biblical mandate to engage others with the love of Jesus. When asked what factors most influenced their convictions on immigration, 10% ofevangelicals named the Bible and 2% named their church. The factors receiving the highest responses were personal relationships with immigrants, opinions of friends and family, and reporting by mass media. 

History demonstrates that God has used migration to advance his gospel message among previously resistant people. In Global Diasporas and Mission, Chandler Im and Amos Young point out: 

For Christians who participate in God’s redemptive purposes, the migration of people, whether forced or voluntary, should be viewed not as accidental, but as part of God’s sovereign plan. God determines the exact times and places where people live “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). We are called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19); with immigration, the nations show up on our doorstep. The mission field has crossed our borders and settled into our communities as our coworkers and neighbors.

We need to resist being apathetic or unaware of the immigration growth in North America. We also need to resist a version of American nationalism that leads to being suspicious of anyone who does not give priority to American interests. This ideology becomes even more problematic when Christians support American nationalism and marry it to their religious beliefs.  In a recent journal article in the American Politics Research, Eric Leon McDaniel, Irfan Nooruddin, and Allyson Faith Shortle argue that when when one’s American identity is conflated with their religious ideals it negatively impacts their acceptance of immigrants from different religious backgrounds. Here is a condensed version of their argument by way of quotation. 

When American identity is infused with religious ideals, this will increase the symbolic threat level… These social identity arguments lead us to hypothesize that those high in Christian nationalist leanings should have increasingly negative immigrant attitudes because of the threat they perceive by outside groups that potentially challenge their own values and beliefs… Because of the intertwining of religion and nationalism, immigration threatens their entire Christian national identity by permitting others to alter their exclusive conceptions of what it means to be an American.

Their analysis shows that political ideology and theology can intersect to (negatively) shape one’s view on immigrants, which in turn impacts one’s (un)willingness to engage immigrants with the gospel. This leads us to a place where we view our Muslim neighbors with skepticism and fear rather than viewing them as individuals created in the image of God, and possible recipients of God’s saving grace. 

This post is an excerpt from Islam and North America by Micah Fries and Keith Whitfield. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Micah Fries

Micah Fries (@micahfries) is the Senior Pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN and is a frequent speaker in churches and conferences. He served as a pastor in Missouri and an international church planter in West Africa. He holds a Master of Divinity and a Bachelor of Arts in Theology. While in college, Micah met Tracy, and they married in May of 2000. Micah is currently a student in the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Seminary, where he is studying North American Missiology.

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