It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s Coming

The title of this post is a spin-off of S. M. Lockridge’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” In that sermon, Pastor Lockridge is encouraging those who are discouraged by the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion to look forward to Sunday. Because on Sunday, everything is different. In this post, I also want to challenge you to look toward Sunday, but for a different reason. But, before looking forward, let’s look backward.

How was church yesterday? is a common Monday morning question among Christian friends who attend different churches. Typically, what is meant by this question relates to how much that particular individual enjoyed his or her morning at church. It may solicit an evaluation of the sermon, the music, the crowd size, the fellowship, or even the temperature in the building.

I want to look at the question from a different angle. How was church yesterday (or last Sunday) for the visitor who didn’t know anybody there? The new person in town who was invited by the highway billboard that promised “A welcoming and friendly atmosphere.” The lonely person who responded to the 30-second television advertisement with b-roll clips of people happily engaged with others as the soothing voice described the warm fellowship that happens at your church. The one who found your church on a Google search. A Google search done not so much out of interest, but desperation because of his/her life is caving in?

Regarding the experience of visitors many church consultants think in terms of convenience. Here’s a list of focus points provided by Jayson D. Bradley (sponsored by Pushpay):

  1. Signage
  2. Presentation software
  3. Giving software
  4. Service planning software
  5. A plan for capturing visitor’s contact information.

All of those certainly have value. However, that list has a glaring deficiency. What is missing? The personal touch from real people. And here, I don’t mean the happy people dressed in logo shirts standing next to the entrance. I mean regular members … the people who show up week after week, but aren’t on the Impressions Team. The regular people.

Let’s go back to that visitor’s experience at your church. Did that person feel the warmth that others describe as the normal experience at church? Did anyone express a genuine interest in that person? Or, did you pass them in the hallway as you raced to see your friends? This scene is all too common in churches today. Friends huddled together, fellowshipping with each other as visitors try to find their way in this new environment. Sometimes those visitors are committed Christians who are seeking a new church and basically know the lay of the land. In other cases, the new person may be uninitiated in all things church and are simply looking for God. If that person wanders into your church, what will they experience? Will they walk away saying, “No one was interested in me.”

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s coming. Looking toward Sunday: How can you help visitors experience what the advertisements say they will find at church? People – even “uninteresting” people – are interesting … if you slow down and talk with them. Everybody has a story. Who – that you didn’t already know – did you initiate a meaningful conversation with in the last month?

This Sunday, will you commit to finding someone you don’t know and start a conversation with them? I don’t mean the “Hi! My name is Craig, it’s nice to have you today” then spin on my heels and walk-away conversation. I mean the conversation that attempts to know them in some meaningful way. The conversation that recognizes them as people, not as a cog in the evangelical church wheel.

You can’t have a conversation about Jesus unless … you have a conversation. #TalkToSomeoneThisSunday

My New Friend

Last week while passing a lumber yard, I noticed a man sorting through what appeared to be clean discards. I hadn’t noticed that before, so I wasn’t sure what I had seen. With my curiosity piqued and my hoarder tendencies activated, I made my way safely into the turn lane, then backed up 50 yards or so to investigate more closely. I rolled my window down as I backed into the entrance, then asked the man, “Is that give-away lumber?” “Yes,” he responded about the time I saw the spray painted “FREE” sign in front of the rack of miscellaneous pieces of lumber. As he looked up, he said, “I’ve got lots of ideas for this wood.” That fueled my interests more, and the possibilities started to race through my brain as I clumsily tried to push pause on the Ted Talk on reducing clutter in my life that was emanating from my phone. Reducing clutter had suddenly become less important in the presence of a treasure trove of possibilities residing in that stack of free lumber pieces.

As I approached the stack, I found myself in the midst of a mental and emotional battle: On the one hand, even though I had no intended purpose for the lumber, it was there. And. It. Was. Free. On the other hand, I had listened to several Ted Talks that morning that focused on organizing my life by simplifying, which included reducing clutter and stuff that I don’t need. Should I or shouldn’t I? Yes! No! I don’t know!

In an effort to find reprieve from the “yes/no” battle going on in my head and heart, I offered to help the man get his lumber into his car. To his objection, I grabbed all his wood and said, “I’ll get this, you open the back.” As I looked back, I noticed that he was noticeably dragging his right foot. His hat said “US Army Disabled Veteran” so I thanked him for his service and used that as conversation starter, which is one of the tips for engaging with others that I teach my classes. However, while we continued with the small talk, my mind kept returning to the free wood. Should I take some or not?

During our conversation, the man struggled to remember common information. For example, when I asked where he is from, he immediately said, “California.” However, as he continued to tell me that his wife was from Missouri, he struggled to remember the city. “She’s from … just a second. She’s from … uh … uh … uh … it starts with a B. She’s from Bri___ no, that’s not it. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the town.” As he tried to remember the name of his wife’s home town he even tried to spell it out with his finger in the air, but it never came to him. Then, he apologized again for not being able to remember the city before he confessed something really personal. “Listen, I had a stroke recently and I … uh … uh … uh …,” he said as he motioned around his head with his finger. I helped him finish his thought, “And things aren’t always connecting.” “Yes. Things aren’t always connecting.”

Then he asked me, “Are … you … uh … are you … uh … a … Christian?” In that moment, I noted something really important. My new friend who had just confessed that “things aren’t always connecting” in his brain because of the stroke, had not lost his heart concern that others know his savior. It would have been easier to let it slide and simply hope the best for me. Or, not to even think about me again. Who could blame him. He had suffered a stroke, after all. But, Christ matters.

I’ve thought much about this encounter in these intervening days. I’m thankful for a real example to share with my students. I’m also thankful for a real example to remind myself about the priorities in my own life.

I’m thankful someone cared about me. Note to self: Now, go and do likewise.

The Show Must Go On! “Where My Backup Singers?”

“The show must go on!” may have never been better illustrated than by Patti LaBelle at the 1996 Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, DC as seen in the video below.

Watch the video, then continue reading.

Throughout the song she brought attention to the problems by mentioning them, rolling her eyes and making faces, humming rather than signing, and complaining. But, … She. Kept. Going.

Question: Was it better for Ms. LaBelle to continue on even though she didn’t have her backup singers, didn’t know the song, and had the wrong cue cards? Or, should she have taken a moment to get organized?

A couple questions should guide us to an answer.

1. What did she intend to accomplish?
2. Did she, in fact, accomplish her goal by continuing on with the show?

Although I don’t know Ms. LaBelle’s goal for that performance, I can’t imagine that the product was anywhere near what she had hoped. Thus, it seams reasonable to conclude that she might have benefited by taking a moment to reorganize. Of course for public presenters – whether in song or spoken word – it is embarrassing to stop when things don’t go as planned. That’s understandable. But, could stopping for a moment to better organize be more embarrassing than the outcome of Ms. LaBelle’s performance? There is a reason it’s on YouTube.

Palestinian Muslims Coming to Christ, Story #15

This excerpt from my dissertation is the conversion-story summary of Respondent Fifteen, a male from Nablus. Feel free to interact in the comments or download my dissertation as a free PDF!

The following is ©2014 University of Pretoria and Craig Dunning, and if used elsewhere, should be cited as:

Dunning, CA (2014) Palestinian Muslims converting to Christianity: effective evangelistic methods in the West Bank. Pretoria, South Africa: University of Pretoria, PhD thesis, pp. 353-357.

Respondent Fifteen grew up in a large family whose religious identification was Muslim, though they did not participate in any religious activities, including Ramadan. According to the respondent, the family values as expressed by his father were simply to work hard and make a living. In fact, the respondent began working at the age of twelve, which meant that he did not finish school.

Wanting to please his father “more than anything else in this world,” the respondent said he happily began working on Jewish farms at the age of twelve. He moved around between farming and construction work through his teenage years, always for Israeli (i.e., Jewish) companies. Since his labor was illegal he always received his salary in cash, and upon arriving home, immediately handed it to his father. Each time he gave his salary to his father, he hoped it would make his father proud and draw them closer together. The only thing he wanted was his father’s love.

Unfortunately, each time he surrendered his salary his father demanded more. The lack of parental encouragement and approval, which he equated with love, was emotionally devastating for the respondent. He never acted out, but he definitely grew more bitter and wounded each week as he repeatedly felt the sting of his father’s lack of love.

Even though his father was not religious, in the respondent’s eyes, his father represented Islam, and his father’s lack of love meant that Islam did not love him either. By the time he was twenty, he had no interest in religion, especially Islam. He did not pray. He even intentionally avoided common Islamic phrases like “Insha’Allah,” meaning “if Allah wills.” He wanted nothing to do with Islam or any other religion.

By age twenty-one, the respondent had married, and though brokenhearted from his father’s lack of love, or betrayal as he labeled it, the respondent was forced by financial realities to stay in the patriarchal home. This living arrangement meant most of his meager salary was still surrendered to his father.

He was comfortable working hard to provide for his wife, which was “the one good principle I learned from my father” he said. Tensions over finances eventually became the breaking point in the respondent’s relationship with his father. The respondent asked his father to reduce the amount of money he demanded so that the young couple could get started establishing their own family. When his father refused to grant the respondent’s request, the relationship was completely broken. “I was in need, and he turned his back on me. I felt betrayed,” he matter-of-factly explained.

At that point, the respondent felt he and his new wife could not remain in the patriarchal home, but he did not have sufficient financial independence to leave. This inability to leave coupled with the sting of betrayal created a sense of desperation that caused him to consider a change in vocations. He realized that he would always be tied to his father’s house if he continued in what was essentially day to day jobs in construction or farming.

The respondent’s decision to try to leave his father’s home was emboldened by an advertisement for a police officer course in Bethlehem. The Palestinian Authority was expanding their police force and was recruiting officer candidates for training. Not knowing what to expect, the respondent applied for a position in the police course and was accepted, which meant that he had to move temporarily to Bethlehem and live with the other students in an open dormitory. This was a new experience for him because the students came from a variety of backgrounds; they were a mix of religious and non-religious Muslims and Christians.

The respondent had always been a fairly private person who tried to mind his own business and avoided paying too much attention to others around him. However, the open dorm environment made it very difficult to not watch others. In fact, he could not avoid listening to and watching the other residents, though he did not socialize with them.

The dorm was filled with energetic young men who filled their time playing games (backgammon and cards), telling jokes, and roughhousing. All of the activity gave the respondent much to watch, but the thing that captured his attention most was watching the Muslims and Catholics pray according to their specific protocols. Beyond that, he also watched how they lived when they were not praying. His observations led him to conclude that “the way Christians pray is much more free” and that “among the Christians, there is more love and less gossip” than in the Muslim community. What the respondent observed made a big impression on him.

The more time the respondent spent among the other police recruits, the more open and interested in Christianity he became. Admittedly, he was not looking for religion, but the actions of those Christians he had been observing intrigued him. Over time, the respondent became friends with one of the Christians who was a MBB. “At the time,” explained, “friendship was the thing I desired most because I was so lonely. I missed my wife so much.” His feelings of loneliness and isolation were exacerbated when some Muslim recruits made fun of him when they saw him trying to pray according to Catholic form, the only Christian form he had ever seen. He did not know why he tried to pray, but felt compelled to pray. The respondent’s new friend was sympathetic to the situation and offered to introduce him to a pastor that might be able to help him understand more about Christianity. The offer was accepted and the introduction made the respondent very happy.

At their first meeting, the pastor spoke with the respondent about the love of God, and apparently touched on an open wound by doing so. His words were strange and comforting to the respondent and opened the door for deeper conversation. The respondent felt abandoned by his earthly father, and the sting was almost more than he could bear. That God loved people was something the respondent had never heard before, and he said, “It was exactly what I needed to hear.”

This initial conversation led to more conversations in which the respondent began to ask questions about things he had come to notice about Islam. Specifically, he noted that even though religious Muslims fasted during Ramadan and abstained from alcohol and pork, in his observation, they were less honest and ethical than the Christians that he had come to know during his police course.

The pastor steered the respondent away from critical comments about Muslims, emphasizing that Jesus should be his focus, not people. Eventually, the respondent dropped out of the police course and returned home near Nablus. The move made it more difficult to meet personally with the pastor, so their relationship moved primarily to the phone, with occasional in-person meetings.

The respondent’s lack of education made it very difficult for him to read the Bible. So rather than direct him to the Scriptures, the pastor spoke with him once a week, explaining the gospel and always trying to emphasize the love of God as demonstrated through New Testament stories about Jesus.

After their meetings during the respondent’s three months in Bethlehem, the pastor met or called him weekly for another six months before the respondent was able to say that he truly believed in Jesus. He said the steady stream of Jesus stories – how he loved people – were very compelling, but he said he took a “long time to really believe” because of his negative view of religion, which was the result of his own personal experience as a non-practicing Muslim.

The respondent’s observations of good Christian behavior while in Bethlehem was very instrumental in his decision, as was satellite television programing because it gave him more opportunities to hear Jesus stories.

When asked if reading the Bible had any part in his conversion he said, “no, I never read the Bible. But I heard a lot of stories and teaching about Jesus.” He appeared embarrassed about his answer, and quickly added “I have a Bible and am starting to read it now.” And to prove his claim, he quickly retrieved his Bible and showed it to me. Clearly, he had some Bible knowledge; it was simply delivered orally by the pastor and Christian television programming, which was on in the background during the entirety of our interview.

Themes that emerged in this interview: Oral Bible, doubts about Islam/Qur’an, crisis, meeting Christians/MBBs, pastoral/evangelistic visits, and lack of interest in religion.

NEXT: Palestinian Muslims Coming to Christ: Story #16

Download my dissertation as a free PDF!

Palestinian Muslims Coming to Christ, Story #14

This excerpt from my dissertation is the conversion-story summary of Respondent Fourteen, a male from Nablus. Feel free to interact in the comments or download my dissertation as a free PDF!

The following is ©2014 University of Pretoria and Craig Dunning, and if used elsewhere, should be cited as:

Dunning, CA (2014) Palestinian Muslims converting to Christianity: effective evangelistic methods in the West Bank. Pretoria, South Africa: University of Pretoria, PhD thesis, pp. 350-352.

Respondent Fourteen was raised in a traditional family that was moderately religious. He described his family’s religious activities as observing Ramadan and his parents regularly praying, but not requiring the children to do so. He self-identified as a Muslim, but was not particularly interested in religion.

As an adult, the respondent’s main interests were focused on providing a modest living for his family as a farmer. Like the rest of the people in his village, he worked the land and did his best to make ends meet. Much of the time they got by, though just barely. At other times, everyone suffered the hardships and shortfalls together. A prolonged period of shortfall was the context in which the respondent came to faith.

Over the course of a year, the respondent’s thoughts about religion, in general, were changed by the actions of a Palestinian Christian youth group that provided material help to residents in the respondent’s Muslim village. Each week the youth entered the village with food and clothes and freely offered them to anyone who was in need.

The respondent never accepted help; he simply watched with great interest as the youth distributed their charity. He listened carefully to the recipients as they spoke of their benefactors’ generosity and kindness. He said he always wondered and sometimes asked what the teens wanted in return for their generosity. But people throughout the village always said the youth did not want anything in return because “these things are from the Lord.”

In addition to the youth group’s generosity, the respondent also noticed that they always seemed happy. Two things motivated the respondent to specifically enquire about their religion. First, their consistent generosity, kindness and joy were so different than he saw in the teens in his village and elsewhere. Though he was content in his fairly meager life, he saw something different in these young people. It was not that they were wealthy and had everything that he did not have, and thus were satisfied with their lives. It was something different. Though he could not say exactly what, he recognized that they had something inside that he lacked.

Second, on one occasion, the youth group was accompanied by an American Christian tour group as they handed out food and clothing. In the respondent’s village resided an elderly woman that did her family’s laundry by hand. At her advanced age a difficult job had become near impossible due to severe arthritis in her hands. The tour group met the woman and heard of her hardships. Members of the group were so moved by her story that they took up a collection from among themselves and returned to the village the next day with a washing machine for the elderly woman.

The way the tour group changed this woman’s life really made an impression on the respondent, and he wanted to know more about their religion. The respondent’s interest in their religion was prompted because the members of both the youth group and tour group always said the things they provided were “from the Lord.” “If they are infidels like Islam teaches, why do they do these kind things?” he wondered.

Eventually, he stopped one of the teens as they walked past his home and asked whom they were and why they kept coming back to the village. The answer was simple: “We are a Christian youth group, and we want to love our neighbors by offering material help.” With that answer, the youth also offered a book: Glad News! God loves you, my Muslim friend.

This book caused the respondent to have an increased interest in Christianity because it was in Arabic and a Muslim-friendly introduction to Christianity. He read the book very quickly and then became secretly absorbed in the Bible.

He admitted to struggling with the idea of changing one religion for another, but continued to be impressed by the generosity of the Christian youth group and their tourist friends. He lingered over the question, “How could they be infidels?” He also had a serious battle with his family’s traditional Muslim identity, which was the motivating factor for reading his Bible secretly. He feared losing his family if they found out he was reading the Bible, and was certain that conversion would cost him his family. “What I was doing had the potential to change my life in dramatic ways,” he said.

He started reading the Bible in Genesis and read it through completely along with Glad news! Interestingly, he said that he “enjoyed and learned from the Christian literature, but was more interested in the Bible because it is the source.” He also was in regular contact with a pastor who encouraged him to keep reading the Bible and answered his various questions about Christianity. Early in the process, his questions dealt more with Islam vs. Christianity. The more he read the Bible the more his questions evolved toward curiosity about life as a Christian. He was particularly interested to know about life as a former Muslim and the routine of the Christian life.

After nearly one year of reading the Bible and occasionally visiting a MBB church, which required six hours to commute there and back, he thought he was “ready to believe in Jesus.” The first time he prayed, he asked God to “help me to know when to believe and if this is the correct way, help me progress without fear.” The next morning he awoke with joy and no fear, which he interpreted as a clear sign from God that believing in Jesus was the correct way. So, he got dressed and called the pastor who had been counseling him for nearly one year and told him, “I’m a believer!” Over the phone, the pastor led the respondent in a prayer of salvation.

When asked to clarify what he understands it means to be a Christian, the respondent said, “To believe that Jesus came to save me from sin.”

Themes that emerged in this interview: Personal Bible reading, Q and A, the kindness of Christians, prayer, crisis, Christian literature, meeting Christians/MBBs, the “prayer of salvation,” an open witness, pastoral/evangelistic visits, and fear or shame as a barrier to the gospel.

NEXT: Palestinian Muslims Coming to Christ: Story #15

Download my dissertation as a free PDF!