WND recently featured a story discussing a growing trend among Christian churches in the United States reaching out to Muslims by opening up their sanctuaries for Islamic prayer and worship services or even by reserving time from their services for the public reading of passages from the Quran. In the following interview, author and commentator Joel Richardson interviews Steve Stone, pastor of Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tenn., who last year opened up his church sanctuary for over a month to a group of local Muslims.
Joel Richardson: What would you say was your primary purpose for opening your sanctuary to Muslims to pray and worship? What is the history behind this event? Were you approached, or did you initiate this?
Pastor Steve Stone: The primary purpose of sharing our building with the kind, loving and generous people of the Memphis Islamic Center was to bear a witness to Jesus through the way we loved them. The history behind sharing our building during Ramadan 2010 (last September) began when we first read in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Muslims were buying the land across the street from our church to build a mosque, day care, retirement center and ball fields.
At first I felt a bit anxious; I only knew one Muslim at the time. Fear and ignorance were mixed in me, but then I asked the Lord what we should do, and immediately the story of the Good Samaritan came to me. As soon as we could, we put up a big red sign welcoming them to the neighborhood. In a couple of days someone from MIC saw it and contacted us about meeting. For over a year we exchanged friendly and warm greetings, and they were invited to use our parking lot and bathrooms for events on their land (since they had neither).
As Ramadan 2010 approached, they were hoping to complete their first building, but asked us if it were not completed in time, would it be all right with us if they rented our building for a couple of days. We said absolutely not! We will not rent you space – but we will share with you the space God has entrusted to our care. With construction delays, MIC ended up staying with us the whole month. Each night several of us would be here to host them so they wouldn’t feel strange in an unfamiliar building. We wore our Jesus follower shirts and wore our faith on our sleeves. When they told us how grateful they were for letting them use our space and how wonderful we were for doing it, we told them it was because we are Jesus followers, and it is what he would want us to do for our neighbors. We gave a loving witness of presence every night and added our words of witness when opportunity presented itself.
JR: What are some of the things that most inspired you to facilitate this?
SS: What inspired us to offer space for them to meet is simply our desire to bear a strong and compelling witness to the love of Jesus. He only gave us two commandments, and the second one is about loving our neighbors. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is defining who a neighbor is, and tells his disciples and the crowd to go and be that kind of neighbor to others. It is Jesus and his guidance through the Holy Spirit that inspires Heartsong Church to do everything we do.
JR: You cite neighborliness as one of your primary motivating factors. Would you be equally neighborly toward any local religious group, let’s say practitioners of traditional Native American religion, Santeria, Wicca, Hinduism, etc?
SS: We certainly would try our best to find ways to be good and loving neighbors with whomever were our neighbors. How we would do that would be according to who they were, what they stood for, how they responded to our neighborliness, and most importantly how we could communicate our faith and trust in Jesus to them.
JR: From a Scriptural perspective, where would you personally draw the line when it comes to facilitating the practices and worship of other religions?
SS: Regarding sharing space for worship, it would be based on our trust that our neighbors were worshipping the one true God. Muslims believe in one God. Our neighbors at MIC tell us they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, as do we. Their actions toward us mirror what they have told us. Many things they believe about God are not the same as what we believe, but our experience of the people we know and how they practice Islam is that they could be compared to people who hold Judaism as their faith. Although they do not accept Jesus as God in flesh and blood, they do worship the same God we do. Most Christians would have no trouble accepting that Jews worship the same God even though they lack the full revelation of God, which comes by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior – God in flesh and blood. We believe the same is true of the Muslims we know. A faith based in the one true God would be the baseline for us sharing worship space.
JR: What is your opinion regarding Islam’s ability to bring salvation to a person?
SS: I don’t believe any religion has the ability to bring salvation to a person, including those that may take the name of Jesus. We define salvation as a personal relationship of love and trust with Jesus. It is not an accomplishment, but an ongoing relationship. We bear witness to the truth that Jesus is the complete and final revelation of God. If you are asking who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, that is way beyond our ability to judge.
JR: As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, would you acknowledge that if one does not believe the gospel of Jesus, they have no hope for salvation?
SS: Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by him. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. I spend my life in witness to that truth. Salvation is a relationship of love and trust with Jesus, taking him as our Savior and Lord beginning in this life and lasting forever. It’s that relationship that saves us, not any magic words or pile of good deeds.
JR: What is your history regarding the study of Islam?
SS: I knew nothing about Islam before we began being good neighbors to the people of MIC other than they claimed to worship the one true God. Since meeting them, I have read a book by Karen Armstrong about the formation of Islam, and have read the entire Quran.
JR: Are you aware that the Quran specifically states that belief in the Divinity of Christ, the Incarnation or the Trinity, is blasphemy of the highest order, literally incurring the curse and wrath of Allah on those who believe such things?
SS: Yes, but I consider that to be the ranting of empty religion. I am no lover of Islam. Much of the Quran I find unintelligible, contradictory and rooted in rule keeping. I am no lover of Islam, but I love my neighbors whether Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Atheist or any other stripe.
JR: When you say “the ranting of an empty religion” … these concepts are directly stated in very clear terms throughout the Quran. Are you meaning to infer that the Quran contains empty rants?
SS: There are some empty rants there, just as there are empty rants offered by some who take the name “Christian” but seem to have nothing of his loving Spirit in what they are saying.
JR: From your perspective, what would the difference be between lovingly facilitating and endorsing homosexuality, heroin addiction or other destructive practices and facilitating the religious practices of Islam?
SS: As different as night and day; as different as apples and oranges. The Muslims I know at MIC are not engaging in destructive behaviors. Much as is true of my Jewish friends, they are being faithful to their understanding of God. My hope and prayer is that they would open their hearts and minds to Jesus, get to know him through the gospels, and invite him to become the Lord of their lives.
JR: You said that Muslims and Christians both worship the same God: “[Jews] worship the same God we do. … We believe the same is true of the Muslims we know.” Christians, of course, believe that modern rabbinic Judaism worships God in an incomplete way, while Muslims worship the god who specifically states in the Quran that Jesus is not God, is not part of a “Trinity,” is not a savior and never died on a cross. So beyond the initial very general similarities between the God of the Bible and the god of Islam, isn’t it dangerous as a pastor to teach that the Allah of the Quran and the God of the Bible are one and the same?
SS: I didn’t say Muslims and Christians worship the same God. What I said is that Muslims I know personally tell me they worship the one true God, and the life they live before me reflects the nature and character of the God I know and love.
JR: If given the opportunity, how would you articulate the gospel to your Muslim friends?
SS: In every encounter with my Muslim friends I witness to Jesus by showing them love and telling them He is why I’m doing it. When the opportunity arises, I share my experience, strength and hope of life with Jesus, which includes helping them learn how to have their own relationship of love and trust with Him.
JR: Thank you very much, Pastor Steve, for agreeing to conduct this interview.
SS: As my Lord has taught me to do, I am always ready to give an account of the hope that lies within me. Thank you for the opportunity to do so.