How do we love and befriend our Muslim neighbors so that we can introduce them to our best friend, Jesus?
On this week’s podcast, Doug interviews Agshin Jafarov. Agshin works with RCA Global Missions to help resettle many refugees in the Great Lakes Region. During this interview, they discuss Agshin’s experiences working with Muslim refugees – how to evangelize to them, but, most importantly, how to be their friend.
[00:00:25] An Introduction to Agshin Jafarov
Agshin began his journey to Christianity in his home country of Azerbaijan with an American professor. When he came to America in 2005, he was baptized and soon enrolled in Western Theological Seminary, graduating in 2009. He has worked with Muslim students and now with Muslim refugees. The Muslim population is growing, and one of the most important things Christians can do is to help these Muslims, many of whom are refugees, acclimate to life in America.
[00:05:55] Beginning Evangelism
When thinking about evangelism; it requires mutual respect based on the assumption that everyone is made in God’s image. This is something that we all share – Christian or Muslim. When we have that thought in our minds, there is no more us and them, but a we. That opens the door to being able to recognize other commonalities with which to begin building a relationship. Also, being to help these Muslim refugees acclimate to America and the culture, being able to share life’s challenges, is the start of a friendship.
[00:09:50] Befriend and Evangelize
Evangelism isn’t the target, the target is an ongoing friendship. And frienship is an opportunity for continued sharing, learning, and trust. Once that friendship is made, there can be an opportunity to introduce them to our best friend, Jesus Christ, and an opportunity to get closer to God.
[00:15:00] A Story of Conversion
How do you know if a Muslim is open? It’s depends – sometimes they outright ask, sometimes they never talk about faith. That’s why you have to rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit. One refugee from Afghanistan was adopted by a church. He was so moved by the overflowing hospitality and help he had received from these Christians in comparison to the aid he had (or hadn’t) recieved from Muslim organizations. That sparked an interest in the Bible that allowed his heart to be opened to the gospel. And just recently, he was baptized!
Many times a Muslim will convert to Christianity when the see a credibility gap between Islam and Christianity. That’s why oftentimes theology and apologetics are less important to them than relationships and who you are as a person. That’s why there needs to be an explanation about Christianity in America in the context of the culture for new refugee believers.
[00:25:25] Call to Action
Agshin’s work with the refugees consists of helping them with daily errands, translating for them, teaching them how to drive, and being a mediator between churches and their adopted refugee. Pray for the incoming refugees, that they will have a smooth transition into American life and culture, and that they will be able to discern the difference between American culture and Christianity. Pray for Agshin, that he will continue to grow in wisdom and maintain his energy as he helps these refugees every day. To know how to help, contact any local organizations that you know or continue to educate yourself on the refugee crisis and spread awareness.
RCA Refugee Services – click here to learn more about Agshin’s work and see how you can help.
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DOUG: Welcome to the Luminex podcast. Here you’ll find ideas and conversation to help you on your church leadership journey. Luminex is focused on leaders to start and develop churches. We provide resources and support for you and all the leaders of your church family at luminexusa.org
EP 9 v.1
DOUG: Welcome to the Luminex podcast and today we’re delighted to have Agshin Jafarov who will talk about today about engaging Muslims. Agshin welcome to the program.
AGSHIN: Thank you very much Doug, my pleasure.
DOUG: Agshin, would you give us a little description of your ministry and what kind of things you do.
AGSHIN: Yes. So, as a minister I used to work with Muslim students on campus of Western Michigan University. In the past, I was doing cross-cultural religious dialogue but I also use this opportunity to evangelize, reach out to Muslim students especially those who came from Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. However that ministry transformed into nowadays working with refugees which is the different group of people but religiously are the same. I still work with Muslims but this time these are refugees. They come from all over the Middle East, sometimes from North Africa, these are some refugees who come from Afghanistan or some come from Syria.
DOUG: So Agshin, can you just give us a little word of testimony. You are here in West Michigan. How did you get here?
AGSHIN: So I came to the United States to go to Seminary in 2005, I think so. I was baptized in the United States but my journey as a Christian started back in my country, which is Azerbaijan. It’s a small country between Russia and Iran, Georgia, Armenia if you are familiar with that area that’s the area where I came from. It was really part of the former Soviet Union. It became independent after the collapse. You can imagine I grew up in a very secularized family with no specific religious background but to make the long story short, later I was introduced to an American professor. We did research back in my country Azerbaijan and interestingly we did research on refugees. And when he came to Azerbaijan, he brought the bible with himself in Turkish. Turkish is a language close to mine and that’s how I first time got access to the bible. And reading that bible I became open to Christianity. It did not make me Christian immediately but it definitely changed my mind in a sense that I realized bible definitely has a lot of things to teach. Christianity is not necessarily a faith that the Qur’an portrays and there are certain elements of Christian faith that is really close to my own background my own understanding with the world. So, I came to the United States in 2005, got baptized in Portage, Michigan, took a few months of English classes and from there on I enrolled in the Western Theological Seminary from which I graduated in 2009, was ordained I think the next year and started to work with the Reformed Church of America as a minister.
DOUG: Well thanks for that background.
AGSHIN: Thank you.
DOUG: As we think about engaging Muslims, I think the first question that many of our listeners – many of them who are living in Michigan, in Ohio, in places where Luminex is active – question is, why? I don’t meet Muslims on a regular basis. Tell me how this kind of thing is happening in my state in my area.
AGSHIN: So we have a growing population of Muslims in this country. Whether we want it or not that’s a fact Islam is the second largest religion in the world, it’s also unfortunately right now is the most militarized faith whether we want it or not. There are certain elements within Islam that unfortunately threaten the peace whether it is the Unites States or back in my country or in Russia or in China. So as the part of the population migration from one country to the other, these people who really are followers of the second largest religion come to the United States whether as refugees, or whether to look out for better opportunities, they come to this country and they settle down. and I believe that the Lord calls us to evangelize them and to disciple them; because unlikely I’d say 60 or 70 years ago nowadays these people come to us here rather than us missionaries going to their countries and I believe this is a great opportunity to evangelize. Now in my experience I think you perhaps remember several years ago there was a huge uprising in France, suburbs of Paris where young Muslim population that were not integrated into the society well rebelled and caused a lot of damage within their area [00:05:00]. so at least for the sake of incorporating people into the country and making them to be part of this country, to contribute well to the society I think it is the church’s call to reach out to people. That’s kind of a one-sided way but more than that I would say much more important is the Christ’s call. You know Christ call us to evangelize, reach out to this people and Muslims unfortunately have mistaken beliefs about Jesus Christ. that’s what I learned when I became a Christian and I think it’s Christians call to help Muslims see Christian faith from Christian perspective in a sense that it doesn’t make them feel like, “Well, this is really wrong faith you know. There’s something wrong with this faith.” I think helping them see Christian from Christian faith would help them understand church and be more willing and open to church.
[00:05:55] Ep. 9 v.2
DOUG: So some of strategy or some of the work of engaging these new migrant migrating Muslim populations is helping them to assimilate just in general as a humanitarian work and you do this with refugees.
DOUG: Some of it then begins to spill over into sharing our faith and a dialogue and evangelizing conversation.
DOUG: And we’re making a distinction of course between proselytizing and evangelizing.
DOUG: So let’s talk a little bit about that. What are some of the first conversations or first questions that happen in the evangelization process with Muslims?
AGSHIN: Right. So in my understanding evangelization is really requires assumption that the other person we approach to is also created in God’s image, they share something from God even though it may not be the way we see even though it may be really dusted under the cares of the world they’re still image of God and that quality of being image of God invites Christians to recognize that potential. Becoming Christ’s follower of these people and then approaching Muslims. So I would say from my perspective the basic assumption to reach out to Muslims would be to see them as someone who shares the God’s image with us. It’s not someone who comes from another culture, it’s not just someone who speaks in a different language but it’s also someone who has fundamental closeness or similarities to us in that they’re a God’s image. And I think that’s where compassion starts. So that’s the first principle, the way I apply to myself in my ministry being compassionate because these people also share God’s image with us; being aware of that fact and then approaching to them.
DOUG: And so that becomes a basis of friendship…
DOUG: …of mutual respect…
DOUG: …and when we talk about mutual respect, we’re not talking about agreeing with theological positions…
DOUG: …but respecting them as fellow human beings.
AGSHIN: Exactly. I will definitely agree with that. I don’t think being friendly or being a friend of someone who disagrees with us in ultimate matters of belief, or faith, or country, or nation, or politics is something extremely difficult to do. I think as long as people are willing they can reach out to Muslims and befriend them by sharing with them something from their own lives because most of the Muslims come from cultures or societies that has very high value of hospitality. And as soon as you are willing to open up a little bit to these people, I guarantee you that, if not all of them, many of them will become open to you. In a sense that they will be willing to befriend you, they will be willing to become your friend, talk to you maybe visit with you to places that you want to take them that’s one side of it I think the friendship. And the other side of it I would say is helping them to meet the challenges of life because these people come here, not matter how long they live here the cultural differences, the linguistic differences these things also affect their lives. So they need someone an American maybe to come along with them and help them understand the culture. So you helping them to understand let’s say American history or help them understand really very easy like elementary things such as the importance of laws in this country, or the importance of family relations in this country, or the specific features of gender relations in this country. These are the things that they need to learn. So you can help them definitely to learn these things through you with you rather than that person picking it up from somewhere here and there and often going the wrong direction.
[00:09:50] Ep. 9 v.3
DOUG: There seems to some real intrinsic value to making [00:10:00] friends with people from another culture and from another perspective that goes beyond our opportunity to evangelize but that makes us more human, …
AGSHIN: Yes, I will agree with that.
DOUG: …makes us more like Christ.
DOUG: I’m just inserting that because I don’t want that to be lost. We’re not making friends with Muslims as though they’re evangelistic targets.
AGSHIN: Yes. That’s very true. Yes. I would agree with that. Yes, I don’t see evangelization as an activity that objectifies people. It is true that there are missionaries or evangelists who either consciously or subconsciously yield to that attitude where you see these people as numbers. Your job is to evangelize them and they move on which I believe erroneous attitude. Because at least in the ministry of Jesus Christ when we look into that, we see Jesus Christ treating all people as people rather than simply as objects. So yes evangelization is important but it shouldn’t be taken in a sense that allows us to objectify people reduce them to their religion and nothing else. I think people are more than that by becoming a friend of a Muslim we can also learn from them. In fact there are also some common features between Islam and Christianity and their perspective can open up our understanding certain elements of Christianity or certainly elements of Islam. So I would say yes I do definitely agree with that evangelization shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity to objectify or reduce people to this or that religion and not to be open to them. If we’re going to be open to them, yes I think God calls us to be open to them as human beings rather than simply as okay this is an object, I am going to deal with it and then move on.
DOUG: And so the opportunity for the Christian is to make a really good friend.
AGSHIN: Yes, I would agree with that
DOUG: And to show the hospitality and love of Jesus.
AGSHIN: Yes. I would definitely agree with that.
DOUG: And then beyond that to introduce that friend to our best friend, to the Lord Jesus himself.
AGSHIN: Exactly. That’s important to me because I think in my own experience I have seen it, and in the experience of other people I have seen it. That people who come to Jesus Christ they come especially if they come from Muslim backgrounds sometimes they come because they have some burden in their heart or burden in their soul and I think Christ is able to take away that burden. So when we reach out to these people as friends of Christ and invite them see another dimension of humanity through Christ or within Christ I don’t think we really take their religion away from them or force them into something. I think we actually show them another opportunity of getting closer to God. Religious conversion happened throughout all ages. It’s not just phenomenon specific to Christianity or Islam I think in other faiths around the world we see this evangelization for what it has happened. So it’s really exchange of ideas that really transforms the soul and I think Christianity has really a legitimate claim in that.
DOUG: Yes. So let’s talk about evangelizing well and of course evangelizing is proclaiming the good news, introducing people to the word of God to Jesus Christ who we believe is the exact representation of God’s being…
AGSHIN: Yes, true.
DOUG: …but it also has a persuasive element to it.
DOUG: Paul says we persuade people to call out to the savior.
DOUG: So as you think about all of those different aspects, what are some of the ways that a beginner like myself can share my faith with a Muslim person?
AGSHIN: Right. Good question. Usual what I do in my own practice I always found, and I still do, that I always found some common interest that we share. I think common interest is the door to people’s lives. Some common interest that really not just he or she shares with you but you also share with them. Let’s say whether it’s I don’t know. Hiking or you name it reading or writing something that will really help you to bond because I think before we earn trust or space for that trust, it would be very mistaken suddenly jumping into people’s lives and start preaching to them or somehow talk about Jesus Christ because they are not there yet, they are not open. Even if they’re open I think when the element of trust lacks, we do disservice to Jesus Christ and to ourselves. So I would say trust is an important part of it but then again as you mentioned not that trust is a tool to evangelize and then discard but in a sense that through Jesus Christ we also build deeper relationship with these people, we literally become their friends and they become our friends and we are willing to share our views, our religious faith with them so that they can share God’s joy with us. That’s the approach that I take.
[00:15:00] Ep 9 V.4
DOUG: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I think one question that probably would come from many of our listeners is whether it seems, are Muslims even open to this discussion? Are they open to the gospel? Are Muslims coming to Christ?
AGSHIN: Right. It’s really difficult to generalize in one way or the other. I’ve seen in my experience Muslims who themselves asked me to talk to them about Christ. We were not even friends yet. They just somehow heard about Christianity or knew that I’m a minister and then they asked me certain questions about Christianity. Do you believe in three gods for example? Or, who do you believe Jesus was? Which is an invitation to speak about Christianity. I have also seen some Muslims who live in this country long, become my friend and I become their friend, but never ever take any explicit interest in matters of faith. They may go to mosque or may not but they never show any interest in faith. I think you have to let the Holy Spirit lead you in that context. There isn’t really any one specific like measurable way of determining whether this Muslim is open or not. You can try; you can knock the door of their life and if they open you can slowly join, become their friends, and let the Holy Spirit speak through them to you. So I would say, it’s difficult to generalize and say well, these are the signs or these are not the signs that they are open or not open. I will say it really depends on situation. You have to let the Holy Spirit lead you.
DOUG: Yeah. That’s good advice for any kind of evangelist conversation. Can you tell us a story about someone who has come to faith recently or in the last few years? And I want to ask you to tell the story sort of an unfolding process. How did this person move from faith in Islam exclusively to becoming a believer in Jesus Christ?
AGSHIN: Okay. So this is very recent event that happened maybe I would say a month ago, even slightly more than a month ago. This Afghani refugee I’m not going to mention his name because his family still doesn’t know that he’s a Christian. He came to the United States legally from one of the Middle Eastern countries, churches adopted him here and he became involved in church not because he wanted to become a Christian but he just found it surprising that Christian churches actually took him under their wing. Like literary he became interested because Christians do such thing for him. So he became interested in Christianity and I was working with him very closely, I was giving him ride, taking him to the Secretary of the State, translating for him because I also speak some Persian, I can manage myself speaking Persian. I was helping him with translations, I also taught him how to drive so I think through these interactions we started to talk about Jesus Christ. One day he just point blank asked me I remember we were in the Secretary of State building. We went there I think to arrange exam or something – driving. So one day he asked me point blank, what Christians believe about Jesus Christ and I shared this with him, “We believe Jesus Christ is God’s son. He is human but he is also divine. We believe he died for our sins, he saved us” and then he took his phone, his iPhone and he showed me pictures of Afghanistan. So what he did this man, when he was in Afghanistan, he went around and he took pictures of blowup bodies – so what they call it? Terrorists who blew themselves up, He went around and he took their pictures and he showed it to me and from there on I realized he is disillusioned with Islam. So I think the Holy Spirit was working in his heart already because he had received some help from Christian churches in Sri Lanka when he was there and now he received helped here so he saw some pattern. But he told me, I still remember that, he told me that, “I have been in Iran many times.” Iran is an Islamic country, Islam is an official religion but he told me, “I have never received so much help from Iranian clergy from Iranian religious leaders that I have received here.” So that’s how our talk started and I think last month he was actually baptized here in Holland in one of the churches. He baptized – in fact his baptism was belated a little bit because when he expressed that he wanted to be baptized, he wanted to be a Christian, the church insisted that he still needs to learn bible. So he was taking bible classes already but church postponed his desire for being baptized because the church wanted him first to learn the bible well enough so that he understands what he is doing. So that’s a joyful story to me because [00:20:00] after all of the travelling back and forth visiting these people, once in awhile talking about Jesus Christ here and there slowly these things pile up and they slowly become ground for the holy spirit’s work. So that’s one of the like really recent events that happen.
[00:20:20] Ep 9 v 5
DOUG: That just an amazing story. Thank you for that and so really the willingness of Christians both corporately as a church body reaching out to a refugee person…
DOUG: Right. A refugee family in the many ways that we can do that…
DOUG: …and then the friendships that were…
AGSHIN: Yes, individually.
DOUG: … that came out of that…,
DOUG: …the credibility …
DOUG: …there’s this credibility gap between Islam and Christianity.
AGSHIN: Yes. That’s one of the interesting issues that people miss is that you can always help people to understand Christianity through arguments; which isn’t always true. Arguments and apologetics all the logical stuff abstract, they have their own place, but it’s a limited application. When it comes to daily lives of people, people aren’t looking into not at least everyone, they aren’t looking at how you’re going convince them using what arguments or logic, they’re looking into what kind of person you are. And I think your character, your relationship with them can be a better persuasive let’s say power for the Holy Spirit then your abstract argumentation – again abstract argumentation has its place. I don’t doubt that, I don’t deny it. But if you’re speaking about like working with Muslims what do they call it? In trenches or hands-on environment where you are involved in their lives not just sitting in some public space and arguing against a Muslim. For that kind of environment, where you are in their daily lives, your arguments may matter less. What would matter is who you, what’s your character, what’s your intentions in approaching to these Muslims and how do they perceive you as a Christian because it’s interesting in Islamic world people very often first perceive themselves as Muslims then let’s say I don’t know Japanese or Korean or White or Black. In this country things are a little bit different. So when you approach to a Muslim as a Christian and work with them, most often than not, they first perceive you as a Christian rather than let’s say, oh, this is an American citizen Black or I don’t know White background person working for this organization with me. So those details matter.
DOUG: Yeah. So this person has become a believer, has been baptized, there is some bible instructions as people become new Christians in a new place with so many things going on in their lives…
DOUG: Talk about the challenge of helping people to grow as disciples in Christ.
AGSHIN: Yes. So we have various challenges when we help former Muslims to grow into Christ, know Christ deeply. One of them or I would say several of them are really cultural. Once people become Christians, there is this phase where they are really very idealistic. They think that all Christians are themselves, all Christians are going very helpful, cheerful, smiling and they unfortunately forget that they are also, what do they call it? A wolf in the sheep’s skin and this cultural sides of interaction may affect them often very severely they may be disillusioned with their Christian friends or they may not understand complexities or secularized American life and it may affect their faith. That’s a cultural side that needs to be taken care of by pastor in helping the person understand that Christianity in America does not necessarily equate everything in America. There are differences within America when it comes to Christianity and secular life and all the other things that happen in America. The other thing – other challenge that often new Christians who come from Muslim background face, these are doctrinal or teaching related challenges. Now these are most of them, I have seen, are the doctrinal trinity – which really very new ones doctrinal and very complex doctrinal require pastor actually himself or herself to know that doctrine well to teach to a Muslim. And the other one I have seen to be is the divinity of Jesus Christ. So these people are attracted to Jesus Christ they see in the gospel but when it comes to let’s say distilling their beliefs to some kind of a systematic belief that like okay, Jesus Christ isn’t just human but also divine and there are reasons in the gospel to see him as divine being, they are okay things start challenge them a little bit. In fact two weeks ago I talked to a minister who works with Muslims in Grand Rapids and he told me that this Muslim is coming to church attends [00:25:00] the church regularly, studies the bible but few days ago this Muslim argued with my friend saying to him that trinity is nowhere in the bible. I can believe in Jesus Christ but if find myself in difficulty believing in Trinitarian understanding of God. So I would say these two issues doctrinal side and then the cultural side really affect these people disciplining process the new Muslim background believer’s disciple process.
[00:25:25] Ep 9 v 6
DOUG: Well those are big challenges and it seems to echo early Christianity…
AGSHIN: Yes. Very true.
DOUG: …but Christians had to work out these things through studying the bible, through dialogue, through conflict and that’s probably not going to be any different among…
AGSHIN: I will agree with that. Yes.
DOUG: …people who are Muslim born who become believers.
AGSHIN: Yes. I will agree with that.
DOUG: Yeah. That’s amazing. So let’s talk a little bit about the larger context of your work, the refugee work. Can you tell us a little about that and about how a person, one of our listeners for example might be able to support and pray for your work.
AGSHIN: Right. So with refugees I do ministry in a sense that I’m involved in their daily lives. I teach them English, I help them to run their daily errands, I translate for them, teach them how to drive, I sometimes come between them and their churches adopting churches that if they have let’s say communication issues or cultural divide that makes things difficult to communicate then I come in and work very closely with the steering communities or the churches teams that really help these refugees. That side of the ministry I consider to be joyful and privilege although it has its own difficulties. As in any ministry, there are difficulties and I think the evil spiritual powers definitely try to affect the outreach. So in terms of prayer, I would request listeners to pray for well being of refugees who still continue to come, their smooth adjustment to the local society and their ability to separate Christian faith from certain other things of the United States that are decidedly un-Christian. Whether its adult movie industry, whether it is very wide-spread secular greed, chasing after fame – so the people may separate these two and see Christianity isn’t really into that. For myself specifically I would request believers to pray God gives me more wisdom to work with them, God gives me more energy to visit these people day in and day out and still able to help them. As to listeners’ involvement with refugees, I would say starting with local organization that helps refugees is the easiest one. So visiting maybe Bethany Christian services if they have their local branch or Samaritas or some other organizations that work with refugees and asking them what is required, how they can be helpful to them, is great way of being involved. If that is not the case then I would say perhaps advocating for refugees and educating ourselves is also very easy one. Educating ourselves about refugees, their background, where they come from, what’s their faith options would be really very, very helpful Just broadening your mind that would really help them and would help you.
DOUG: Those are really good practical things. So if a person wanted to support your ministry directly we’re going to have some information in the show notes. What is the name of your organization that you work with?
AGSHIN: I work with the Reformed Church of America. So I am ordained minister and my supervisor is Luis Ruiz who is in Global Mission Department. I am under supervision, is that what they call it? of that department so if they are willing to support I will say thank you very much, may God bless you and if you want to go deep you can contact our Global Mission Department and request more information and express your desire.
DOUG: Yeah and you can get more information at rca.org and I’m working through the global mission tab there then you can also contact us here at luminexusa.org to get that kind of information. Well Agshin it’s been a delight to have you here on the program and to hear just the amazing things that God is doing among Muslim people right here in the Great Lakes Region and we’re grateful that you took the time to join us.
AGSHIN: Thank you. May God bless you and I’m looking forward to seeing you in other programs. Thank you.
DOUG: Yes. Well thanks everyone for listening and for Agshin and for Doug McClintic, have a good day. [00:30:00]
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