The Sweetness of Sabbath

One big shift from our first term overseas to our second? We finally got serious about taking a weekly day of rest. When we were new as a family on the field, our initial experience was that the pace of life in Central Asia was much less frenetic than it was in the US. We didn’t feel the same need to protect a certain day for a sabbath rest. Life was more fluid, which meant our week felt naturally interspersed with pockets of life-giving and restful things. By the end of our first term, this had definitely changed. Language learning, team conflict, culture fatigue, online seminary classes, messy local relationships, security crises, and a newborn (number three) were all taking a toll. It took us several months to recover from the residual stress once we went stateside. And my wife still ended up spending a night in the ER five months in, with some kind of severe panic attack that had initially appeared to be something much worse.

We felt the Lord was being crystal clear with us. We needed to get serious about sabbath again, about building in a day of rest for our family, and about pursuing a concept we came to refer to as sustainable dying. Yes, we are called to die for the gospel, but perhaps it would better honor Jesus if we died more sustainably over forty years as opposed to four? We eagerly read the books Reset and Refresh by David and Shona Murray with wide eyes as we read about all these ministry folks burning out in their forties – while we had just entered our thirties and were experiencing all of the same symptoms. In this sense, I’m not sure we’re so very different from all of our millennial peers in ministry. We’re all hitting this point pretty early.

I remember being struck by the concept that God did not create us as disembodied spirits, but as embodied humans. This means we have God-given, good limitations to our work and our physical bodies. To pretend that these limits don’t exist is therefore not honoring to God, but is to live in rebellion to his good design in his creation. I had been living out of sync with the fabric of God’s creation, which has a good, but limited nature. I had been living this way for as long as I could remember, pretending that if I regularly pushed my body beyond what was wise, God would give grace and it wouldn’t matter for me – was it not for the sake of the ministry, after all?

We were also hit hard by the idea that we don’t rest because the work is done. We rest because the work is never done. This is particularly helpful for confronting the challenges of the fluid and never-ending work of the mission field. When you don’t have regular work hours and you are surrounded by a sea of lostness, it’s awfully tempting to let ministry come into every part of the day and the week. But this can mean that the missionary never actually rests from the work. There are always more pages of vocab to review, more calls to make, more invitations to respond to, more emails to send, more broken things to attempt to fix. But resting because the work is never done shifts rest from being something that we’ve earned to being something that is proactive. It becomes an acknowledgment even that though there’s so much more work to do, we can’t possible do it well if we don’t refresh our bodies and our souls.

We leaned into the biblical theology aspects of rest. We rest because God rested, and we want to be like him. We rest because he commanded Israel to rest and in that command we see his good designs for them. We rest because Jesus rested in the tomb after completing his atoning work on the cross. We rest because we’re not saved by our work, but by our souls resting in the work of Jesus. We rest because the new creation is coming, where rest will be perfected. And we want to be a preview of that day to our local friends and foreign colleagues.

And practically, at this point, we also rest just so that we can stay out of the ER for a little bit longer. We’ve flirted enough with serious anxiety issues to realize that it’s serious business to guard against their going mutant and taking over.

We try to guard our Saturdays as our regular day of rest. It’s taken quite a while to find out what actually works for our family – and what actually works for Central Asia. The age of our kids affects this (8, 6, and 2), meaning that it’s important that plan some kind of outing or activities on our rest day so that they don’t go stir-crazy. We usually go out to eat somewhere and try to spend time at a park. My wife and I will often find quiet corners of the house to get in some reading. We’ll also do some different kinds of work, but only if the work feels refreshing because we don’t do it every day. Washing the dishes and listening to a language history podcast is in this category for me.

The issue with Central Asia is that the more you are known, the more you are called, texted, and visited (even unannounced) by your growing circle of friends and acquaintances. And this is a culture where there is little to no understanding of a “day off” from relationships and people. Locals get quickly offended if you don’t answer your phone right away. This makes a sabbath day a little tricky. But we discovered that there is always one acceptable excuse to not answering your phone and your gate. I’m so sorry, we were out of the city at that time. We began to see that the locals did have a method for regular rest, one connected to their all having ancestral ties to certain mountain villages. Everyone here has a village, even if they live in the city. The wealthy ones even build new picnic houses in mountain valleys in imitation of village life. Almost all city dwellers, rich and working class, get out of the city regularly, even once a week for some. This is a common practice all over Central Asia, as I’ve learned from speaking to colleagues in other countries.

A couple of years ago we started chewing on the idea of finding a picnic house that we and our team could rent and use regularly. After two years of praying, some of our partners secured one recently. It’s a small cement, plaster, and tile cabin with a green lawn area and a small fruit tree orchard. We split the rent with four other families so the cost is extremely reasonable. Now we aim to make the forty five minute drive into the mountains twice a month or so, and to spend our other days of rest at home as usual. So far, it’s been wonderful. The chance to be up in the mountains, in the cooler weather, the silence, the green, has been life-giving. Having grown up in Melanesia (as somewhat of a pyro) I’m also thrilled at the chance to build campfires with my kids. They’re not big enough yet for spending the night at the picnic house to be more restful than coming back home, but we’ll get there soon.

Previously, we and our colleagues had leaned very heavily on trips out of country for rest and vacation. But with regular security crises and the sheer cost of travel across international borders, we were already wrestling with the need to get better at local rest. Then 2020 happened. And suddenly the whole world was closed off to everyone, not just to those of us serving in this corner of Central Asia. We heard one refrain from so many of our believing friends back in the West: Yes, it’s been hard, but we are thankful for the chance we’ve had to slow down. Life was crazy before the lock-downs.

Figuring out rest for any of us Westerners, hard-wired workaholics as we are, is quite challenging. Figuring it out in a foreign culture and in a year like this one, well, let’s just say it’s only by the grace of God that we have been able to find some restful rhythms. And yet our creator did make us for this, so at some point I believe all of us will start to feel a day of rest becoming more natural – and we’ll wonder how we ever did without it. We are beginning to taste this reality ourselves. When our Saturday is necessarily claimed by something unavoidable, we feel sad about this and brainstorm about how we can compensate for it. Other weeks, like this one, we push hard and work with freedom, knowing that a day of rest is close at hand – and I’ll get to sit around a campfire in the mountains with my kids… which is mostly restful. If only we could get the two-year-old a little less enthusiastic about throwing things onto the fire.

Photo by Julien Moreau on Unsplash

His Honor Will Have Departed

My painter friend has provided valuable insight a couple of times now into how local culture thinks about money. A year and a half ago he was my point-man for the different renovations we needed to do once we had finally located a house to rent (a process that involved somewhere around fifty realtors!). It was an interesting working experience, and in the hottest part of the summer. My focus was on fixing things thoroughly so that this house could provide several years of stability for my family, while my painter friend was always pushing back and telling me not to spend so much money. I didn’t quite know what to do with the fact that my contractor kept trying to discourage me from employing him and his contacts on further projects!

One day I asked him about whether we should put iron bars on our ground floor front windows. Our house is essentially a cement row home, with a front that faces the street and sides and a back that connect to other houses’ walls. Envision the narrow Philadelphia row homes from the film Rocky, turn them into cement/plaster/tile structures, and you’ll be getting close. We have a skinny house front facing the street, a small tile courtyard with a gate, and we have a back roof that we can walk out onto. The door to the roof and the window have metal bars on them. But unlike some of our neighbors, we don’t have bars on our ground floor door and windows. The painter’s response was interesting.

“Nah, you don’t need ’em.”

“Why do say that?” I asked.

“Listen, if anyone’s gonna rob a house, he’s gonna do it through the roof, where the nosy neighbors can’t see it happen. Neighbors are always watching who comes and goes through the front of the house.”

Well, that’s a bit unnerving, I thought to myself. Better take note of that for future Bible studies.

“Nah,” he continued, “You’ve got bars on your roof window, so you’re fine. Besides, everyone knows that your a Westerner and Westerners are different with their money.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“Westerners keep their money in banks! Everyone knows that. I bet the cash you have in your wallet right now is the only cash you have around this whole house, right?”

I nodded.

“See? Nothing to worry about. No one will bother to rob Westerners because you’re not stuffing tens of thousands of dollars into a mattress or hole in the wall like we locals do. All your money is in a bank. It’s not worth it.”

What an interesting and unexpected perspective, I thought to myself. Growing up in Melanesia, crime and robbery were a big problem. Westerners had to be extra careful. Here, being a Westerner might mean I’m less likely to be robbed!

Fast forward a year and a half to last night, and we were having dinner with my painter friend and his wife. Once again, I found him to be an unexpected source of insight into theft and money. He began laughing and telling us about some foreigners he saw in the money exchange bazaar taking pictures of the tables piled high with stacks of cash.

“That’s a strange thing for all of us foreigners in the beginning,” I said, “Those tables are just sitting there with thousands of dollars on them, yet no one tries to steal anything! Your culture has an amazingly low rate of theft. It’s really unique. What’s going on there?” I asked him. “Even nearby surrounding cultures aren’t like that.”

“Well,” my painter friend said, “If anyone tries to steal anything, the police and the secret police will be after him right away. He doesn’t stand a chance. Sometimes you don’t even need the police! The crowd will take care of him. Stealing is such a shameful thing.”

(I remember experiencing a similar thing in Melanesia. A man had robbed one of my classmates. We were able to yell and holler and send a crowd chasing him down. The police saw him rounding a corner, pursued by an angry mob, and they decided to arrest him and rescue him from the wrath of the mob. Might have saved his life.)

My friend continued to elaborate, “For us, it’s a matter of honor and reputation. To be known as a thief is one of the worst reputations you can have. You’ll never get rid of it. You’ll never be able to marry a local girl. Their families won’t let them marry a thief.”

“Really?” we responded.

“Even his father will be marked forever. People on the street will say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief!’ And his son will never be able to marry. Oh yes, they will all say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief.’ Indeed, his honor will have departed.”

A teammate leaned over to me to emphasize this final phrase, “Did you catch that?” he said, “His honor will have departed.” I nodded. Now there’s a phrase to memorize for those seeking to communicate the fallenness of humanity. All of us have sinned, and all of our honor has departed.

“So that’s why thieving and robbery are so rare?” we asked.

“Yes!”

“But what about government corruption?”

“Ha!” My friend responded, “Yes, we have a lot of that. The normal people don’t steal, but the political class? They’re sneaky. They steal billions in deceptive ways. Such is our situation.”

And such is the surprising nature of theft and money in our corner of Central Asia. In general, you don’t have to worry about pick-pockets, people breaking into your car, or kids stealing from shops in the bazaar. But you have a project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Watch out. At that point the thieves will come calling.

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

A Song When God’s Grace Seems To Good Be True

Songs like this remind me of the outlandish promises of God – and that they are still true, even if outlandish. The food and the water are for those without money? A place at the table for the unworthy? Surely not! Yet that’s exactly what grace is.

It is not as we've seen, 
it is not as we've read, 
it is not as they've said. 
How we need to forget, 
we need to reset 
and be like children again. 

Are you hungry and have no money? 
You can sit at this table. 
Are you thirsty and unworthy? 
You can draw from this well.  
Are you weak, are you poor are you wanting for more, 
in the quiet of your heart? 
To yourself you say I wish someone would pass my way, 
and give me a new start. 

Sweetheart, stop cutting your sweet arms, 
no hope, smoking dope and drinking your life away. 
lets dance and sing, lets eat from the tree, 
Come down to the river with me.  
It may be too good to be understood, 
but its not too good to be true.  

From the dust we came, 
to the dust we all will go. 
We brought nothing with us, 
we'll take nothing on, 
Heaven knows keep in mind, 
it'll take a little time, 
But darlin' you're gonna find where you came from. 
Don't let your eyes deceive your heart, 
believe the best is yet to come.  

It may be too good to be understood, 
but its not too good to be true. 
He may be too good to be understood, 
but he's not to good to be.

“Too Good” by Jess Ray

The Importance of Permission

A local friend just struck a major deal with a big media company here. As a friend and possible participant in some of his projects, I was invited into a couple of the meetings. It was fascinating to observe because the method of how to pitch an idea here is the exact opposite of the way Westerners typically do it.

In the West, we make sure our research and proposal is in order, then we might do a small pilot project and try to build things from the ground up and to provide a demonstration. We do the research and detailed prep first and that’s how we get the credibility and approval to go official. It’s a process rooted in meritocracy. Here, you meet with the important potential patron first, gain their trust relationally, then once they give you the go ahead, you go and figure the details out. You can’t begin your research until someone with some societal clout has given you permission to do so. It’s a process rooted in patronage.

A few years ago I visited a ruined Christian monastery with a local friend. I was curious about what the locals in the nearby town knew about this historic site. I had stumbled upon some recent archaeological research claiming that this was a monastery and citadel built around the year AD 500 and destroyed about five hundred years later. First, we visited a local religious leader, an important mullah. Even though his mosque was just down the road from this site, he knew very little about it. Most locals believed it to be an old Zoroastrian or Islamic site. The mullah did know that a few years previously a team had dug up two bodies which had been buried facing Jerusalem, not Mecca. He said that strengthened the case for it being a Christian or Jewish site.

Next we paid the mayor of this small town a visit. With it being a sleepy summer afternoon, I didn’t think anything of dropping by this government office to introduce ourselves, have a cold cup of water, and ask a few friendly questions. After all, my friend and I were respectable English teachers, an honorable profession in this part of the world. The mayor knew even less about the site than the mullah did, but we had a seemingly friendly conversation nonetheless. Still, it amazed me that the leaders of this community had no idea about the important historical site that sat right next to their town. I indicated that I hoped to do more research on the site in the future.

Upon leaving, the mayor motioned to us,

“Let me give you some advice. The next time you go around asking questions, make sure you have an official letter saying that you are approved to do so.”

His comment caught me off-guard. Approval to ask questions? Isn’t it my right to ask questions and do research and hold off on the approvals until I’m actually ready to commit to something? Not in Central Asia. Here you have to get permission to even ask the questions.

I saw this same dynamic working out this week as my friend met with this company’s CEO. Once he earned his trust and gained approval, the sky was the limit. He had secured a patron, so my friend wasn’t concerned about cost or details. There was abundant time now to figure that out. The most important piece was in place – the relationship with the CEO.

My friend’s team, a motley crew of very young and diverse Westernized locals, were nervous about the lack of detail. Interestingly, they had assimilated enough to global culture to understand the steps of the process to be backward – as I had with the monastery. But having gone through that experience with the mayor and run it by a good many locals for understanding, I was able to calm the team down. My friend and the CEO were operating in a tried and true Central Asian process, almost a dance, where a potential patron and a client explore forming a new working relationship. That relationship now agreed upon, the cornerstone for all the other work was now in place.

Now, they had their “letter.” The patron had been assured of their loyalty and of the potential for them to do good work. He had promised them his full backing. So now, they could go get to work on the details.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

I Did Not Yet Love the Church

There are many reasons why I thank God for our sending church in Kentucky. They are gospel-explicit in their prayers, songs, and preaching. They have a heart to welcome in those from all cultures and to send out church planters and missionaries far and wide. They model healthy congregationalism and plurality of elders. They are long-suffering with the struggling and serious about raising up men of conviction to lead the church. But among these things, I also thank the Lord for this church because it was when I was a member there that I truly learned to love the local church.

Yes, for a number of years I loved the nations, but I did not yet love the Church. Rather, I did not yet love the local church. I grew up a missionary kid. As such I grew up in between lots of different churches. Leadership changed multiple times at my parent’s sending church. On furloughs we visited many supporting churches. We ourselves were involved in multiple national churches when my father was alive – three different churches every Sunday when I was a four year old. Then when it was just my mom and my brothers, we plugged in as members at a national church, looking to serve and grow as we were able, yet still not quite able to be all in. The missionary life is often one of transition and different kinds of connections to at least several churches. This naturally risks a decreasing sense of the importance of the local church. Or at least an atypical orientation to the local church that can have strange effects upon those tasked with planting them.

I first sensed a call to the nations while in high school, and this was confirmed when I was a freshman in college in Minneapolis. At that time I had gotten my first taste of what membership in a vibrant and healthy church could look like – and it was amazing. But after nine months I was off to the Middle East, membership classes completed, but membership not finalized. Those nine months were long enough to get a taste of healthy church, but not long enough to be all in. Not enough to be inoculated against the house-church-only ideology and insider methodology that I would later be drawn towards. I was, because of the bulk of my experience, still too open to the idea that the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed. It was also 2008, when things in the Emerging and Emergent church movements were nearing their high water mark. Conversations on rethinking church were all over Christian blogosphere and dominating new church planting books. I was amazed at the new and burgeoning house churches I was seeing in my overseas context and for the first time wrestling with the problems of doing traditional church in a persecution context. This, paired with certain methodology books and conversations, sent me over the edge. On my return to the US, my words to a mentor were, “I’m done with the way we do church in America.”

Upon that return to the US I spent a semester doing house church in the US. It was a very valuable experience, but it continued to affirm my trajectory. The traditional churches I visited in that small college town also strengthened my resolve to do church differently. It was only when I visited a close friend, at what would become my future church in Kentucky, that my church convictions began to be a little shaken. I remember looking around at the mid-sized congregation deeply engaged in a gospel-explicit worship song together and thinking, this isn’t quite the passivity that I’ve been claiming always takes place in “big church.” The members were also inviting me to move down to their city to help them reach out to Muslim refugees. More troubling non-passivity. In fact, as I got to know them they actually seemed more skilled at fleshing out the priesthood of all believers than most house churches I had seen. But they have a building! Astaghfurallah! After moving, I started visiting that church, thinking that even though I still had serious doubts about this methodology of church, this was a place where at least they were rock solid on the gospel – which in spite of some fuzziness I still knew deep down was more important than methodology.

To this day I still love and value the house church model. It’s the only model that will be possible for most churches among my Central Asian people group. It’s a model with some serious strengths! But that church in Kentucky taught me that the DNA of a healthy church is not limited by where a church meets – building, house, under a tree, size, etc. Rather, the DNA of a healthy church expresses itself in any body of believers that simply implements faithful expressions of the biblical principles. I learned that those expressions could vary, should vary even. And thus, all of a sudden I was no longer a house-church-only guy.

But that was the minor shift. The much more important shift happened more slowly as I came to absorb a new orientation to the local church. Previously I had largely felt that the local church was, in some sense, a means to the end. A means to reaching the nations. But I came to understand how central the local church is, not just for what it can accomplish, but in itself, in its own glory as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:32), the household of God (1 Tim 3:15), the wisdom of God on brilliant display (Eph 3:10). I had loved the nations and I had merely appreciated the church (at best). But I was coming to love the local church itself as I marinated in its life over a much longer period than I had anticipated. I had planned for a quick turnaround, going back overseas as soon as I could knock out that undergrad. But God had other plans. I stayed in Kentucky for seven years, a member of that local church, eventually becoming a leader there. It was exactly what I needed. As a missionary who loved the nations, my lack of love for the local church was my blindspot.

How tragic that so many (like I was) are serving as overseas church planters when they don’t yet love the local church. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a great number of evangelical missionaries overseas merely tolerate the local church back home (and some even despise it). It makes sense. Their experience is mostly with unhealthy churches. Then they receive a call to the nations. They go, hoping to plant churches, not knowing what exactly they want to see, but knowing they do not want to reproduce what they saw done in the West. They get converted to one methodology or another that tries to reinvent church and muddles up the difference between biblical principles and cultural expressions. If churches are planted, they often don’t last, or they last and go mutant. Sometimes the missionaries themselves stop focusing on church altogether, focusing only on good causes or disciple-making. “So, you still believe in church planting, huh?” is how one veteran put it to me.

We must not send missionaries (especially church planters) to the nations who do not love the local church. If their position is the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed, then I would suggest they are at great risk of falling into deeply unhelpful, even dangerous, trajectories. How will they reproduce what they have never seen nor lived? Yes, God is gracious and sometimes missionaries are able to plant healthy churches moving purely from the page into reality, having never experienced a healthy church back home (I know some like this!). But anyone experienced in mentoring and ministry knows the utter importance of modeling. And even with modeling, we tend to underrate the importance of soaking, marinating, sitting, loving, absorbing and “catching” a deep affection for the local church. To truly love her, you must actually sit with her a while and come to know her.

What is to be done so that those who love the nations will also love the local church? Pastors and sending churches need to teach and live a robust and beautiful biblical ecclesiology. We must teach it, so that even if our church is a modern day Corinth, those sent out will have deep convictions about what a biblical church is and its centrality to all of ministry. We must live it, so that those sent out will have some faithful expressions of biblical principles to draw on when they attempt to replicate those principles overseas – ideally with local contextualized expressions (Please don’t cookie-cutter FBC Somewhereburg – that’s not what I’m saying). We should also consider the importance of inviting would be church planting missionaries into pastoral ministry before they go overseas so that they come to be able to think and feel a bit more like pastors. Most of us overseas are not wired like pastors. They tend to think differently than we frontier missionary types do, and we need to learn from their shepherd-like hearts.

The local church is simply amazing, even in all its imperfection. It is lovely. And it is to the detriment of the nations if their pioneer church planters do not feel this way about the local church. Perhaps this should even be a screening question for those who profess a call to the nations: “Please tell me, do you love the local church?”

Photo by Robin Spielmann on Unsplash

Thus Beginning the Pax Romana

The first Roman advance across the Euphrates ended in catastrophe in 53 BCE. The Roman triumvir Crassus sought for himself the same glory that his co-rulers Julius Caesar and Pompey had achieved. Instead, at Carrhae, south of Edessa, Rome suffered one of its most humiliating defeats, and Crassus lost his life. Three decades later Emperor Augustus and King Phraates IV ended a war neither could win and, in 20 BCE, recognized the Euphrates as the border, thus beginning the Pax Romana. The river became the place where East met West – whether in friendship or in rivalry. For the spread of Christianity and for the history of the Church of the East, this border took on a fateful significance. Although Roman armies crossed the river repeatedly in the second and third centuries and conquered Seleucia-Ctesiphon, they had to retreat every time. Politically and culturally, Mesopotamia remained part of Asia.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p.9

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Of Brides and Wives and Language

Jacob calling Rachel his wife prior to the wedding followed common practice – a betrothed woman had the status of a wife (Deut. 20:7; 22:23-24). The Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi attests to this custom in laws 130 and 161.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 52

I took note of this information on Genesis 29:21 because this custom is still carried out among our focus people group. Early on, I ended up in thoroughly confusing English conversations with local friends after they told me they now had a wife. I would respond with hearty congratulations and ask them when the wedding had taken place. When they would respond in the negative, that the wedding had not yet taken place, I would insist that they must have meant they had a fiance, not a wife. But they would insist that no, they meant wife.

Clarity eventually came when we realized that the local language often refers to a woman as a wife from the moment of engagement. Even though they are not living together and there hasn’t been a wedding, she is still considered officially the wife of her betrothed. My local friends were carrying this aspect of their language into English, much to my confusion. Turns out our sequential understanding of male-female romantic relationships in the West is quite different from how these things are spoken of in Central Asia. But their way of doing things probably has stronger precedent than ours, going all the way back to the time of the patriarchs and even Hammurabi!

Another linguistic surprise was how families would speak of brides. An elderly man once told me that he had four brides, one of them new. But it wasn’t polygymy that was going on. Sometimes that does happen among our people group, leading to this very un-Islamic but honest experience-based proverb: A man with two wives is a man with a liver full of holes (i.e. he leads a painful life). However, in this situation, this man’s son had just gotten married. In the communal (rather than individualistic) thinking of this man, the brides who married his sons were obviously the family’s brides. He could even accurately say they were his brides. The mother-in-law could say this also. It is said in the West that you don’t just marry an individual, you also marry their family. Well, in the Middle East and Central Asia, that concept has been taken to a whole new level and is communicated even by the languages themselves as they speak about who the brides belong to.

After a successful proposal, a man in the West might say, “This is my fiance and my future bride.” In Central Asia, during the same stage you’re just as likely to hear him say, “This is my wife and our bride. Want to come to the wedding in six months?”

Photo by Ramiz Dedaković on Unsplash

Please Don’t Call It An Interview

For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.

“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.

“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.

“Yes…”

“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.

“How so?”

“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”

I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”

Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”

I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”

Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”

“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”

“Really? Why?”

Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”

“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”

“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”

“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”

“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”

I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.

Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”

Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.

For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.

And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.

*names changed for security

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash