Most Muslims "would rather go to hell with their families than go by themselves to heaven," said Nik Ripkin*, who has served for 25 years alongside his wife Ruth* in North Africa and the Middle East.
Ripkin, author of a new book "The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected" from B&H Publishing, was among the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina's featured speakers at the annual state evangelism conference.
Muslim family bonds should never be taken lightly, said Ripken, a leading expert on the persecuted church in Muslim cultures who has interviewed people from Muslim backgrounds in 60-plus countries.
Christians must reach out to families, not just individuals, Ripkin noted at the Feb. 25 conference at Pleasant Garden (N.C.) Baptist Church, with the theme of "Culture Reach: Understanding, Loving and Relating to Muslims."
Friends of his have lost their lives for their faith, Ripkin said, describing the number one cause of persecution globally as people choosing to follow Jesus.
Yet persecution is a sign of Christian growth, he said, noting, "Where we're seeing the greatest growth of the church is in places where persecution is the most widespread."
Building relationships with Muslims and people of different ethnic groups isn't "rocket science," Ripken said.
Ripkin described Muslims as loveable and, like everybody else, in need of friendship. One of the first things a person can do to build a friendship with a Muslim family is invite them to dinner, Ripken said.
"Fix them a bologna sandwich," joked Ripken, who clarified that the bologna should be made out of beef, not pork. "Jesus knew this Himself that there's nothing that encourages witness, that facilitates love more than breaking bread together.
"... When was the last time you had a lost family in your house on purpose that wasn't your relatives?" Ripken asked. "What would it mean to the tens of thousands of Muslims in North Carolina if you were to feed them and invited them in your home?"
While meeting and interviewing Muslims in the Bible Belt, Ripken said nearly 100 percent of those who were asked about their lives in the United States said they had never met a Christian. They said no one had mentioned Jesus to them, and nearly all described America as a lonely place to live.
"Almost all of them had to come and live with them because no one had ever spoken to them from this country," Ripken said. "Some of them had been here for 10 years."
All it takes to begin a friendship with a Muslim neighbor, he said, is to have "an obedient heart."
Churches need to take more initiative in learning the native tongue of different ethnic groups, Ripken said. Christians need to be better equipped when they travel overseas and learn to speak to people in their "heart language."
Having the attitude "you're in America, speak English" is counterproductive, Ripken said.
"We don't have a church planting problem," he said. "We have a biblical problem. Everybody came to Jesus in the New Testament came to Jesus in their heart language or in a regional language that is close to them."
Anybody can do it, Ripken said.
"Even if you're getting gray haired, no hair, we can teach you four or five sentences in most of the languages of the world, and you can go up to people and say 'Hello' and 'How are you?'" he said.
Ripken, in exhorting the crowd to "send your babies to Mecca, Saudi Arabia," said he heard an "audible gasp."
"One of the lies that Satan has told the church is ... 'If I give myself full-time to my church, especially in the missions department, then is to keep His hands off my kids,'" Ripken said. "And that is a lie, not from God, but Satan himself."
Missions needs to be in the DNA of every church, Ripken said.
As churches dedicate children, they need to give each one a Bible and a passport application that is folded up inside the pages. The church, he said, should also start a savings account (maybe $50 or $100) for the child to help them save for his or her first mission trip.
"If are not willing to give that baby to God, to the nations, they're not willing to give that baby to God," Ripken said. "I believe if you are not going to the nations overseas, you're not going to your neighbors here. I believe it firmly."
*Names changed. Shawn Hendricks is managing editor of the Biblical Recorder (brnow.org), newsjournal of the North Carolina State Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared.
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