Most of those who will read this will know that I went to Iraq a few years back with my family. That was almost three years ago, and we’ve been to church maybe three times since then. Each time, I’ve had to keep myself from leaving in the middle of service. Today I feel like writing about why, and why I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to the American church. First post in almost a year – figured it should be a good one! This is likely to be a mashup of remembrances that fit together to me – they might not to you.

I was a youth pastor before I went to northern Iraq. As you can imagine, most of the people in Iraq are Muslims. Most of the people there have never met a Christian. I remember one interaction in particular when a Kurdish friend saw a Kurdish Bible on my desk, picked it up like it was something between a present and a relic, then asked if he could have it.

“I’ve always heard of this book, but I’ve never actually seen one.”

He was the first person I’d ever met who had never seen a Bible. Of course, we all KNOW that there are entire people groups who don’t have the Bible, but it takes you back a bit when you meet someone who has only “heard of it.” I used to order boxes of Bibles to give away to my students – it was one of my favorite things to do. Anything else I had to offer them was pretty worthless compared to that one thing. And believe it or not, I used to catch flack from my pastor about the money I spent on Bibles.

When we first got to Iraq, we didn’t tell our Kurdish friends that I was a pastor or advertise that we were believers. They probably assumed we were Christians since to them, all Americans are Christians. One of our Kurdish friends who is a follower of Jesus told us how the small but growing fellowship of believers in our city thought they needed to build a church. They had grown from just 6 people two years earlier to well over 60, and were cramming 30 or 40 people a meeting into a small house. And, the larger fellowship of believers in the nearby capital city had an actual church building, complete with pews and a cross at the front of the sanctuary and everything. If they had a building, they could do baptisms inside it without having to sneak off to the lake. He was sure it was what they needed in order to continue to grow. Missionaries from a Baptist church in the US were even going to give them the money they needed to build the church, steeple and all.

I finally confessed that I was a pastor, and had experience with this church building thing. I told him that what they had was beautiful and perfect, and to simply focus on sharing the gospel, serving others, and raising up leaders who could do the same. If you’ve ever worked or served in a church, you know that a building brings with it all sort of challenges, and even hindrances. Opportunities, yes of course… but not the same kind you get when you HAVE TO rely on the simple community of a small, organic group of believers.

I think that conversation started the changing of my affection for the American church.

If you’re a Christian, you know that Jesus is the Lamb of God. Our High Priest. Our Sacrifice. It is my experience that MOST Christians can’t thoroughly explain WHY Jesus is all of those things, or the significance of those things to the cultures of the middle east and therefore to the Bible, but they’ve been around long enough to at least know the terms. I was a pastor; I’d studied and taught those concepts for years. I THOUGHT I knew, but I didn’t.

We were lucky enough while we were in Iraq to be there during Jesni Corban, a feast of sacrifice. This is a Muslim holiday in which families slaughter a lamb and offer it as a sacrifice for their sins. The streets do not run with the blood of the lambs, but every family does this; every Muslim participates in this sacrificing of the lambs. You can see the actual lambs.

It wasn’t until I personally experienced an entire people sacrificing a lamb in hopes that the act of the sacrifice, the tradition, the command, with all of its rules and regulations, would MAYBE, somehow gain them favor in Allah’s eyes… that all of these most amazing names for Jesus and God meant what they should mean. Not until I explained to a Muslim friend that Jesus is all things to us: our lamb, our Priest who says the lamb is acceptable, and our assurance of life forever with God that the holiness of it all came to life.

How do you go back to the American church after that? To MOPS groups and parking teams, to worship that rival concerts and sings of what WE have to give to God, to “mission trips” that include surfing at the beach or sightseeing, to monologues that border on self-help and make us believe that we have anything to do with Jesus did for us? What IS that? It’s certainly not the church of the Bible.

 1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

I can’t do the American church again; I can’t BE that again. I don’t know if I’m a broken Christian, a bad one, or finally AM one. I do not feel far from God; I hope you don’t hear that in what I’m saying. I do desperately want to be near other believers again, to enjoy the fellowship of the saints and to work together to both love God and love others. Nor does what I’m experiencing now invalidate my previous connectedness with other believers when I was a part of a church. But I need to be a part of an environment where I can determine to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified and know that is okay.

Today, I don’t have anything else to say about this. I don’t even know where the conversation goes next. As always, if you comment with Christian platitudes, I’ll ban you, so think hard before you comment. Even more so now. 🙂 Love you all!

Lyrics to the song in the video above, “What Do I Know Of Holy?” by Addison Road.

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?

(CHORUS)
What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
What do I know? What do I know of Holy?

I guess I thought that I had figured You out
I knew all the stories and I learned to talk about
How You were mighty to save
Those were only empty words on a page
Then I caught a glimpse of who You might be
The slightest hint of You brought me down to my knees

(CHORUS)
What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
What do I know? What do I know of Holy?

(CHORUS 2)
What do I know of Holy?
What do I know of wounds that will heal my shame?
And a God who gave life “its” name?
What do I know of Holy?
Of the One who the angels praise?
All creation knows Your name
On earth and heaven above
What do I know of this love?

(CHORUS)
What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
What do I know? What do I know of Holy?

What do I know of Holy?
What do I know of Holy?

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7 thoughts on “On Iraq and why I can’t go back to church.

  1. Would you want to go back to church to share your experiences while you enjoy the company of your congragation? That may be your new ministry. To spread the experience of people who are just beginning to be Christian and what their pre=Christian beliefs they carried over and how you observed similarities and differences.

  2. I was a bit shocked to read that a pastor from that church gave you flack about spending money on bibles. Was it him just being facetious? I always feel very shallow as a Christian when I hear about people’s experiences with Christians in countries like India, China, and in your case, Kurdistan; being in awe of a Bible when I have probably a half dozen in my house that don’t get opened enough. To have an experience like that scares me, but it would probably make me a real Christian who experienced God in more of a real way. I can see why you have trouble going back to an American church. Just curious if you have been back to the church you were a pastor at; the head pastor there has changed in some drastic ways. I’m not saying the feelings you have toward that church or any church here aren’t a reasonable justification for staying away. Absolutely they are. I’m just curious if you saw the change it would alter your opinion of it at all.

    1. Jessica,

      No, I haven’t been back, and I won’t go back. I want to be really clear about this though: I loved the the people of the Vineyard. I’ve tried to make a really conscience decision not to talk about what went down between Tom, Karen and I because it’s just not necessary for anyone to know. As for the changes there, I’ve heard both positive things about it, and somethings that were really hard to hear. You can share more about the changes if you’d like. I love to hear about it.

  3. I’m sorry to hear that things ended badly there for you. This is the first I’ve heard you say anything about why you left other than you felt God leading you in a different direction. Steve and I considered leaving ourselves after a few things happened, including changes with youth group, that really hurt and made me bitter for awhile. I am grateful that we have found a group of people who have made it worth sticking around.

    Are you ever planning to go back to Iraq? It was obviously a life changing experience! I appreciated your summary of the American church. That’s part of why we’re so shallow. I like to hear about your experiences in Kurdistan. Please continue sharing! 🙂

  4. Having said all of that, I think that I COULD go back to church, and even work in the church again… if it was for a pastor who truly understood this love/hate relationship I have now with the American church, and who very aggressively works to keep the gospel his church preaches simple and true.

    Easier said than done.

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