Just out of college in 1991, Cynthia Wilson felt that same urgency when she signed up with the International Mission Board for a two-year posting at the organization's hospital in Yibla, Yemen. Wilson says the Persian Gulf War, and the fact that she had a good friend in college who was Muslim, moved her to go. "I just felt like God was starting to lay Muslims on my heart," she says.
The Baptists set up the hospital 35 years ago with the purpose of providing free care and medicine and to bring Christianity to the region. "I'd say most of the people who were there were focused first on sharing their faith, not just to fill and heal their bodies," she says. But in Wilson's words, "We were sowing on very hard ground."
The radical Muslim Brotherhood was active in the area, she says, and she knew of one Muslim who was killed after getting too close to the missionaries. "Another ran away right after that." She says many of the staff--including one particularly outspoken doctor--were frustrated by the restrictions on their preaching, but even when they had the ears and hearts of hospital patients or their families, conversions were rare.
Wilson's role at the hospital was to teach the staff's children, but she also came in contact with young Muslim women to whom she was teaching English. She says she talked about her faith to several but ended up leading no Muslims to Jesus during the four years she worked abroad.
Tribal leaders' and converts' families were more likely to uphold Islam than government entities, she says. Family pressures to remain in the faith were intense.
Returning to Fort Worth in 1996, Wilson began taking classes with Shahid. She married another seminarian, started a family and hopes to go abroad again once her two children are a little older.
The difficulty in finding converts in the Muslim world is hardly isolated to the Yemen hospital, which the International Mission Board announced last month is being sold because of lack of funding and a shortage of medical volunteers.
An internal mission board report titled "The Bleeding Edge," based on interviews with 300 missionaries, places the blame on repression and family pressures to remain true to Islam. The report, which was completed last year, found that many Muslims convert because of ulterior motives, among them "a hunger to emigrate, education in the West, a desire for a job and seeking a wife."
The report, written by Ken Perkins, the board's Middle East strategy consultant, says about 80 percent of Muslim-to-Christian converts are men. "Many who are upwardly mobile in society, with a strong education and who are economically secure, will marry a single, female foreign missionary." Most end up leaving the region and resettling in the West, the report states. In one unspecified central Asian country, a pastor performed 14 weddings involving Muslim converts over the past 15 years. Thirteen of the marriages were to foreigners, and 12 of the couples emigrated. "In one North African country, this intermarriage issue has become so acute that [other] expatriate mission agencies have considered not recruiting single, female workers for the near future."
Cracknell, the TCU professor, says Muslims have been an unusually challenging population for Christian evangelicals for at least three reasons. The Koran, which came into existence centuries after the Bible, contains many passages denying the truth of Christian claims, the professor says. "The Koran doesn't allow that Christ died for our sins. Any evangelical witness about Christ being the son of God, that he died for your sins, is a non-starter for Muslims. They've already dealt with that."
The second problem is historical, rooted in the march by European armies on Jerusalem in the name of Christianity at the end of the 11th century. Eyewitness accounts of the Christians' sack and taking of the holy city described blood "flowing up to the knees" in the mosques and synagogues, where no one was spared.
"Most Westerners, George W. Bush included, have no idea of the impact that the Crusades made on the Muslim world," Cracknell says. "The Crusades lasted generally from 1095 until the 14th century, but they are as of yesterday to the Muslim world. After September 11, George W. said we were going on a crusade against terrorism. He climbed down from that and has never used the word since."
Although there are several words for Christian in Arabic, Cracknell says in many parts of the Arab-speaking world the commonly used words for a Christian and for Christianity are salibi and salibiyya, which mean crusader and crusade.