Please, No More Information!

Recently I read an article that started with the following statement,

Do you know what your problem is? Your problem is not that you are uninformed. That is what you might have thought your problem was. Your problem is also not that you lack information. This is a common misconception. In fact, people nowadays have lots of information… Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations.

I didn’t agree with the article, but the above statement reminded of a church meeting I’d attended a few days earlier.

The meeting was good. After a great time of worship, the pastor introduced the guest speaker who spent 30 minutes or so talking about how every believer was a light and the salt of this world. He talked about the properties of salt and light. He said what it meant for each believer to have those qualities. He gave examples using a flashlight while the lights in the sanctuary were dimmed. He had us tell the person next to us how precious they were for being the light and salt of this earth. By the time he was done, most of us knew more about salt and light than we needed.who-wants-change

While sitting there, I wondered how many believers in that room weren’t already familiar with Christ’s teaching in Matt 5:13-14? How many needed more information about those verses? How many had not, over and over again, heard what salt and light do? I am sure that for most of those present, the problem was not lack of information, but what to do with it. I’m confident that everyone left the meeting feeling great about who they were in Christ, but to what end?

I am a practical follower of Christ. I believe, at this age, after being a believer for over 40 years, I don’t need more information on what it means to be a disciple/servant of Jesus. What I need is how to implement all I’ve learned about what it means to be a Christian.

I wish, unlike most teachers I’ve heard all these years, our teacher that night had sent us home with some practical steps on how to make our lights shine, or how to attract people to our saltiness, so they become thirsty for the things of God. I wish he had said something like:

Now that you know you are the light and the salt of this world. Now that you’ve become aware of who you are in Christ, I want you to implement what you learned tonight. Go from here and be the light and salt to your own neighborhoods. Fulfill God’s greatest commandment—loving your neighbor through God’s love—by, at least, getting to know your next-door neighbor’s name, offer to mow his/her lawn (if they need it), make a casserole dish and take it to them, or something like that.

In order to be the light and salt of this world, the majority of us doesn’t need any more facts and information on the subject. We need to put to work all that we already know. And for that, we need teachers who can give us simple and yet practical ways to achieve that goal. And for the Church to stop being just a hearer/information gatherer and become a doer also.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would Jesus Laugh At A Dirty Joke?

laughingAbout a week ago I had the rare privilege of meeting some friends I hadn’t seen for 43 years. We all grew up in the same area of what at the time was the greatest city in the world—our birthplace, Abadan.

Those of you who’ve read my book know that at our small community in Abadan Iran, we all attended the same school, swam at the same pool, went to the same clubs and attended the same movie theaters. Consequently, we knew each other very well.

The four of us, among whom one is a believer, spent the first hour of our meeting reminiscing about those glorious days in Abadan, but then everything changed when our fourth friend joined us.

By nature, most Iranians are joke tellers. And, as one of the guys who speaks 5 different languages said, “There’s no other language that tells jokes better than Farsi.” No sooner our fourth friend joined us, jokes began to fly. By the way, some of these were dirty, but FUNNY!

At this juncture of my story, long before I am able to finish the rest of it, the few Christians I’ve shared it with have all rolled their eyes and made comments that surmounted to, “How dare they?”

As I was sitting there laughing my head off —Did I tell you that the jokes were dirty? I began to wonder how, so often, we Christians are not worried about what Jesus might think about something we’re doing, but what other Christians might think about it. That’s why many of us could never live like Jesus out of the fear of APPEARANCE—not what something actually is, but what it might come across as. Personally, I gave up the above fear long time ago. It is more important for me to be like Jesus than what some people might think of me.

You see, I didn’t’ get together with my friends as a “Morality Police”. My intention that evening was to enjoy my reunion with some great friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. I wasn’t there to correct them, especially since I wasn’t bothered by their jokes. I wanted them to know that I loved and accepted them for just who they were and where they were in life.

As I sat in the outdoor café laughing, I asked the Lord for an opening, which didn’t come till the end of the evening. After almost three hours of non-stop laughter, when everyone was about to say goodnight and leave, I asked if I could have just a few more minutes of their time. I then shared my journey with Jesus, which was received with an open sincerity. By then, there was no doubt that they knew I wasn’t there to judge them for laughing at some funny jokes, albeit, dirty funny jokes and I had gained the right to speak the Truth into their lives.

If we believe what the gospels tell us about Jesus, then we know He spent an awful amount of time hanging out with people who were considered to be the scum of the earth. I’m sure being around these homies; Jesus must have heard a few dirty jokes. But I don’t read anywhere that He rebuked anyone for not living up to HIS standards off the bat. And that’s exactly how I wanted to treat my homies.

The starting point for Jesus was where people were, and not where He wanted them to be. He never expected the homies of his time to start from where He was before He would befriend them at exactly where they were

What is YOUR starting point?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

More Than Numbers: Church As Positive Culture Impact…

churchBy Phil Wyman

I’ve known Phil for many years. In fact, about 30 years ago, he was one of the first English speaking pastors who invited me to speak at his church. These past a few years, we both have had our share of woes, which mostly steamed out of being misunderstood. So, a couple of weeks ago, when talking on the phone, he mentioned some of the the stuff in the following post, I knew I had to have in prints–SHAH

In almost 29 years of pastoring, I have lived through the worst of capitalist success markers being the measures of church success. Numbers, numbers, numbers…. In the 80’s church growth conferences pushed numerical growth as a marker of New Testament blessing. In Acts 2 we read that, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” So the marker of blessing was numerical increase. Denominational district reports asked for nothing much more than numbers: money numbers, attendance numbers, salvation numbers, rededication numbers, baptism numbers, and baptism in the Holy Spirit numbers. In such a success driven culture, people around us become paper people. They were numbers on a page, and some cases they began to feel that way.

I have always been a rebel against creating paper people, and so very early I became known as the “small church guy” in my district because I defended the benefits, and blessings of small churches. I also pastored small church pastors – no one else seemed to care about them, except maybe to encourage their deliverance from pastoring small churches.

Years later, we look back at the Church Growth Movement, and wonder what went wrong. How come denominations are still struggling as franchises of small groups, instead of numerically victorious bastions of Super Walmart-sized compounds? Does this mean, that the blessing of God is not upon denominations and churches if they don’t cover the earth in building programs like the waters cover the sea? (I am hoping the irony of utilizing that language does not evade you.)

It should be obvious in our quickly developing post-colonialist, anti-capitalist surroundings (which is another huge topic filled with both benefit and entrapment), that numbers are not God’s measurement of a pastor’s success and faithful service to the community. If we consider the position of a pastor to be a shepherd of a community, I want to suggest measurements, which might better serve us in determining the success of a church in its community.

Now, my examples will seem more extreme than the average church experience, but then I live in the extremely crazy city of Salem, MA (aka The Witch City)

1) Are outsiders thankful for your presence? Our small church got involved in the month long Halloween celebrations from the first year we were here. In 1999, churches were battling an impossible battle to shut the city events down, and failing miserably, as well as making enemies among the city’s Witches, local businesses, and even government leaders. I thought it made sense to befriend the people involved, and help make the 31 days of Halloween a family-friendly experience. After much struggle, and ridiculous accusations from other churches, 10 years later people were telling us how much of an impact our presence had been on the streets of Salem. The season was more peaceful, the local Pagans and local Christians weren’t fighting like they were in the 90’s. Not that these things do not rise again from time to time, but the local churches stay mostly out of the fray, while working on relationships with the city people.

2) Do outsiders support your mission? Typically, it is those in our congregations who support the work our churches attempt to accomplish in the community. Our little church found itself on the opposite side of this equation last year. Due to financial struggles, we were moving out of the facility we had been renting for 7 years. We put out a plea for help, and the help came in surprising numbers. In the first two days of our campaign, Witches and atheists out-gave the Christians. I realized that we had friends among people with whom we significantly differed on so many basic philosophical issues of faith, and life, but this friendship made itself evident in dollars and cents.

3) Are you able to stand in the space between the community arguments and provide a voice of peace? We have run confessional booths (ala Blue Like Jazz) and have seen people cry as we offered an apology for the historic wrongs the church has committed. In the Boston area, shortly after the breaking news of the priest abuse scandal, this was momentous for many people.

4) Does the community come to you for help? We invested in items, which we knew could be a benefit to the City of Salem. A good portable sound system, outdoor chairs for outdoor events, 10 by 10 outdoor tents, and other event-based supplies. We have run sound for the Mayor’s inauguration, for visiting congressmen, and for community pizza and ice cream events. We paint the faces of hundreds of children on the 4th of July, and supply hot cocoa at Fall and Winter events every year. The community calls and asks for our help, because they trust us to help and to be a blessing, without having to preach a salvation message every time we encounter them.

5) Is your impact disproportionate to your size? (It was my friend, John Amstutz, who first asked this question of the small church I pastored in Carlsbad, CA) I can call out the Holy Grail of national impact here, but it is not because we were so perfect an example of church success. Our fame came through trial, and persecution by other churches, and even our own denomination, but even negative experiences will reveal the success of your mission. Our little church hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal on October 31st, 2006, and for those Warholian 15 minutes we were famous. We gained friends across the world, and that impact, which is far disproportionate than our actual numbers continues to this day. 

You will notice these markers are based in how outsiders feel about the church. If we truly want to bless our communities, then how our communities feel about us is one critical gauge of our success. This is not to say that churches are going to be accepted in every community, but in the United States there are so few impossible communities. If a church can find a way to beneficially impact The Witch City, then just about any community in the US ought to be accessible. Find a way to serve, and keep at that service going until it gives the payouts, which are not measured in numbers.

If you’re interested to know more about Phil, these are some useful links.

Christianity Today article about Burning Man: http://www.salemgathering.org/images/news/CT_Burning_Man.pdf

Church website: http://www.salemgathering.org

His book project website: http://www.burningreligion.com

Personal Website: http://www.philwyman.org

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?