Friday 28 February 2020

Appeal hearing for Iranian Christians

Iran: Appeal hearing for Iranian Christians

Persecution of Iranian Christians

The appeal hearing scheduled for 24 February to review the sentences of Assyrian pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, his wife Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, and three Christian converts has been postponed once again.

Three long-standing related cases have been combined and are under review. The first involves Pastor Victor and Persian Christian converts Amin Nader Afshari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi, who was arrested at a Christmas celebration in December 2014. The second case also involves Amin Nader Afshari, who was re-arrested in August 2016 with another convert, Hadi Asgar. The third involves Shamiram, summoned by the authorities in June 2017.

Pastor Victor was sentenced in July 2017 to ten years’ imprisonment for ‘acting against national security.’ Amin, Hadi, and Kavian also received prison sentences of between ten and fifteen years on similar charges. In January 2018 Shamiram was sentenced to five years in prison for “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and another five years in prison for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”

At an appeal hearing in Shamiram’s case in February 2019, the judge, Ahmed Zargar, decided to combine her case with the two other cases.

A court hearing for the combined cases was scheduled for September 2019 but was postponed after the judge failed to appear. Another court hearing scheduled for November 2019 was also postponed, apparently because the courthouse was “too crowded.” The latest hearing was postponed after a summons for Hadi had failed to be dispatched. A new judge has been appointed to oversee the appeal. Pastor Victor and Shamiram’s daughter, Dabrina Bet Tamraz, commented that the new judge seems to be more reasonable and sensible than previous ones. No date has yet been scheduled for a new hearing.

Prayer Points

  • Iranian Christians request prayer that:
  • There would be a conclusion to these long-standing cases and that the new judge will rule justly and have the courage to overturn the sentences
  • The Lord will encourage the defendants and their families
  • The Iranian regime will stop oppressing religious minorities, including Christians

SOURCE: Middle East Concern

Thursday 13 February 2020

7 Proven Strategies to Launch More Small Groups

Small Groups

Most churches cannot launch groups fast enough to keep up with the demand for discipleship. As the worship services grow larger, the small groups' ministry gets further and further behind. Well, that’s not entirely true.

Churches CAN launch groups fast enough to keep up with the demand for discipleship if they change up how they are launching groups. Here are 7 things I’ve discovered over the last 15 years in working with over 1,500 churches across North America. These aren’t just 7 ideas or 7 philosophies. These are 7 proven strategies to launch groups.

#1 Offer Multiple Short-term Opportunities.

People have watched small group methods and models come and go over the years. The innovators and early adopters are right there with you every time you propose a new idea. This is your low hanging fruit that amounts to about 30% of your congregation. This is also why most churches get stuck at 30% in groups.

The rest of the folks are waiting to see how long you stick with the latest and greatest idea. Once they see that you are willing to go the distance (and that nobody died from the new strategy), they’ll jump in. But, they need to know you’re serious by offering short-term opportunities to start groups over and over again. You will get sick of asking before some of these folks are even interested in trying.

#2 Offer Easy-to-Use Curriculum.

People aren’t dumb. They’ve been around. They know the Bible. I’ve surveyed some of the largest, most seeker-focused churches in the U.S. to discover they still had 95% transfer growth. Most of your congregation is not new, but they are busy.

Busy people don’t have time to prepare, so make it easier for them to get a group started. By creating and purchasing an easy-to-use video-based curriculum, people can gather their friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. This is not where you’ll leave them, but it’s a great place to start them.

#3 Offer an Experienced Leader to Help.

Before you panicked because I’m about to say “coaching,” think about something for a second. If you were to double the number of groups in your church in the next 30 days, how would you help the new leaders? When our church doubled our groups in one day, I panicked! Then, I matched up the new leaders with experienced leaders. This does two things for you.

First, all of the new leaders won’t be calling you, because you’ve given them someone to call. Second, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on in all of these new groups, because an experienced leader, who you know and trust, is getting to know the new leaders. Coaching helps everybody.

#4 Give Permission and Opportunity.

The reason people are not in your groups is not because the hate the Bible and hate other people. They want to become more Christlike. What doesn’t work for them is what you are currently offering. How do I know? Well, unless all of your people are currently in groups, then what you’re offering is not working for everybody. A word of caution — don’t throw out what you’re currently doing — it’s working for someone. Keep it.

Now, here’s the part that blew my mind — I didn’t need to solve everybody’s problems or create a multiplicity of groups to meet every need. I gave our people permission and the opportunity to figure out how to do a group that would work for them. They figured it out. If this sounds too loosy goosy for you, remember you determine the curriculum and the coach. Those are pretty good safeguards.

#5 Allow People to Gather Their Own Groups.

Most people have friends. If they have friends, they can start a group. If the topic is appealing to the average person, your people might also invite their neighbors, co-workers, and others. Some churches I’ve worked with ended up with twice as many people in groups as attended the weekend services.

Personal invitation is far superior to any sign-up card or website. Active methods of connecting people into groups work far better than passive methods. And, if people don’t need to be placed in groups, your administrative task just went way down. Get as many people to invite as many people as they can, then provide a way for new people to get into groups.

#6 Ask the Senior Pastor to Invite Them.

Next year marks my 30th year of full-time ministry. For most of those years, I was the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, or Vice President. What I learned in the second chair was that if my senior pastor said the exact words I would use, we would easily triple the result. Or, put another way, if I made the invitation, I would only do about 30% as well.

Encourage your pastor to be the spokesperson for groups. Give them reasons to champion groups from The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups. Give them stories from small groups for sermons. Script out the invitation for group leaders. Then, sit back and watch the people show up.

#7 Don’t Advertise These “Groups.”

When you put a leader’s name on a groups directory or website, the church is giving an implied endorsement of the group. If you don’t know the leader very well, then this presents a problem. You can do one of two things: You could get to know all of the new leaders ASAP, or you don’t advertise these groups.

By not advertising these new groups, you make it safer for the new leader. They can invite people they know. They’ll be more comfortable. And, you don’t have to worry about your church’s charter members ending in a group led by a new believer. By not advertising these new groups, you give a lot of grace all around.

Chances are as I have given you 7 proven strategies that have worked over and over again, you’ve come up with seven or more excuses for why this won’t work in your church. I was just like that once upon a time. But, then I took some wise words to the heart from Brett Eastman, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” It’s tempting to create an entire system to account for all of the possible exceptions. But, systems like that tend to get in the way of launching groups and making disciples.

About the Author
Allen White consults and speaks in the areas of small group strategy, staffing structure, volunteer mobilization, and spiritual formation. Allen is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential. He blogs at

This article originally appeared here.

Tuesday 31 December 2019

Christianity doesn’t need saving; people do

A trend arose on social media recently where people began sharing photos and memories from 10 years ago side-by-side with photos and memories from the present as a way of talking about how much things have changed personally and societally over the last decade. At first blush, it was cute; but then not so much. The late aughts, for example, were tough on impoverished grad students with very little in the way of what experts call “fashion sense” or “a regular barber” or “a working iron.”

In the midst of countless callbacks to floppy bangs, bootcut jeans and quotes from “The Office”
(wait, am I talking about 2009 or 2019 – life is a closed-loop!), I noticed a few stories from my feed that mentioned a more personal or existential shift. A number of friends mentioned the loss or “death” of their Christian faith, or God even, over the last decade.

This loss was attributed generally to Christianity’s weaponization by political entities; or rejection at the hands of family, friends and faith communities due to issues of identity and human sexuality; or the ceaseless onslaught of crippling student loan debt, income inequality and the cancellation of civility, not to mention the ever-rising centigrade of our polar ice caps.

Despite great institutional effort to the contrary, it seems Christianity for many of my friends hasn’t managed to survive the decade. Instead of reporting an accompanying black hole of sadness, their religious postmortem seemed steeped in relief and almost gratification for finally mustering the courage to pull the plug on their ailing faith. I recognize this feeling because it resembles what it was like to watch my grandfather live through a decade with Alzheimers. I remember secretly (and guiltily) wishing every Christmas that he would die, knowing that “living” meant his body would keep beating and breathing despite his not remembering my name or how he taught me to play golf or to curse at a volume imperceptible to my grandmother.

“It’s only when we hold on to Christianity as if it were eternal that it ends up expiring like milk in our fridge during a vacation.”

Instead of talking to me about graduate school or my young marriage, he would eat candied orange slices silently in the corner of our family gatherings before sneaking to the back of the house to smoke and watch Westerns while tethered near an oxygen tank. In those days going home for me was mostly a darkly comic reminder that nothing feels so betraying as losing something you’re sitting across from but will never find again.

The longer I Iive, the more I realize that sometimes keeping things alive is actually a bastardization of life, of what these things stood for, of who they are and what made them saving and needed presence in our lives. Sometimes these things are the person who raised us and taught us to drive a golf cart through the woods at high speed and to gamble and leave an 8-iron pin high. Sometimes we really miss who they were for us when we needed them most; we miss the smells, the van rides and the ability to crack open a Diet Dr. Pepper in the kitchen without asking because it was already ours to begin with.

Sometimes these things we kept alive for too long introduced us to ideas of ourselves that gave us a bigger perspective on the world, a vocabulary of practice that grounded us in regular acts of generosity, joy, grace and peace and solidarity with the world we still remember years later. Sometimes going home is a darkly comic reminder that nothing feels so betraying as losing something you’re sitting in the midst of but can’t ever seem to find again.

A decade ago I had all my grandparents; a wobbly, yet still intact relationship with my biological father; and unshakeable confidence that I was called to be a pastor because I had something to say and do about what I perceived to be a crumbling of the Christian faith. Today, all my grandparents are deceased, my father and I haven’t spoken in almost five years and I no longer self-identify as a reverend unless I’m trying to make small talk with adolescents at the under-funded high school where I work as a psychotherapist.

And yet, I’ve never felt more connected to my neighbors, my city, my family and even my school that I graduated from 16 years ago and once rode a bike through with a friend on rollerblades tied to the back. Over the last decade, I have come to realize that Christianity hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t ever need saving. At its best, Christianity is a faith that dies again and again and again for the sake of other people.

Christianity is a faith that is totally okay with you laying it in a tomb if that’s what it takes for you to be free, to be loved and to be whole. Sometimes it’s a faith that expires before you’re ready, that leaves when things are just getting good, not because it wasn’t true, or worth it or meaningful, but because it has served its purpose – it saved you and introduced you to the world as it could be when you pay attention to what matters.

It’s only when we hold on to Christianity as if it were eternal that it ends up expiring like milk in our fridge during a vacation. It sours and eventually turns on us.

“A number of friends mentioned the loss or ‘death’ of their Christian faith, or God even, over the last decade.”

This Christmas, let your faith do what it has wanted to do for years now, which is to die so that something brand new may enter your world. May it die so that something new might call you, teach you, ordain you and might even save you, again. And may that newness be just as unexpected, unnerving and exhaustingly redemptive as it was for me to lay my grandparents in the grave or to welcome my son to the world. Maybe that’s why God took on flesh and entered the world through the birth canal of an engaged teenager on the outskirts of the Roman Empire in the midst of religious and socio-political oppression. Maybe that’s why God was executed as a political criminal when he was 33, and maybe that’s why God emptied his tomb three days later.

Maybe it was so that we might be saved by the death of God and the newness that follows that death again and again.


Source Link

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Eight common Christmas Traditions

The Real Story Behind 8 Weird Christmas Traditions

Christmas is a beautiful time of year where Christians from around the world gather to celebrate the birth of our Savior. It’s also a time when otherwise sensible people drag gigantic trees into their living rooms, hang flammable decorative socks over fireplaces and try to convince themselves eggnog isn’t disgusting. Let’s face it: The Christmas story may be beautiful, but Christmas has gotten weird.

Here’s a look at the strange-but-true backstories of some of Christmas’ most popular traditions.


Though Christmas trees do have Christian origins with Martin Luther evidently being a big fan (he may have appropriated it from a pagan tradition), they used to be straight-up dangerous. Luther was the first one who apparently decorated a tree with actual lit candles, literally endangering the entire household.


Christmas Scholar Gerry Bowler (he wrote a book called Santa Claus: A Biography) theorized that nuns started the tradition in the 1100s. The nuns told kids to leave their shoes out in hopes of receiving gifts in them from a “night visitor” in exchange for good behavior. Stockings evolved from there. By the way, “night visitor” would be an awesome band name. Called it.


These little decorative toy sets may look nice on the end table or when inexplicably comprised of Snoopy characters, but they aren’t exactly biblical. The wise men, Christmas star, gifts and visible angels are all part of a longer story spanning different locations over a longer period of time. Plus, scholars debate if there were a bunch of animals just hanging out.


Mistletoe has such creepy origins (evidently, the Druids used it to ward off evil spirits?), that some churches actually banned it. But thanks to the plant’s link to Norse mythology’s symbol for love, it’s also super creepy because real-talk, kissing someone without consent is not cool.


The song dates all the way back to at least 1780 when it was used as a children’s memorization tool. Though it’s also connected with Advent and the buildup to Christmas, it makes almost no sense. Why would you celebrate the birth of our Savior by humble-bragging about getting a bunch of birds and musicians as gifts from a crush? And, side note: Who gives birds and musicians as gifts?


We’ve got Sunday school partly to thank for the idea of tiny elves helping Santa. The 1876 book The House of Santa Claus, a Christmas Fairy Show for Sunday Schools helped popularize magical beings helping Santa. What a “Fairy Show” has to do with the nativity story remains unclear to this day, but we’re assuming it was a Veggie Tales-type of situation.


Decorative straw goats are popular in some parts of Europe, and you guessed it, have a crazy backstory. The goat symbol dates back to Nordic traditions, but in the 11th century it became popular for a St. Nick figure to lead one around at holiday ceremonies. Why? To symbolizes Jesus’ control over the devil. Seriously, how could this be more clear?


One tradition has it that there was a fourth wise man who was bringing ginger as a present to Jesus, but he got sick along the way. A rabbi who was treating him said that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem (which can translate to “House of Bread”). All the bread talk made them hungry, and the next thing you know, they started carbing up on their new creation.

These are the eight common Christmas traditions—that are actually pretty weird—explained.
Source Link

Saturday 21 December 2019

Trump Should Be Removed from Office

It’s time to say what we said 20 years ago when a president’s character was revealed for what it was.

In our founding documents, Billy Graham explains that Christianity Today will help evangelical Christians interpret the news in a manner that reflects their faith. The impeachment of Donald Trump is a significant event in the story of our republic. It requires comment.

The typical CT approach is to stay above the fray and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square, to encourage all to pursue justice according to their convictions and treat their political opposition as charitably as possible. We want CT to be a place that welcomes Christians from across the political spectrum, and reminds everyone that politics is not the end and purpose of our being. We take pride in the fact, for instance, that politics does not dominate our homepage.

That said, we do feel it necessary from time to time to make our own opinions on political matters clear—always, as Graham encouraged us, doing so with both conviction and love. We love and pray for our president, as we love and pray for leaders (as well as ordinary citizens) on both sides of the political aisle.

Let’s grant this to the president: The Democrats have had it out for him from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion. This has led many to suspect not only motives but facts in these recent impeachment hearings. And, no, Mr. Trump did not have a serious opportunity to offer his side of the story in the House hearings on impeachment.

But the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near-perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.

Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency damages the reputation of our country and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.

This concern for the character of our national leader is not new in CT. In 1998, we wrote this:

The President's failure to tell the truth—even when cornered—rips at the fabric of the nation. This is not a private affair. For above all, social intercourse is built on a presumption of trust: trust that the milk your grocer sells you is wholesome and pure; trust that the money you put in your bank can be taken out of the bank; trust that your babysitter, firefighters, clergy, and ambulance drivers will all do their best. And while politicians are notorious for breaking campaign promises, while in office they have a fundamental obligation to uphold our trust in them and to live by the law.

And this:

Unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead.

Unfortunately, the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president. Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

We have reserved judgment on Mr. Trump for years now. Some have criticized us for our reserve. But when it comes to condemning the behavior of another, patient charity must come first. So we have done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view, to see the prudential nature of so many political decisions they have made regarding Mr. Trump. To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Source Link: Christianity Today

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