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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Are All These Foreigners Doing In My Country?


Years ago I was invited to teach a workshop at a large denominational convention. I was given an hour to teach on Islam and Muslim evangelism. However, at the last minute I was told I would be sharing my teaching time with a Native American brother who was going to teach on reaching his nation.

In less than 30 minutes, we were each expected to give solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing the American church. To add insult to injury, directly across from our classroom was going to be a very well known mega church pastor teaching a workshop on “church growth”.

Having faced situations like this over and over again for many years, I decided to even out the odds and placed a sign on the other workshop’s door telling the attendees that the room was switched to ours.

Within a few minutes before our class was to start, pastors began to pour in trying to grab any seat they could find. Eventually, the class was filled to its capacity with standing room only. That’s when I calmly got up to introduce myself.

“Hi, my name is Shahrokh Afshar. My friends call me Shah, but you can call me Shahrokh. Next to me is Pastor ‘Pretty on the Top’ and we are going to be your teachers for the next 60 minutes.”

That’s when one of the pastors in the back shouted, “Where’s Pastor Jack?”

“Jack who?” I replied

Needless to say, within a few seconds my class emptied— as if the rapture had taken place and only seven of us were left behind. It was obvious that to most of those pastors, church growth took precedence over evangelism, including Muslim and Native American evangelism, which are two of the least evangelized people groups in the entire world.

Four of the five pastors in the room had intended to be there all along, but after realizing the prank I’d pulled, the fifth guy stayed because he told himself, “Anyone who can pull something like this on Pastor Jack is worth listening to.” Ted and I have been great friends ever since.

It frustrates me to no end to see that even after 9/11 how much most pastors in America still operate with the above mindset—looking for the magic formula that can turn their small fellowship into a mega church overnight instead of doing the work of an evangelist, especially among these two grossly under-reached groups.

Every once in a while, I challenge believers to do the following the next time they are at church:
Before the service starts, request that your pastor ask the church members this question: ‘How many of you were saved at this church and how many of you transferred here from another church?’ If the pastor is willing to ask such a question, you’ll be shocked by the result. You’ll find out that a good 80-90% of your church members have transferred from other churches for whatever reason and are what I call “Recycled Christians”.

By the way, I’ve been to churches where 100% of the members were Recycled Christians.

“Look around you,” I often direct American pastors. “You and your church members can all be missionaries to any people group you desire without having to ever leave your home. God has brought people of every nation and language to your doorsteps for a reason. You don’t need to spend a penny traveling to their foreign lands because they have already spent their own money to be here. You don’t need to learn their languages or cultures (although it’s very help if you do so) because they’re trying hard to learn English and the American way of life. You don’t need to learn how to eat their foods because they’re desperately trying to keep their Big Macs down. All the Lord is asking you is to, in Christ’s name, take a glass of cool water across the street to the guy that may wear a turban and speak with an accent.”

According to some of the studies I’ve seen, the church attendance in America is dropping every Sunday. No doubt there are many reasons for this phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned there are two extremely prominent causes for this occurrence.

First, a majority of Americans who are born in this country have lost interest in church attendance and don’t consider Christianity relevant.

Second, we’ve finally run out of Christians to recycle. Is it possible that after decades of recycling old disciples rather than baptizing new ones, we’re finally running out of recyclable Christians? Could the answer to the next great revival in America lie not in building another mega church building filled with English speaking believers who have transferred from smaller churches, but in Christian leaders who are willing to build their churches one person at a time by reaching out to those who’ve never heard the Good News and are more open—the internationals God has brought to our doorsteps?




Monday, September 12, 2011

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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Please Don’t Go To A Bible College!


 
The other day I got a message on Facebook from an old Bible College student of mine, Jeremy.

“Hey ProfeShah (that’s what my students used to call me), do you remember the advice you gave me 5 years ago? It was one of the best words of advice I’ve ever received in my life,” he said.

Shoot, if you know me, you know I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone a piece of advice I gave someone over five years ago. So, being a good shame-based culture person that I am, I faked it and said, “Yes, of course!”

In my Middle Eastern culture, by admitting to not knowing something, you’ve committed two sins: not knowing something and admitting to not knowing something. 

I responded, “I told you to get the heck out of the Bible College and get yourself a degree that you can make a living with”.

To my amazement, he wrote back saying, “Yes, and thank you. I’m an engineer today making a living and taking care of my family.”

I know some of my evangelical friends get upset when they hear me taking such a stance, but I had my reasons, of which the most important was the welfare of my students. It was within the second year of teaching at that college when I noticed a good number of my students were graduating college with $20-30K debt and ending up working behind a counter, asking customers, “Would you like a tall, grande or venti?”

“If that’s going to be the case, you don’t need a four-year college degree to pump syrup in a coffee cup or work as a bank teller,” I used to tell them.

Most of these kids were being trained to be one thing and one thing only: pastors. The problem was that the denomination the college belonged to couldn’t provide enough churches for these graduates to pastor. On the other hand, the available churches were usually 20-30 member churches not able to support the new pastor fulltime, which again, put my students behind the same coffee or bank teller-counter.

Knowing how difficult it is to pastor in general, I knew we (the college) were setting many of my students up for failure. If you haven’t thought about it already, someone has and is ready to write me about it: “Aren’t you taking these kids away from their godly calling to be pastors?” To believe that is to believe the only way to serve God is to stand behind a pulpit, which in and of itself is a false assumption that has been shoved down our throats for many years. I don’t need a pulpit to serve Christ.  

For the first 10 years after starting the first Iranian Christian organization in the United States, I was a civil engineer during the day and a house-church planter at night, driving all over LA County preaching the Gospel to a newly-arrived group of Iranian immigrants. Even if I had wanted them to, these Iranians would have never been able to support my family and me for what I was doing.

For 10 years, it was my engineering degree that put a roof over my family’s head, food on our table and gas in my ‘69 VW Bug.  Maybe even more important, I own my home today – not because of the 30 years I pastored, but because of the 10 years I engineered. My salary as an Iranian pastor would have never been able to purchase my family a house.

It took me 10 years to build a solid enough base of supporters before I was able to leave my engineering job. By then, I was also convinced that was something I was called to do.

Maybe 40-50 years ago, a church of 40 members was able to support her pastor fulltime, but those days are over. Today, to be fully supported, the same pastor needs a church that is four to five times larger than that. That was a reality that most of my students faced. Since, right off the bat, pastoring a large church was out of the question, they needed to have a job that would put a roof over their heads and food on their tables while trying to pastor a small church.  

That is why I encouraged many of my students to get out of the Bible College and first get a degree that would give them a solid base of financial support. Meanwhile, they could do what I did for ten years: serve God where they were.  If they never get into a “fulltime ministry,” they haven't wasted four years of college and thousands of dollars getting an education they never needed. But, if they do, and feel they need more Biblical education, they can always go back to Bible College and get their Biblical degrees with the money they saved from their well-paying jobs.

That’s what I did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Teacher, Teacher, Teacher...I Have A Question!

Dear Friends:

For a while I've been wanting to make a series of 1-2 minute video questions dealing with some of the issues facing the church. This is the first one. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    http://youtu.be/kmduHpc_PYw
 

Shah

PS. if you find these videos interesting and my questions challenging, then maybe you'd like to have me as a speaker at your churches, schools or gatherings.

Friday, May 27, 2011

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.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Being In The Middle Is Not Easy


As a Muslim background believer, I have certain beliefs that put me at odds with some Christians. For example, I have no firm Eschatological stance on the part that Israel plays in the Second Coming. Some evangelicals automatically assume that I hate the Jews because of my Muslim background, or even worse, they might question my salvation as if it is based on a firm support of Israel rather than my faith in Christ.

The other day I was listening to Dr. Doda (not his real name), a mega-church pastor, being interviewed on a radio talk show. Our doctor is known for his partnership with the nation of Israel and has written books on the subject. During the course of the interview, he made the comment that the future of America rests upon her supporting Israel. When the interviewer asked why, he quoted what the Lord said to Abraham (Gen. 12:13), an interpretation that, for many years, has been argued for and against. I leave that argument to smarter people and theologians of which I’m neither. The conversation hit home with me when the subject of Iran came up.

Very confidently, Dr. Doda said something like, “As Ezekiel tells us, Iran and Russia will join forces to attack Israel and that’s when God will destroy them both.” I was rather shocked at the glib and nonchalant way this man of God was referring to the destruction of millions of people. “If what you’re saying is true, Dr. Doda, shouldn’t you be doing all you can to introduce these masses of humanity to Christ?” I asked myself. Not once during the interview was it brought up that in the midst of all this confusion and political unrest, our Lord has made Iran the fastest Muslim country coming to Christ. I guess that couldn’t be as important as what one should or should not believe when it comes to supporting Israel.

On the other hand, there are those Christians who question my sincerity in Christ and love for Muslims because of my stance against Islam as a religion. According to them, somehow being a Christian should prevent me from criticizing the religion of my fathers.  And since apparently I support Israel by cautioning the Church about the advancement of Islam in the West, I’m somehow encouraging people to hate Muslims. I guess this group of Christians assumes because I left Islam I automatically hate Muslims.

For almost 30 years I pastored the most unique church on the face of the earth. It consisted of 50% Muslim background Iranian believers and 50% Messianic Jewish Iranians. I find it rather amusing that a majority of those Christians who are so diligent in supporting Israel as the nation and people of God have never raised a finger to win one Jew to Christ. And, on the other hand, many of those Christians who are so concerned about me offending Islam have never had the privilege of sharing the Gospel with one Muslim. I have done both. I don’t hate Israel or Muslims and my record speaks for itself.