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.

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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?

‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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.

Are You A Heat-Waver?

Have you watched the show, “King of the Hill”? It’s one of the very few animated TV shows that tells stories with moral values. In Season 12, Episode 4 (“Four Wave Intersection”), Bill — a depressed, divorced, and overweight character on the show — becomes known as the famous “Heat-Waver” when he begins to stand on the side of the highway in a scorching summer heat to wave to passing motorists.

At first, some drivers are annoyed by his seemingly foolish act, but eventually, they start to wave back. It doesn’t take Bill too long to realize how every driver enjoys being acknowledged even though they have no idea who Bill is. So, he shows up the next day on the same spot to do the same thing. Soon, he becomes the talk of the town and even radio talk-show hosts begin to talk about the “Heat-Waver”.  

For me, it all started one Saturday in 1998 when Karen and I decided to start a Bible study at our house for unbelievers, pre-Christians, non-Christians, or whatever is politically correct to call those who don’t follow Christ.

After 2 hours of discussion, we realized, as great as our attempt was, we didn’t know too many non-Christians. We worked with Christians, served Christians, went to church with Christians, socialized with Christians, ate and drank with Christians, and, consequently, had very a few non-Christian friends. Like most Christians, we lived under an illusional bubble called “Christendom”— a bubble that separated us from the real world and limited us in fulfilling the Great Commission.

As we were trying to figure out where we could find more unbelievers, one of us (I don’t remember which one) said, “Hey, what about our neighbors?” “Oh, yes! What a novel idea,” I thought to myself. However, the idea was NOT that novel.

After 8 years of living in our neighborhood, aside from the next-door neighbors on either side of our house, we barely knew anyone in our neighborhood. Why? Because we were too busy serving at the church.

So, that very day I went house-to-house on our block to invite neighbors to our home for dinner. That was the start of one of the greatest decisions Karen and I have ever made: loving our neighbors by befriending them.

In 2006 when I lost my job working for a Christian organization, I became a full-time househusband, which helped me get even more involved with the lives of my neighbors, or anyone I ran into in my neighborhood. I started my own “Heat-Wave”. I began to wave and say “hi” to anyone who drove or pass by our house. When I took my dog, Cocoa, for a walk I made sure to greet everyone I met on the street and it didn’t matter if I knew them or not. Everybody deserved to be waved at and greeted.

At first, there were some who didn’t wave back. After all, this is Los Angeles. Within some cultures, to show your teeth as the result of a smile is considered a weakness, but I kept waving and greeting. It didn’t take very long before almost everyone in the neighborhood started to wave back and came to know the man and his Chocolate Lab.

Today when Karen takes Cocoa for a walk, it’s not unusual for strangers to walk up to her and say, “Hi, Cocoa!” and then, immediately look at Karen and say, “Where’s your husband?” But wait, there’s more…

As I got to know my neighbors better, our relationships deepened and I was allowed to ask questions of them. You see, when you show people you care enough to acknowledge them even if it is by a simple wave or a greeting, they will eventually open up to you. It did take a while, but little by little, neighbors began to pull over or stop by to talk to me. Our conversations would go something like this:

Me: “ Hi, my name is Shah. What’s your name?”

Neighbor: “‘Jack’! It’s so kind of you to wave at me every day when I go by your house. Good to finally meet you.”

Me: “What do you do for living, Jack?”

Jack: “I’m an engineer. What do you do?”

Me: “I’m a writer. Here, I have a gift for you.” Going to the garage, I come back with a copy of my book and give it to “Jack” as a gift.

I don’t need to SHARE the Gospel with Jack, whom I just met. My book will eventually do that. For now, I want him to understand how important he is to me. Important enough that every time he runs into me, or drives by my house, he’ll be greeted by a wave and a smile as a significant person.
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It’s one of those pleasant June evenings in Los Angeles. Many of our neighbors are out for a walk and I’m playing with Cocoa on the front lawn. She loves to fetch her red ball. As I look up, I see Jasmine approaching me.

“Cocoa,” she screams. I don’t think she remembers my name, but Cocoa she remembers. It must be Cocoa’s color that does it, or maybe her loving demeanor.

“Where’s Victor?” referring to her husband, I ask.

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“No!”

“Victor was diagnosed with, how do you say? The blood cancer.”

“You mean leukemia?”

“Yes, that’s it. He’s very weak and can’t walk with me.”

“Will you let me pray for him?” I ask as I reach over, grab her hands and begin to pray.

Jasmine walks away with tears in her eyes thanking me.

A few minutes later Kevin pulls up. He’s my neighbor around the block.

“How are you, brother?” He’s been calling me that ever since I got to know him.

“Hey, have you lost any of Vicky’s dogs lately?” I teasingly ask him.

A few weeks earlier as I was walking Cocoa in the hills across the street from our house, Kevin approached me with tears in his eyes.

“Brother, I need your help?”

“What’s up?”

“As you know, my wife, Vicky trains dogs. Well, a few minutes ago, one of them ran away from our house.” I’ve been walking up and down the block, but can’t find him.

Without asking a word, I put my hand on his shoulder and begin to pray for the dog to come back.

That night my neighbor, Jeff, on the end of the block finds the dog.

As Kevin drives away, I suddenly realized: I may not have a church building, but I’m the block’s official pastor.

PS: This morning Jasmine told me Victor’s doing much better.

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.

The $5 Sinner’s Prayer

 The other day my wife, Karen, was channel surfing when she came across a very well known preacher who’d just finished his Sunday morning message.
With a perpetual smile on his face, the preacher said something like, “As it is our custom at this church, we’d like to give everyone the opportunity to become a Christian. So, if you want to become a Christian, please repeat after me.” He then went on to pray a traditional sinner’s prayer. What got my attention was what he said after he finished the prayer.
“If you repeated this prayer, you’re now a Christian. Make sure to find yourself a good Bible teaching church,” he said as he continued to smile.
His statement reminded me of the something that happened to me over 35 years ago.
In those days many people hitchhiked. I’d been one of those people for several years. So, when I finally bought my first car, wanting to pay my debt back to all those who’d at one time or another given me a ride, I’d picked up any hitchhiker who came across my path.
One particular day going home from work, I picked up this homeless guy off the freeway on-ramp. He was a tall thin man in his 30s. As soon as he got inside the car, he began coughing and sneezing blowing his nose in the used tissue paper I had stuck in my ashtray—Yes, those days all cars had ashtrays.
As it was my custom when I had a hitchhiker in my car, I began to share the Gospel with the man. Before I could even finish my sentence, he stopped me and said something that I’ll never forget for as long as I live. Very calmly and as a matter of fact he said, “For $5 I’ll repeat the Sinner’s Prayer for you.”
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never had someone selling me his sinner’s prayer. He honestly thought he was doing me favor. Apparently, he’d been through this many times and by now he’d realized that by repeating some words, he was going to give me the satisfaction of thinking I’d brought him to Christ and therefore I owed him a few bucks – $5 to be exact.
Is it really true that by repeating some words one automatically becomes a Christian? Only the Lord knows since it is the faith in our hearts and not just the confession our mouths that saves us (Rom. 10:9). Could the above man had gone through the rest of his life repeating the prayer over and over again while making some money, but still end up in hell?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe a simple prayer can save a man’s soul. On the other hand, just because a man has repeated a prayer doesn’t make him a saved person. To assume that is to practice Islamic theology and cheapen the Gospel.
In order to become a Muslim, all you have to do is repeat the following phrase (known as the Shahada) in Arabic: “I testify that there’s no god but Allah and Mohammad is his messenger.” Although it’s desired that one recites the phrase form the heart, a Muslim will rejoice in hearing you repeat the Shahada and will consider you a Muslim. And, it doesn’t matter if you understood a word you’ve said. Case in point, the following video-clip.
In this clip, an Arabic speaking sheikh (Muslim cleric) is guiding a Portuguese soccer player to become a Muslim by repeating the Shahada. Those who speak Arabic will find the clip quite funny, which is not the goal of this blog. My goal is to expose the danger of automatically calling someone a Christian because they have recited the words we put into their mouths.

What is the difference between this sheikh and the above pastor?
PS. I never asked my hitchhiker to repeat after me. Instead, I took him to a restaurant and bought him a nice chicken fried steak dinner.

Honestly, I’m Only An Evangelist And Not An Apocalyptic Expert!

The year was 1979. The Islamic revolution in Iran was in full swing, the American embassy in Tehran was occupied and the American Christian End Times enthusiasts were printing out books like there was literally no tomorrow. One author, referring to an incident in Abraham’s life, called all Iranians “kidnappers” from day one. Another gleefully printed the above photo putting words in Yasser Arafat’s mouth saying, ” And then the Lord will put a hook in your mouth and we’ll all head for Israel—Ezk. 38″ According to these authors, Iran was hell bound. But was she really?

In the last two months, thanks to my publicist, I’ve had over a dozen radio interviews concerning my new book, Shame On You—rising from the ashes of shame to face guilt. The book is about my Muslim upbringing in Iran and it also contrasts my shame-based Iranian culture with the guilt-based culture of the West. The book has nothing to do with the End Times or what the Islamic Republic of Iran is going to do with her WMD once she develops it. However, that has not stopped some of the interviewers from asking my opinion about the future of Iran.
Questions go like this:
“So, do you think Iran has the bomb yet?”
“What do you think Iran is going to do with it?”
“Should Israel attack Iran?”
“What do you think our government should do?”
“Do you believe Mehdi is the antichrist? ”
I’m one interview away from responding with the following:
“Just because I was born in Iran doesn’t make me and expert on the Iranian government any more than you being born in America makes you an expert on what the US government should do with the military drone that is now in Iranian hands. I’m here to talk about Muslim evangelism.”
What’s more interesting is that almost none of these people have ever paid any attention to what the Lord is doing in Iran. They’re completely ignorant of the rate by which Iranians have been turning to Christ since 1979 when they were all supposed to be hell-bound. The rate is so high that it has created a great concern for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Why such a fascination with death and destruction instead of love and salvation?  Why do we hardly hear the good things that the Lord is doing In the Middle East? As we start 2012, let us be thankful for the God-given freedom so many of us take for granted in this country, rejoice with those Muslims who are entering the Kingdom and pray for the ones who are being persecuted simply because they’ve called upon the name of Jesus for their salvation.

What Are All These Foreigners Doing In My Country?

Years ago I was invited to teach a workshop at a large denominational convention. I was given an hour to teach on Islam and Muslim evangelism. However, at the last minute I was told I would be sharing my teaching time with a Native American brother who was going to teach on reaching his nation.

In less than 30 minutes, we were each expected to give solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing the American church. To add insult to injury, directly across from our classroom was going to be a very well known mega church pastor teaching a workshop on “church growth”.

Having faced situations like this over and over again for many years, I decided to even out the odds and placed a sign on the other workshop’s door telling the attendees that the room was switched to ours.

Within a few minutes before our class was to start, pastors began to pour in trying to grab any seat they could find. Eventually, the class was filled to its capacity with standing room only. That’s when I calmly got up to introduce myself.

“Hi, my name is Shahrokh Afshar. My friends call me Shah, but you can call me Shahrokh. Next to me is Pastor ‘Pretty on the Top’ and we are going to be your teachers for the next 60 minutes.”

That’s when one of the pastors in the back shouted, “Where’s Pastor Jack?”

“Jack who?” I replied

Needless to say, within a few seconds my class emptied— as if the rapture had taken place and only seven of us were left behind. It was obvious that to most of those pastors, church growth took precedence over evangelism, including Muslim and Native American evangelism, which are two of the least evangelized people groups in the entire world.

Four of the five pastors in the room had intended to be there all along, but after realizing the prank I’d pulled, the fifth guy stayed because he told himself, “Anyone who can pull something like this on Pastor Jack is worth listening to.” Ted and I have been great friends ever since.

It frustrates me to no end to see that even after 9/11 how much most pastors in America still operate with the above mindset—looking for the magic formula that can turn their small fellowship into a mega church overnight instead of doing the work of an evangelist, especially among these two grossly under-reached groups.

Every once in a while, I challenge believers to do the following the next time they are at church:
Before the service starts, request that your pastor ask the church members this question: ‘How many of you were saved at this church and how many of you transferred here from another church?’ If the pastor is willing to ask such a question, you’ll be shocked by the result. You’ll find out that a good 80-90% of your church members have transferred from other churches for whatever reason and are what I call “Recycled Christians”.

By the way, I’ve been to churches where 100% of the members were Recycled Christians.

“Look around you,” I often direct American pastors. “You and your church members can all be missionaries to any people group you desire without having to ever leave your home. God has brought people of every nation and language to your doorsteps for a reason. You don’t need to spend a penny traveling to their foreign lands because they have already spent their own money to be here. You don’t need to learn their languages or cultures (although it’s very help if you do so) because they’re trying hard to learn English and the American way of life. You don’t need to learn how to eat their foods because they’re desperately trying to keep their Big Macs down. All the Lord is asking you is to, in Christ’s name, take a glass of cool water across the street to the guy that may wear a turban and speak with an accent.”

According to some of the studies I’ve seen, the church attendance in America is dropping every Sunday. No doubt there are many reasons for this phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned there are two extremely prominent causes for this occurrence.

First, a majority of Americans who are born in this country have lost interest in church attendance and don’t consider Christianity relevant.

Second, we’ve finally run out of Christians to recycle. Is it possible that after decades of recycling old disciples rather than baptizing new ones, we’re finally running out of recyclable Christians? Could the answer to the next great revival in America lie not in building another mega church building filled with English speaking believers who have transferred from smaller churches, but in Christian leaders who are willing to build their churches one person at a time by reaching out to those who’ve never heard the Good News and are more open—the internationals God has brought to our doorsteps?

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.