Please Do Not Go To A Bible College 2

A few years ago, I posted a blog, Please Don’t Go To A Bible College. I wrote the article after teaching at a small Bible college for five years and noticing many students committing themselves to thousands of dollars in student loans to earn a four-year degree, which could only land them a job that

  1. a) had nothing to do with so-called ministry and
  2. b) they could have gotten with their high school degree — “Would you like whipped cream on top?”

At the time, I got a lot of feedback on the post, especially from some of my former students. However, a few months ago I received the following long email from David. A young man I’ve never met. To keep this blog as short as possible, I have only included the Reader’s Digest version of David’s email.

Mr. Afshar,

I’ve read your article on not going to Bible College over a dozen times. I agree with you 100%. You have one of the very, very, very few articles on the internet about this subject and I decided to finally email you asking for two things: 1) advice and 2) you write a follow-up article.

After high school, being terrified to be out of God’s will, rather than joining the military to work on nuclear reactors, (An ASVAB test had highly qualified him for that position.) David, who comes from a Pentecostal background, felt he was called to be a missionary, so he went to a Bible college.

After finishing college, he tried to go to Japan as a missionary, but all his plans failed, so he tried to pursue a Master’s program to, as he put it, “…bring another skill to the table…” It was then that he found out his former Bible college’s accreditation was so poor that the only school that would accept him for graduate work was a seminary.

After the door on Japan closed, he applied all over the country for a youth pastor position while “volunteering everywhere like crazy” trying to build up his resume. But he was turned down everywhere mostly due to being single. He couldn’t find a job even at McDonalds or Starbucks.

Today, at the age of 32, David is back to school again starting from scratch. None of his credits, even English, was transferable. He has three more years to complete his BS. He’s already been awarded the engineering student of the year, been put on the board of directors for a non-profit organization that gives scholarship to qualified students, has an internship at an aerospace company, and is waiting to hear back from NASA regarding a grant for a summer project (According to his last text, he got it).

If it wasn’t for the following, we could all say, “All’s well that ends well.” However, this is not the end of the story. David continued with these sobering words:

Going through all of that has left me in a bad shape. I am cynical about the things of God. I have trouble seeing God as someone who is good and blesses. I constantly struggle with disappointment, disillusionment, anger, and regret. I remember imagescountless sermons on hearing how God will, “open doors” ,”bless my sacrifices”, and etc. My anger is affecting my schoolwork now (My 3.81 GPA will drop down considerably after this semester). I don’t have a dating life because no women in her mid-20s to mid-30s wants to marry a guy who doesn’t have a job and won’t get one for at least three years. I did ALL the things I was told to do and this is where it has left me. I’m ashamed of having gone to a Bible college, and these days I do not tell people.

Because I had many students who went through what Dave is experiencing — and I’m deeply sorry to say that some now consider themselves to be atheists — I wrote another post a few years back to deal exactly with the above issues and questions. Please see, Modernity, Post-Modernity, Metanarrative, And….

In that article I showed how the church, in general, has made God a being who operates like a computer: by correctly using a set of programs and algorithms, God will give you the right answer. And if the answers are not what you expected, it is due to your insufficient input (lack of faith, sin in your life, not reading your Bible enough, not praying hard enough, not being present at every church service, not tithing, and…) and hardly ever preparing us for the reaction of a sovereign God whose answers might often be, “NO.”

Dave ended his email with these questions,

How do I move on? How do I get past the regret and anger? How do I get into a good relationship with God? How do I let go? Do I need to see a therapist and who would I see or how do I find one? How do I heal? How do I deal with being sexually frustrated and not being able to do anything for at least three more years and when it is slim pickings in your 30s?

Could you please write another article in case there is anyone like me, who is going through the same thing?

Since receiving this email, I’ve spent a good hour talking to Dave on the phone. He’s a brilliant and articulate young man. I don’t know how much I was able to help him. That’s why I need you to help me answer the above questions. What would you say to Dave? Please give me some practical advice and not just spiritual clichés.

 

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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.

You Are As Much A Missionary As I AM A French Chef!

“I’m a missionary,” said the pastor I’d just met.
“Which country?” I asked
“Russia!”
“How long have you been a missionary to Russia?”
“About seven years.”
“Where do you live in Russia?”
“I don’t live in Russia! I live in Colorado,” said the man impatiently as if I was supposed to know better than to ask such a stupid question, and then continued,
“Twice a year I travel to Russia and teach for a week.”
“Do you speak any Russians?”
Another stupid question.
“Not really! I know a few basic words, but when it comes to teaching, I don’t need to know Russian. I have a good translator.”
This was not my first encounter with people like the above pastor. A few years ago, when I was the Middle East regional coordinator for a missions organization, I’d met several of those missionary-wannabes.
Invariably, some of these guys had ended up on a teaching trip to a third world country (I know the PC term is: “two third world country”!) and were blown away by how well his/her teaching was received; hundreds had come to hear the message and as a result many were saved, scores of people were healed and delivered.
The difference between the way these natives had reacted to the pastor’s message and his/her church’s reaction was like the difference between the Sun and the Moon—one seemingly responsive and burning with fire and the other unresponsive and cold. As the result, the pastor was convinced that God had called him/her to the mission field.
A majority of us, Iranians, admire Americans for their gullibility. No! Not in an offensive way, but rather marvel at how trusting they are, which often leads them to accept things at face value. In third world nations, churches are always packed when a Westerner shows up to teach. Often, through misunderstanding, or not wanting to disrespect the guest teacher, many people raise their hands or come forward (for the hundredth time) to receive Christ or declare their healings due to the Westerner’s teaching or prayer.
And, to be even more cynical, so often, the above Westerner, justifiably so, is perceived as a cash cow. The local pastor makes sure his church is packed to please the Western pastor in the hope of receiving a well-needed financial support from his/her church. Shoot, I knew one third world pastor who had revolving church signs. Depending on what denomination was visiting his church, the appropriate sign was put up to please the guest speaker.
After having such a great experience, taking everything at face value, the above American pastor who hasn’t spent any length of time in the mission field, or studying missions, is now convinced that God’s called him to be a missionary, which in itself could be a tremendous calling if it was properly acted upon.
A true mission work is incarnational. A genuine missionary is one, who like Jesus, “dwells among” the people he/she desires to reach for the Kingdom. By immersing one’s self in the culture and the language of the respective people, the missionary must learn how to convey the Gospel in a contextual way that his/her audience can understand.
How greatly arrogant for the above pastor and pastors like him to call themselves missionaries! How utterly insulting to the great men and women of God such as William Carey, who lost both his wives in India; Samuel Zwemer who watched his two daughters succumb to death in Bahrain; or CT Stud who lost two of his children in China. These brave missionaries often carried their own coffins to the foreign lands they were called to knowing well that they would die there. For months, they traveled thousands of miles by ship, trains, carriages, camels and foot to reach their destinations and fulfill the Great Commission. They literally tented among the people the Father had called them to, so by becoming like them, they could reach them.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I have many friends who travel to foreign lands to bless the believers. Whether it is Nate with his outstanding gifts of encouragement and teaching or Pastor Chris, a great entrepreneur and a businessman, they all travel around the world to bless the church with the gifts God has bestowed upon them; however, these friends don’t call themselves missionaries because they know that it takes more than a two week overseas trip to become a missionary.
After listening to the above wannabe missionary, I told him,
“So, let me understand this. You don’t live in Russia and don’t speak any Russian. You don’t even have the most basic understanding of intercultural ministry–that language is culture and culture is language. But, you’re a missionary to Russia because, thanks to today’s technology, twice a year, you can fly there in 12 hours to teach for a week. Bro, by that definition, I’m a French chef because twice a year, on the Fourth of July and Labor Day, I throw a couple of hotdogs on the barbeque and use Dijon mustard on my buns.”

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.