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Posts Tagged ‘American Church’

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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Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Spiritual Voyeurism

One would think that claims to a particular faith would demand one to actually practice it. This does not seem to be the case for many people in the United States who claim to be followers of Christ or at least belong to a church or denomination.  This will explain why main line denominations can make claims that they have so a large following but so actually bodies in the pews Sunday after Sunday.  Even my own church numbers some 1,000 plus people on its membership rolls.  However, on any given Sunday no more than 500 – 600 parishioners on the best Sundays are ever present.

It is a rare church today that defies ‘The Pareto Principle’ or ’80/20 Rule’ at work in its own organization. There are too many variety of reasons why this is the state of things.  I suspect that it different for each congregation and its setting.  Likewise, there are no easy answers – no ‘magic bullet’ – to overcome this problem.  The multiple of factors and possible solutions are what gives pastors and church leaders spiritual fits.

However, I would like to suggest one factor that seems to go unnoticed and unaddressed by most churches and their leaders. It is our own propensity to make spectators instead of participators out of our religious constituents.  We have essentially trained them to sit back and watch – sing if you want to, bow your head for prayer, on occasion take communion, and follow along in your Bible or the multi-media presentation.  We invite them to drop off their kids or youth so that we’ll do all the work of spiritually training them.

Hot Rods, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rods, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What if participation in a church demanded, well, participation? Suppose you attended a church that required you to go with one of your children at least, their discipleship process and take an active part in helping to disciple them?  Suppose you attended a church where you knew that you were going to have a chance to participate with others in planning and providing the congregation’s worship service?  When prayer took place, what if it required everyone to interact and pray for others, their church and community?  What if part of worship required individuals to regularly share their faith stories in front of others?  What if mission and service to the world required, actually going into the world, even if it is the surrounding neighborhood and serving others in the name of Jesus?

Sounds exhausting?  Sounds complicated?  Sounds messy? I suppose so.  However, these are the very things we expect our paid clergy to do week-in and week-out for us.  As such, we have become mere spiritual voyeurs.  We are hoping to vicariously enjoy someone else’s spiritual journey and growth by watching them.  We get excited about their stories and their accomplishments.  Like sports fans sitting on living room couches watching their favorite teams and players, we gain our identity through what they do.

Somehow, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind for his body left behind to do his work. I suspect that he did not make available the infusion of his Holy Spirit into his followers just so that they could sit back and watch.  Something tells me that he is not satisfied with a church full of Sunday morning lounge-chair quarter backs telling the 20% actually doing something how they could be doing it better.  He did not intend his followers to simply be excited by what they see going on like they are in some cheap-thrill peep-show.

Perhaps it is time that we really consider how we do church. After all, it is as much the fault of its leadership as it is of its followers.  We only need to look at the fruit we are producing to see that what we are doing is not producing the right fruit.  And this should not surprise us.  Church history is replete with instances where the church changed methods and strategies to be more effective.  While staying true to its message, these changes have often brought renewal and revival that introduced the body of Christ to a new era.

Spiritual voyeurism will only continue to increase spiritual apathy and lethargy. This is because spectators are not invested in the outcome except emotionally.  And, when they are emotionally disappointed, they often will quickly switch allegiances and find some place else that will entertain them.  In short, we in most American churches have created our own ‘sleeping giant.’  Dare we rouse him/her?

For myself, I cannot be content just watching. I must find an outlet for service and using the spiritual gifts the Lord gave to me.  We all need to ask our selves now and again, “Are we a part of the team or just the fan club?”  You can satisfy yourself with only being a spectator, but a higher calling is to be a participator in what the Lord is doing.  After all, he created us to take a spiritual voyage with him, not to just become a spiritual voyeur.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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On Mission

Every organization battles keeping its mission – raison d’etre = reason for being – the central focus of its business.  It is what drives corporate behavior and, in the end, makes it profitable.  We have seen the result of some American companies who have lost sight of their original corporate mission.

They got sidetracked into other endeavors and pursuits. Pretty soon, what they once were known for in the market place got lost to a competitor.  Not only did they lose market share, but they lost profitability.  You could name any of the U.S. automakers, banks, insurance companies, or even smaller ventures in the past 5 years or so and see the economic results from such missional blindness.

I do not believe it is any different for the Church.  It is an ongoing and constant battle to remind everyone the raison d’etre.  Why does the Church exist?  What is the Church here to accomplish?

These are important questions and will define the activities of any church fellowship. Most importantly, it will not be defined by what its creeds say.  Neither will it be identified by any “mission statement” or “vision statement”.  These are all good tools and necessary.  Instead, the behavior of its followers will dictate what it really believes, values, and holds to be its mission.

There is the often told story of the life saving stations along the Easter seaboard of the U.S. They were originally built and organized to save people and sailors involved in shipwrecks off the coast.  During the lull in activities, however, they became popular meeting places for social activities.

Pretty soon, the focus on saving lives in emergency situations gave way to the social activities. So much so, that no one bothered any longer to be on the look out for shipwrecks.  When one did occur, members were put out by how the emergency upset their routine and messed up their finely decorated life saving station.  Pretty soon, other life saving stations had to be built to replace those who no longer functioned in that capacity but were there only for decoration and celebration.

This can be a parable about the Church too.  It is a challenge to keep the focus upon the saving of lives in emergencies.  It is a terrible disruption to our comfort and convenience.  It costs money, time, and energy to man an effective life saving station.  Is it worth the effort?  Those who are saved think so!

The same could be said of the Church in spiritual terms. Yet, how many of our churches end up existing to serve only the benefit, comfort, and convenience of its members?  How many have lost sight of its real raison d’tre?

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination.  When it was formed as a Pentecostal Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, its stated reason for forming and existing was “to be the greatest evangelistic movement the world has ever seen.”  Those gathered at that early meeting believed that the Pentecostal blessing being poured out upon its generation was to serve only one purpose: to proclaim the Gospel to every nation.

As an organization, its devotion was originally given only to world missions and evangelization. It was first and foremost a missionary sending agency.  And, so was launched one of the greatest missionary endeavors of the 20th century.  Nearly a hundred years later, that same denomination now finds itself struggling to recapture its original vision and mission or raison d’etre.

There are many Assembly of God churches that do not give anything toward world missions.  Friends of mine who answered a call to world missions and entered the Assemblies of God World Missions agency find it hard pressed to raise the funds they need for their budgets within 18 months so they can get to their field of service.  They are finding that many Assembly of God churches do not even have missionaries to their churches any more.  One friend of mine was informed by a former district official now pastoring that they do not have missionaries come to their church!  The denomination also now finds itself riding a wave of retiring missionaries with no new recruits in the wings.

The ministries of every local Assembly of God church, along with its District, used to be centered around fulfilling its mission to evangelize the world.

  • Women’s Ministry was called the “Women’s Missionary Council” and was an agency to engage women in the local church to sponsor and support missionaries.
  • Men’s Ministry had what was called “Minute Man” and M.A.P.S. (Mobilization And Placement Services) that placed resources and skilled laborers where they were needed all across the world.
  • The Youth Ministries were called “Christ’s Ambassadors” because they were considered to be the calling and sending place for young people into ministry and in particular to the missionary fields of service.
  • Children’s Ministries focused upon helping to raise funds for child evangelism and Sunday School for missionaries through its “Boys and Girls Missions Crusade.”  Every child had a “Buddy Barrel” that represented the barrels that missionaries would put their belongings into to be shipped overseas.

It is not that the names are or were important.  What was important was the raison d’etre – the centralized and focused mission of the whole church and denomination.  It used to be that hardly a month would go by without having a visiting missionary in a local Assembly of God church.  Now, months can go by.  And, if a missionary gets into a church service, they are given a “Missions Window” to highlight what they do.  This is hardly enough time to set a vision for world missions let alone give a call to people to answer the call to missions should the Lord want to work that way in their lives.

It is no wonder that the Assemblies of God is struggling to build its ranks of young people called to missions. There is hardly ever opportunity for them to hear a missionary, listens to God’s heart for his mission to every people group, and answer the call to missions.  Or, should I say, there is hardly a time for God to speak, show and reveal what he is doing and is wanting to do in his world to them?

This is only my experience in one denomination.  I am sure that the story could be repeated over and over again across denominations and churches.  I have heard the same stories among leaders of once dynamic mission agency churches – Salvation Army, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist.  A spiritual lethargy and blindness almost seems to have invaded the Church.

Thankfully, there are some bright spots and active church bodies within the Assemblies of God and across the whole Body of Christ. Today, more cross-cultural missionaries are sent from non-Western churches than the U.S. and Europe churches combined.  The emerging and growing churches in the rest of the world are now missionary sending churches!  Upon the rising tide of missionary activity in the rest of the world, what part will the American and European churches play?

It will probably take another spiritual renewal and revival to bring the whole Western church back to being on mission for the Kingdom of God.  Rediscovering its raison d’etre will unite and activate its members toward something larger than social gatherings for like-minded individuals.  It will cause it to look toward the troubled seas of humanity again and to stand at the ready to seek and save those who are lost in the dark and turbulent waves of our time.  Truly, the hour is not too late.  The work is not yet done.  There is time to get back on mission.  Let’s  pray that we regain our sight to see the world as God sees it.  It’s not too late to get back on mission.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Out of Reach, Out of Touch

I have heard the argument too many times from well meaning American Christians.  It concerns the mission of the Church.  They believe that churches that focus on missions endeavors overseas are out of balance.  They argue, instead, that we “have enough to do in our own backyard here in America to keep us busy.”  The idea is that we should reach the least, last, and lost around us first before we concentrate on foreign lands and their peoples.  However, I believe they are not only wrong biblically and theologically, but also in practice.

I remember a powerful illustration that displayed what all too often takes place in our missions efforts when we focus primarily on the needs in America.  The speaker had several small bags of M&M candies.  There were several hundred of us in the crowd.  He asked the crowd, “How many would like to have some M&M’s?”  Of course, almost everyone raised their hands.  There were a few non-takers, but the majority wanted to accept the free treat.

So, the speaker opened a bag of M&M’s as he began talking about missions and gave the bag to the first person on the right side in the front row.  He said, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Each person that wanted some of the candy took a few and passed the bag along.  After a few minutes, the speaker asked if everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s.  “No!” came the cry from the majority of the crowd.  It turns out that the bad did not even make it passed the first row.

So, the speaker apologized.  “Here, let me get another bag going.” Once again, he started at the first person on the right side of the front row.  He gave the same instructions, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Once again, the small bag of goodies began its journey down the front row.  This time a few people did not take any and the bag got further, but it barely started down the second row when it ran out.  I was sitting tw-thirds towards the back of the room and thought to myself, “At this rate, I will never get any M&M’s.”

A few moments later, the speaker once again asked the crowd, “So, how is it going?  Everyone get some M&M’s?” No!’ went up the shout, a little more intense this time.  “I am so sorry.  I know I brought enough M&M’s.  Here, let me give out some more.”  However, once again, he started with the first person on the right side of the front row.  A few people in front row turned around and looked at us in the back and snickered.  They were clearly enjoying this – and the M&M’s!  And, so, the small bag of M&M’s began its journey.  It made it a little farther this time, but was nowhere even close to reaching me, let alone the people behind me and in the balcony.

The speaker, after awhile, checked once again with the crowd, “Now has everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s?” This time the response was much more energized with frustration, “NO!” replied well over 90% of the crowd.  This is when the missions speaker turned the table upon us.  “That,” he said, “is how the rest of the world feels about the opportunity of receiving the Good News about Jesus.”  He went on to share with us how those who are the nearest to the gospel receive the majority of our missionaries efforts while those who are farthest from the gospel receive little or now effort or help from us.

I was reminded of this experience while attending a missions class entitled, “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”  While more than 20 years removed from my earlier experience of not getting M&M’s, the statistics of our missionary efforts still remain daunting.  In other words, the people in the front, closest to the speaker, still get all the M&M’s!  There remain many people still unserved with the message of God’s Kingdom.

Non-Christians who live in an area of the world where there is a vibrant, growing, self-reproducing Church receive the vast majority of our efforts. This blows out of the water the argument that we are not doing enough for those nearest to us!  In other words, statistics tell us that 97% of them personally know a Christian.  This does not include the fact that they have access to television, bibles, bookstores, churches, and other sources to the Christian message.  At any time, they can pick up the phone, visit a local church, talk to a Christian friend, listen to Christian TV or radio and receive answers to many of their questions and be introduced to Christ and his message.

Despite this, we still send 91% of our missionary efforts to these lost people living within easy reach and access to the gospel message. They are the front row people who choose to, or choose not to, take a free gift offered to them over and over again.  Of the vast majority of non-Christians in the world, they only represent 7% of that population.  The other 93% of non-Christians in the world do not have it so fortunate.

For example, of all the non-Christians in the world, Buddhist make up 8% of the population.  At best, 16% of them personally know a Christian.  Thus, 84% do not have access to a personal witness.  The vast majority of those do not have any access at all – witnessing churches, radio, TV, printed materials.  Yet, less than 1% of our missionary efforts go to reach them with the Good News of God’s Kingdom, while 91% go to people who have easy access to the gospel already.  Does that sound fair?

Another example is unreached Muslims.  They make up 28% of the non-Christian population in the world; almost 1 out of three!  About 15% of them personally know a Christian; 85% then do not have access to a personal witness.  For most of the people in this population, if they woke up tomorrow with spiritual questions about the God of the bible or Jesus Christ, they would have nowhere to turn – no radio, TV, or printed materials, let alone a church or pastor to turn to for help.  And still, less than 1% of our estimated 455,000 missionaries we send out go to these people.  Over one-quarter of the non-Christian population in the world has no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To go back to my M&M demonstration, over one-third of the room will never get an M&M just between Buddhists and Muslims!

Of course, we need to consider, also, the Hindus.  They make up 25% of the 13,000 unreached people groups!  They are 22% of the world’s non-Christian population.  Perhaps 13% of them personally know a Christian.  Yet, only about 1% of our missionary efforts go to try and reach them with the gospel.  This means that, so far, less than 3% of our missionary efforts are going to reach 58% of the world’s non-Christian population while 91% of our missionary efforts continue to be doled out to 7% of the non-Christian population among the already-reached who have access to Gospel.  Anybody else feel like the “M&M’s” are not getting distributed fairly?  Who is missing out here?

I have not included the statistics of the people among the Chinese Folk Religions (8% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive less than 1% of our missionary efforts) or the Tribal Religions (5% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts) or the Secular/Non-religious Countries (19% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts).  Missiologists tell us that of the world’s 7 billion population approximately 4.4 billion are non-Christians.  This means the Church has a lot of work yet to do!  They also tell us that almost half – 1.9 billion – of those non-Christians have absolutely no access to the gospel by way of personal witness, church, pastor, or other means.  That is 1/3 of the world’s population.  Is that acceptable?

Yet, to the unreached one-third of the world’s population we send only about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of all of our Christian workers. Only about two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of Christian evangelistic efforts are expended on their behalf.  Taking my M&M experience to heart, this means that one-third of the people in that room would have never even known about M&M’s or that there was an opportunity to receive some for free.  Not only that, they would not even be close to someone who could tell them about what was going on.  Not only that, they would remain in the dark about the existence of M&M’s and never know about them at all.  Thus, one-third of the people in that room would die without ever even knowing about M&M’s.

Those of us who love M&M’s and have easy access to them at just about any store we go to in our neighborhood cannot imagine never knowing about them or experiencing their wonderful taste.  This is a poor comparison to someone’s spiritually lost condition.  However, it makes the point.  This is the spiritual condition of one-third of the non-Christians in the world – approximately 1.9 billion people today.  They do not know about Jesus and, without someone going to them, will never know about him.  Meanwhile, we still pour over 90% of our efforts into those who are nearest to Christians and the gospel message.  When we will begin to lift our eyes and focus on those “in the back of room” – those farthest removed from the message and the hope given to us in Christ Jesus?  When will we bring light to those in the spiritually darkest places of our world?  How long must they wait?

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Targeting those farthest from the gospel also means targeting those farthest from us. It will take someone to leave the comforts of their own culture, family and friends, and language and live among people of a different culture, family, and language.  Not everyone, I realize, is called to make that journey.  Nevertheless, everyone can pick up the cause of the last, least, and lost farthest from the Kingdom of God:

  • Missionary Prayer Teams can travel the globe through intercession to pray for the 13,000 unreached people groups.  There are many places to get their ethnic names, learn about their cultures, and barriers to the gospel through the local library or internet.  I, personally, like the use www.joshuaproject.net for such data.
  • Adopting missionaries and Christian workers who are already working among some of the unreached people groups to pray for them, encourage them via mail and email, and support them and their efforts.  There are many missions organizations that do this, but one of my personal favorites to keep abreast of is the Wycliffe Bible Translation work.
  • Focusing church missions efforts upon unreached people groups without abandoning those missions and ministries you already support.
  • Adopt an unreached people group as an intercessory prayer group, church, small group, family, or individual.  Pray for them regularly that God would raise up laborers for to go to them.  Use the library and internet to learn how to better pray for them.
  • Go on a short-term missions trip that reaches an unreached people group.  Or, support someone else’s efforts to go on a short-term missions trip to an unreached people group.

When I traveled to Andhra Pradesh province of India two years ago, I learned that there were over 1,000 villages in the area we were going into that have never had the gospel preached in them.  There is no church in these villages or even close to some of them.  Some of these villages have never seen a Caucasian person, let alone heard the Good News that Jesus came to set them free from the fear they have of their gods and the uncertainty of being caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

As I looked across the landscape, I could not even imagine such a place in America.  And, yet, there before us was a vast region of India that was untouched by the Kingdom of God.  Soon, I returned to an America that is rich in Christian heritage and spiritual opportunity; preaching in a community that has four pages of churches in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages.  Our local bible book store was busy.  The Christian television and radio stations hum with music, teaching, and preaching.  Churches and their leaders struggle with keeping up with other churches down the street.  And, yet, half a world away, there would be people who wake up tomorrow and not even know such a thing as a bible or a church existed.  They would not be aware that someone named Jesus came to set them free.  This got me to thinking: Are they so much as out of reach or unreachable as we, the Church, is out of touch with the need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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A man was driving along a rural road, one day, when he saw a three-legged chicken.  He was amused enough to drive along side it for a while.  As he was driving, he noticed the chicken was running 30 mph.  “Pretty fast chicken,” he thought, “I wonder just how fast it can run.”  So, he sped up and the chicken did, too!  They were, now, moving along the road at 45 mph!

The man in the car sped up, again.  To his surprise, the chicken was still running ahead of him at 60 mph!  Suddenly, the chicken turned off the road and ran down a long driveway, leading to a farmhouse.  The man followed the chicken to the house and saw a man in the yard and dozens of three-legged chickens.

The man in the car called out to the farmer, “How did you get all these three-legged chickens?”  The farmer replied, “I breed ’em.  Ya’ see, it’s me, my wife, and my son living here, and we all like to eat the chicken leg. Since a chicken only has two legs, I started breeding this three-legged variety so we could all beat our favorite piece.”

“That’s amazing!” said the driver.  “How do they taste?”  “Don’t rightly know,” said the farmer, “we can’t catch ’em.”

Aaah…unintended consequences. We deal with them all the time.  They become the ‘Ishmaels’ of many of our troubles; things we set in motion, that seemed like a good idea at the time, end up turning around and biting us.  Then, we live with the regret.  Even practices and habits that shape our lives can morph into an inescapable prison.  As a result, we tend to want to reside within a rigid box of familiarity, afraid to leave its comfort.

Inadvertently, we also have unintended consequences within church.  For instance, our creation of church buildings has ended up limiting us and binding us to bricks and mortar.  Michael Frost in his book, “The Shaping of Things to Come,” points out several problems with what he calls our “sacred spaces.”  Unwittingly, what we created has turned around and created and shaped us.

For example, by viewing the church building as a “sacred space,” we teach one another two untruths:  First, we say to everyone that there is “sacred” space and there is “secular” space.  By this we communicate that God inhabits and speaks in one place but not “that other” arena.  This dichotomy has not always existed in Christian practice and belief.  The question is: How has this unintended consequence hindered and prevented ministry in and to our world?

The second untruth we teach one another, then, is that God can only work within our “sacred” space (specifically called “the sanctuary”) and that He cannot or does not work in the “secular” spaces (workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, schools, stores, parks, etc).  We treat our sacred space with special holiness (“Don’t run in church!”) and disregard the behavior that happens outside its walls.

We communicate to everyone that we go to church to “meet God” with the unintended implication being that He can’t be met anywhere else.  Therefore, if anyone out in the world wants to “meet God,” he or she must come to our sacred space – church – to do it!  The church and its leaders must ask themselves: How has this unintended consequence hampered the advancement of the Kingdom and the fulfillment of the Great Commission?

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ ministry happened in what we today would identify as the “secular world”? He was accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” because of who He chose to associate with during His ministry.  The religious people got mad at Him for spending more time with “the sinners and tax collectors” than with them in their “sacred spaces” – the synagogues and the temple.  The majority of his ministry took place outside the officially recognized “sacred spaces” of religious leaders.  Instead, he preached and did the work of God’s Kingdom along lake shores, hill tops, rivers, roads, courtyards and homes.  His meetings tended to be held in work places, around dinners and parties as well as some impromptu wide open spaces found in nature.

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

John Wesley and the early Methodists were examples of this attitude toward the world. They were early practicers of the outdoor revival meetings.  John Wesley was castigated and stoned for preaching outside the walls of the church.  John Wesley said, “Preach abroad…It is the cooping yourselves up in rooms that has damped the work of God, which never was and never will be carried out to any purpose without going out into the highways and hedges and compelling them to come in.”  This fervor for preaching the gospel in the market places of society launched the Methodist church into becoming a cultural and world change agent in the early 19th century.  Early on, they viewed the whole world as God’s sanctuary.

Likewise, Jesus saw the whole world as sacred – belonging to God and a place to meet God.  Everywhere was a sacred place where “the glory of God could be revealed.”  His teachings and miracles were performed along fishing wharfs, beaches, hilltops, fields, dusty roads, riverbanks, market places, city wells, graveyards, streets, and any number of other places.  Here is the challenge to the church today:  Are these still the places where God’s people, doing the work and ministry of Jesus, are found today?  Or, have we abandoned these places and the people in them for our carefully built and maintained sanctuaries?

An example of the Jesus-type of ministry found in the Gospels can be seen in the early Pentecostal movement of the late 19th/early 20th century. In its inception, the movement was not particularly enamored with buildings.  Ministries mostly resided in the storefronts and market places of communities.  These revivalist and reformers practiced teaching and praying for miracles on the streets, even loudly (some would say obnoxiously) praising and worshipping God publicly.  Remember, the Azusa Street Revival started in a home and moved to an abandoned warehouse (which, incidentally, had been a Methodist Church building before it became a warehouse).  The movement spread like wildfire through “cottage prayer meetings” and tent revival meetings.

The greatest growth of the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal churches occurred during the years that the movement was evangelistic, missionary, and church planting focused.  For the most part, in recent decades it has moved beyond such foundational and formational efforts to ministry maintenance centered on keeping its sacred spaces clean and open.

Effective ministry has been replaced with maintaining bureaucratic status quo for the sake of organizational stability.  Like other revivalist and reformation movements before it, its leaders soon wanted buildings “like all the other religions.”  Soon, these fast growing Pentecostal denominations moved “across the tracks” to the better part of town and became accepted, for the most part, among all the other Evangelical denominations.

Like the farmer with the three-legged chicken, I’m left wondering if the church is not simply chasing what we have created.  I believe one of the greatest challenges of the American church is to leave our “sacred spaces” and invade the streets and market places of our communities with God’s presence in God’s people.  Across the board denominationally – as the church-universal – I sense that there is a need to return to our first love and first calling – focused on evangelism, missions and church planting.

The whole church needs to regain the ability to see the whole world as the place where God wants to work and move and have His being.  He has called us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.  Too long we have focused upon not being “of” the world and have forgotten how to effectively be “in” the world.  How can we become “vocal and visible” doing the work of Christ in the world again?  I suspect the answer to that question was Jesus’ intended consequence for building his Kingdom on earth upon the lives of his people.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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