Why So Many “Dones” And “Nones”?

As I came out of the bookstore, I had one thought in mind, “I wish I was dead!” The thought of death was the most soothing thought I had had since I’d started college.

The year was 1971 and after two semesters of college, it was obvious that getting a degree in civil engineering, something that had brought me to the US, was not going to be that easy.

In two semesters, I’d gotten nothing but lousy grades, which had made me quite ashamed of being the failure that I’d become. But even more painful was letting down my parents, who had made a great sacrifice to get their oldest to America. So, not being able to live up to a standard that my Iranian culture had set before me, my next step was committing suicide. But that day, as I came out of the school’s bookstore something happened that gave me a glimmer of hope.

As I stepped out the door, with the weight of the whole world on my shoulders and my head bowed down, the guy coming towards me was dancing and scat singing. As he got next to me, he looked me in the eyes and asked, “How are you?”

imageedit_2_2122402828Never being one who hides his emotions, but at the same time not expecting anything, I said, “I’m not doing well.”

What happened next, as simple as it might sound to some of my readers, was something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

The man stopped dead in his track and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” A stranger, a man I didn’t know stopped and offered to help me. I needed that so much. I deeply wanted to know that someone cared about this worthless failure of a man.

I don’t remember what happened next. I might have said, “No, thanks! And went on my way” But I still remember that act of kindness, and try to implement it in my Christian walk whenever I can.

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I’m invited to fill in for my friend who is an adjunct professor at a Bible college. As it is my habit, I show up early. Because it was lunchtime, I sit on the retaining wall next to the entrance to the refectory (Whatever happened to the dining hall?). I want to see how the students react towards a stranger who is much older than they are and seems not to belong to their school.

As these Bible college students, our future Christian leaders, begin to pass by me, I stare at them in hope of,

  1. Out of respect for an elder, they would greet me, and
  2. At least by smiling at me, acknowledge me as a man who is made in the image of the God that they would be studying right after lunch.

Out of about 100 students who pass me by, only a few of them acknowledge my being and give me a hurried glance. That breaks my heart. Don’t they realize that I might desperately be in need of a smile, a “how are you?” an affirmation that I am still a human being made in the image of God?

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A day doesn’t go by that I don’t come across of an article about the “Dones” (The believers who’ve left the church) and the “Nones” (The nominal Christians who’ve left the church), lamenting the fact that church attendance is drastically dropping in the US.

Many of these articles sound like Chicken Little running around and screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling. People are leaving the church. What can we do to bring them back? Maybe if the church offers better programs, then people will stay and the ’Dones’ will come back and the “Nones’ will be attracted to the church.” But very few talk about why these people have left and why the Millennials are not going to church.

The issue isn’t having better programs. The issue isn’t having strobe lights and fog machines or having the music so loud that you need to hand out earplugs to the parishioners as they enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. I personally have no problems with any of that. But that will not solve some of the much deeper issues the church needs to face and resolve.

To think that better programs will solve the crisis the church is facing is like the old joke about a man who had 3 ugly daughters (Upon reading the word “ugly”, I wonder how many of my young readers needed to retreat to their safe spaces while clinging to their teddy bears?). One day as he’s walking on the beach, the man comes across a bottle and when he opens it a genie pops out.

“For freeing me from this prison, I’ll grant you a wish. What is it that you want?” said the genie.

Showing genie a map, the man said, “ I love Hawaii, but it’s quite expensive to travel there several times a year. I want a bridge over the ocean that will directly connect LA to Hawaii.”

The genie looked at the map and said, “I’m just a genie, not God. What you’re asking is out of my hands. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes! I wish for my daughters to be married. Can you find them husbands?” pleaded the man.

“Do you have a picture of them?”

So, the man excitedly pulled a photo out of his wallet and showed it to the genie upon looking at it, the genie said, “Let me see the map again!”

There’s a broken bridge between the church and the people. Until we rebuild that bridge; until we learn to smile at the old man sitting on the retaining wall rather than being too busy parsing Hebrew and Greek words for our next Sunday sermon on how to love people, until we learn our neighbor’s name who’s lived next to us for several years, until we acknowledge the fact that we’re all made in the image of God and should be treated as such, and until the church learns to love for no reason, but to obey Christ’s commandment, she will continue to be as unattractive as the above three daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Millennials And Christianity!

Megan Haleh is one of the most spiritual young women I know. She loves the Lord with an insatiable passion. She attends a small church in the Bible Belt. I consider myself to be an enormously blessed father to have a daughter who spends hours talking to me about the Lord. A few days ago, we had one of those interesting conversations.

We were talking about what it would take for her generation to become followers of Christ. Today, there are ample studies on Christian “nones” and “dones.” Study after study talks about what’s wrong with the church, why Christians are leaving her, and what needs to be done to bring them back, but there’s almost nothing about replacing those who’ve migrated with new blood through evangelism.

I established the first Iranian Christian church in the US purely through evangelism. Working with Muslims, I didn’t have the privilege of simply coming up with better programs to attract them to our gatherings. As I’ve always said, “Muslims don’t wake up Sunday mornings saying, ‘Honey, where would you like to go to church this fine morning?’” We had to go find them and win them to Christ. So, for me, evangelism has always been the only means of church growth. Consequently, I’m very interested in how to introduce Millennials to Christ, who for the most part like Muslims will not on their own go out of their way to come to our churches.

Subsequent to our conversation, Megan sent me the following email, which is a personal assessment of her own generation.

My generation is running around and searching every corner for the next big thing—the next distraction. We love shiny new objects, but they only hold our attention for a minute and then we lose interest. We burn out easily. The majority of our day-to-day experience is very shallow (this bar, that date, this new job, twitter this, instagram that, etc.). This is why I think my generation would thrive on a real God-encounter. Something substantial. Something lasting. Something that isn’t dulling the senses for a moment holding our attention until time passes, but a REAL encounter that quenches the thirst of our desperate souls, and leaves us longing for more.

My generation does not want the God that we saw our parents worship. I am sure that stems from much deeper generational issues than I could uncover. But we don’t want legalism, and a checklist-Christianity

But in the midst of this tension, we have the mega churches in the South doing very well. They draw in a large demographic of unchurched young adults who would have never been caught in a church otherwise. The church services are short (50 minutes), they appeal to our shiny object attention span with loud music and flashing lights.

The pastors are polished and preach good and easy messages that aren’t “churchy”, but easy to listen to and digest. They’re Bible-based messages with just one or two scriptures teaching us how to be better people, but they’re never deep. No, once you scratch past the surface, you have to probably find a new church to find out what is beneath that surface.

These types of churches are full of an amazing void. They are bringing the unchurched to Christ, but then what? They make it to church on Sunday. God peels back the layers of their heart to the extent that they are exposed to in 50 minutes, and…then what?

Is their community going to be better, or even different because Mary and John went to a 50-minute service on Sunday? Quite Possibly

But are they going to be world changers? Are they going to seek out real God encounters? Maybe, but I don’t think so. In my personal journey, the biggest changes have happened when I have had life changing encounters with God. And going back to my initial statement, this is what I think my generation is longing for—depth, tangible encounters, and relationship—though we may be pacified with 50-minute snippets of a dim reflection of glory.

Along with thousands of ex-Muslims, I am a good example of someone who has had that REAL encounter Megan talks about. The majority of us became followers of Christ not because of a profound message an evangelist preached to us, but because we had a tangible experience with our Savior. My own experience was very much like that of Paul’s. I met God face to face and then believed. This is something that the Millennials need to experience before accepting Christ as their Lord and Savior.

What do you think will draw people to God?

Preaching Butt-Naked

On that Wednesday night, I started my message by asking my audience the following question:

“Coming to church, did any one of you see the man standing butt-naked at the off ramp of 118 Freeway and Porter Ranch? He was holding a sign saying something about God judging the nakedness of America.”
“If you’d seen him, would you have called the police?” I continued asking.
“I almost did! But first I decided to talk to him. So I got out the car and asked him why he was doing such a stupid and disgraceful thing in God’s name.”
“God told me to do so!” Shouted back the man.
With much indignation in my voice, I asked the people, “Can you believe this lunatic? Would God EVER ask us to do something so humiliating, so shameful? Would He EVER expect us to do an act that might make us feel uncomfortable?”
I then went on to say, “Before answering my questions, let me read something to you.”
In the year the field commander, sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought and took it, God told Isaiah son of Amoz, “Go, take off your clothes and sandals,” and Isaiah did it, going about naked and barefooted.      Isa. 20:1-2
“I believe the word naked means butt-naked since it’s the same Hebrew word used to describe Adam and Eve’s appearance in the Garden. However, even if you believe it means stripped-down to one’s underwear, as some argue, it was still an extremely shameful act for a Jewish man to perform. After all, Isaiah didn’t live in America where it’s fashionable for men to wear their pants at their knees and their underwear pulled up to their chins.”
“So, my friends, in order to make his point, the Lord might/will ask his servants to perform acts that are uncomfortable, shameful and even indecent by our standards. The Bible is filled with incidents like that.“
A few years ago I had a very strange spiritual experience that was quite unusual and humiliating. Personally, I would have never sought such an experience. In fact, earlier, I’d mocked those who had experienced it. It didn’t live up to my theological standards. Hey, I was a seminary graduate who had the Creator of the universe all figured out.
On the surface, the experience was not only humiliating, but also foolish and downright weird. However, through that incident, I came to know my Savior and his love for me like I never felt and understood before. It created in me a deeper love for God and a longing for more of him in my life. I began to seek him like the addict Origen talks about when he says, “Without ceasing, the soul searches after the Bridegroom, the Word, and when it finds him, it looks for him again like an addict, in other things as well.” By the way, I am well aware that Origen, an early Church Father, didn’t have an orthodox Christology; however, I also believe that all truth is God’s truth.
Unfortunately, my experience didn’t sit well with some of my more theologically sophisticated Christian friends because it didn’t jive with their understanding of the Bible. Regardless of how much that experience had increased my desire to seek my Lord in a much deeper way, they severed their relationship with me. As if, like the blind man healed by Jesus, that was going to make me deny the reality of what had taken place in the inner most part of my being—that deep sense of God’s presence in my life.
Let me finish this post with a challenge to my readers. The core desire of my ministry, Shahzam Factor, is to see church different (the incorrect English is intentional). To see church differently, many of us Christians need to experience the Lord in a new way acknowledging that:
The newness inherent in any situation of encountering with God is brought by him, not by us, and the newness it calls for in us is not a newness of physical or psychological or intellectual experience, it is simply a newness being given to him (and that, too, is not a matter of psychological or any other kind of experience in itself, though it may, of course, lead to or involve some kind of transformation of experience of life).               Simon Tugwell
The Psalmist says, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” When was the last time YOUR soul longed after God with that intensity? Please note that I am not asking how much you love to read or teach the Bible. I am not asking you how much you long to fellowship with the believers, serve others, or tithe, but thirst after God and his presence in your life.  What if to fulfill that longing, God requires you to do something humiliating. Will you be willing to do so? Or at least, will you be willing to rejoice with a friend who is willing to be humiliated so he/she can draw closer to God?

Do I Have To Like My Neighbor?

A few years after Karen and I were married, we started attending a small Charismatic church in our neighborhood. Our small and friendly church was literally adjacent to a very conservative church—we shared a common retaining wall. Years earlier, the church had purchased a piece of property from our church to build a larger parking lot. One would think that an act like that would create a rather cordial relationship between the two congregations, but au contraire.
Both churches held their services simultaneously. Every Sunday, as soon as I got out of our car, I would start waving at our neighbors attending the church next door. In all the years we attended church there, none of our Christian neighbors ever waved back at me. Somehow, their more correct theology prevented them from showing the love of Christ to those Christians whose theology was not quite as sophisticated as theirs. I often wondered, “Isn’t loving our neighbors as ourselves a part of Christ’s greatest mandate to his followers? Even if they considered me a heathen dog, I still deserved some crumbs off their righteous table, as the Grecian woman said to Jesus.”
By the way, we, the Charismatic believers, might think we are more ecumenical than other denominations, but when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, we have our own unique issues. I attended a Charismatic mega church for years. Next to the  property was a Masonic temple. During all the 12 years that I attended church there, I never paid any attention to our Mason neighbors. After all, they were a bunch of demon-possessed people who should have been avoided at any cost.
I will never forget the day when my friend Terry, a staff member at the mega church, was asked by the leadership to inquire into the possibility of purchasing the Masonic temple. This is what the temple’s caretaker said to Terry, “You people have been our neighbors for 14 years. Not once have you even acknowledged our presence, and when you finally have, it’s because you want us out of the neighborhood.”
In one of my earliest posts, “Are You A Heat Waver”, I asked the following question: if you the individual (If you’re a pastor, I’m not talking about your church building, or your church members, but you and your family.) move out of your neighborhood tonight, will your neighbors miss you tomorrow? If not, why not?
As Dallas Willard said, “The key to understanding the teachings of Jesus still remains: Loving our neighbors as ourselves in the power of God.  And when you think about what that means, you realize that if that were done, almost every problem that we have in our cities would be solved. All we have to do is to simply follow Jesus’ words.”
Recently, at a meeting related to the Neighborhood Initiative, a movement started by my dear friend, Lynn Cory, a pastor shared with the 60 pastors present the difficulty he had in connecting with his neighbors. “I’m in a tough neighborhood. I don’t know how to approach my neighbors,” he said. I suggested that he starts waving at anyone who walked or drove by his house. Yesterday, I received this video clip by him (It might take a while to load).
It’s amazing what a genuine act of kindness through the love of Christ can do.
PS. If you’re interested in reaching out to your neighbors, may I suggest the book, Neighborhood Initiative written by Lynn Cory? You can buy it on Amazon, or get it directly from: www.neighborhoodintiative.org