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Posts Tagged ‘American Evangelicals’

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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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It has become a part of American pop-theology that the Christian life is to be one that is safe for the believer.  We are told that “God will meet all your needs” and “He will never give you more than you can handle” or that “All things work together for good.”  The longer down this road of following Jesus I have gone the more convinced I am that such trite approaches to our faith, while comforting, should be jettisoned.

In fact, I appreciate more than ever John Bunyan‘s take on the Christ-follower’s journey in his allegorical story “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” He wrote it while in prison from 1660 to 1672.  (He later served another short six-month stint in 1675.)  He was put there because he dared to have religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England.  It turns out that he was a forerunner to John Wesley who got into the same trouble with the Church of England when he dared to preach the Gospel in the out-of-doors.

In John Bunyan’s story, the main character, Christian, embarks upon a journey from the “City of Destruction” (i.e. “this world”) to the “Celestial City” (i.e. “heaven”).  Part of Christian’s struggle on his journey is the burden he constantly carries, which represents his sin.  However, his largest problems come by the way of distractions and obstacles that meet him all along the way.  It’s a great story and I encourage you to read it in a modern translation.

I believe John Bunyan’s description of the Christ-followers life and journey is a lot more accurate than the 20th century version that many American evangelicals have grown up with in their generation.  My personal experience is that the Christian life and journey truly is a long-distance race or a Greco-style wrestling match as described by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

In fact, I am convinced that following the way of Jesus is one of the most dangerous things a person can do.  It certainly does not fit into the mainstream of the rest of culture – or it should not anyway.  Following Christ means that he will lead you to a cross that you must pick up and carry just as he did (Luke 9:23).  This is called the cruciform life; a life formed after the crucified savior that dies to self and sin.  We want to celebrate the victorious resurrected life, but it turns out that the journey leads us to a cross before it leads us to a resurrection and glorification with Christ.

Jesus did not seem to be too greatly concerned with his follower’s safety.  In fact, he made it plain that if he was persecuted, so would his followers be persecuted.  If he was reviled and rejected, so his true followers would be reviled and rejected.  A servant is not greater than his master and should not expect better treatment he teaches us.  Still want to sign up to go on this journey?

Following Jesus is certainly not for the faint of heart or the second guesser.  You are either all in or all out.  You are following someone who kept moving, had no regular bed, no home and no promise of the next meal.  His journey with the Heavenly Father was one of faith and obedience too.  He expects no less from those who call him Master.

When Jesus prays his High Priestly prayer in the Gospel of John we should not be surprised then that he prays for his followers protection (17:11, 12).  Why?  Because just as the world hated Jesus so they are going to hate and abuse his followers (17:15).  However, in his prayer he specifically asks, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but protect them” (17:15).  This reminds me of the angel who came to the Apostle Paul in the middle of a fierce Mediterranean storm and told him, so he could tell the crew, “We’re going to shipwreck!  But it’ll be OK!” (Acts 27:23 – 26).  I would not know whether to be scared spit-less or relieved!

It seems to me that “the narrow way” is meant to be difficult precisely because it is, well, “narrow”. On the other hand, “the broad way that leads to destruction” would be smoothly paved with comfort and convenience.  If you have ever traveled a really narrow mountain road, you know what this is alluding to here.  If you have hiked the narrow inclines of a mountain peak, you know there is not a lot of room for error.  Still, he prays for our protection and offers his presence.  I am inclined to wonder sometimes, Why “this way”?  Could there not be an easier one?

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When Jesus sent out his disciples to minister in villages he made no promise for their safety.  In fact, he told them, “Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  No wonder he assigned the journey and did not ask for volunteers.  It turns out that he was sending them to towns and places he was preparing to go to anyway.  Why not just hang back with him and go with him?  At least, that would have been my choice.  But no, he sends them ahead of him.

I think that this is his modus operandi and that it has not changed in two thousand years.  He is inviting all those who would follow him to take a dangerous journey.  It is not safe.  All your personal resources (“purse or bag or sandals” – v. 4), you are not to take along.  You are to completely rely upon him – his guidance and unseen presence and available power (Luke 10:9, 16).  When you get where you are going, you are to await his arrival by announcing to everyone who will hear, “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11).

So, I propose that we change the popular message of American evangelicalism to say, “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life that takes you to a cross and ends in a resurrection.”  In John Bunyan’s tale of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian and his friend, Hopeful, make it to the Celestial City.  However, it was a dangerous and adventurous journey.  It is the kind of dangerous journey that is more similar to what we get from the New Testament anyway.

When a person has a chance to visit other parts of the world where Christians live in hostile religious and civil environments, the pop-theology of the America evangelical culture does not fit.  A reading of a magazine such as The Voice of the Martyrs will clearly portray just how dangerous it is to live a Christian life and profess a Christian faith in many parts of the world.  The life and journey that Christ calls us to is not a safe one.  It is not an easy one.  It is a dangerous one.  His only guarantee is that you will lose your life; but doing so will allow him to save it.  It is a dangerous journey following him.  It is your decision:  all in or all out?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)


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What Church People Learn – Part 3 and Conclusion

Part 3 and Conclusion –

Workable models and methods that transform lives and so transform communities are available all over the world. This is where the American church might be wise to humbly learn from her brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.  There are places in the world where the church is growing rapidly.  More important than just growth, however, is the transforming power the message of Jesus and the way of Jesus is having upon whole sub-culture groups.

This will require the American churches and their leadership to admit that:

  1. For the most part, what is presently being done is not working and is not sustainable;
  2. The American church no longer has all the answers to address the world’s problem;
  3. The American churched that birthed so much of the 19th and 20th century missions movements is now in need of missions help itself; and,
  4. Change must take place before the changes of our American culture make the American church wholly irrelevant.

There will be no one method or model that will work in every ministry context in America. The diversity of our cities and even our rural areas require flexibility and creativity.  Nevertheless, any method or model must answer a few simple questions:

  • Does this actually lead to obedience to the way of Jesus that will transform lives?
  • Is the reproducible from one believer to another, one church to another?
  • Does this encourage indigenous leadership, that is, does it raise up leadership from within the church instead of relying on leadership to come from outside of it?
  • Does this engage the larger ministry context of the community, town, or city and seek to bring transformation through Kingdom living and influence?  Or, in other words, what Kingdom benefit is brought to the surrounding culture?
  • Is it self-sustaining?  Or, will it burden the church with constantly “feeding the dragon” to keep it going?
  • Is it simple enough that children and young people will be able to communicate it and follow-through with it?

Much of the ministries in American churches today demand professional clergy leadership. On the other hand, in mission movements where the church is experience not simply growth but multiplication, there is not that luxury!  And yet, the church continues to thrive and grow.  Statistically, American church growth experts tell us that, overall, the higher the level of clergy education the less effective the church becomes (which will have to be a topic for another time).  I am not arguing for Scriptural ignorance, but simply pointing out that perhaps the way we educate and disciple is the wrong model and not working today.

Even in America, fast growing church that are effective in creating genuine followers of Jesus have learned to adapt and adopt many of the same methods used by missionaries and their agencies overseas.

First, they quickly embed new believers into the Body of Christ and a small group of believers to learn spiritual life through prayer, Scripture, worship and witness.

Second, they expect believers to disciple or mentor new believers and new believers to share their new story with unbelievers in their circle of influence.

Then, they look for radical obedience to the words and ways and Jesus and target those individuals to start new churches or lead small groups of believers.

Notice that all education and spiritual transformation occurs within the context of relationships, ministry and obedient devotion to Jesus.

Beach Pebbles, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Is this process messy?  It sure is!  But then, I’m not too certain that our current American models are any less messy.  We have just learned to cover it up, not deal with it, and sterilize the after-effects.  It is all about keeping up appearances for our professional image.

The New Testament church was very messy.  Amidst the rapidly growing young church, there were all kinds of problems.  (Read the New Testament letters to the churches!)  The apostle Paul did not seem to care if he made them public.  He asserted that dealing with disobedience publicly demanded proper reverence for the Lord, his church and those the Lord placed in authority over it.  At the same time, public affirmation and reconciliation, according to Paul’s methods, also testified to the restorative power of the message of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

By depending upon professional clergy for every aspect of church movement and growth, what we have we taught church people?

  • Church people have learned that they cannot teach others unless they are properly educated and trained.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot lead others in worship unless they have the right credentials.
  • Church people have learned that only professional clergy really know how to pray.
  • Church people have learned that there only purpose is to support the pastor and cheer him or her on in her Kingdom efforts.
  • Church people have learned that ministry is what happens on the church platform, not what happens in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods or other gathering places.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot really understand the Bible unless they have gone to Bible School or Seminary.

I do not know any pastor in America that would say that these are the things that he set out to teach his parishioners.  It seems to occur by default simply because of the model for ministry we utilize and the methods we use.  I know for certain, in fact, that many, if not most, American pastors beat their heads against the wall because they see the effects of ministry presently and are frustrated by it.  Almost every church leadership person that I have come across feels trapped by the structures presently at work.

Perhaps what are needed in order to teach and train church people differently are new churches.  For myself, as I talk to pastors, missionaries and other leaders, I perceive that a church renewal or reformation is on the horizon.  I pray that the leadership presently in place in our American churches and denominations embrace it.  I pray that we will be brave enough to welcome the change into a new wineskin.  Hopefully, the result will be that we will give church people something different to learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 2

Continued…

Another key to life transformation involves teaching for obedience not knowledge.  This last point may be the most important of all.  In our Western mindset and focus upon education, we have assumed: Education = Life Change.  In some cases this is true.  In many cases it is not.  This is probably no more clear than in the evidence we see in the quality of the followers of Jesus coming from our churches today.

Even though we have for the last 40 years stressed Christian Education in our local churches, our congregants have not grown more knowledgeable and obedient to God’s Word.  The evidence points to the fact that they have grown less so.  A number of recent surveys by the Barna Research Group point this out very clearly.  Our continued focus upon knowledge of doctrine and Scriptural truths apart from obedience nullifies our efforts to make followers of Jesus.

We must come to grip with the fact that teaching people what is commanded is not the same as teaching obedience to what is commanded.  We can confirm doctrinal knowledge, why can’t we confirm doctrinal obedience?  We should be as concerned with orthopraxy (correct practice of the faith) as we are with orthodoxy (correct beliefs about the faith).  This begins with our church leadership.

Somewhere between Bible School or Seminary and pastoral ministry and leadership the ball has been dropped in spiritual formation.  We have tended to advance people to leadership based upon their knowledge quotient, not their obedience quotient.  More time and effort is put into knowing the doctrines of the church denomination than whether the person’s spiritual and social life is obediently aligned with God’s Word.

In fact, it is not uncommon today to even make allowances for deviations in denominational beliefs and practices to gain church leaders!  As long as someone has taken the required courses to produce the sufficient theological education for ministry, it is assumed one is qualified.  How many times has that been proven wrong?

It is no wonder, then, that the measurement of spirituality in our churches is knowledge not obedience.  In today’s church model, the pulpit ministry is teaching oriented because right belief and thinking is considered most important.  Likewise, confirmation and doctrinal classes for church membership are important so that a person can knowingly agree with what the church believes and practices.  However, rarely do we measure and look at the level of a person’s obedience.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We are too individualistic of a church and society to do that today.  Are we willing to be held to that kind of accountability?  Most American church parishioners as well as their leadership shudder as such a notion.  However, the apostle Paul threatened to make a personal visit to the Corinthian church and deal with a couple of immoral individuals if they did not practice church discipline themselves (1 Cor. 5).  In fact, he commands the Corinthian believers to expel the two and to disassociate with anyone who says they are a Christian but practices immorality.  According to the apostle Paul, judging those outside the church is not the business of the church, but judging those inside is its business.  Obedience was paramount!

Does that sound pretty harsh?  Unfortunately, in our individualistic church culture, the mantra has become, “You can’t judge me!”  This is usually followed up by a really bad misquoting of Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged!”  In fact, the church and its leadership are commanded to judge and deal with sin within the Body of Christ.  Unfortunately, church discipline is something rarely practiced today.  On the other hand, Jesus takes it so seriously that he warned the Christians at Thyatira that he would come and judge them personally if they did not deal with the immorality among them (Rev. 2:20 – 25).  Could it be that Jesus is coming to judge some churches today?

What we have managed to teach church people is that it does not matter what you do as long as you have right beliefs.  Church people have learned that personal comfort and convenience are more important in measuring their satisfaction with church than how much their lives are changed.

  • What church people learn is that it is OK to worship on Sunday at church but act like a jerk at home and work the rest of the week.
  • What they learn is that it does not matter what you do as long as you believe in Jesus and some of the stuff in the Bible.
  • What church people learn is that, as long as one has been baptized and confirmed into the church, sexual promiscuity, pornography, drunkenness and recreational drug use is permissible.
  • What church people learn is that as long as one is sorry for their sins, receive the Eucharist or communion and responds to an altar call, then returning to the same sin again has no real consequences.
  • What church people learn is that going it alone in their spiritual journey is the norm rather than going with others and being under spiritual authority.

What Jesus commanded from his followers, and so his church, is polar opposite.  The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18 – 20) does not require us to “go and teach them to know all I have said” but rather to “go and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”  Knowledge does not seem to be the key ingredient to creating genuine followers of Jesus, obedience does.  Can knowledge lead to obedience?  Sure.  Does it?  No.  Yet, it seems that most churches rely on this one strategy to make disciples of the Lord.

True affection for the Lord is not measured by what we know or even by what we feel but our obedience:  “If you love me you will obey what I command…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. [Then] My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15, 23, 24).  It is pretty clear that in Jesus’ eyes obedience is the proof of love.

Jesus did not seem to mind drawing a line in the sand when it came to someone’s obedience.  He seemed pretty content to let individuals choose whether they were going to follow him or not.  He was not consumed with trying to be the rabbi with the most followers or the most popular spiritual teacher or the prophet with the biggest crowds.  He was willing to allow people to walk away because obedience to the Heavenly Father was more important than knowledge of the Heavenly Father.

Church people learn just the oppositewhat is important is knowledge of God not actual obedience to God.  However, the words of the apostle John challenge us and our way of “doing business as usual” when he wrote, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 1:3) and “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (1 John 3:20).  According to John, knowledge is not the test of whether an individual really knows God and has a relationship with him.  Obedience is the test.

It might be time to change our discipleship methods and models.  What worked in the past will not solve the problems we face today or will face in the future.  It is up to churches and their leadership to make the changes and transitions that will shape and form the lives of those that are in their spiritual care.  This might mean a radical shift in what and how we teach church people.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 1

There is a cute story about a little girls sitting with her mother in church.  The service had dragged on for what seemed like an interminable amount of time to the little one with a short attention span.  Once of twice she sighed heavily, enough for the people around her to hear.  Embarrassed, her mother leaned over and tried to quietly shush her.  Finally, anxious to go home so she could play, in the middle of the pastor’s sermon that little girl turned toward her mommy and none too quietly asked, “If we give him our money now, can we go home?”

I am sure that more than one parishioner has felt trapped by a Sunday worship service or a long sermon.  I have been on both sides of the pulpit.  I know the pressure on the preacher to develop and deliver the best sermon of his life every Sunday to gain the approval of his listeners – or at least keep most of them awake.  I have also sat in the pew or chair and wondered if the preacher would not have been better off to just have dismissed everyone before the sermon; everyone would probably have been better off.

In today’s technology driven culture, now the preacher is not just required to be a great story teller, professional theologian, expert exegete of the biblical languages but also good at computer technology and its use in communication.  Meanwhile, the average congregant becomes more and more of a spectator in a multi-media driven event.  After it is all over, the question most often asked is, “Did it entertain and keep my attention?”

The real question of life transformation is rarely asked.  The occasional altar call, for those churches that still practice that regularly, may offer some emotional response to a message.  Often such tactics merely offer emotional release without bringing true life change.  The crisis at the altar does not seem to equate to lasting change at home or at work.  The question for every church and its leadership is simply this: “How do we measure life change and transformation?”

Perhaps we need to change our approach and measure our “successes” differently.  Most church leaders get real excited when the church is full.  This is what I have come to call “Measuring Butts, Bucks and Buildings.”  A few may express joy over responses to an altar call.  However, rarely is the question asked, “What happened while they were here?”

As such, we in the American church have trained church people that only two things are really required of them. First is that the most important thing for them to do is simply show up on Sunday morning, hopefully give in the offering and listen to music and a sermon.  We want them so that we can count them.  The second thing is that it is important for them to learn how church is done (or our particular model of it anyway) and what it (or our particular stream of the Christian faith) teaches.  We want them to indoctrinate them.

The larger question that begs to be answered is, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya’ ?”  I think for the vast majority of churches and their congregants in America that the honest answer would be, “It ain’t.”  It is not working.  Even though we have more and more churches; more and more well-educated clergy; and, more and more people who call themselves Christians, our American culture is becoming more and more un-Christian.

As a church leader myself, one of the things that drove me to distraction was parishioners who could sit through years of sermons and live unchanged lives.  There were those that appeared at every altar call and were the most exuberant in their worship and yet had horribly dysfunctional relationships and addictions.  It did not seem to matter how much I as the “spiritual leader” prayed and prepared for each Sunday, the fact remained that a large part of the congregation remained unchanged from week to week.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It has taken being out of ministry for the last year-and-a-half to gain a little more objectivity and a different perspective.  Talking with friends still in active pastoral ministry and reading and writing and processing has brought me to some different conclusions than I would have drawn two years ago.  And, while I attend a great church with a great pastoral staff and wonderful weekly worship, I look at how we are training followers of Jesus and have to ask a couple of questions.

First, does our method need to change?  Do we need a new model for making disciples?  I am more and more believing that the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!”  While the gospel message and the truths and doctrines will not change, how we go about shaping the lives of those in the care of the average church needs to be rethought.  Ministry context will determine the answer and solution to this but there are two things that I believe will transform lives and better form genuine followers of Jesus.

  1. Whatever method or model we use must require participation not spectatorship in ministry and service.  This will mean things will get messy because everyone involved will be in “training on the job” and may not always get it right or do it to “professional” standards.  Imagine a church service where the laity is heavily involved.  Most of us cringe at that because we want the convenience and comfort of being served up a professional sound and image every Sunday.  There are many ways to be involved: organizing the service, testimonies, Scripture readings, prayers, as well as input and help on sermon preparation.  I am sure there are other ways besides just reading the announcements.
  2. Whatever method or model we use must involve whole group and small group interaction.  This will mean breaking generational barriers that have been created in our churches by specialized ministries. Cross-generational ministry and relationships must be freed-up and allowed to shape the church.   Striving to put people into groups that relate together and work together strengthens not weakens the church.  It requires living out the gospel in the context of relationships within the Body of Christ.  Presently, the model of coming, sitting, looking at the back of the head in front of you, smiling and leaving is not working.

Second, do our goals and what we measure need to change?  Do we need to strive for different outcomes when we gather together?  This is probably more important than what is above.  Instead of measuring butts, bucks and buildings, the goal is to measure the lives of those changed.  One key to life transformation is engagement in a Kingdom lifestyle that produces followers and leaders.  Start asking these questions after every service and event:

  1. What disengaged person(s) or spiritually uninterested person(s) came to our church event to check out what we are about?
  2. What person(s) not a part of our church fellowship last year, last month, last week committed to join it?
  3. What unchurched person(s) who were not engaged with following Jesus are now actively following Jesus?
  4. What person(s) intermittently involved and/or attending committed to being more actively engaged in ministry to others?
  5. What person(s) actively attending but unengaged in ministry committed to an active part in ministry?
  6. What person(s) regularly involved in ministry has stepped up to take a leadership role in it?
  7. What person(s) involved in a leadership role in ministry has trained and released another leader into that ministry?
  8. What person(s) actively involved in our church’s ministry and leadership has decided to launch into a ministry in the larger Kingdom as a missionary or other full-time service?

These questions push a congregation and its leadership to measure something other than attendance and offerings.  These questions get to the real question of what lives are being changed and shaped.  They measure how effective a church is reaching those unreached and unchurched around it.  They also measure how well a church is raising up other disciples and leaders for ministry.

These questions also dismiss the inordinate attention given today in the U.S. to church size.  A church of any size and in any context can be successful with what the Lord puts in its area of influence and responsibility.  Some rural small churches are much more effective at these measurements than most large suburban churches because their size necessitates the involvement of everyone!  This is also true of small urban churches.

Statistics tell us that small and medium sized churches are much more effective at raising up genuine disciples than large ones because of that singular fact.  It turns out that what church people learn in a small or medium sized church is more life-changing that what they will learn in a large church.  So, what do church people learn by what we are modeling and teaching them?  Not what we think or hope it turns out.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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