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