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Archive for the ‘New Testament’ Category

The year 2020 will forever be defined by the Corona Virus and COVID-19. Widespread disease is not new to us. It seems to be something that regularly visits and threatens us. Take a short history tour of just the last 60 years and one discovers that the world has experienced many widespread disease outbreaks such as the Asian flu (H2N2) – ’57-’58, Hong Kong flu (H3N2) – ’68-’69, Ebola’76-present, Bird or Avian flu (H5N1) – ’04-’06, SARS (Covid) – ’02-’03, Swine flu (H1N1) – ’09-’10, MERS (Covid) – ’12-present, and the Zika virus’15-’16.

However, one has to go back to the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918-1920 to find something so devastating. Estimates assert the worldwide death toll was a minimum of 50 million people and could have been as high as 100 million or more. In the United States of America the death toll was estimated over 600,000 persons. Yet it remains a history largely forgotten today in American memory. Few lessons from that time remain to be remembered and applied to today’s pandemic. Once again, world leaders are fumbling in the dark to discover an adequate response.

While the the death toll is rising, national economies are tanking due to “stay at home” and “isolate in place” orders. Unlike 1918, the economies are much more globally tied together. As a result, the world economy suffers. It turns out that not only do “all ships rise together” but all ships can also sink together. National and state governments are not on the same emergency response page from whatever book or manual they are supposed to operate from when there is such a crisis. As a result, the applications of quarantining and isolation are applied unequally in cities, counties and states to businesses. Some stay open while others are required to remain closed. The outcome is that some businesses will close forever.

The driving motivation seems to be a fear of dying. The spectre of death has a long human history. Humans have done everything within their own power to avoid death and dream of defeating it and even living forever in eternal youth. We will kill one another, sacrifice each other and pay any amount of money to avoid entering into the death’s realm.

U.S. country music star Kenny Chesney wrote a song that captures the American sentiment about death and the afterlife. It is titled “Everyone Wants to Go to Heaven“. The catch in the song is that “but nobody wants go now.” Blues musician Albert King echoed the same words in “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” In western culture, the “everyone is a winner” sentimentality also applies to eternal reward.

This alone, however, does not explain the desperate avoidance of death and suffering in the western culture. The rest of the world faces it everyday. Take a trip to the poorest parts of the poorest nations and death is an everyday occurance with cholera, typhoid, meningitis, yellow fever, malaria along with any other number of diseases. The rest of the world does not have the luxury of the choices the western world does when it comes to medical treatment and economic opportunities. And, yet, the western world seems willing to bankrupt both to avoid dying.

If you are a scientific materialist and do not believe any god exists and that this existence is all that there is, then, perhaps there may be reason to strive to grasp after every moment in this life before one’s light is snuffed out. On the other hand, from the same standpoint, to be gone from this world is also the end of suffering and struggle in this life’s meaningless existence. Afterall, shortly after one’s absence through death, this world will hardly remember one’s name. The choice seems to be epicureanism or nihilism.

On the other hand, if you believe in an afterlife then one hopes that it is much better than this existence. To be absent from this place of living means being present in the next better one. While no one would run to death with this view, you would think that one would not avoid embracing it at all costs either. One could waver between a stoicism or a need to embrace a faith that promises an eternal life that provides meaning to this one. Thus humankind’s universal search for meaning in a religion.

This may be where the Christian faith offers the best hope during Corona virus pandemic. The Bible is clear-eyed about the meaningless of life apart from a hope in an eternal life offered by God through his son, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus himself pointed out the futility of life when he illustrated the beautiful but temporary nature of the wild flowers of the field (Matthew 6:28-30).

The Psalmist in the Bible’s Old Testament also observed (Ps. 103:16) “As for man, his days are like grass—he blooms like a flower of the field; when the wind has passed over, it vanishes, and its place remembers it no more.” And the prophet Isaiah, later quoted by the Apostle Peter, proclaimed, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8; 1 Peter 1:24-25).

The two most pessimistic – if one chooses to view them that way – pieces of literature in the Bible are Job and Ecclesiastes. In the throes of incredible suffering, Job asserts “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure. A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (14:1-5). The Preacher of Ecclesiastes challenges any optimistic view of life apart from a relationship with God: “There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after” (1:11).

Death comes to us all. Until a vaccine is discovered and administered to everyone on earth, the Corona virus remains a threat and death more imminent. Governments attempted to “flatten the curve” and slow down the sickness and death rate so that it is more manageable for our health care systems. But that doesn’t end the threat of death because, without a vaccine, sooner or later you will suffer the effects of it. As such, death is closer than ever – or at least a lengthy quarantine at home or hospital stay.

How does Jesus the Messiah change the human equation that ends in death? He does so in his resurrection. That event changed the world. If that singular historical event is true and factual, then it changes everything. There is no fear of death as the Apostle Paul declared (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). There is only the promise that this life is not the totality of our existence (John 3:16,17). In fact, the greater portion of our life lies beyond this one. Faith in and trust in God’s saving act in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah undoes the curse and fear of death.

This is what has given Christians the power to run toward the sick and dying rather than away from it. During some of the worst plagues in Europe’s history it was often Christians who stayed to care for the sick and dying when cities and towns were being evacuated and abandoned. This attitude toward death and eternal life even caused some radical Christians, despite church leadership instructing and pleading against it, to act carelessly and even run to a martyr’s death.

The final result should be a Christian community that cares for those around them. It must result in actions that care for the suffering and dying. Never at any time in recent history has the worldwide church been given such an opportunity to show the love, mercy and grace of God that was revealed in Jesus the Messiah. We can risk the reach into a plague infected world to help and to heal because we do not fear death.

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One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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Get any group of people together, no matter their moral platitudes, and there is bound to be conflict.  Sometimes this conflict can lead to a heightened crisis that threatens the health of the organization with loss of membership, customers and leadership.  If left unmanaged, the conflict-turned-crisis can have lasting, damaging effects: poor self-image, leadership demoralization, a scarred community image, organizational paralysis, and covered up interpersonal wounds.

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa on Badger Mountain

One would hope that a church community would be better suited and equipped for managing conflict and dealing with crisis.  However, my experience has been that this is not true.  My work experience in other organizations has been a mixed bag.  After all, were all are human no matter where we work.

At the same time, some organizations I have worked in have had a proactive conflict management plan with proactive leaders.  Where these leaders have followed the conflict management plan, the conflict was dealt with quickly and decisively with little disruption to the organization.  Sometimes the issue was resolved without loss of employees and sometimes it was not.  However, everyone knew the steps carried out as well as the outcome and why it was arrived at in that way.

I have yet to find a church organization that deals with conflict so constructively.  And I have to ask why?  (I am not asserting that one does not exist, I am simply stating that my limited experience has yet to discover one through my encounters or of those friends that have shared their stories of church conflicts and crises with me.)  The answer to that question is complicated.

Unfortunately, our public news channels carry too many stories of the failure on the part of church organizations to deal with conflict and crises.  This should cause all church leaders, at whatever level, to sit up and take notice that if they do not practice proactive judgment concerning conflict and crisis in their faith community, then the larger surrounding community will for them.  This will come out as clearly as exposure in the news media outlets or as subtly as the community staying away – and warning all their friends and relatives to stay away.

So, why do church organizations fail at constructively and proactively handling conflict or crisis?  The answer varies…

  1. Church leaders and their followers tend to spiritualize the conflict.  Thus, it is just a matter of all parties concerned praying about it, reading Bible verses about peace keeping, not speaking evil and guarding their tongues.  While these are good spiritual disciplines, they do not actually deal with the problem at hand.  It is to treat spiritual disciplines as some kind of magic that will make the problem suddenly go away.  And if it doesn’t go away?  Then the problem is with our spirituality and not that we simply didn’t wisely handle to problem.
  2. Church leaders and their followers tend to bury the conflict.  The attitude is that Christians should not offend others.  Broadly taken, this inhibits any confrontation that needs to happen in a healthy organization.  Thus, hurt feelings and offenses get covered up in hopes that it will, after awhile, just go away and be forgotten.  Sometimes conflict is buried because everyone assumes that it is the pastor’s job or that the way the pastoral leadership is dealing with the conflict (even if it is to avoid dealing with it at all) is the best and only way.  This is connected to the idea that Christians should never offend.  It also means they do not question leadership actions (or inactions).  The unspoken cultural value in these church organizations is that a good Christian doesn’t question the process or its outcomes but trusts that, whatever the result, the church leadership did the right thing (or at least meant to do the right thing).
  3. Church leaders and their followers tend to misuse The Matthew 18 Principle.  The Matthew 18 Principle is taken from The Gospel According to Matthew 18:15 – 19.  The idea is that interpersonal conflict should be dealt with on a personal level and only escalated to the leadership level or the larger community level after that has failed.  This is a great model for interpersonal conflict and should be used more often.  However, it only deals with an interpersonal conflict.  What happens when that conflict, as often happens, involves a larger group of the faith community?  What should the steps be when the conflict involves a high profile leader?  What is the strategy when the conflict is witnessed or known by many individuals?  This is where The Matthew 18 Principle does not entirely help us.  It is limited in scope and application.
  4. Church leaders and their followers tend to attack and silence the messengers.  Often, in order to deal with the array of opinions, personal judgments, and purveyors of partial truths, church leadership will attempt to shut up or shout down such background noise.  This is often done under the guise of “trusting leadership to handle it” and “personal privacy issues” for those involved in the conflict.  Both of these are worthy considerations for all concerned.  However, they miss the larger need of communicating to all parties who have a vested interest in the process and the outcome.  By attempting to attack or silence those who want to give a message to one or both of the parties or to the leadership managing the conflict, the problem is only compounded not alleviated.

Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA, Flowers

Purple Button Flowers on Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA

Conflict and crisis is always unsettling.  It is like experiencing an earthquake.  When the whole earth is moving, you just want it to stop and feel solid, un-shaking ground under your feet again.  After the earthquake, everyone is talking about it.  It becomes a shared experience and also a process to assure each other that everything will be alright.  Conflict and crisis in an organization shakes the whole structure.  People are going to talk about their experience.  They need to talk about their fears, insecurities and reassure each other that they will survive the process and the outcome.

Unfortunately, few churches have a conflict/crisis management strategy that also includes a conflict/crisis management communication strategy.  If they do, it most often boils down to this:  “Don’t talk about it.  Trust your leadership.”  This almost always fails except in cult-like or personality driven faith communities.  Since conflict and crisis are a part of the human experience, wise leadership should use the “calm before the storm” to thoughtfully plan a conflict and crisis management strategy.

An often overlooked key to conflict and crisis management is communication.  Sometimes only dealing with the parties involved is not sufficient.  This is especially true when dealing with high-profile situations or prominent people in a church organization.  Often times, it is managed behind the scenes.  The next thing the congregation and other church employees know is that certain people are no long around.  Without explanation, they are left to create their own stories of the events and outcomes.

Part of a good strategy is managing the story that is being told, especially by the employees and core leaders of the organization.  This does not mean twisting the story’s events to make an organization and its leadership look good.  It means having an open, honest and truthful explanation of events.  The more transparent the communication – even with the admission of stumbles and failures on the part of leadership – the better.  Not everyone may like the outcomes, but they at least know the process was open and honest.  Most leadership, employees and customers can live with this process.

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Another part of a healthy strategy is wisely deciding the scope of communication needed.  This involves answering the questions, “Who needs to know?” and “Who does this affect?”  Some one likened it to having a group of people standing around when someone spills a bucket of paint.  Who got paint on them?  They are the ones that need to be addressed and included in the communication even if they are not involved in the process.  Ignore them and they will tell the story from their point of view and experience.  Include them in the group experience and it becomes larger than just a their own personal story.  Now it involves a group experience that involves clean up and recovery from the accident or tragedy.

Conflict mediation is not new.  It has been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth.  Today, there are formal conflict or dispute resolution and mediation services in local communities.  Non-profit dispute resolution centers exist around the country and effectively help organizations and individuals work through conflict.  They can prevent costly court and lawyer fees and bring satisfaction to all parties involved.  Many large organizations establish their own dispute resolution teams.  This may be a model that could serve well most churches.
Using a third-party dispute resolution source or developing a team within the organization is for each organization to determine.  For churches, this may mean using a trusted faith-based group outside the organization such as trained denominational leadership.  I’ve worked cross-denominationally to help another church and its pastor navigate conflict and crisis.  The key is having a plan and engaging that at the earliest possible moment.  This is  when leadership is most needed.  Proactive leadership will…
  • Know the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Work the plan,
  • Communicate how the plan is working to those who need to know, and
  • Identify the stages and outcomes of working the plan, and then, finally,
  • Evaluate how the plan worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it work better next time.
Every leader realizes that he or she may not be able to take everyone through the crisis and keep them in the organization.  For whatever reason, individuals will decide for themselves if they trust leadership and how it is working for everyone’s interest.  However, the goal of church leadership especially should be to help as many people navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and crisis and bring as many people as possible through the storm.  The church more than any other organization should be able to navigate these storms.  This will take a commitment to living out biblical principles of forgiveness and reconciliation along with proactive leaders who have a publicly recognized, transparent plan that is managed and communicated carefully during these times.  It may not prevent the storms from coming, but it will certainly help the church fellowship survive them.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (September, 2011)

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What is it within the human psyche that pulls at us to compare ourselves to others? When did the human race develop the idea that any one of us is capable of summarily judging another person’s existential journey by examining their state of being at any one given moment along life’s time line?  After all, does any one of us know our own beginning from the end, let alone any other’s?

Yet, almost every day there is not one individual of the human race who does not at some point put their self in the judge’s seat to declare judgment for or against someone else or a whole class of someones. I know I am guilty of this ridiculous attempt at playing celestial critic.  I have often admitted to others over the past several years that “I can’t pick’ em.”  I have, in the past, attempted to evaluate the potential of individuals and thereby also prognosticate their outcome.  I have failed more often times than not.

Individuals whom I considered the most brilliant, talented, gifted and spiritual, and so warranted my own time and energies, have turned out to be some of my biggest disappointments to date. They are far from where I thought they would be in terms of accomplishment and far from God.  On the other hand, individuals whom I considered to be questionable, or even not worth too much effort on my part because I foresaw only failure in their future, have turned out to be some of the biggest surprises.  To this date, some of them are successful and give great glory to God.

And the jury of time is still out. Who knows but that the roles may be reversed again in the future before the end comes to each of their stories.  One thing I do know: I don’t know.  I do not know how their stories will turn out.  All I have is this snap-shot moment in time of where they are on their journey and how they are doing.  The same holds true for my own journey.

This is possibly the spiritual angst the Apostle Paul had in mind when he warned himself, “I give blows to my body, and keep it under control, for fear that, after having given the good news to others, I myself might not have God’s approval” (1 Cor. (9:27, BBE).  Even as spiritual leader the Apostle Paul knew the challenges of life’s journey.  He told the believers in Philippi, “It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me” (Phil. 3:12, GW).

When I was a teenager, I worked for a time in the apple orchards around Oroville, Washington and Tonasket, Washington. The orchard job was an early summer one.  I was hired along with others to go through the apple trees and thin the crops.  The goal was to evenly distribute the fruit along the branches.  At the same time, diseased or badly misshapen fruit was weeded out.  This resulted in bigger and more beautiful fruit for the market in the fall harvest.

To be really good, one had to make quick decision and act quickly. The job did not allow for one to take the time to sit back and study a tree and its individual branches or individual apples.  Each apple or group of apples could not be meticulously weighed, examined and judged.  Decisions were made in the moment and on-the-fly.  Sometimes a bad apple or two was missed.  At other times, too many good ones were cast aside to rot on the ground.

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Inspecting the fruit from a human life is not as easy. It cannot be done as cavalier and casually.  There are far greater consequences.  As much as we like to spout the modern proverb, “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” we still regularly attempt it.  I know that I missed some really good stories because I did so.  I should have more closely followed the wisdom given to the prophet Isaiah: “Do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk!”  (58:9).

The problem in today’s religious environment is that many of Jesus’ followers like to think of themselves as spiritual fruit inspectors. Some, I presume, think they may have been given the spiritual gift or authority of fruit inspection.  However, this seems to be a position that Jesus has reserved solely for himself.  Dare we attempt to take his seat or position in the heavenly courtroom?

After telling the crowd gathered around him The Parable of the Sower and the Soils, Jesus launched into another story: The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24 – 30).  It seems that a farmer took the time to sow good wheat seed in his fields looking forward to a good harvest.  However, his enemy, who obviously hated the farmer’s success, took a night to sow weeds into the farmer’s field.  It soon became apparent to the farmer and his workers that weeds were growing in his wheat fields.  What do you propose they do?

The farmhands reacted like so many of us today – myself included:Pull them out by their roots!  Get rid of them! Burn them!”  However, the wise farmer saw the danger in this approach.  The good wheat would be uprooted too.  Then the whole crop would be damaged.  Rather than risking the good wheat, in the farmer’s wisdom, he told his farmhands to “Leave the weeds alone until harvest time.  Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them.  But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn” (v. 30).

Apparently, while many of us at any one moment might be able to identify good or bad fruit (“A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17), the Master reserves only for himself the duty of proclaiming judgment – good or bad. And this he leaves to accomplish at the end of all things.  So much for instant gratification in our justice system.

So, I have given up fruit inspection in the lives of others. I figure I am doing well if I can examine the products of my own life.  Like the Apostle Paul, I will be doing well if I can keep my own life trimmed and pruned so that what it produces will be good.  I know I am carrying a few bad apples.  I just may need someone’s help to reach them to improve my potential harvest.  If I can do that, it will be enough fruit inspection for me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

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Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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