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.

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?

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.