Is Preaching To The Masses Passé?

churchMy last few blog posts have centered on the need for church to change. But this time I want to offer an idea for a new church structure. It is just an idea and I would value your feedback in the comments section. Now, this is not something I have dreamt on my own, but I have been looking at an industry that is very similar to church, education. Both churches and schools spend a lot of their time educating their constituents. Thus, they are very similar in emphases and structure.

Over the past 100 years, every day in primary and secondary schools, teachers have lectured their students. Some included in-classroom exercises to reinforce what was just taught, and then students have homework to practice further concepts taught in the classroom. Then, as we have all experienced, we are given tests to indicate how well we have learned what we have been taught. I have tremendous respect for teachers because they are constantly juggling 20-30 students keeping the fast learners from getting bored, and trying to give slower learners extra support to keep them moving forward.

If any teachers are reading this, you know first-hand that there is a tremendous shift happening in schools today. Popular terms used to talk about this shift are “personalized learning,” “flipped classroom,” or “individualized instruction.” The main concept of this shift is for teachers to no longer lecture in front of the class and expect all students to progress at the pace the teacher sets. Instead teachers are now guiding the learning of each student individually. So each student is on their own path and can progress at their own pace. Yes, there are still benchmarks of progress each student must reach by the end of the year, but now the teacher can guide this learning and the student becomes much more active in taking responsibility and pursuing their own learning.

In this new model, everyone participates, the teacher and the student. No longer do students sit for hours listening to lecture after lecture, taking notes; neither do teachers give the same lecture two to three times a day. Now, both teachers and students go on the learning journey together, down the path set by the curriculum. No longer are teachers viewed as the sage on the stage, but as a mentor, a facilitator, a guide who can draw deeper learning from their students by offering wisdom, different perspectives, and asking questions that make students reason and think, and not just repeat what they memorized. Perhaps, this is a model churches could adopt.

In my last two blog posts, I have mentioned that one of the main reasons the “dones” are leaving the church is that they want to participate more instead of sit in a pew and listen to another sermon. They want to be involved; they want to be active in using their knowledge, expertise, and gifts to help others. I could easily see teams of leaders guiding, mentoring, and helping believers grow deeper in their faith and knowledge of the Bible and of God. In this structure both congregants and leaders embark upon a journey to learn together. Now, I am not advocating putting unskilled or inexperienced people in positions of leadership, but I am advocating giving those who are mature in their faith opportunities to use their gifts to guide the learning of others.

It might be hard to break away from the mindset of groups of people being taught by one person. Heck, most of us have experienced this for most of our lives. But at the time when we have so many mature, experienced, educated and godly “dones” why not engage them and create opportunities for them to participate.

 

By embarking upon journeys together, conversations will happen, people will share what they are thinking, will read something that gave them insight, taught them something new, or even answered prayer. People will read together, people will read on their own, people will wrestle with problems in the company of others who support them. Since we are all in this journey together, I think participation by more people would be a good thing. Now, I will repeat, I am not saying I have all of the answers. I am not saying this is the way things have to be. This is one perspective that I wanted to share.

So, your turn, what do you think?

By Guest Blogger, CK Miller

This Is How WE Do Church!

Tonight I received the following email from one of my old college students from 10-12 years ago:

Hi Shah and Karen! 🙂

I just wanted to stop and say thank you.

Thank you for teaching me through opening your home to me, and thank you for living what you have been speaking about for years! Luke and I were just talking about the power of prayer and I was recalling that my eyes were opened regarding prayer when I came into your home on Thursday nights.

I have learned so much from the seeds that you both planted in my life and in my heart. When you showed me how to know, and experience the Living God, my life was forever changed; and now my children are learning about listening and obeying God’s voice in their early years. So, THANK YOU for choosing to follow Jesus and teaching me to do the same!

I always smile when I think about you guys 🙂

With love,

Karia

Karia was referring to something Karen and I have been doing at our home since 1998, a gathering of a handful of believers seeking to be Christ-like. Some are quick to say, “You mean a house-church?” No, I don’t like to call it a house-church because most house churches consist of regular church services with the hope of one day having their own buildings. I call these, “buildings wanna be house churches.” We don’t want a building.

  • It’s not an open meeting. You can only participate if you’re invited.

A while back I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for several years. After the regular pleasantries, our conversation went something like this:

“So, where are you going to church these days?” To which I replied,

“I don’t. We have our own house meetings.” Without losing a breath he said,

“I’m gonna check it out one of these days!” To which I said,

“You’re not invited…”

You see, one of the main reasons for our gatherings is to establish a community where the believers can build relationships based on honesty, trust, and transparency, which will eventually lead to accountability. There’s no way one can build such a community with people who just want to, “check you out”. We have no desire to increase our numbers at the cost of shallow relationships. We have mega churches for that.

When I invite someone, I make sure that there are three expectations of him or her.

  • They have to attend every meeting regularly.

One can’t build a sustainable, trustworthy relationship with those whom he/she sees occasionally. Being in the business of community building, I want our meetings to consist of people who, short of an emergency, see each other every week. If this makes any invitee uncomfortable, they don’t have to accept my invitation. On the other hand, if one agrees to the terms, but doesn’t follow them, he’s asked to stop coming. I invite and un-invite people to my house.

  • They’re expected to come prepared.

The first hour of our meetings is filled with lively discussions about the chapter of a book we all are supposed to have read the week before. This is a book that the participants had all agreed upon. With new groups, I choose the book, but eventually it’s up to the group. It has never ceased to amaze me how differently each individual looks at the same paragraph of a book, and because of that, how much we can learn from each other. Finally,

  • Once they move on, they’re expected to strive to start a meeting based on the same principles.

This is a house gathering and not a cult. We have no desire to, by hooks and crooks, keep members from moving away. I know that eventually some people need to move on with their lives. Therefore, when that time comes, my hope is that they will start another meeting wherever they go built on the above principles. Again, the goal is not to have a network of small groups all over town with Shah overseeing them, but to see the same blessings people have received at our meetings being propagated everywhere.

Our meetings are built around the discipline of Lectio Divina. In Latin, it’s pronounced, lec-t-o divina, which means divine reading. It’s one of those Christian disciplines that has been with us since the Early Church. My purpose in this post is not to explain the practice of Lectio, but to show the focus of our meetings,

  • To enter into a deeper bond with God through silence and meditation on his word
  • To build godly relationships
  • To learn from one another—There’s no one-man-band show

To allow each individual to practice his/her spiritual gifts —This is the time when we recognize/discover and respect each other’s gifting.

  • To allow the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us into praying for one another

I challenge any Sunday service to offer any of the above with some measure of consistency.

Is it possible that today God-fearing, Christ-loving believers are walking away from the church because they want deeper relationships with their Creator and his created ones? They want a gathering where they’re allowed to use the gifts God has given them? That they long for a place where they aren’t afraid to be honest and transparent revealing their sins and weaknesses to those around them?

Are Pastors Ready To Give Up The Pulpit?

pastor preachingFor hundreds of years, communication has flowed pretty much in one direction, from the top down. The industrial revolution brought great change to societies as new businesses grew in size and hierarches of management helped things flow efficiently. Instructions and directives were given at the highest levels and workers were expected to comply.

The church has followed the same organizational structure for more than two thousand years. The Catholic Church has its hierarchy of pope, bishops, cardinals, priests, etc. Protestant churches have their denominational leaders, district supervisors, division leaders, and pastors. And pretty much communication too flowed in only one direction, from the pulpit downward. However, at the turn of the 21st century this flow of communication was disrupted.

Many factors have caused this disruption. These include the invention of the telegraph, then the telephone, and now new digital technologies. This last factor, I think, is one that has changed the world the most because it affects people at all levels of society: young and old, rich and poor, from every culture and nation. The invention of the computer, the internet, cell phones, social media applications, blogs, web sites, have given more people the ability to change societies, governments, and businesses—technologies have given everyone a voice. Let me give a few examples.

All social media applications allow people to voice their opinions about products, services, companies, injustice and more. Much of the Arab Spring was organized through the use of Twitter. These days, American businesses have whole teams of people monitoring social media channels listening to their customers. News organizations listen to their viewers through any and all social media applications. And why have the above organizations devoted so much effort and resources to listening and understanding their constituencies’ complaints and preferences? Because they have learned that if they don’t listen and keep their customers happy, they will soon be out of business. But what about churches? Are pastors listening to their congregations?

It seems they are not, and lots of people are communicating with their feet. People are no longer willing to sit, watch, and listen. In my last blog post, I wrote about the “Nones,” and the “Dones”. Among this group are those who are “done” sitting in pews listening to somebody preach at them. In both Catholic and Protestant churches, weekly attendance is declining. Comments from people who no longer attend church say that they are tired of the pulpit/pew divide. But it doesn’t seem pastors are listening because according to the Pew Research group, more and more people are becoming unaffiliated with a church.

Customers, or using church terminology, congregants now harness tremendous power. They have a voice and want to use it. What will it take to create open channels of communication in the church? Are pastors willing to give up the pulpit, stop preaching, and start having conversations? Are they willing to accept a church that is less structured, with less hierarchy, and open to change?

                                                                By Guest Blogger, CK Miller

Don’t Control Me, Encourage Me!

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 4.09.52 PMRecently my son, Air Force Captain, Todd Afshar, posted this video on Facebook. I watched it with tears in my eyes. I marveled at the courage of the young soldier, but even more at the encouragement she received from her fellow soldiers, which reminded me of the following story and how much the followers of Christ are in need of encouragement from each other.

In 1978, I established the first Iranian Christian organization in the United States. It consisted of several house churches. I was a civil engineer during the day and a church planter/evangelist at night.

At the time, I desperately needed all the help and moral support I could get from the Christian leaders I knew, but the support was quite few and far between. After all, majority of the American leaders I looked up to, were mono-cultural. They had no understanding of what I eventually coined as “reversed contextualization”.

My philosophy was very simple. If every oversees-missionary is taught to share the Gospel within the context of the culture he/she is sent to, why not develop the same approach in reverse towards the displaced people whom God has brought to our doorsteps in America—in my case, the Iranians?

One of these leaders was the director of missions for the denomination I belonged to at the time. On numerous occasions, I called his office with the hope of getting an appointment to meet with him, but I never heard back from him. The only person I ever got the chance to talk with was his secretary, Pat.

About 15 years went by. I was conducting a workshop on Muslim evangelism at a convention when I ran into Pat and had the following conversation.

Me: “Pat, please remind me, how do we know each other?” I’d completely forgotten the genesis of our relationship.

Pat: “Don’t you remember? You used to call me all the time when I was Matt’s secretary.” And, then she continued with the following story.

Shah, I’ve never told you this, but one of those days when you’d called to talk to Matt, he walked into my office as I was talking to you. Although, he didn’t know you, from my side of the conversation, he knew I was talking to you. That’s when he leaned over my desk and whispered, “Hang up on him!” I shook my head and refused to do so, and again, he demanded the same. Eventually, he stomped out very angry.

Later, after I’d finished talking to you, he walked back to my office and said,

“Next time when I tell you to hang up on him, you hang up on him. Do you know why I want you to hang up on him? BECAUSE HE IS RIGHT, AND WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!”

Can you imagine how encouraged I would have been if the man had at least said those same words to my face? If he’d said something like, “Shah, you’re right, but you’re way ahead of your time and our denomination. We don’t know what to do with you.”

Thirty years ago, all I wanted to tell the man was what will soon become the church’s war cry—Let’s reach the world for Christ one next-door neighbor at a time. Remember, you heard it here first. Yes, I was mostly talking about Iranian neighbors, but the principle still applied.

In any case, the man refused to meet with me. Was it arrogance, ignorance, pride, or simply a desire to control that prevented him from having a cup of coffee with a man who desperately needed that leader’s support and encouragement? Or was it the fear of not having an answer/solution to my question? After all, shouldn’t a Christian leader have an answer for every question thrown at him? Wouldn’t an, “I don’t know!” reveal a weakness that a mature Christian leader shouldn’t possess?

I am sure there have been times when I’ve come short of following I Thess. 5:11 mandate, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” For that, I’m deeply sorry. May the Lord have mercy on us to be better encouragers. Let us not forget that we are all in this together.

Church’s Shallow Teachings

shallow teachingThe other day, I got a call from a dear friend who wanted my opinion on a church related issue.

“I stopped going to church,” she tells me

“Why?”

“Well, I need deeper teachings. What comes my way on Sundays is very shallow.”

I know my friend well enough to know this is not an excuse. I’ve also been around long enough to know how valid her complaint is. Let’s face it, on most Sundays, much of what we hear from the pulpits in America is rather shallow. By shallow, I mean elementary. But, how does a teaching become elementary? By hearing it over and over again. So, what many Christians are asking their pastors is, “Teach me something new!”

Did you hear about the young pastor who’d just been hired by a church?

On his first Sunday at the new church, he preached an amazing message. The church council was hi-fiving each other for having the fortitude and the wisdom to have hired such a great preacher.

The following Sunday, half way through his message, everyone who’d been at church the week before, knew the pastor was preaching exactly the same message, but the council members figured that was for the sake of some who’d not heard the original message.

However on the third Sunday, things really got tense when the young man preached the same message again. After the service was over, the council members pull the man aside and began to question him.

“Don’t you have any other messages?” they demanded.

“Of course, I do,” said the young man.

“Then, why repeat the same sermon over and over again? Preach something new!”

That’s when the young man said, “I will, as soon as, you start practicing what I’ve been teaching you these last three weeks.”

I do understand that the above story may sound like a practice in futility, or it could very well be an excellent poster story for the definition of insanity—repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Unfortunately, for years, pastors have thought that all the church needs is another good message to change the lives of all the pew occupants, thus preaching the Word has become the crown of the church service.

It’s also fair to ask, “Is the above pastor modeling what he’s preaching? Is he walking the talk?”

However, I believe for the most part, our problem isn’t with shallow teachings, but the shallow way we practice these so called, “shallow teachings” we’ve been hearing. And, by doing so, as the book of James says, we’ve simply been making fools out of ourselves. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it ways.”  James. 1:21

How many times have we heard teachings on Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Luke 10:27

Would you consider another homely on the above verse a “shallow” teaching? Then, let me ask you a question—this not only goes to church members, but especially to pastors.

Are you practicing this “shallow” teaching? How many of your next-door neighbors do you know by name?

If you can’t obey this “shallow” teaching, how can you handle a “deeper” teaching?

This Is Me!

My name is Shahrokh, but my friends call me Shah. I was born and raised in Iran, however have lived most of my life in the US. Because of my Muslim background, and my subsequent decision to follow Christ, my worldview is different than many people. I see things differently, which can be protruded as controversial.

I blog publicly for a couple of reasons. First, to let my views be known on subjects of, religion, race, social issues, and so on, and because I want to create a community where people can agree or disagree on these subjects without any fear of judgment or condemnation.

I know my blog might not appeal to many people, but I look so forward to meeting new people who might like to join my community, and get involved in the ongoing conversations.

People Are Leaving The Church To Save Their Faith. What?!

Have you ever heard of someone leaving the church in order to save their faith? That seems so paradoxical, yet it is true for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Countless articles, studies, blogs, and books have examined this phenomenon, the reasons behind it, and what the church could do in response. People keep trying to get the church, especially Protestant, evangelical churches to change. But most churches have turned a blind eye, preferring to blame those who have left, saying they were never true Christians to begin with, or that they prefer their sinful lives. But is that true?

People Have Been Leaving for Decades

Pastors, sociologists, academics, and researchers started conducting surveys and research about this trend decades ago. In the 1990’s, the trend was identified: people were starting to leave the church in large numbers. In 2003, Andrew Strom wrote an online treatise called “The Out of Church Christians” about the phenomenon occurring around the world. He quoted David Barrett, an author for the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimated that there were 112 million churchless Christians worldwide and that this number would double by 2025.

George Barna was one of the first to study this trend. In 2006, he published a book about it called “Revolution” claiming the trend was growing rapidly and would transform the church.  From 2008 to 2014, the Barna Group interviewed more than 20,000 people trying to understand the American public and they published their findings in their latest book, “Churchless: How to Understand the Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.” They characterize the U.S. population as 49% actively churched, 10% minimally churched, 33% de-churched, and 8% purely unchurched.

The Pew Research Group has conducted their own surveys, and in 2012 they found that “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.” They call this group the “Nones”, which has now evolved into the “Dones”. Researcher and sociologist Josh Packard, Ph.D., co-wrote a book with Ashleigh Hope, called, “Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why the dechurched left… and what they’re hoping to find.” They identified a group they call the “Dones.” These are people who, it turns out, were very active in church leadership–full-time workers, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, elders–but have left the institutionalized church because they are just “done” with the politics, the power plays, hypocrisy, lack of depth, and performance-based church services.

Leaving the Church but not their Faith

While the statistics paint a broad picture of the current state of the churchless, I think the actual stories by former church leaders and member are more impactful. For example, former church leader, Tony Steward, wrote a blog post about why he left the church. He said, “I’m relearning honesty after being in that world as a profession for more than 10 years. I’m still trying to find out what I think, what it means, and how a real faith in Jesus still exists in my life. I’m detoxing and looking for what remains that is real, that is love, and that is true.”

Another example is Tom Schultz, co-author of the book, “Why People Don’t Want to Go to Church” talks about his own research. He said, “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” He also quotes John Packard, who recounts one of his interviewees as saying, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”

Like Tony and the millions of others, I too left the church. Unlike Tony who is just beginning his journey, I left almost 10 years ago. Why? I couldn’t find God at church in the midst of all the church programs, projects, classes, and ultra structured Sunday services. I was tired of people hiding behind the facade of self righteousness, as they denied their humanity, preferring to quote Scripture than to admit their fallibility. However, I did find fulfilling community in a small home group that was not affiliated with any church. I enjoyed soul quenching conversations about spirituality, faith, humanity, and life with quality people of different perspectives, hurts, joys, foibles, and journeys they were willing to share. Although I moved away too far to continue being a part of this group, I still commune with my Savior.

Perhaps now we can see the churchless differently. They too are people who long for authentic experiences with God, the Creator, and Jesus, the Savior. They don’t want pat answers to questions and they certainly don’t want anyone to just quote Scripture at them. They are young and old, Millennial, Gen X, Boomer, you name it, they are people who long for authenticity, deeper relationships where people can express their doubts, concerns, and questions about God and life. They just couldn’t find what they were looking for in church.

By Guest Blogger, CK Miller

The Secret Confessions Of A Househusband!

I am a househusband!

There, I said it.

This wasn’t a decision I made willingly, but in ‘06, after parting ways with a mission organization I worked for, I decided to become a self-employed public speaker. I figured after 35 years of faithful ministry among Muslims, with my level of education and experience, I should be able to make a living by doing what I love most, teaching—Noooooot.

Speaking engagements didn’t materialized as I’d pictured they would. In fact, after reading my book, a friend of mine, an ex-president of a Bible college told me, “Shah, the American church is not interested in what you have to offer. Have you thought about becoming a comedian?”

Having to face cancer and two operations in a three-month period, and not being able to get a job anywhere didn’t help either. Not that I didn’t try. Lord, I tried! But I couldn’t get a job even as a Walmart greeter. At my age, do you know how humiliating it is to apply for a seasonal minimum wage part-time job, and lose out to a kid half your son’s age?

I will never forget the day I was interviewed by a store manager my daughter’s age. I could tell all the man was thinking about was, “Dang, if I give this old fart a job, in two weeks, with his education and experience, he will have my job.” So, gradually, I found myself doing more and more housework, and eventually, becoming a full-time househusband. By the way, according to one study, the number of husbands who are at home for any reason has nearly doubled since 1989.

I wish every man would experience what I’ve learned as a househusband these past eight years.

The job of a househusband is like the quarterback who couldn’t throw, but boy, he couldn’t run either—the work is hard and demanding, but the pay is non-existent. Housework is probably the most unending and unrewarding job.

In all the years she was a homemaker and a mom, I hardly realized how hard my wife, Karen, worked. I used to punch in at 8 am and punch out at 5 pm. Once I left my office, I was on my own, but that’s not how housework is. You’re always at your office. There’s no punching out. The job of cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping, yard work, and taking care of the dog never ends. There’s always something else staring at you that needs your immediate attention…dog hair everywhere.

At the office, my good efforts are often noticed, and rewarded, (depending on how secure your boss is) but this is not so with housework. When the dishes pile up in the sink, it’s ever so noticeable. I mean even a blind man can point it out, just by smelling the air; however, not too many people notice an empty sink after all the dishes are washed, and put away. After all, sinks are always supposed to be empty. Hair/dust bunnies are extremely noticeable on a hardwood floor. Every time you open the front door, the bunnies glide from one side of the floor to the other as if they’re riding on one of those hoverboards like in the movie, Back to the Future. However, a clean and mopped floor is hardly ever (really, more like NEVER) is noticed.

I guess what makes the above even worse is the lack of reward for your hard work. I used to get a paycheck for my 8 to 5 job. However, housework is unrewarding. There’s no money in it. You’re just a housewife, or in my case, just a househusband who’s home all day and doesn’t deserve to get paid.

Being a househusband has been a humbling experience for me. I am no longer the breadwinner. We live off my wife’s paycheck. I still pay all the bills and manage our finances, but I can’t help notice how almost all the mail in our mailbox is now addressed to Karen.

There are days when watching Karen carrying the responsibility of taking care of us is quite hard. After all, I believe God created the man to be a protector and a provider. Please don’t go PC on me here. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t or can’t be providers. Dear God, I’m absolutely amazed at how single moms are capable of working a full-time job and running a household at the same time. All I’m saying is that I believe worrying about these things should be the man’s responsibility.

Now, let me tell you the benefits of being a househusband.

I actually wrote and published my first book, Shame On You!

I’ve become an excellent cook.

As I started to stay at home, I began cooking. There are very a few things that give me more pleasure than to watch my wife walk into the house after a hard day’s work, and say, “It smells so good in here. I’m famished. What’s for dinner?” I began experimenting by going online for new recipes. I now can cook Persian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, and American food that you would want to come back for more. My BBQs are out of this world. All this is greatly rewarding. Of course, I also get disappointed when Karen doesn’t let me know how good dinner was—I’m extremely in touch with my feminine side.

For me, one of the primary benefits of being a househusband has to be the opportunity of knowing my neighbors. I’m not talking about just the neighbors surrounding our house. I’d known them long before that. I’m talking about knowing the whole block.

Every morning at 6:30 am I take Cocoa, our chocolate lab, to the park about a quarter of a mile from our house. Invariably, I greet, and wave to no less than seven or eight neighbors on the way to the park, at the park, and on the way home. They may not remember my name, but everyone knows Cocoa’s name. She’s a neighbor-magnet. In fact, at times when Karen takes her for a walk, after saying, “Hi Cocoa!”, neighbors that Karen doesn’t know, ask her, “How’s your husband?” You can only appreciate the gravity of this blessing if you live in the LA area where most people don’t know their next-door neighbor who’s lived there for the last five years.

I’d like to finish the post with this. Although I was always grateful to my wife for the years that she was a stay-at-home mom, I don’t think I was grateful enough. So, may take this opportunity to thank and recognize her and all the housewives (I know some people take offense to this term also, but it matches househusband) and stay-at-home moms for all their unappreciated hard work. I pray the day will come when you’ll be more appreciated not only by your mates, but also by society in general.

More Than Numbers: Church As Positive Culture Impact…

churchBy Phil Wyman

I’ve known Phil for many years. In fact, about 30 years ago, he was one of the first English speaking pastors who invited me to speak at his church. These past a few years, we both have had our share of woes, which mostly steamed out of being misunderstood. So, a couple of weeks ago, when talking on the phone, he mentioned some of the the stuff in the following post, I knew I had to have in prints–SHAH

In almost 29 years of pastoring, I have lived through the worst of capitalist success markers being the measures of church success. Numbers, numbers, numbers…. In the 80’s church growth conferences pushed numerical growth as a marker of New Testament blessing. In Acts 2 we read that, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” So the marker of blessing was numerical increase. Denominational district reports asked for nothing much more than numbers: money numbers, attendance numbers, salvation numbers, rededication numbers, baptism numbers, and baptism in the Holy Spirit numbers. In such a success driven culture, people around us become paper people. They were numbers on a page, and some cases they began to feel that way.

I have always been a rebel against creating paper people, and so very early I became known as the “small church guy” in my district because I defended the benefits, and blessings of small churches. I also pastored small church pastors – no one else seemed to care about them, except maybe to encourage their deliverance from pastoring small churches.

Years later, we look back at the Church Growth Movement, and wonder what went wrong. How come denominations are still struggling as franchises of small groups, instead of numerically victorious bastions of Super Walmart-sized compounds? Does this mean, that the blessing of God is not upon denominations and churches if they don’t cover the earth in building programs like the waters cover the sea? (I am hoping the irony of utilizing that language does not evade you.)

It should be obvious in our quickly developing post-colonialist, anti-capitalist surroundings (which is another huge topic filled with both benefit and entrapment), that numbers are not God’s measurement of a pastor’s success and faithful service to the community. If we consider the position of a pastor to be a shepherd of a community, I want to suggest measurements, which might better serve us in determining the success of a church in its community.

Now, my examples will seem more extreme than the average church experience, but then I live in the extremely crazy city of Salem, MA (aka The Witch City)

1) Are outsiders thankful for your presence? Our small church got involved in the month long Halloween celebrations from the first year we were here. In 1999, churches were battling an impossible battle to shut the city events down, and failing miserably, as well as making enemies among the city’s Witches, local businesses, and even government leaders. I thought it made sense to befriend the people involved, and help make the 31 days of Halloween a family-friendly experience. After much struggle, and ridiculous accusations from other churches, 10 years later people were telling us how much of an impact our presence had been on the streets of Salem. The season was more peaceful, the local Pagans and local Christians weren’t fighting like they were in the 90’s. Not that these things do not rise again from time to time, but the local churches stay mostly out of the fray, while working on relationships with the city people.

2) Do outsiders support your mission? Typically, it is those in our congregations who support the work our churches attempt to accomplish in the community. Our little church found itself on the opposite side of this equation last year. Due to financial struggles, we were moving out of the facility we had been renting for 7 years. We put out a plea for help, and the help came in surprising numbers. In the first two days of our campaign, Witches and atheists out-gave the Christians. I realized that we had friends among people with whom we significantly differed on so many basic philosophical issues of faith, and life, but this friendship made itself evident in dollars and cents.

3) Are you able to stand in the space between the community arguments and provide a voice of peace? We have run confessional booths (ala Blue Like Jazz) and have seen people cry as we offered an apology for the historic wrongs the church has committed. In the Boston area, shortly after the breaking news of the priest abuse scandal, this was momentous for many people.

4) Does the community come to you for help? We invested in items, which we knew could be a benefit to the City of Salem. A good portable sound system, outdoor chairs for outdoor events, 10 by 10 outdoor tents, and other event-based supplies. We have run sound for the Mayor’s inauguration, for visiting congressmen, and for community pizza and ice cream events. We paint the faces of hundreds of children on the 4th of July, and supply hot cocoa at Fall and Winter events every year. The community calls and asks for our help, because they trust us to help and to be a blessing, without having to preach a salvation message every time we encounter them.

5) Is your impact disproportionate to your size? (It was my friend, John Amstutz, who first asked this question of the small church I pastored in Carlsbad, CA) I can call out the Holy Grail of national impact here, but it is not because we were so perfect an example of church success. Our fame came through trial, and persecution by other churches, and even our own denomination, but even negative experiences will reveal the success of your mission. Our little church hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal on October 31st, 2006, and for those Warholian 15 minutes we were famous. We gained friends across the world, and that impact, which is far disproportionate than our actual numbers continues to this day. 

You will notice these markers are based in how outsiders feel about the church. If we truly want to bless our communities, then how our communities feel about us is one critical gauge of our success. This is not to say that churches are going to be accepted in every community, but in the United States there are so few impossible communities. If a church can find a way to beneficially impact The Witch City, then just about any community in the US ought to be accessible. Find a way to serve, and keep at that service going until it gives the payouts, which are not measured in numbers.

If you’re interested to know more about Phil, these are some useful links.

Christianity Today article about Burning Man: http://www.salemgathering.org/images/news/CT_Burning_Man.pdf

Church website: http://www.salemgathering.org

His book project website: http://www.burningreligion.com

Personal Website: http://www.philwyman.org

If You Don’t Change Them, They Will Swallow You UP!

 On the Sunday after 9/11 my message to my Iranian church started by me asking the following question and answer.
Who put a gun to your head and demanded that you leave Iran and come to America?
If you don’t like living in America, I’ll personally buy you a one-way ticket and send you back to Iran.
Using Jer. 29:4-7, I then went on to show them, as immigrants in this country, what our responsibilities towards America should be. Once I made them aware of our role as immigrants, I then challenged them, as followers of Christ, to put aside our Third World corrupt habits that almost all of us were raised with, and be a light and salt to our community.
Over a year ago, I felt the need to preach the same message again, but this time to English speaking churches—Christians who are born and raised in America—along with a long disclaimer repeated throughout my message. I felt the need to include the disclaimer because these days, many Americans take offense to everything, even on behalf of those who are not asking for it. So, I had to start my message with the following warning, which I kept repeating throughout my teaching:
Please be advised that I gave this message to my IRANIAN church, and it is NOT directed at you. By the way, after I was done preaching it, the whole church gave me a standing ovation, so PLEASE don’t get offended on their behalf.
My message had to do with change, that of heart, mind, soul and behavior. It was an attempt to help them become more like those who belong to the Community of Jesus. It challenged them to outflowing action that would influence the adverse Iranian community that surrounds them. In doing so, I gave them example after example of the corruption that exists within much of our culture. The type of Third World mentality that is so, so foreign to the majority of American Christians, but so, so natural to us who were born and raised in Iran.
“But, why are you giving this message to the American church,” one might ask.
Because I am very concerned about the type of society my grandchildren might be facing in America.
In his article, 4 Trends in Christianity That Could Scare You, Ed Stetzer says,
As the Nones (Nominal/Cultural Christians) rise in their number, Christian influence on culture will begin to wane. The minority of Christians in a culture will begin to feel even more like a minority when more nominals become Nones. As people no longer claim to be Christians, Christianity will be further marginalized…
Although Mr. Stetzer considers this to be something positive for the future of the church—She then will be full of REAL (Whatever that may be according to him) Christians.—he doesn’t take into account the vacuum this lack of Christian influence will create in the society. Those of other mentality/cultural mindset, i.e., Muslims, will not sit back and wait for the Christians to easily once again get their influence back. These non-Christians will fill the void.
In his recent column in Los Angeles Times, How corruption abroad threatens U.S. national security, Doyle McManus wrote,

 We often look at corruption as a secondary issue in international affairs: as a moral problem that allows Third World governments to steal from their people and gets in the way of equitable economic development…But the lesson of the collapse of the Iraqi army, an army built with $25 billion in U.S. aid, is this: Corruption isn’t only a moral issue; it’s a national security issue, too.

That’s the message of Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, who spent 10 years working on economic development projects in Afghanistan — only to find that corruption was getting in the way of nearly everything she did.

 I want the American church to understand what happens when she losses her influence in society, an influence that is directly related to the teachings of Christ. I long for the church to realize what an unscrupulous society awaits her if she doesnt stand up for Christian Principles and offer the life changing teachings of Christ to those around her, especially those of us from the Third World.
After hearing my message at his church, a member, a white American, who was offended by what I’d said, asked the following question,
“So, what is the redemptive value in this message?”
My answer: If you don’t change my mindset with the teachings of Jesus, I WILL swallow you up.