Churches, according to the media, are in trouble. Young people are no longer attracted to them and older people - even those who have attended all their lives - are losing interest.
I found myself in category number two, and when I relocated a few months ago decided I wouldn't even bother going to the trouble of finding a new church. But old habits do die hard, and while driving down the road near my house one Sunday morning I veered into a church parking lot on the spur of the moment to check it out.
The first thing that caught my attention was 100 people milling around the foyer waiting for the service to start. They were all talking to each other in couples and small groups, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other.
The next thing I appreciated was that the Pastor talked more about God than he did the Bible. It's a subtle difference, but significant. Just as many Muslims would never admit they deify Muhammad, but in fact do, many Christians would deny they put the Bible on the same level as the God it describes. Last week on Palm Sunday, for example, the Pastor announced he was going to tell the story of a woman. I immediately began to tune out, thinking, "Oh, no, here comes Mary Magdalene for the 500th time." My mind was yanked back into focus when he continued, "Her name is Chelsea." He went on to tell the true story of a woman who with her five children had been abandoned by an abusive husband. Members of the church - the same church I was sitting in - befriended her and helped her. She and her family were now doing much better, and had become active members of the church. It wasn't a story that had taken place some time in the distant past; this had all happened within the last several months. This is the kind of church even a crusty old cynic like me can get excited about!
I have an uncommon habit; I spend my free time studying early Islamic history and following current Arabic media, trying to figure out what's going on. I was fortunate to spend some years in the Middle East, and learned enough Arabic to be able to do that accurately (comment: always take it with a grain of salt when you hear any non-native speaker of Arabic describe themselves as "fluent" in the language). A few Arabic programs I enjoy watching contain stories of Muslims who have left Muhammad behind to follow Jesus. A common thread in all their stories is that Jesus offered them hope.
Speaking of that, someone asked me recently if hope was a focal point of Muhammad's message. Well, in one sense it was. He promised his first converts, the slaves of Mecca, that if they followed him they would acquire the riches of the Roman and Persian empires. He later promised his warriors that if they died in the battles he instigated, they would enjoy the pleasures of a sensual paradise. He promised his followers the elusive dream of Arab unity, a goal leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi are still trying to accomplish.
But hope of the kind experienced by Chelsea and her family? I'm not sure. If any Muslim readers have similar stories that took place within the Ummah, contact me. I'd like to hear them.