The Expansion of Christianity and the Expansion of Islam: Understanding the Differences

Nineteenth-century Christian missions exploded across the globe with the general expectation that the gospel would penetrate the whole world, and that the evangelism of the world would conceivably be completed within a century or so. That sense of optimism is not so prevalent today, probably in part because of the decline of Christianity in parts of the world that were at one time the fountainhead of Christian faith. A review of the past century reveals that regions in which Christianity had at one time taken root have not always remained Christian for long (think Europe). In contrast, Islam’s progress has tended to be more stable, rarely giving up territory once it has been claimed.

In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (T&T Clark, 2002), Scottish historian Andrew Walls explains the difference between the expansions of the two major religions:

Islam can point to a steady geographical progression from its birthplace and from its earliest years. And over all these years it has hitherto not had many territorial losses to record. Whereas the Jerusalem of the apostles has fallen, the Mecca of the prophet remains inviolate. When it comes to sustaining congregations of the faithful, Christianity does not appear to possess the same resilience as Islam. It decays and withers in its very heartlands, in the areas where it appears to have had the profoundest cultural effects. Crossing cultural boundaries, it then takes root anew on the margins of those areas, and beyond. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial. (p. 13)

If Walls is correct, this raises some troubling questions. Why does Christianity wax and wane so consistently, while Islam rarely experiences the same fluctuations? Why do the faithful of Christianity possess what seems to be a more tenuous faith?

Walls asks and answers some of his own questions:

Do the resiliency of Islam and the vulnerability of Christianity reflect something of the inherent nature of the two faiths? Does the very freedom of response inherent in the Christian gospel leave it open to ultimate rejection? Is the Christian impact durable only when there is sustained, unceasing penetration of the host culture? Christianity has no culturally fixed element, as is provided by the Qur’an fixed in heaven, closed traditions on earth, perfection in law in shari’a, single shrine in Mecca, and true word every where in Arabic. If the acts of cultural translation by which the Christians of any community make their faith substantial within that community cease—if (if one may use such language) the Word ceases to be made flesh within that community—the Christian group within that community is likely to lose, not just its effectiveness, but its powers of resistance. Most cultures are in frequent change or encounter with others, so the process of translation is endless. (p. 13)

In other words, Islam survives in a given culture because it remains unchanged and sees itself as embattled against cultural difference or change. As a result it can remain monolithic and isolated from the culture. In a world distressed by the culture-destroying power of technology, secularization, urbanization, and other such forces, the unchanging nature of Islam provides a rare sense of security and stability. There is no need to contextualize or adapt. Americans, who have grown up in a constantly changing culture, often forget that not everyone in the world embraces cultural change or the overturning of traditional practices to the same extent that they do.

On the positive side, Christianity has thrived in many parts of the world precisely because the gospel is a message to every tribe and tongue, and while the message must remain the same, the medium and the method are readily adaptable to other cultures.

Walls explains further:

This vulnerability [of Christianity] is also linked with the essentially vernacular nature of the Christian faith, which rests on a massive act of translation, the Word made flesh…Christian faith must go on being translated, must continuously enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades. Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur’an, fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of original revelation.

For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God’s own self was translated into human form. (p. 29)

A charitable reading of Walls reminds us that the success of Christianity throughout history in so many cultures has been the gospel’s ability to reach people in any culture while maintaining the positive aspects of common grace in that culture. The vernacular nature of the Christian faith presents a temptation and an opportunity. The temptation is to contextualize the message of the gospel, and thereby to lose it. For this, Christians are rightly criticized by Muslims. The diluted gospel of much of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, under the guise of being relevant or old-fashioned, respectively, bears constant witness to this tragedy. The temptation, however, is not necessary, and Christianity can be adapted to various cultures successfully, without compromising the message. Walls concurs:

Christian faith is repeatedly coming into creative interaction with new cultures, with different systems of thought and different patterns of tradition; that (again in contrast to Islam, whose Arabic absolutes provide cultural norms applying throughout the Islamic world) its profoundest expressions are often local and vernacular. It also means that the demographic and geographical centre of gravity of Christianity is subject to periodic shifts. Christians have no abiding city, no permanent sacred sites, no earthly Mecca; their new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven at the last day. (p. 30)

At least two implications arise from these distinctions between Christianity and Islam. First, all of us—not just missionaries—need to translate the faith into the local vernacular in which we find ourselves without compromising the gospel. Christianity is not Islam, and so is not culturally monolithic. Second, rather than seeing the expansion of Christianity as a necessarily universal, progressive missionary certainty, perhaps we ought to realize that the spread of the faith will probably always be influenced by the currents of culture and the degree to which Christians in a particular location remain faithful. The survival of the gospel in a particular area is not assured apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word. This is an especially poignant reality for the church in America where attention and commitment to sound doctrine has fallen precipitously, and, simultaneously, Islam has expanded exponentially. If Islam is hardly ever dislodged once it is established in a region, the only hope for the spread of Christianity is the wholesale commitment of the church to the centrality of the gospel.

Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.

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Dave G's picture

Wow, where to start?

Ok, I'll give this a shot...

Whether or not people agree with me, I see something in true Christianity that defies man's analysis and that's this: God chooses His people. God's Holy Spirit is in the process of taking out of the nations a people for His name, and all the other religions are just that..."religion". Why should those of us that are saved even CARE whether Islam or some other false god is gaining an audience? This isn't our world, it's Satan's. Let's concentrate on what God has given us to do and leave the "relevancy", "impacting the world for Christ" and all that other nonsense alone.

IMO, Walls is wrong. There is a vast difference between true faith, TRUE Christianity and VISIBLE Christianity. As long as God's purpose in election is taking place, true Christianity will never fade. It's never been about quantity, it's always been about quality...the quality that only the Holy Spirit can guarantee in a bought-and-paid-for body of saints, no matter HOW many or how few of us there are. When the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, then LOOK UP, it will happen! Jesus will get the go-ahead from the Father...;) But I digress...

One can do all the "translating into vernacular", preaching and teaching they want, but in the final equation it's the work of the Holy Spirit that spreads or retards the spread of faith. This key point is where I swerve off-track with Baptists in general, whether "fundamental" or otherwise. Growing up in fundamental baptist circles, I completely understand their viewpoint regarding missions, but once I got out from under their influence and got into my Bible, I discovered that key areas having to do with the way God operates are being IGNORED in favor of some man's reasoning about how He operates.

I'll boil it down to its base elements: Most Baptists in America believe that it's "me and Jesus " who "get me saved", and people can be "influenced for Christ" by a repeated hammering of the Gospel combined with a mass marketing campaign designed to break down the will and convert the lost to a different way of thinking. Generally, the marketing campaign is built around, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Sorry, but that just doesn't wash with what Scripture says. I got news for them...John 3:16 isn't the WHOLE gospel, not even a small percentage of it. There's a whole lot more to it. Like REPENTANCE...SIN...JUDGEMENT...HELL...GRACE....the list goes on and on.

*What missions IS: Going forth preaching the Gospel because that's what God gave certain people the job to do.
*What missions is NOT: Watering down the Gospel (that Jesus Christ came and lived, died and rose again the 3rd day for the sins of mankind and that He is the Word made flesh...and that all men are hellbound pieces of unprofitable filth in God's eyes) with a bunch of hogwash designed to "sell it" to someone who'd rather not hear the unadulterated version. Read Romans, k?

This isn't a competition people, this is serious business we're about. It's not about "winning people over", unless one discounts and ultimately ignores the truth of Scripture plainly showing that salvation is ALL of God, and none of man. It's about doing what God tells us to do and using the talents He's given us to serve Him.

Islam can get all the followers it wants...they're still going to Hell. Let's rejoice that we're not.


Sola Scriptura, both mentally and physically.
That means no other books about Bible interpretation on my shelf, sorry...;)

1 John 2:27-29

Aaron Blumer's picture


Dave... wow, what a post. I'm sill not sure if it's serious or parody.
"Why should we even care?" Woah. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Paul was anything but apathetic about the paganism he saw in Athens. Had Islam been around, he would have been deeply moved about that, too. He was in continual grief at some level (Rom.9:2-3) about his fellow Jews even though they had been sovereignly blinded. Though it's true that God is choosing out a people for His name, He also calls us to cast down imaginations and every lofty thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ. (2Cor.10:5) So it is a competition. We are to wrestle against principalities, powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world.(Eph.6.12)

Plus, since we don't know how long it will be before Christ returns, we ought to strive for the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in.

Nor is it Satan's world. He is called "the god of this world," etc., because people give him that status in their lives and he dominates this age, not because it is his proper domain and we should just let him have it to himself!

Yes, there are some common problems in arminian influenced theology, but "salvation is all of God," does not mean we are not to strive. Just do a quick survey of references to "labor," and "laboring" in the epistles. Re-read Acts and note the energy Paul expended reasoning with people (trying to win them over) (e.g., Acts 17:2, 17:17, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8, 19:9). It looks like you "got into your Bible" pretty selectively.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dave G's picture

I appreciate the objective viewpoint Aaron, but I still hold to what I said above.

And no, I didn't get into my Bible pretty selectively. I believe what I've "gotten into" is a more biblical mindset than most people who profess Christ, simply because God has shown me things out of His abundant grace and it's taken this long and getting "unplugged" from the religious establishment to make me see things I never saw before. Admittedly, He's still dealing with me about humility (BIG-time) and that will take the rest of my life...but articles like the one above seem written from the perspective of someone with one foot in the world's way of thinking and one foot in their Bible. I used to be there...:(

Incidentally, Jesus wept over Jerusalem for a specific reason...God had chosen a nation of people and they had and still have turned their backs on Him, collectively anyway. I'm reminded of the book of Hosea...more on that maybe later.

My question to Christians at large is, "why not get into your Bibles and let God transform your minds?" My way of thinking has forever been changed. I take the Bible literally, at its word, with no other influences intruding. If the Bible says God chose me from the foundation of the world, then I believe that. If the Bible says "go ye into all the world.." and I then discover that He was talking to the eleven (and those with them ) and not addressing the whole of the body of saints, then I find that interesting. I also find that in Acts, they WENT...but not all of them. So apparently it's not a mandate for all Christians to go forth. If it were, wouldn't it be reinforced in the letters to the churches (Epistles)? All I can seem to find is an exhortation to "be ready with an answer for the hope that is within you" and nothing more. Something to think about.

God had a plan for Paul, knocked him upside the head with a spiritual two-by-four on the road to Damascus, and then tasked him with being the apostle to the Gentiles. It was selective, not arbitrary and it didn't require his cooperation, a "decision for Christ" or anything remotely resembling it. But just because Paul had feelings for his contemporaries and others didn't and doesn't change God's plan or purpose. I too have compassion for my fellow man...but God wants me to separate from my lost "brethren" because He has another purpose for me...maybe more than one. But He commands me to come out and be separate. This includes my way of thinking. This includes my friendships, my associations, my reading material, and whatever else He commands me to do through His Word. It's difficult, believe me. But I'm willing to do it simply because God first loved me.

Let me rephrase my statement about it not being a competition: It's MORE than just a trivial competition, and I wish people wouldn't liken the Christian faith to some other "religion", because other religions are a lie. We need to let go and let God take care of His purpose, instead of getting all "hot and bothered" about what the "other guy" is doing. This IS Satan's world...he is the god of it simply because everyone except the saints cooperate in being deceived by him; and the only reason WE aren't deceived is because God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has lifted the blinders from our eyes.

I too have "tried to win them over"...but I now understand that without the intervention of God's Holy Spirit, which works when He wants it to and NOT when * I * want it to, that all my activity is going to do is look like a "bull in a china shop" to the one I love most, the Lord above. Without His approval, nobody will be changed at the heart level. It's not our place to change this never was. It's ultimately God the Father's...where in the Bible did you get that idea that WE are to effect change around us, to make this a "better world"?

Indeed, what we as Christians really need to be doing is waiting on the Lord and His direction, and that doesn't include "translating the faith into the local vernacular" ...I take exception to the statement that this man makes when he says that," the spread of the faith will probably always be influenced by the currents of culture and the degree to which Christians in a particular location remain faithful"...bahloney. Culture has nothing to do with it and never did. True faith has ALWAYS spread by the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, and nothing more.

Aaron, with all due respect, I'm tired of the present delivery of the Gospel which heavily emphasizes the love of God, even mixing it up real thick with things that aren't true and biblical to make it sweeter and cover more people than it really does...and my fondest wish is for those that profess Christ to possess Him as gain the understanding of His Word that only He can bestow, instead of relying on our own reasoning, comparisons etc. to influence what we believe.


Sola Scriptura, both mentally and physically.
That means no other books about Bible interpretation on my shelf, sorry...;)

1 John 2:27-29

Aaron Blumer's picture


I think the passages I alluded to speak quite clearly about our attitude toward the lost and winning them. I'm as put off by the evangelical "it's all about you and your problems/prosperity" gospel as anyone, but Mark's article in no way reflected that gospel. And the "why should we care" overreaction is as clearly unbiblical as the "love and fulfill me" gospel.

As for winning people, I'm not crazy about the "soul winning" language, because Scripture never uses that terminology for evangelism, but seeking to persuade and "win" people to the truth is clearly what Paul was all about--which in no way denies that the Spirit must quicken the dead and open the hearts (Acts 16:14) of hearers. He works and we work (Php 2:12-13, Col.1.28).

The whole idea of approaching Scripture with no outside influences... Isn't possible, for one, and the Scriptures themselves do not encourage it. For example, Col. 3.16 advises us to teach an admonish one another. Romans 12:7 and Eph. 4:11-12 refers to the vital ministry of teachers, as do many other passages. So the Word encourages us to be attentive to the input of fellow believers. If they put this advice and perspective in writing, it does not lose value. And when the activity of paying attention to those who have gone before spans many centuries (and therefore many books) it doesn't lose value then either. (The case can be made that it gains value for discerning readers). 2 Tim. 2:2 anticipates this dynamic.

I'm all for sola scriptura as the principle was articulated by the Reformers. But this has never meant "just me and my Bible." (Prov. 11.14, 19.20)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dave G's picture

I tend to over-react when I see error or perceive lies, and it "lights me up"...apologies. I actually DO care about the lost, but I also recognize MY inability to directly change their lost condition outside the will of God. I can give them the Gospel, and nothing else.

I also believe in what I like to call "misplaced compassion", where we as believers tend to "overdo it" when it comes to our concern for the lost. When Jesus told his disciples in the Gospels to go forth spreading the word (during His ministry in Israel ) he basically told them to go in to those who welcomed them, and shake the dust off their feet and move on to those that didn't.

Our focus as servants should be doing what God has given us desires and talents to do, and nothing more....that way we keep out of trouble...;)

For the evangelists out there, IMO it should be paramount that they concern themselves more with spreading the seed than whether or not it's properly planted and is germinating; a task whose duty is the Holy Spirit's. I believe that those last two items aren't the duties of an evangelist and never were. It's too easy to get caught up in our feelings for others and forget that our first duty, our first LOVE, is to God...and all other things last. If we look carefully at many passages about spreading the Gospel, I think we'll find a curious ABSENCE of / mention of personal feelings about relatives, past friends , etc. in them ( apart from Paul's desire in Romans ).

As for the idea of approaching Scripture with no outside influence, it can be done. Try not going to "church" for 7 years and see where the influence comes pulpit, no teaching, no "preaching" (I thought PREACHING was for the lost?) no repetitive "program" of "worship" ( I do that in the privacy of my bedroom ) no "exposition" of passages ( ye need not that any man teach you... 1 John 2: 27. )

I still fellowship with other believers, but I don't "schedule" those sessions like "Sunday School" and "Morning Worship". I'm finally experiencing part of the "liberty in Christ" that scripture speaks of.

Finally, when you said, "I'm all for sola scriptura as the principle was articulated by the Reformers. But this has never meant "just me and my Bible." (Prov. 11.14, 19.20) ", I disagree. Most "Christians" I know who are even halfway serious tend to surround themselves with all KINDS of books ABOUT the Bible, but the most important * book * they use like some kind of college textbook, as a REFERENCE tool or something....why is this? I just took the radical approach and threw them all out the airlock save my Bible. That way no other methods of thinking could interfere with God's Holy Spirit transforming my's not done yet, but He's making progress...;)

As for fellowship with other believers, I definitely think it's wise, even APART from what God exhorts me to do. I just no longer believe in what's become the traditional way of doing it.


Sola Scriptura, both mentally and physically.
That means no other books about Bible interpretation on my shelf, sorry...;)

1 John 2:27-29

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