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?

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When Leaders Are Called Losers

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I don’t like the Vietnam era or anything related to it. I lived in the midst of it, had friends who lost relatives in the war and friends who fought in the war and were never the same.  For that reason, as much as I like war documentaries, I never watch anything about Vietnam, except for “We Were Soldiers”.  The movie is a 2002 film that dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drangonthat took place on November 14, 1965.
If I’d known the movie was about Vietnam I might not have watched it.  However, once I started watching it, I was hooked.  It wasn’t so much the plot that attracted me as much as a segment of a speech the protagonist of the movie, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson) gives to his men right before they head to Vietnam:
This I swear before the Almighty God: when we go into the battle, I’ll be first to set foot on the field.  I’ll be the last to step off.  I’ll leave no one behind.  Dead or alive, we’ll all come home together.  So help me God.
The statement touched me deeply.  All my life I’d lived by that creed, but this was the first time someone had articulated it for me.  I’m the type of a leader who likes to get close to his people — become buddy-buddy.  I refuse to shove my position down anyone’s throat in order to prove my superiority.  Those who know me, know very well that as a Christian leader I’ll never send my people anywhere I’ve not been myself, nor expect them to accomplish anything I haven’t or at least attempted to do myself.  And, because of that I was called a loser.
I must have really ticked off the mega-church pastor when he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a loser because you have no respect for your position and want to be buddy-buddy with everyone.”  In other words, I was a loser because I was too close and friendly with those around me.
“Pastor,” I said to the man, “when Jesus walked among us, he refused to ride on a horse.  He preferred to rub elbows with those around him, the sinners and the scum of the earth.  He didn’t give a crap about his position when the religious leaders of his time accused him of being ‘buddy-buddy’ with common people.  However, when He comes back, He’ll be riding on a horse to smash the heads of God’s enemies.”
For the sake of honor, I’m one of those leaders who refuses to ride a horse while fighting along side of his people.  I’d rather be the first to set foot on the field and last to step off than one who sits behind his desk in an air-conditioned mansion of an office telling others how to do things I’ve never done myself.  I’d rather be called a “buddy” by the forsaken than a “winner” by the likes of that pastor.
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When I was in 5thgrade in Iran, we read a story about one of the old kings of our country. The king loved to read. One late night as he was reading, the oil in his lamp ran out. His servant, who was standing behind him, reached over to take the lamp away for refilling when the king stopped him.
“I will do it myself,” said the king to the servant.
Absolutely shocked and dismayed, the servant replied, “But sire, it is beneath his majesty to do such a menial job.” But, he could not argue with his king.
So, the king got up, refilled the lamp and sat down to read. Knowing that his servant was still uncomfortable with what had just transpired, he turned around looking the servant in the eyes said to him, “When the oil ran out I was the king, when I got up and filled the lamp I was the king and when I finally sat down again I was still the king. Doing a servant’s job did NOT take away my kingly position.
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Pastor…leader, do you ever befriend people for no reason at all, or are there always strings attached?  Do you ever go out of your way to rub elbows with those who are not in your class, or is getting off your high horse too uncomfortable for you?  As I look around today, I notice that a true friendship is one of the most desired, and yet most lacking commodities in our society.  Why not be a loser in order to become that desired commodity?  Maybe then you’ll gain the ability and privilege to share the Gospel of Christ with those whom you’ve become “buddies” with.  

How Do You Disciple An Ex-Muslim?

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

Let’s NOT Do Lunch

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

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

“Absolutely!” I replied. “When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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