This Church Will Die Out In One Generation!

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 “When you die, your epithet will say, ‘He was way ahead of his time, so no one understood him,’” was something one of my church elders once told me.
With his hand literally on the small of my back ushering me out of his office, the district supervisor said, “Brother, I’m a church planter. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The year was 1987. I’d just left my engineering job to become the full-time pastor of the Fellowship of Iranian Christians, the first Iranian Christian organization in the US. An organization I’d founded and been pastoring bi-vocationally for the prior ten years.
Here I was an Iranian Muslim background believer (MBB) with no background or education in pastoring, let alone, a church consisting of first generation Iranian MBBs and Jewish immigrants. I was desperately in need of help, guidance and support, so I went to see my denomination’s overseer.
After the initial pleasantry, this is how our conversation followed:
Supervisor asked, “Tell me about your church.”
“Well, they’re not churches in a traditional sense. We have 3 house fellowships that meet in the evenings during the week.”
“Are you looking for a building?”
“No!”
“How come?”
“A church like ours is only good for one generation. The second generation Iranian Christians will be too Americanized to attend a Farsi speaking church. I believe it works better if the first generation Iranian Christians meet at homes during the week and on Sundays attend English-speaking churches.
This was over 30 years ago. There was no Barna Group around. What I knew was a gut level intuition. Some might even say it was a “prophetic proclamation”.
What I didn’t know at the time was how very few people knew anything about the challenges that a group like ours was facing. Unfortunately, my American born monoculture supervisor was not among the few. In fact, I don’t believe he knew anything about other cultures let alone Iranian culture. So, he got up from behind his desk and escorted me out.
By nature, most Iranians assimilate quickly into other cultures. In fact, some of the Iranian leaders have accused their own people of being like chameleons, changing colors at a drop of a hat. For the majority of us, this has made it possible to survive and succeed without having to rely on our own community.
As it may, this gift, or curse of assimilation has made the US Iranians the third most educated minority group, and one of the most successful ethnic groups. In less than 40 years, we have accomplished what many other ethnic groups have not been able to achieve in 100 years. A few years ago, when my cousin graduated from the USC School of Dentistry, out of the 100 graduates, 30 of them were Iranians.
More than 30 years ago, I encouraged my Iranian fellowship/church members to take their kids to English speaking churches, so they can be discipled in English. Some did and some didn’t. Of those who did listen to me, most their children (my own included) are still walking with the Lord. However, majority of those kids whose parents insisted that, “We are Iranians and we do things the Iranian way” have walked away from the faith.
The same outcome is taking place in many Farsi-only speaking churches in America. The attendance is getting lower and lower—the first generation has either started to attend English-speaking churches, or is simply dying out. And as I mentioned, the second generation has either walked away from the church, or is also attending English-speaking churches. In fact, I dare to say that there are more Iranian Christians attending English-speaking churches than there are those attending Farsi-speaking churches.
The Iranian churches that are growing are the ones that understood my predictions and are now having bilingual services—a service in Farsi to take care of the parents and new immigrants, and one in English reaching out to the second generation.
Let me conclude this blog by issuing two challenges:
First to the English-speaking pastors:
From all I have seen, heard and studied, church attendance among English-speaking Americans is in decline. One of the most effective ways to keep the church alive is to reach out to immigrants.
Many years ago, I developed a simple outline of how this can be achieved, but there haven’t been too many pastors willing to implement the system at their churches. Maybe the time has finally arrived? Maybe now, as a matter of survival and desperation, the American church needs to shift her paradigm by realizing our nation IS the greatest mission field God has given us.
Second, to the Iranian pastors:
Face reality! You are not in Iran anymore. The Iranians in America are different than the ones in Iran. Rebuking and shaming our young ones for their lack of ability to speak Farsi will only push them farther away from the church.
Like the sons of Issachar, (I Chronicles 12:32) understand the times and contextualize your approach in evangelism and discipleship. If you’re not capable of teaching in English, train some of your young members who are fluent in English to do so. This way, our second generation, who is teachable if they could understand the language, will not feel abandoned by the church.
PS. For many valid reasons today, I’m much more open to having a church building, but I still believe in the above principles when it comes to the second generation.
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How Do You Disciple An Ex-Muslim?

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The Fellowship of Iranian Christians was the first Iranian Christian organization in the US. It was established over 30 years ago. Not long after I started the organization, it became clear that we desperately needed to train and disciple the new Iranian believers who’d left Islam to follow Christ.
At the time, our leadership consisted mostly of a group of young Iranian college students who’d become believers in the US. None of us had any Bible training and all we knew about Christianity was what we’d learned from our American mentors.  In other words, we believed in an American Jesus who taught in American style.
In an article printed in the Rev. Magazine, Alan Nelson says,
Way too much effort is invested in “book learning'” and lecture style content dumps. Conferences are notorious for this, making us think we’re gleaning far more than we really are. Hebrews 5 says that we become mature, meat-eating believers as a result of “practicing” the milk…
Not knowing any better, we did exactly what Nelson tells us NOT TO DO. Over 30 years ago, we translated a series of 10 booklets entitled, “Christian Living” and went about discipling the new converts using western lecture style content dumps. However, I had a problem.
Before translating them, I’d studied the booklets in English. Every chapter had made sense to me. My dilemma began once the booklets were translated into Farsi.  The content became quite foreign to me. At the time, I didn’t know anything about cross-cultural ministries and even though, in my heart of hearts, I knew there was something wrong with our approach, I was convinced the problem was with the new believers and me.  “After all, this how my American mentors are doing it, so it must be correct,” I’d tell myself. It took me over 20 years to finally figure out what the problem was.
Let me draw you an analogy in hope of making the above confusion clearer to my readers.
About 30 years ago my wife, Karen, was studying at UCLA. To fulfill her requirements, she needed to complete two semesters of language studies. At the time, she was engaged to a very handsome Iranian, me, so she chose Farsi. Within two semesters, thanks to an excellent English-speaking teacher who knew how to teach Farsi as a second language, Karen became rather fluent in reading, writing and conversing in Farsi .
Now, let’s fast forward to 15 years later. By this time, we’re pastoring an Iranian church. Feeling the need to brush up on her Farsi, Karen decided to take some Farsi classes at a nearby Persian school, where Iranian teachers taught Farsi to many English-speaking students. Having made a grave assumption, the Iranian teachers were extremely unsuccessful in teaching Farsi to these students. They assumed they could teach Farsi to an English-speaking student the same way they taught it to a Farsi-speaking first-grader in Iran. 
You see, by the time he made it to the first grade, the Iranian student, who’s spent all his life immersed in Farsi, knows how to speak the language. In first grade, he needs to know how to read and write the words he’s been speaking all his life. To assume that an average American who’d never been exposed to the language can be approached the same as an Iranian first –grader is where those teachers went wrong.
For example, after teaching the American students the alphabet, the students who didn’t even know that Farsi was written from right to left were required to practice writing the word, “Aab” (One of the simplest words in the language, which means “water.”) In doing so, the teachers completely overlooked the fact that, to start with, most students had no idea what “Aab” was.
           
Drawing some parallelism from the above analogy, the problem with my discipleship approach was a small oversight on my end. The booklets were written for western believers who’d been immersed in a culture, which was much more familiar with Christianity than the average ex-Muslim.
For instance, the title of the first chapter of the first booklet in the series was, “Who Is Jesus?”  After reading the chapter, the brand new believer was supposed to answer a series of questions. The first question was something like, “According to Isaiah 53, what kind of Messiah should the Jews have expected?” To most American believers this is not a very difficult question, but not so with most Iranian MBBs.
This is how a typical conversation would transpire:
Student: “What’s Isaiah?” (Which, by the way, in Farsi, is pronounced, “Esh-ah-yah”—A name completely foreign to us and difficult to pronounce. At least, in English, Isaiah is a common name.)
Me: “He’s a Jewish prophet.”
Student: “What??? A Jewish prophet??? Why do I need to learn about a Jewish prophet?  I didn’t leave Islam to follow the Jewish religion. I thought I was learning how to be a Christian!!!”
Suffice it to say, depending on the student, at this point, I had to spend the next several hours, days or even weeks to talk about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Something that was totally fruitless and unnecessary at this point.
Why is it that important for a Muslim who’s already made the decision to become a follower of Christ to know that Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Jews? At least at the start, this is not a question that the ex-Muslim is preoccupied with. Not to mention the fact that most Muslims are raised with an inherent prejudice towards Jews. So, why make things more complicated? Once the new believer is grounded in the New Testament, he is more prepared to discover the Old Testament roots of the New.
Some Western Christians are quick to say, “Well, now that he’s a Christian, the ex-Muslim most stop hating his enemies. After all, this is what Christianity’s all about.” To which, I say, AMEN.  So, what our ex-Muslim friend needs is not a proof of Jesus’ Messianic claims, which can be categorized as, “Classical Theology”, but learning how to live his life more like Jesus, which is called, “Practical Theology” or “Spiritual Formations”.
As Dallas Willard says, the ex-Muslim needs to understand becoming like Jesus is done by putting solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, meditation upon God’s word and ways, and service to others at the heart of his faith. That he can increasingly resemble Christ in character and in power not by only knowing, but by following him in his overall style of life
In my own personal life, I learned more about God’s love and experienced more of his presence in the hours of practicing Lectio Devina (divine reading) than many years of book learning at a seminary.  NO, I am not against book learning. There’s definitely a place for “Classical Theology”. But, this should be done after the new believer has become more immersed in his new faith by learning how be like his Master.  
To assume that discipling an MBB can or should be done the way a westerner is trained is just as misguided as the path the above Iranian teachers took in teaching their American students. The American students first needed to learn how to speak Farsi before they could write in Farsi. The MBB first needs to walk like Jesus before he can debate with the Pharisees. After all, it is not his perfect theology that will draw him closer to his Creator, but walking in his Savior’s footstep and practicing what Jesus practiced.
One last thought: Today, the western church is facing a postmodern generation, which is quite ignorant of the Bible and Christianity in general—very much like new Muslim background believers. In my humble opinion, it is far more fruitful to disciple the new western believers through “Practical Theology” than the old-fashioned lecture style content dumping.
Now that I have your attention, contact me so we can talk about how to make disciples for Christ out of ex-Muslims or American believers at your church or organization.

Let’s NOT Do Lunch

So, the other day I ran into an old friend I’d not seen for a long time. As he was rushing to a meeting, he said, “Let’s do lunch!”

Having heard that phrase many times before, I wasn’t about to just let it go without a response. I called his bluff.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “When?”

He was caught quite off guard. He didn’t expect me to call him on his offer.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to you on it.”

I wanted to scream, “Hey, I didn’t ask to have lunch with you. You’re the one who suggested it while knowing it was an empty gesture.”

Do you know what happens when we give our word to do something and then renege?

1. We destroy the very foundation of all true relationships—trust. Without trust, there’s no true relationship. However, trust will be established when we stay true to our promises.

2. We give the impression that the person on the receiving end of our empty promise is neither important nor needed. Unfortunately, most of us tend to treat a person we esteem important or needed more differently than an average Joe Christian.

I was raised in a culture where to blindly trust people was your demise. In that society, we were expected not to trust, so everyone went around with his guard up 24/7. Shouldn’t we Christians be a bit different than those from my old culture? Shouldn’t all our leadership – our pastors – be people of their words?

A majority of young people I come across today are longing for a community, a place where the people are trustworthy and transparent. A place were the people’s “yes” is “yes” and “no” is “no”.

Creating such an environment starts with us as individuals. The next time you promise to do something for someone, regardless of how unimportant the person might be to you, for Christ’s sake, DO IT. This way, you create a highly sought-after commodity within God’s community—trustworthiness. Let the person know he’s important not because he’s got something that you need, but because he’s made in God’s image.

The Bible Didn’t Save Me

October 25, 2011 will mark my 40th anniversary of being a Jesus person.  The day I began my journey with Christ, I was riding my motorbike 70-80 miles an hour while on my way home from Thanksgiving dinner at my friend, Ellen’s house. I’d heard her father pray a blessing over the meal and it had greatly moved me.
I didn’t know anything about the Bible and I had never opened one. After all, as far as I was concerned, it was a corrupt book so why bother? I didn’t know anything about John 3:16. I hadn’t heard about the Roman Road or been given a tract on the Four Spiritual Laws and there was no one around to have me repeat the Sinner’s Prayer. On top of all that I didn’t believe I was a sinner. Even worse, I didn’t accept the very foundation of the Christian faith: Christ’s death on the cross, his divinity, or his position as the Son of God. But, I was one desperate and hopeless Muslim man who was willing to try anything. So, without knowing it, I did what Apostle Paul had said almost 2,000 years earlier, “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.” (Rom. 3:13, the Message)
I called and He helped.
On that day, my journey with Christ started apart from the Bible. The foundation of my faith began to form on the basis of an experience —an experience stemming from me calling on Jesus for help. Eventually, I came to understand Christ to be my Lord and savior by reading the Bible, but without my initial experience, I would have never read it. So, today, even if one proves to me that every word in the Bible is a lie, my faith in Christ will not be shaken because it is not based on the word of God, but on the Word of God (Christ) himself.
When I pastored the Iranian church, a majority of my Muslim background believer members had started their journey with Jesus through tangible experiences with him (dreams, visions, healings and so on) and apart from the Bible, very much in the same way that many early Gentile Christians had. I often wonder how the early Church did their daily “devotions” since the Bible had not be canonized yet and even after it was, not everyone could afford to have one under his arm, which brings me to my purpose for writing this blog.
In 2001 I started teaching at a Bible college. After a year into teaching American students who were almost all born and raised in Christian families, I began to notice a correlation between Muslim and postmodern evangelism, and how they both long for an experience with God. The Muslim longs for it because He’s been taught that God is not approachable and my postmodern students had only known God theologically apart from an experience (this applies to postmodern non-Christians too, but at the present my focus is on postmodern Christians).
For years, our evangelical mentors taught us not to rely on any experience, but to rely on the word of God. “After all, your experiences are not reliable,” they told us. I wonder if after getting knocked off his ass on the way to Damascus and going blind, Paul was told the same thing by the Pharisees of his time. I also wonder if we would’ve had 2/3 of the New Testament if Paul had not had his Damascus experience. After all, isn’t most of the Bible a collection of man’s experience with God?
No doubt some of my readers will disagree with me because they might assume that I’m putting more weight on an experience than the word of God. I am not. What I’m saying is what we used to say during the “Jesus People” time: “God has no grandchildren.” For our children to stand by their parents’ faith in Christ, they themselves need to have an experience to support their theology.