Evangelizing Muslims: The Oklahoman barely skims departing pastor's plans

A pastor announces he's leaving after eight years to become a missionary to Muslims -- a pretty unusual move -- and the local newspaper story leads off with clichés.

"The Rev. Mateen Elass looks back on his extraordinary faith journey with the firm conviction that the Lord has been preparing him his whole life for 'such a time as this'," says the first paragraph in The Oklahoman.  Only in the third and fourth paragraphs does it get to the point:

Elass, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, is leaving the pastorate to devote his time to preaching the Christian Gospel to Muslims. He also wants to help equip the Christian Church to effectively do the same.
Sunday, Elass will preach his final sermon as leader of his church.

His is the only voice in this story of nearly 1,000 words. We're told that many members of the church were surprised to hear he's leaving, while others "weren’t shocked at all." We also read that many Christians say Elass has a "unique perspective about Islam," having come from that world. But none of those people are named or quoted directly.

And, as we'll see, some crucial questions go unanswered.

Instead, we get press-release stuff like "Elass said he is motivated and passionate about his new divine assignment." What else would he say? That he's jaded and apathetic?

Nearly half the text is taken with Elass' beliefs on the need for Christians to serve, not just consume. He talks about plans to blog, go on TV and radio, even speak at debates and forums. And he plans to train other Christians to reach Muslims as well.

That's nice, but it gives no details. Will he work alone or with an organization? Will he train Americans or Middle Eastern Christians?  How much will it cost per year? How will he raise funds -- crowdsourcing, private appeals, other?

And what's his chosen mission field -- the U.S. or elsewhere? Granted, Christian missionaries often have to be quiet about where they work, given the hostility of many Muslims toward evangelization. But even mentioning the continent or region -- Africa, the Middle East, North America, etc. -- would give us readers something.

And that brings up another question: How does Elass plan to frame his gospel appeal? Muslims already accept Jesus as a prophet, but they reject worship of him, or any man, as blasphemy. That would have been another good issue to examine.

A point for the Oklahoman: a sidebar on reaction by two Muslim leaders. Their responses are actually rather breezy. Here's Sheryl Siddiqui of the Islamic Council of Oklahoma:

“We live in Oklahoma — for us, this is business as usual,” Siddiqui said of the preachers’ evangelistic plans and the state’s plethora of proselytizing Christian churches and ministries.
Siddiqui said for at least 10 years, several Oral Roberts University professors brought their missionary students to her Tulsa mosque. She said the students toured the Islamic house of worship and asked questions, all with the intent of using the knowledge they gleaned to try to convert Muslims to Christianity.
“We understood that from the get-go and hosted them. It was no big secret,” she said.

Siddiqui also tells the Oklahoman that some Christians have tried to convert Muslims and been converted instead. How many? Like whom? Doesn't say. Did the newspaper ask? Doesn't say that, either.

The other source is Saad Mohammad, an info officer for the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. He warns the outreach "would not be welcomed by many Muslims" and may instead supply fuel for anti-Muslim sentiment. Mohammad also pulls out the "I" word: "It will inspire Islamophobia and make things worse."

Apparently, neither Mohammad nor Siddiqui nor Elass himself are asked about traditional Muslim views of "apostasy," conversion out of the faith. In the Hadith, the collection of sayings by Muhammad and anecdotes about his life, he is quoted as declaring: "Whoever changes his religion, kill him."

The Oklahoman should have gotten feedback on whether the local leaders take that quote literally. Some Muslims openly question the application of that saying. And Siddiqui herself told the newspaper, "Our understanding of the Quran is that only God can change a heart."

For Elass, the question could sound more like: "Would you be endangering people by urging them to convert?" He does say in a previous story that after he became a Christian, his father blew up and cut off contact. He should have been asked if other fathers might react worse.

The story has a couple of other gaffes as well.  It says Elass' "faith journey" -- another cliché -- ran in The Oklahoman in 2007, but there's no link. Adding one wouldn't have been much trouble: I found it within minutes, complete with a video interview.

Finally, Elass says he had been praying about the Muslim mission vocation for about eight years before deciding in April. Well, dang, eight years is the length of his pastorate at First Presbyterian. Was he thinking of leaving as soon as he arrived?

Yet another unanswered question.

Photo: A still image from religion writer Carla Hinton's 2007 video interview with Pastor Mateen Elass.

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