At 8 o’clock on a warm Monday morning in January, 20 students file into Rick Love’s classroom at Columbia International University in South Carolina. Eyes glassy from writing papers all weekend, they clutch Styrofoam cups of Folgers as they settle into their seats. In front, an overhead projector hums; it is hooked up to the instructor’s laptop, ready for a morning full of PowerPoint presentations.
Outside, CIU’s piney campus is quiet. Most of the student body has not yet returned from Christmas break. But these students, all evangelical Christians, have arrived two weeks early for an intensive course on how to win converts in Islamic countries. They’re learning from the master: Love is the international director of Frontiers, the largest Christian group in the world that focuses exclusively on proselytizing to Muslims. With 800 missionaries in 50 countries, Frontiers’ reach extends from the South Pacific to North Africa, with every major Islamic region in between.
Love is 49, a black-leather-jacket-wearing whirlwind of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a quick sense of humor. He’s a chronic multitasker, routinely praying aloud while drinking coffee and simultaneously reviewing his lecture notes. Little known outside the missionary world, he’s an icon within it-an evangelistic entrepreneur who wins admirers with what he calls his “middle linebacker” personality. His seminars are usually closed to the media and the public.
This morning’s lesson is about going undercover. Many of Love’s students are missionaries themselves, temporarily home from assignments in places ranging from Kazakhstan to Kenya. They know firsthand that evangelism is illegal in many Islamic nations, and they face expulsion if their true intentions become known. Love’s lesson for today is how to mask one’s identity while secretly working to convert Muslims. Evangelists, he explains, should always have a ready, nonreligious explanation for their presence in hostile areas.
Love fixes his gaze on a studious, spiky-haired missionary dressed in Patagonia clothing. “If people ask you, ‘Why are you here?'” he asks, “what do you say?” The young man, on leave from Southeast Asia, squirms in his chair. His jaw opens but nothing comes out. “Bingo!” Love says with a smile. “You bite your fingernails, and people go, ‘Of course he’s not hiding anything.'” Love notes that before he went to western Indonesia to proselytize among Sundanese Muslims, he went back to school and earned his credentials to become an English instructor. That way, he says, he had an excuse to be in the country. “I could look someone in the eye and say, ‘I am an English teacher,'” he explains. “‘I have a degree and I’m here to teach.'”
That, he says, is the model for winning converts in the Islamic world: Find another pretext to be in the country. Build friendships with the locals. Once you’ve developed trust, then it’s time to try to gain new believers. But don’t reveal your true purpose too early. “How did Jesus explain why he was there?” Love asks the class. “Indirectly,” volunteers a veteran missionary. “He’d say, ‘Why do you think I’m here?'”