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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.