Afshin_Ziafat_2NEWS | It was an English tutor who first showed the gospel to Afshin Ziafat.

As a first grader, Ziafat, who now pastors Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, moved to the United States with his family from Iran. It was 1979, a bad year to be Iranian in America, Ziafat told his listeners at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s summit on racial reconciliation and the gospel.

Ziafat’s family left Iran during the Islamic Revolution. “We had no idea what kind of unrest we were about to walk into,” he said.

The ongoing hostage crisis involving American victims meant Ziafat’s new home—Houston, Texas—was a hostile place. Radio stations played a new version of the Beach Boys’ song about Barbara Ann: “Bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran…”

Rocks were thrown at his family’s home, and his parents’ tires were slashed. Ziafat and his brother were threatened at school.

And when he was in second grade, his tutor—who had taught him English by reading him books—gave him a small New Testament.

“You’re not going to understand this today, Afshin, but promise me you’ll hold on to it and read it when you’re older,” she told him.

Ten years later, Ziafat accepted Christ.

“Had any other American given me that New Testament, I would have thrown it away,” Ziafat said in Nashville today. “Because I didn’t trust them.

“You want to win a Muslim for Christ, I believe you have to earn the right to be heard. And she did it by the way she was loving me.”

“There are many more Afshin Ziafat’s today than there were back then, in your neighborhoods,” he said, “and God is calling us to step out. Listen to me folks— especially at a time when it is expected for us to distrust and maybe even hate Muslims.”

Ziafat ended his testimony with the story of the prophet Jonah, who knew that God was calling him to go preach to Assyrians who were not only his enemies, but also would conquer his people. Jonah’s book ends with a question from God about the people the prophet was called to go to, Ziafat noted:

“Should I not pity them?”

“You never get the answer from Jonah,” Ziafat said. “You know why? Because I think that questions goes out for us today….And I’m telling you, friends, we answer that question with the way we live our lives.

“The gospel calls me to step out of my comfort zone and go out to people who don’t look like me, who don’t dress like me, who are not of my skin color, but on top of that, especially those who are my enemies. Who I am expected to hate? When I show them love, the gospel is revealed.”

Tony_EvansNashville, Tenn. | “Jesus reversed over 800 years of racial discord in 24 hours,” Tony Evans preached this afternoon at the ERLC’s Summit on the gospel and racial reconciliation.

Walking his listeners through John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, made application to modern times:

Jesus met the woman on common ground, at Jacob’s well (John 4:6). “Jews didn’t like Samaritans, Samaritans didn’t like Jews, but since they both loved Jacob, that’s where he stopped,” Evans said. The Old Testament patriarch was viewed as the father of both Orthodox Jews, and the pariah Samaritans.

He didn’t hide who He was. The woman at the well knew Jesus was Jewish (John 4:9), even though he didn’t say it. But though he looked and talked like a Jewish man, Evans noted, he didn’t act like one to the woman, who other Jews would have viewed as an outcast. Nor did he try to be something he wasn’t.

God is not asking you to stop being different than you are to reach somebody different than you are, Evans said. He doesn’t want white people to be black or vice versa. “He’s asking both to be biblical.”

Jesus earned the right to deepen the conversation. “Because he was willing to drink out of her cup” at the well, Evans said, “he has now earned the right to take a normal discussion about water and turn it into a discussion about eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

Jesus was about his father’s business. Father God plays an integral role in the story of the woman at the well. The conversation changed when the Samaritan woman brought Him up, trying to change the subject when Jesus reveals he knows her current situation (John 4:19-20).

Jesus uses the opportunity to show her what she’s always known to be true about her history, her background, and her identity isn’t, in fact, true. Jesus’ words apply to the racial absolutes we live by too, Evans inferred.

“Black is only beautiful when it’s biblical, and white is only right when it conforms with holy writ,” he said.

Many more Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, John writes. How can the reversal detailed in the story happen in just 24 hours, Evans asked. Because Jesus was about his father’s business.

Watch the Summit online at

Nashville, Tenn. | Racial reconciliation is the main topic of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s 2015 Leadership Summit, which starts today at 1 p.m. The Illinois Baptist is in Nashville covering the event, which today includes plenary sessions on:

  • Why racial reconciliation is a gospel issue
  • Ferguson, Eric Garner, and your community
  • Key issues in racial reconciliation: Poverty, fatherlessness, criminal justice and urban ministry

Tonight, ERLC President Russell Moore will interview civil rights leader John Perkins, and speakers Danny Akin and H.B. Charles will explore how racial reconciliation is shaped by the gospel and the Great Commission. The evening session will conclude with a panel discussion on the church and multi-ethnic ministry.

The Summit was originally scheduled to focus on pro-life issues, but unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and other U.S. cities caused ERLC leaders to change the topic. “Racism and injustice are not just social ills; they are sins against God,” Moore said last year.

“This summit will help equip us to tear down carnal divisions, to bring about peace, so that churches reflect the kingdom of God.”

LifeWay Research has found that while 86% of Protestant senior pastors have congregations with one predominant racial group, only 40% of American churchgoers believe their church needs to become more ethnically diverse.

Check back here for news from the Summit, and in the next issue of the Illinois Baptist.

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

Amid continuing tension in Ferguson, Mo., church members will engage in a block-by-block outreach initiative to promote relationships–and healing–in the St. Louis suburb rocked by violence and protests since the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last August.

The_BriefingJose Aguayo, a Ferguson pastor and chaplain with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, will lead the effort to send out teams of church members tasked with getting to know residents on their assigned block. Eventually, Aguayo told Baptist Press, ministries resulting from the outreach could include “sports teams, community outings and study assistance for children and adults.”

First Baptist Church in Ferguson, led by Pastor Stoney Shaw, is one of the churches participating. He told The Pathway newspaper in Missouri, “We want to join with other churches and minister. Walking the streets and praying is a simple yet powerful plan.” Read more at

In other news from Ferguson, Christianity Today reports on a dialogue between Franklin Graham and other Christian leaders. Graham, CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, posted March 12 on his Facebook page, “Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.” (Read the entire post here.) But according to a group of 31 Christian leaders who wrote an open letter to Graham, the issue is often more complicated.

Family is the most central factor in how Americans identify themselves, Barna found in a new study, followed by being an American at #2, and their religious faith at #3. But the answers change, depending on how old you are.

On the day marking the Iranian New Year, President Obama issued a statement calling for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has arrested in the country in 2012. “Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho has spent two and a half years detained in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Obama said. “He must be returned to his wife and two young children, who needlessly continue to grow up without their father.” Read more at

Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke about Christianity and liberty at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he also announced he will run for President in 2016. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of the Christian university, introduced Cruz but was careful to note Liberty was giving the candidate a platform rather than endorsing him, The Christian Post reported.

More than $2.5 billion is wagered on the annual March Madness basketball tournament, according to the FBI. But Christians would be wise not to throw any money in the pot, says Barrett Duke, a vice president for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read the full story at

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Nate_Adams_March23Recently a bivocational pastor shared with me a difficult decision he needed to make, whether or not to stay as pastor of the church he was serving. He had already accepted the reality that the small church could not afford both his insurance and a full-time wage, and that he needed employment outside the church to support his family. What seemed to have him questioning whether he could stay were recent remarks by a couple of his church members.

“We had to cancel Sunday services one week because of a snowstorm,” he explained, “and a couple of the members raised the question of whether or not they should still pay me that week, since I hadn’t actually preached.”

I could hear the hurt in his voice, and read the disappointment in his face. He was still a few years away from retirement, and had recently lost his job outside the church. At a time when being valued by the church was very important to him, a couple of unthinking church members had made him feel less valued than ever.

But the pastor went on to explain that, in his view, the problem probably ran deeper than a careless statement or two. “I really think some of them think that way. They aren’t giving generously to the Lord, or even to support me as their pastor. They feel they are merely purchasing a service from me, and that if that service is not delivered, the church shouldn’t have to pay.”

After a few minutes of talking it through, it seemed clear to me that the pastor was going to stick it out. He loved his congregation, and I suspect that even the ones who made the hurtful statements loved him. But he and I agreed that if he was going to feel appreciated, and perhaps even more importantly, if his people were to have their hearts matured and transformed into generous, godly givers, that he needed to provide some candid teaching, and loving but direct conversation, on tithing and giving.

I think one of the reasons I was able to understand this pastor’s hurt and encourage him to press on is that this same dynamic of consumerism can also affect our cooperative missions work as churches. Not often, but occasionally, I will hear someone ask, “Why should we give to that? What do they do for us?”

They could be referring to a mission offering, or the Cooperative Program, or the local association, or any ministry where the investment is largely in people that are doing ministry among and on behalf of the churches. If there’s not some direct, tangible benefit back to the church, the value is questioned. “If they aren’t here, helping us, maybe they don’t deserve our support.” If the sermon isn’t preached, the ongoing, continual ministry of the pastor isn’t valued.

The next Sunday after that conversation, a snowstorm hit here in Springfield. Several area churches cancelled services, but our church did not.

With that pastor’s pain still in the back of my mind, I got up early to clear the snow from our driveway, and make sure we could get to church. As we headed out the door, I asked my wife to make sure we had our offering envelope with us. I remembered in a fresh way that our tithe was the Lord’s, and that our church’s staff and ministries count on our support, whether we’re there benefitting from them or not.

I also remembered that the portion of my weekly offering that goes through the Cooperative Program supports thousands of missionaries and other ministries that operate literally around the clock and around the world. The Lord and they are at the heart of my giving, not the benefits I receive. And I’m grateful for each one of you that feels and gives from that heart too.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

COMMENTARY | Nick Rynerson

“Pop culture” is often treated like a dirty word in the church—thought to consist of mostly irredeemable entertainment produced to make money off the masses. A common approach is to avoid secular music, films, art, and television, or at least to not admit to consuming it all that much.

But that isn’t often what our real lives look like. Most of us are at least closet pop culture consumers—we indulge in one or two sitcoms, a favorite secular radio station, or a superhero movie every now and then.

And maybe that’s okay.

Nick_Rynerson_March15Popular culture is not the enemy; first and foremost, pop culture is a place for storytellers to, well, tell stories. Moral discretion is important. (And biblical! See 1 Corinthians 8:7-9.) But we miss a wealth of spiritual and theological depth if we chalk up all entertainment created by non-Christians as irredeemable and misguided; we also miss out on the opportunity to identify and empathize from a distinctly Christian perspective (Acts 17:28).

Stories offer us insights into our culture’s longings, revealing God’s truth in the world around us. In his excellent book “The Stories We Tell,” Kentucky pastor Mike Cosper reminds us that a story is never just a story—it’s a window into our culture’s imagination and longings (see Romans 2:12-15).

“Storytelling—be it literature, theater, opera, film, or reality TV—doesn’t aim at our rational mind . . . It aims at the imagination, a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope,” Cosper writes. “When people, against their better judgment, find themselves hooked on a show, we can trace the line back to find the hook in their imagination.”

Stories, according to Cosper, can reveal much more about a person, people group, or culture than a strictly informative presentation or a list of facts. Stories communicate what people truly desire.

Take, for example, a certain Best Picture nominee from last year. The movie contains some strong language, an ambiguous ending, and other elements that might lead some Christians to believe that it has nothing to offer spiritually (and for some to wisely not engage the film). However, if we look closer, we can clearly see some distinct things the storytellers—the director, writer, characters, etc.—believe about God, life, and themselves.

Without spoiling the film, which centers on the relationship between a talented young jazz drummer and his demanding/abusive instructor, the characters have a very human desire: to be great. The devotion of the characters to the pursuit of greatness, and its sway over their future happiness, is deeply identifiable. Like the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the characters sacrifice their life for the pursuit of self-glory, predictably leaving themselves and others miserable.

Ever since the Fall, man has been trying to claw his way back to perfection. Everybody longs for his or her flaws to be taken away, and many of us think that if we just work hard enough, we will reach the promised land of perfection.

As Christians, we know this is vanity (Romans 3:23), but the characters in the film sacrifice their lives and their sanity to meet every iota of their own personal law. This pursuit is hardwired into us and until we find personal and entire perfection in Christ, we will always fall short.

That’s serious, biblical truth, communicated (probably unknowingly) in a 2-hour movie produced with a secular audience in mind. The next time a movie, song, or TV show comes on that you are tempted to write off as irredeemable, consider if it might have something to teach us about God, the creator of all things.

In Acts 17:22-27, Paul not only quotes Greek poetry, but also alludes to the radical truth that we’re put where we were (i.e., in our cultural context) to speak eternal truth into subjective cultural contexts. In his book, Cosper uses this example to illustrate a distinctly Christian way of story-listening.

“As Christians living in the midst of these stories, we have an opportunity to both learn and bear witness. Stories teach us a lot about ourselves and our neighbors, and they provide windows into how our world is wrestling with the effects of the fall.

“They also present opportunities to respond with the truth.”

Nick Rynerson is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and works for Crossway in Wheaton.

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

After two police officers were shot March 12 in Ferguson, Mo., chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team were back in the community where they served six weeks last year.

“It is not possible to solve a community’s deep-rooted problems with a team of chaplains deployed for six weeks, and we knew that before we started,” Billy Graham Association President Franklin Graham said then, according to a story on “But God used the chaplains to touch many hearts and to plant fruitful seeds in the community.”

The_BriefingLawmakers in Tennessee proposed legislation in February that would make the Bible the official state book. Not surprisingly, some opponents say such an action is unconstitutional. But Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), who introduced the bill in the House, said the action recognizes the Bible’s “historical importance.”

“The Bible has certainly had a pivotal role in the history of our state as well as our nation,” Sexton told the Baptist & Reflector newspaper. “The Bible also plays a significantly important role in our state today with several companies in Nashville being responsible for publishing more Bibles than possibly any other city in the world.”

68% of evangelicals say Congress should act on immigration reform this year, according to a new survey by LifeWay Research. Other findings: 86% say reform should secure U.S. borders, and 61% say it should include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The Christian Post reports San Francisco’s largest evangelical megachurch will no longer require celibacy from gay people desiring to be members of the church. “We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining,” Senior Pastor Fred Harrell wrote in a letter on behalf of the church’s elder board. “For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage.”

In honor of today, check out this 2009 post from Russell Moore on “what evangelicals can learn from St. Patrick.”