In the Middle East, Culture Is Life

Article Topic: 
Theology
In the Middle East, Culture Is Life

Recently, I sat down with Charlie Costa, Insight for Living Ministries’ Arabic-language pastor, to talk about his ministry in the Arabic-speaking world, the importance of culture to the followers of Islam, and how he translates Chuck Swindoll’s sermons for an Arabic context.

Derrick: Charlie, give our readers a little perspective on your ministry. How many countries do you minister in, and what are their populations?

Charlie: I minister to people in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, as well as parts of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Sudan, and southern Sudan. Combined, 300 million people live in this region, but realistically, we probably reach only ten to twelve million.

Derrick: That’s still a significant number! I know your ministry involves preparing Chuck’s sermons and some of Chuck’s books into Arabic; and making public presentations throughout the region. How do you go about modifying Chuck’s material for a Middle Eastern audience?

Charlie: Obviously, I translate English into Arabic, but there’s more to it than that. I remove any American phrases or figures of speech that my audience wouldn’t understand. I also replace Americanised illustrations with more culturally relevant ones. For example, if Chuck talks about American football, I might refer to soccer instead.

Derrick: That makes sense. So, how do you handle speaking about culturally sensitive issues like Israel, Jesus, and Christian doctrine?

Charlie: Because of long-standing animosity between Jews and Arabs, I refer to Israel as the Holy Land. And I speak of Jesus not as an Israelite Jew but as a Palestinian Jew. Paul told the Corinthians he had “become all things to all men, so that [he] might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). I speak of Jesus as a Palestinian because my heart’s desire—and His heart’s desire—is to overcome the social barriers and bring Arabs and Muslims to a believing knowledge of Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

I steer clear of disputed theological issues and focus instead on the basics of Christian faith. Arabs and Muslims have much to overcome in choosing Christ. They live in an all-inclusive cultural system that governs belief, thought, and life. They risk rejection by families and friends. In some cases, they risk receiving physical harm. Don’t misunderstand me; theological purity is important, but when you’re trying to convince people they should risk everything they’ve known and held dear to follow Christ, there’s very little room for theological nuance.

Derrick: You mentioned an “all-inclusive cultural system.” Just how important is culture in the Middle East, where Islam is the dominant religion?

Charlie: Culture is everything. Culture is life. In the west, Christianity is a dynamic faith. Because of the message of grace, Christianity can adapt to cultural changes. Islam isn’t such a flexible religion. Sharia law is static and establishes the culture in the home, the workplace, and the country.

In other words, culture equals Islam; Islam equals identity. That’s why I don’t let theological complexities or Jesus’s ethnic identity get in the way of the simple gospel. To ask Muslims to abandon their faith in Islam is to ask them to turn their backs on themselves, their families, and their friends and become something foreign. So, in order to help followers of Islam become followers of Christ, I don’t stress Christianity the religion but Christ the Person who wants to have a relationship with them.

Derrick: That’s good insight. So, what are two or three things we can do to reach out to our Muslim neighbours?

Charlie: Build relationships. It’s just that simple . . . and that difficult. Your Muslim neighbours need to see Christianity in a positive light—lived out in the lives of your family. Uphold biblical standards in your activities, not just in your words. This is especially important when it comes to modesty. Don’t talk to your Muslim neighbour about Jesus one day and the next allow your daughter to wear a bikini while washing the car in the front driveway.

Be neighbourly. Invite your Muslim neighbour over for a meal or a cup of tea. Share common concerns about what is happening in the community, and work together to solve problems that violate shared values. Do these things, and you’ll not only make a true friend; you’ll also have greater opportunities to share Christ.

Derrick: Charlie, thank you for providing an enlightening look into your ministry and helping us better understand the Muslim mind-set. It will certainly help our readers to know how to pray for you and how to reach out to their Muslim neighbours. Bless you, brother.

Charlie: Thank you, Derrick, for the opportunity to share.
 


About the Author

Derrick G. Jeter

Derrick G. Jeter holds a master of theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and served as a writer for the Creative Ministries Department of Insight for Living Ministries. He has authored or coauthored more than twenty-five books. Derrick...

About the Author

Charlie Costa

Charlie Costa is pastor of Insight for Living Arabic and the voice of Nafitha Ala l’Hayat, the Arabic-language broadcast of Insight for Living. He also serves as chief magistrate of the Family Court...