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.

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?

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.

I Love My Church, Starbucks II!

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I’ve just dropped my car off to be serviced, and have a couple of hours of waiting, so I go to the Starbucks across the street. This is my second time at this place.
As I sip on my coffee, I notice a couple walk in together. The man walks up to the counter and after ordering his drink, he turns around and asks the lady behind her what she’d like to have. He pays for his purchase and goes to the end of the counter where he’s to pick up his order. Anyone watching the couple would have no problem assuming the two are together, but this is not the case.
When it’s the lady’s turn to order her drink, the barista tells her, “Your drink was already ordered and paid for.”
“By whom?” asks the lady with a very confused look on her face.
“By that guy,” the barrister points to the man who’d walked in before her.
The woman walks up to the guy and thanks him insisting to pay the stranger back when the man says, “Lady, I’m grateful to be alive. Riding my bike here, I almost got killed by a driver who didn’t see me. So, please accept my gift to you.” He then walks out.
“Did you see what just happened?” I ask the gentleman sitting across from me.
“No!”
I go on to explain what just transpired and finish by saying, “May God help us all to see life the way this man just experienced it.”
“Amen!” responded the gentleman.
His quick response causes me to ask, “Where do you go to church?”
It turns out that Mike is a worship leader of a very large church in the neighborhood. We hit it off very pleasantly. We spend the next two hours talking about our faith, worship and the church.
As we’re talking I notice a young lady standing in line can’t take her eyes off me. Eventually she walks up to me and says, “Do you remember me?”
I really don’t, but I fake it. “Of course, I remember you! But can’t remember your name.”
With tears in her eyes she says, “Mehri! I’ve been thinking about you so much lately.”
As soon as I hear her name, I remember her totally. Over ten years ago, she used to be one of my church members. She goes to this Starbucks often, and as fate has it today, she’s come in later than usual. If it were any other day, she would not have run into me.  I introduce her to Mike and after exchanging contact info, we promise each other to meet soon.
Eventually Mike has to leave which gives me a chance to fire up my Mac and update my status on Facebook when another young man sits next to me.
“Are you on Facebook?” he asks with his thick African accent.
“Yes, I am.”
“My name is Zach! Can I be your friend on Facebook?”
“Why do you want to be my friend? You don’t even know me.”
“I’ve never met many of my friends on Facebook. At least I’ve seen you in person.”
I find it fascinating what his generation considers friendship.
“My name is Shah. You’re from Africa, correct?” I say, as I shake his hand.
“Yes, but you’ll never guess where.
“Cote d’lvoire”
“No! Benin. I told you, you’ll never guess.”
I’m not going to argue with him about the fact that I was only a country or so off the mark.
“I have over 350 friends on Facebook, but except for a handful, I’ve never asked anyone to be my friend. They all requested to be my friends,” I continue.
“Why’s that?”
“This way, I’m assured that these people wanted to be my friends because they know who I am and what I believe, so my comments and thoughts will not offend them.”
“So, what is it that you believe?”
I know that question was going to come up, and am ready for it.
“Being from Benin, I assume you’re a Muslim,” I tell him.
“Yes, I am.”
I begin to share my testimony with him from a shame-based perspective, a culture he was raised in. He finds my life-story to be interesting and identifies with much of what he hears. He goes on to tell me about some of his Christian friends who’ve been sharing the same kind of life-stories with him.
As Zach and I are talking, I notice another old friend standing in line. I haven’t seen him for over 8-9 years. It’s good to renew our friendship.
Eventually. I get a call from my mechanic. The car’s ready, and I have to leave. As I walk across the street, I realize, “I had church at the Starbucks this morning.” I had fellowship and renewed friendships, exchanged ideas on church and worship, met some new people, and shared my faith with a Muslim man.
When was the last time you did all this at your Sunday service?
————————————————————————
Since our first meeting, I’ve met with Mike again, and have had the honor of being given the three CDs he’s produced. He’s one talented man of God. I also had a chance to meet with Mehri, my old church member. She’s been through a lot these last 10 years including a divorce, unsuccessful attempt to move back to Iran, the loss of all personal possession, a new, but painful start in America, and battling leukemia.
In our last meeting, after sharing all she’s been through, trying very hard to hold back tears, she said, “Pastor Shahrokh, do you remember the first day I came to your church? I’ve never been the same since. Thank you for introducing me to the Lord. Throughout these past 10 years, He’s been my only true friend. I would have never made it without him in my life.”

I Love MY Church, Starbucks I

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The Bible college where I teach is an hour away from my house. To avoid the morning rush hour, I leave home early, which gets me to the college an hour before my class starts. I spend the hour in the neighborhood Starbucks where I get my tall “Awake” with a maple scone, and get a chance to review my teaching notes for the day.
On this particular day, as I sit down, I notice the young lady sitting across from me is reading her Bible. I automatically assume she’s one of my Bible college students, and ask her, “Whose class are you studying for?”
“It’s a Lit. class,” she tells me.
I’m confused. I know there are no literature classes at the college I teach.
“Do you go to LIFE?”
“What’s LIFE?”
“The Bible college a mile south of here.”
“No, I go to CSULA working on my master’s degree.”
“And, you use the Bible in your class?”
“Yes, one of the assignments is studying the Old Testament as a literary document.”
I’m so intrigue by the conversation, I decide to forgo reading my notes, and spend the next hour getting to know this young lady. From then on, till the end of the semester, I keep meeting with Lisa once a week at Starbucks to talk about life and The Old Testament.
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Lisa is not a believer, but her knowledge of the Old Testament would put many of my students to shame. After getting to know her well enough, I asked if she’d be willing to be interviewed by the students in my “Evangelism and Discipleship” class, which she agreed.
On the day of the interview, Lisa sat on a stool in front of the class and let the students ask her questions about her beliefs. Although she was a bit nervous at first, it all went fairly well.
After the class, a student walked up to me and said, “ProfeShah (that’s what they called me) you amaze me. You not only can walk into a Starbucks, and start a conversation with a total stranger, but you can also convince her to come before a class full of Christians and be questioned about her beliefs.”
 “As I’ve been trying to teach you, evangelism is all about a relationship built on trust. Lisa knows I’ll be her friend for life whether she ever decides to follow Christ or not,” I told him.
During the same semester, along with a group of students, Karen and I had Lisa over for a BBQ where she taught the students how to swing dance.
Throughout the years since our first meeting, I’ve continued to stay in touch with Lisa. She’s always been open to hear about my faith and how I became a follower of Christ. At the same time, she’s always made it clear that she prefers to stay a secular person, enjoying her own moral values. So, what took place next was quite a surprise to me.
Last week Lisa called me. She is getting married and she wants me to do the wedding. Apparently, her Catholic fiancé wants to have a church wedding, but doesn’t want it done through the Catholic Church, so, she immediately thought about me.
I met with the couple yesterday. I feel quite honored to officiate the marriage of a young lady I met at my church, Starbucks. I’m looking forward to the privilege of sharing a Christian perspective on marriage with a group of people whom, otherwise, might have not heard it.