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Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

Some lessons in life can only be learned by personal experience. Others can tell you about them, teach you them, help you study to be prepared for them and even explain them.  However, the only way for a person to learn to ride a bike is to one day get on it and try to ride it.  The only way a person is going to learn to drive a car is actually get behind the wheel of one and take it around town.  Nothing prepares one for these lessons but personal experience.

Sometimes it is that way with our spiritual journeys too. There are some things about our relationship with the Creator that can only be learned by personal engagement and interaction.  We will never learn them vicariously through someone else’s experiences.  No Bible study or theological lesson can fully prepare us or help us appreciate certain aspects of the journey unless we experience them for ourselves.

One of the benefits of certain renewal movements within the Church has been an emphasis upon personal experience. While it should never trump Scriptural revelation, there is something certainly powerful about personal revelation into the nature and character of God.  After all, someone can go on all they want about the power and beauty of standing on a mountain peak.  But personally standing there and experiencing the exhilaration is something quite different all together.

Some of us have to trust the pictures, stories, and experiences shared by others. On the other hand, some of us get to experience it for ourselves.  We become a part of sharing the story.

I grew up with a Christian religious background that cherished personal experiences with God. It was one thing to have personal knowledge of God.  Our sect took, and continues to take in most circles, great pride in personal experiences.  So, it has been no surprise to me when God in certain seasons of my life has “showed up” in ways that surprised and delighted me.

In my early spiritual formation, I attended a Bible College in Kirkland, Washington, now called Northwest University, after High School. There I shaped and honed spiritual disciplines that still guide me today.  Aside from the general education courses and Bible or theology courses, the opportunity to discover my own spiritual stride for my journey greatly informed my future.

The Winter quarter of my freshman year, I learned from the College’s financial aide office that I would not be allowed to return for the Spring quarter because of my outstanding bills. I owed more than $1,200.  I would need to pay that balance before I could continue to attend.

At the time, I was working at an Exxon gas station in Totem Lake, Washington. The owners were two brothers who were really nice.  They were not Christians but nevertheless hired guys from the Bible College because we all were honest and had a good work ethic.  I appreciated the job, but it just was not enough to keep ahead of my school bills.  I was going to have to inform them that I would have to quit my job as well as school and return home to where my parents lived near Sea-Tac.

The school had given me notice at mid-quarter, so I figured I had a couple of weeks ‘to see what would happen.’ I am not sure what I was expecting would happen, but I have always tried to keep an optimistic outlook.  So, I continued classes determined that I would at least finish that quarter.  If worse came to worse, then I would find work from home and possibly come back for the Fall quarter.

In the mean time, I had started the practice of scheduling one of my class-time slots on my schedule for a time of prayer and reflection in the Men’s Dorm Prayer Chapel. I found it helped me keep a regular schedule for prayer.  I also found the quiet time in the Chapel refreshing.  So, during this time, I added my dilemma about school, paying my school bill and what to do about my job to my list of prayer needs.

As the quarter wound down, my prayer times grew a little more desperate. I may have been the uncertainty of my future, but I found myself praying more intense and intentional prayers.  After all, I needed direction.  I needed answers.  I needed help!

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It finally came to the point where I needed to do the right thing by my employers and give them my “two weeks notice.” This is a kindness of employees to employers that allows them time to find another employee to replace them and so not disrupt the work place.  I planned on giving notice on a Friday.  At the beginning of the week, on a Monday morning in the Men’s Dormitory Prayer Chapel, I offered God another chance to throw out a rope and rescue me.  Otherwise, I was determined to see it as a closed door.  I was even strongly considering not coming back to college.  I was second guessing everything.

I was perhaps exhausted from struggling with the whole situation in my mind. The stress of the unknown and uncertain weighed heavily down upon me like a 110 lb. sack of sand.  It was in this state that I dumped everything upon the prayer bench in the prayer chapel.  I had no answers, no direction, and seemingly no help.

After expending all my words and thoughts, I fell silent. The room echoed my silence back to me.  My head rested on the prayer bench as I sat upon the floor with my eyes closed tight.

There was nothing. Nothing came to mind.  No brilliant idea.  No flash of inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard a voice speak audibly, “You’ll be here next quarter.”

I opened my eyes started and looked around because I thought that I was alone.  There was no one in the room with me.  Yet, the voice was clear and unmistakable.  I blinked in the dimly lit room.

The words bounced around in my head:You’ll be here next quarter.”  With those words, an unexplained settledness sent upon me.  A certainty about my future filled my heart.  Someway, somehow, I knew without a shadow of any doubt that I would most definitely be at school next quarter.  I took the words only I heard and the feeling only I felt as a gift from God.

I got up and went to get ready for my next class. I had to go to my room to gather a couple of books.  When I entered my room, my roommate was there.  Do I tell him what I just experienced?

As if on cue he asked, “Hey, have you figured out what you’re going to do for next quarter?”

Shaken, I replied, “I’m not sure yet.  Why?”

He looked a little anxious, “Well, I may have another roommate lined up.  That’s all.  If you’re not going to be here that is.”

With as determined a look as I could give him I said emphatically, “I will be here next quarter.  You can count on it.”

You are?” he looked surprised.  “How do you know?”

God told me,” I said and turned and left the room.  I didn’t want to chance seeing him laugh at me.  We were at a Bible College to learn about God, after all, not actually believe God.

As the week continued, I held on to that experience in the Men’s Dorm Chapel. It became an anchor.  However, the question of what to do with my job at the Exxon station came to a conclusion that Friday.  Friday came and I still had no way to pay for school.  The settled assurance that I was still going to be in school next quarter had not left me.  I came to my own conclusion that however God provided for me to be there it was not going to be through the brothers who owned the Exxon gas station.

As soon as I got to the station that Friday afternoon, I called one of the brothers aside and explained my problem. I told him that I really appreciated the job and really like working there.  However, since I was not going to be able to continue at school, I was going to have to move back home with my parents.  Therefore, I would have to quit my job.  He still had two weeks before finals and I would have to move out.

Working with college students, I am certain that both of those brothers had heard the same story over and over before. He thanked me for letting him know.  He said he liked my work and was going to miss me.

He shook my hand and said, “I’ll let my brother know.  If you know anyone who wants a job, let them know to come and talk to us.”  And with that, we went our separate ways doing our own jobs at the station.

Later that day, he and his brother announced that they were going to catch dinner and would be back. They had a back-log of cars to work on and wanted to use part of the evening to catch up.  I busied myself with pumping gas for customers and repairing tires.  Soon they returned.

As I was walking through one of the bays, the brother I approached earlier in the day came up to me and handed out an envelope.

My brother and I were talking over dinner and decided we wanted to help you pay for college.  We’ve never done this,” he explained.  “But he and I just felt we needed to do this for you.”

I was dumbfounded.  “You guys don’t have to do that.  If I can’t pay back college, how am I going to pay you guys back?”

You don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Whatever you are able to pay, you pay back.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

I was humbled by their generosity.  “Thank you so much,” I offered.

Well,” he muttered half to himself as much as to me, “we do expect you to stick around and work with us.  And don’t tell the other guys.  We don’t want anyone to start thinking that we are a charity or college loan fund.”  He smiled and winked at me.

I understand,” I said.  “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  Thanks.

When I got back to my dormitory room late that night, I took the envelope out and opened it. The check that was written out to me was enough to settle my past school bill as well as get me well on the way paying for the next quarter’s tuition and books.  It dawned upon me that I never told them how much I owed on my bill.

I sat on the side of my bed amazed that God would not only personally give me reassurance about where my future lie, but that he would also use to non-Christian employers to help meet the need. It all defies explanation.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But most certainly divinely ordered ones.  I still think of those two brothers often and pray for them.

Now, I could have studied many Scriptures on God’s provision; even memorized many of them. I could also have read many personal experiences of others about how God provided for them.  None of that could or would have the impact upon my life in the same way as God surprising me by speaking to me in a chapel, reassuring me in my heart and then working out the details in the most surprising way.  It has helped to keep my eyes open to other ways God wants to surprise me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a need today for just plain common sense.  Here is some sage wisdom from an old farmer who has been around the barnyard a few times:

* Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.
* Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.
* Words that soak into your ears are whispered…not yelled.
* Meanness don’t jes’ happen overnight.
* It don’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.
* Every path has a few puddles.
* When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
* Most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna’ happen anyway.
* Don’t interfere with somethin’ that ain’t botherin’ you none.
* If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.
* Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got.
* The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror every mornin’.
* Always drink upstream from the herd.
* Good judgment comes from experience, and a ‘lotta that comes from bad judgment.
* Lettin’ the cat outta’ the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back in.
* If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.

Such simple proverbs boil life down to simple, memorable truths.  Isn’t it amazing that much of life’s problems have simple solutions?  Unfortunately, our sinful human nature’s propensity is to complicate life.  I am sure that it is the work of the devil to make life more burdensome and complicated.  It does not have to be.  Our heavenly Father did not design life to run in the ‘fast and furious’ mode.

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus described life in his kingdom as “blessed/happy,” “fully free,” “abundant life,” and “abiding.”  Does that sound like your life?  If not, it may be time to re-focus.  Can you boil what is important down to a few simple things?  Jesus did and made it simple for us.

First, he said, “Abide in me.  Apart from me you can do nothing.” All life comes from him.  In his teaching of the vine in John 15, Jesus plainly and pointedly teaches us where our life must find its source.  How are you connected to him – the vine – through personal prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with other saints, serving others and worship?

There is no substitute for prioritizing our life around him and the way his life flows to and through us.  Your journey as a disciple of the Lord Jesus begins with your own desire and initiative to ‘connect’ your life with his life.  No one can do that for you.

The distractions of life brought about by our self-pleasing desires (think ‘lusts’) and goals (think ‘pride’) do more to rob us of living fully in the kingdom of God now than anything else.  We try to either pay off the past or store up for an uncertain future.

Does this bring us any real peace or satisfaction? No.  There is always something more.  Standing opposite these distractions, Jesus is calling us to tarry with him right now.  He is calling us into his rest, peace, joy, and abundant life.

Second, he said, “Follow me.  I will make you fishers of men.” Witnessing and bearing our testimony about Jesus is not as much a duty or a formula as it is a natural result of following Jesus.  If you ‘abide in the vine,’ you will bear fruit.

Showing and telling Jesus to the world will be a natural product of our lives as we learn to follow/abide in Jesus.  Abiding is in the promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8, because when they ‘wait in Jerusalem’ they would ‘receive power to be witnesses’ of Jesus.  See the connection?  Jesus promises to make us witnesses – “I will make you” – who bear testimony to his work and work.

As we focus upon the ultimate goal of knowing Jesus intimately through prayer, bible study, serving, sharing, and worship, the natural byproduct will be making Jesus known to the people around us in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.  In this way, we will ‘fish’ for people who are seeking God.  Notice that the key word is “fish” and not “catch.”

One thing I have learned over the years is that there is a reason why people call it fishing and not catching!  Some days I don’t catch anything – or don’t even have a nibble!  Those are discouraging days.

Similarly, as “fishers of men and women” our concern is not with the catching but with the fishing. The Holy Spirit is the Great Catcher of men’s and women’s hearts and souls.  Only he can draw a person to the Father, convict of sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come, and sanctify a person’s heart.

Our duty is to be the lure, the net, the hook to attract lost people.  The only way to be such is to focus on the ultimate goal of being with Jesus.  Isn’t that so much easier?  Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?  Sounds like just plain common sense to me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, J.r (2010)

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Beyond Our Inabilities

In a day and age where sports stars loom larger than life, it is hard to settle for being average.  It is painful being below average in anything!  How can you compare with the likes of a Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Williams, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, or Tiger Woods?  It would seem that the world doesn’t have a place for your average ‘Joe’ or ‘Josephine’.

The wonderful thing we find in a relationship with God, and confirmed in the Bible, is that God does use the average person.  In fact, God uses people in spite of any weaknesses or inabilities.  The Bible story seems to tell us that God delights in using the average, ordinary person to do extraordinary things in his creation and kingdom.

Throughout the Bible we find stories about God interacting with people who have all sorts of inadequacies.  Moses stuttered too much to be a spokesperson.  Caleb was too old to go off to battle.  David was too young to be a national leader.  Elijah suffered depression.  Josiah, made king as a child, was much too young and inexperienced to start a national spiritual revival and renewal.  Peter was too compulsive and hotheaded to be a pastor-leader.  Mark was a quitter and Paul had anger issues.

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Another great example of this is found in the story of Gideon (Judges 6 and 7).  He is someone that God used to deliver Israel from the nation of Midian.  Midian had overrun Israel and sent her people into hiding in the mountains.  They stole crops and cattle, leaving nothing for the Israelites.  Finally, Israel seeks God’s help.  He sends them Gideon.

Gideon is much too timid to be an army general.  He simply lacks the skill set required for such an adventure.  Not only that, but he seems to be somewhat of a doubter.  He is definitely not “a man of faith and power for the hour” that is for sure.  Gideon confronts the Lord with a series of troubling questions:  Why has this happened to us?  Where are all the miracles we were told about as kids?  Why has the Lord abandoned us?  (In other words, where is God when evil is present?)

Gideon’s story teaches us that God is not bound or limited by human misunderstanding or mysteries.  He is not thrown off course by what is humanly unexplainable.  Only God has the capacity to understand everything.  Nothing is a mystery to Him.  Plus, he is not put off by us because of our doubts and lack of faith.  The Lord God seems to have enough confidence in his own power and ability to accomplish whatever he wills.  He’s just looking for a little cooperation, which, indeed, will require a little faith and action on our part.

The Lord tells Gideon to “go in the strength you have.” Since Gideon was real unsure this was a mission he could accomplish, the Lord also told him, “I am sending you.”  God always uses what we have available, which is usually not much.  At the same time, he is not limited by the lack of our abilities, strength, skills or experiences.  He promises to make up the difference with what he has, which are resources way beyond ours.

Gideon’s response is a lot like Moses’ at the burning bush.  It is a barrage of reasons why this plan will not work.  Gideon’s poor self image has taught him that he is powerless and helpless.  His family is on the bottom of the social scale in the tribe of Mannasseh.  Not only that, he is the least of the family, the last born, the smallest.  Plus, he has been living in a nation that has been socialized to expect to be beaten down and on the run.

This is an amazing story that has a principle repeated over and over in the Bible.  It is a story that tells us that God is not bound by the weaknesses we were born with.  Your parents, home life, siblings, birth order, gangs, school, or neighborhood does not limit God’s ability to work in your life.  He is bigger than your genetic or environmental makeup.  He is all-sufficient in himself.  While he does not need us to accomplish anything, he has chosen in his sovereignty to partner with his creation to fulfill his purposes and plans.  So, he is just looking to you and me for a little faith and cooperation.

So, you don’t need to be a superstar.  Average or below average, it doesn’t matter.  God can use you beyond your inability.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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I have come to believe that the most powerful spiritual transformations usually do not take place on Sunday mornings between 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.  Do not get me wrong.  I believe public worship is important.  I think it is powerful when God’s people gather to worship the Lord and hear his Word proclaimed.  I abide by the biblical injunction to “not forsake the gathering of yourselves together.”

Nevertheless, it is not always that brief period of time devoted to Sunday worship services that always dramatically changes us.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us wouldn’t know what to do if God really did “rend the heavens and come down.”  When God’s Spirit does work in someone’s life during that time, we are pleasantly surprised.  I have often joked that the modern American Evangelical has changed the old hymn from “I Need Thee Every Hour” to “I Need Thee One Hour.”  Perhaps we are missing something.

I think we are more like the little girl in church listening to her pastor begin his sermon.  “Dear Lord,” the minister began with arms extended toward heaven and a rapturous look on his upturned face,  “without you, we are but dust.”  He would have continued but, at that moment, the very obedient little girl (who was listening) leaned over to her mother and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice for the rest of the congregation to hear, “Mom, what is butt dust?”

The preacher might as well have laughed with the rest of the congregation and closed in prayer.  Anything he said after that would have been forgotten.  He was trumped by an inquisitive little mind caught in a misunderstanding.  Yet, how many times does that happen to us as adults?  When I was a pastor, I cannot count how many times I had people share their thoughts on a sermon I am certain I did not preach but a few minutes earlier.

Yes, public worship is important and the preaching of God’s Word is paramount to being a fully “Bible-believing” church.  Nonetheless, I have seen deeper and longer lasting spiritual change take place in the lives of God’s people when…

  • they obeyed God at work among unbelievers.
  • they sought his presence and wisdom in a quiet moment of personal devotions.
  • they took a risk to step out in faith and serve in Jesus’ name when they were not sure whether they would meet success or failure.
  • they walked with someone else through a tragedy or trying time with prayer and personal presence.
  • they served out of obedience others who could or would never repay their kindness and devotion.
  • they taught, mentored and discipled others who needed help, guidance and instruction in their spiritual journey.

I have seen ‘spiritual giants’ raised up in living rooms and at kitchen tables.  I have seen ‘wise biblical counselors’ grown in small groups.  I have observed ‘strong servant-leaders’ recognized and promoted while they served ‘the least of these’ among us in small classrooms and nurseries.  I have witnessed growth and spiritual maturity take place in individuals who bravely stepped out and served their community in jails, pregnancy centers, food banks, and homeless shelters.  On the other hand, I have yet to see any of these emerge in an individual who just came and occupied a seat for public worship on Sunday mornings.  In fact, as a pastor/spiritual guide, I have been humbled by the work of the Spirit that did not involve me or my input.

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Are you longing for spiritual transformation? Do you want to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord?  Does your heart yearn to learn God’s ways and find favor with him?  Do you find yourself stuck in the same place on your spiritual journey?  Is there a sense in your spirit that what you need to grow spiritually is a spiritual challenge that requires a risk and step of faith?

It might be that you will need to move your Sunday worship from 10:30am to 12:00 pm into other areas of your life.  Live a life of worship at work.  Make his ‘praise glorious’ among a group of friends you can grow with spiritually.  Learn to serve Jesus by serving ‘the least of these’ in the world around you.  Go ahead.  Risk putting yourself in a position where God must show up and work through you.  You may be surprised at where that journey will take you.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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I sometimes wonder if God does not look down from heaven completely befuddled by our misunderstanding of him and what he wants from us.  After all, he has attempted to communicate to us in our own language(s).  He has given us a real-life example through his own son, Jesus.  And we still, somehow, seem to get it all mixed up and wrong.

It is kind of like the pilot who asked a passenger boarding a plane, “Have you ever flown in a small plane before?”  The passenger answered, “No, I have not.”  Wanting to be helpful, the pilot offered, “Well, here is some chewing gum.  It will help to keep your ears from popping.”

After the plane landed, the pilot checked on the passenger, “Did the gum help?”  The passenger said, “Yep, it worked fine.  The only trouble is, I can’t get the gum out of my ears!”

Was the problem lack of communication, the need for more information, or simple misunderstanding? Sometimes, it is “All the Above” when it comes to me and the Lord.  I am often left looking to heaven, shrugging my shoulders, and saying, “I don’t get it.”  Then I have to remember than I am the finite one with the small brain and he is the infinite one with the omniscience.  That is when I act as Job did:  I put my hand over my mouth and shut up.

The two things we learn about the nature of God right from the beginning in Genesis – the book of beginnings – are that God is creative and communicative.  The first words are, “In the beginning God created…”  The next words about God are, “And God spoke…”  This should tell us something about the Lord God.  First, he likes to interact with his creation.  Second, he likes to do it in a myriad of creative ways.

These truths about the nature and character of God are born out as we continue through the Scriptures and discover all the people he communicates to and all the different ways in which he does so.  God was always speaking and revealing, whether by audible voice, in quietness, or in dreams.  He used angels, men and women, nature, prophets, priests, and kings.  Once, He even used a jackass to get a wayward prophet’s attention.  Another time, the “writing on the wall” delivered an ominous message to a wicked king.  (I, for one, do not ever ask God for “writing on the wall” because of that example.)

If God is so willing and able to communicate with His children, then we must conclude that the line is broken on our end.  We have the problem and not him.  Could it be that we are just like the people that the Lord sent Isaiah to?  We have “eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear and no understanding.”  Are we deaf and dumb to what God is revealing today?  I often wonder if God is not on the other end of the line saying, “Can you hear me now?  How about now?”  He is always trying to get our attention.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

One of the things I have discovered in studying the Scriptures is that communicating with the Lord God was always his idea.  He initiated the conversation.  He made the invitation.  He stretched out His hand in friendship to us first and not the other way around.  The living God invites us to get to know his ways so that we may find favor with him and be called his friend.  After all, you cannot really call someone a friend that you do not actually spend some time with on a regular basis.

Before he left his disciples, Jesus told them, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).  A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you anyway.  A friend knows your likes and dislikes, your desires, your faults, your weaknesses and your deepest fears.  A friend in a constant – through “thick and thin”.  Our heavenly Father calls us into this kind of relationship.  You can discover and know the heart of God.  You can be his friend!

This can only happen as we take time to become his friend and learn his ways.  For his part, there is always an open invitation for you to become his friend.  One of his repeated promises in the Bible is that as we draw near to him he will draw near to us.  It may be time to take him up on that promise.  He is looking for some good friends.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Cash, check or charge?” The cashier asked after folding items the woman wished to purchase.  As the customer fumbled for her wallet, the cashier noticed a remote control for a television set in the woman’s purse.

Do you always carry your TV remote?” she asked.

No,” the customer replied.  “But my husband refused to come shopping with me, so I figured this was the best way to get even with him.”

I may have just given a bunch of wives a tip by telling that story!  It’s a wonderfully funny story that portrays two sides of our fallen human nature.  There is the side that does not want to be inconvenienced for another person.  Then there is the other side that wants to keep score and get even.  No wonder the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitfully wicked, who can understand it?”  It’s true!

Hidden Spring Near Deschutes River Trail, April 2002

Hidden Spring Near Deschutes River Trail, April 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

We all are born with heart problems. The Bible describes heart problems like “a divided heart,” “a hardened heart,” “a wicked heart,” “a broken heart,” and “a sick heart.”  I know I have struggled with more than one of these conditions in my heart over the years.  It is a constant spiritual battle to maintain a pure heart, an undivided heart, a passionate heart, a righteous heart, an obedient heart, and a whole heart.

One Bible teacher I came across recently talked about the problem of having a “Jonah Heart.” Remember the story of Jonah in the Old Testament?  It is a great story with many lessons for us.  God wanted to send a message to warn a wicked people of impending judgment if they did not repent and turn from their wicked ways.  One would think this would be welcome news for Jonah.  Get used by God to deliver a message!

However, like the rest of us, Jonah has a heart problem. He has a reluctant heart and doesn’t want to be used by God – at least in this way!  He has a disobedient heart and doesn’t want to obey the Lord.  He doesn’t have a compassionate heart for the people (Ninevites) to which God wants to send him to give a prophetic word.  He has a hard heart and must go through terrible circumstances before he will repent and acquiesce to God’s command.  Even after delivering the word of the Lord to the Ninevites and witnessing the Lord’s mercy upon a repentant people, Jonah’s heart is sick with prejudice, bitterness, and hatred.

At times, I have struggled with a “Jonah Heart”.  I get busy with life – even doing religious stuff – and don’t want God to mess up my schedule.  I don’t want him messing with my agenda.  When I know what I want and what I think will make me happy, I don’t want the Lord to tell me what to do – especially if it means moving out of my comfort zone!  Ack!

What this really means is that at these times I want less of God.  Or, at least I want a “lesser god.”  After all, it’s much easier having a god you can polish and shine when you wish, put up on a shelf for everyone to see your piety, and pretend to have speak to you in your hurried moments.  That is a more convenient god.

The God of the Bible, however, will not be confined to our limits.  He always has a way of breaking out of our preconceived molds and climbing off the shelf where we have so neatly placed him.  He speaks from on high and directs our affairs as He sees fit – and doesn’t always ask our permission!

Therefore, I have determined to root out any residue of a “Jonah Heart” within me.  I’m inviting God to mess up my schedule, interfere with my agenda, and surprise me by moving me out of my comfort zone.  I want more of God, not less.  I want the joy of being used by God to deliver His message to “whosoever will” so that everyone will come to know him and his son, Jesus.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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On June 17, 1966, two black men strode into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and shot three people to death.  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a celebrated black boxer, and an acquaintance were falsely charged and wrongly convicted of the murders in a highly publicized and racially charged trial.  The fiercely outspoken boxer maintained his claims of innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer.  After serving nineteen years, Carter was finally released.

As a free man, Carter reflected on how he has responded to injustice in his life:  “The question invariably arises, it has before and it will again: ‘Rubin, are you bitter?’  And in answer to that I will say, ‘After all that’s been said and done—the fact that the most productive years of my life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty, have been stolen; the fact that I was deprived of seeing my children grow up—wouldn’t you think I would have a right to be bitter?  Wouldn’t anyone under those circumstances have a right to be bitter?  In fact, it would be very easy to be bitter.  But that has never been my nature, or my lot, to do things the easy way.’”

Carter goes on to say, “If I have learned nothing else in my life, I’ve learned that bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it.  And for me to permit bitterness to control or to infect my life in any way whatsoever would be to allow those who imprisoned me to take even more than the 22 years they’ve already taken.  Now that would make me an accomplice to their crime.”  (James S. Hirsch, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 310)

One of the greatest challenges of living in the world is in the area of forgiveness.  The Bible instructs us to forgive “just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31).  In fact, the Apostle John says, “whoever hates his brother is in the darkness,” which includes choosing not to forgive someone (1 John 2:11).  The sign that someone is truly God’s child is the love spoken and displayed toward others (1 John 4:12), which includes forgiving the offenses of others against us.  And there is the sticky part.

Jesus made it clear that we would not live in a perfect world.  He plainly told us, “It is impossible that no offenses should come” (Luke 17:1).  He promised that in the last days, “many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another…the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:10,13).  The question is; what are we going to do with these offenses when they do come?  For they will surely come, intentional or unintentional.

Cara backpacking out for home

Cara backpacking out for home ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

One of the best books to deal with the subject of offenses and forgiveness is The Bait of Satan by John Bevere.  He correctly points out that “hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained.  In this climate the love of God waxes cold…So an offended Christian is one who takes in life, but because of fear cannot release life.”  Ultimately, this is what leads to strongholds in our lives, which are patterns of thinking and behaving that wall us off from the others and God.

When we lock ourselves away and choose not to allow ourselves to be vulnerable again, we create our own prison.  This is really the message behind the Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21 – 35.  The words of Jesus are a dire threat, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  The sin of taking offense is a serious one for every believer and must be dealt with honestly.

Followers of Christ are called to form pockets of “The Community of the Forgiven” everywhere.  The outward sign of belonging to one is the forgiveness freely shown towards others who need forgiveness and acceptance.  It is no wonder, then, that Jesus included this aspect in the prayer he taught all his disciples to pray: “And forgive us our trespasses [sins – offenses] as [just as – just like – in the same manner as – in the same way as] we forgive those who trespass [sin – offend] us” (Matthew 6:9 – 12).  Then, Jesus ended with the same strict warning, “For if you forgive someone when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15).

The unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 was returned to the prison he thought he had escaped to be tortured there “until he should pay back all he owed.”  Unforgiveness only results in our own torture and torment.  The message is clear, if we hold someone’s debt to us against them, our heavenly Father will then require us to pay back all that we owe him.  For his command is clear, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”  (Matthew 6:33).  To do otherwise would make us, in “Hurricane” Carter’s words, “an accomplice to their crime.”  The most powerful way  to live a life that is free is to forgive in the same way and to the same extent that we have freely been forgiven in Christ.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Many, if not all, of you know about my love for coffee – all things Starbucks or Caribou in particular.  I love its smell.  I love grinding my own coffee beans and brewing fresh java to drink throughout the day.  I love trying new beans and new blends of coffee.

Well, then, imagine my surprise when I came across the following article on an uncommon coffee:

“Thanks to the coffee culture explosion, connoisseurs are now proactively seeking new twists on their beloved bean-based beverage.  Cappa-this, frappa-that, double mocca doodah – the permutations are endless….  [Nevertheless] Civet Coffee, also known as Kopi Luwak, is indeed the most astonishing… coffee we’ve ever tasted.

The primary reason for Civet Coffee’s distinctive taste is that it’s been partially fermented by passing through the digestive system of a Sumatran Civet Cat (paradoxurus hermaphroditis).  No, really!  Basically, this feral feline prowls Sumatran coffee plantations at night, choosing to eat only the finest, ripest cherries.  The stones (which eventually form coffee beans) are then collected by sifting through the Civet’s “number twos.”

Revered for its luscious chocolatey flavour Civet Coffee is totally safe …and delicious.  Plus there’s no discernable aftertaste. … Put the kettle on!”  (http://www.firebox.com/index.html?dir=firebox&action=product&pid=1077)

That’s the straight p scoop on a rare coffee!

I laughed when I came across this article.  What will people come up with next?  How about you?  Would you consider drinking such a strange brew?  Does the thought of where it came from bother you somewhat?  I bet there are a few daredevils among us who would take a sip or drink a cup!

Palouse Falls Gorge

Palouse Falls Gorge ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day were very concerned about coming in contact with things that would defile them and make them unable to go into the Temple and perform their religious duties.  However, Jesus said, “It’s not what a man touches or eats that defiles him, but what comes out of his heart and mouth” (Matthew 15:11-20).

Jesus also said, “A person speaks from what is in their heart.  A good person speaks good things and an evil person evil things.  People will give an account on the day of judgment for every evil and careless word spoken” (Matt. 12:34-37).

If drinking from a brew passed through and out of the intestines of a Civet Cat bothers us, how much more should those things come out of our mouths – instead of in them!  Among the list of all the evil sins that prevent people from entering the Kingdom of righteousness are things that come out of our own mouths: false testimony, slander, gossip, lies, outbursts of anger, and arrogant boasting.

It is no wonder that the book of Proverbs constantly warns us about what we say.  Keep your spiritual garment of righteousness clean by taking the caution of Scripture to heart, “Guard your mouth!”  Be as concerned with what comes out of it as what you put into it.  What you say to other people about other people is more serious than a cup of Civet Coffee!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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I read about a family who once lived on a county road that was in very bad condition.  Every day they dodged potholes on the way to town.  They were greatly relieved to finally see a road construction crew working on the road one morning.  Later, on the way back home, they noticed that the work crew was gone but had made no improvement on the road.  However, where the crew had been working stood a new, bright-yellow sign with the words: “Rough Road Ahead.”

It is a common human problem to avoid dealing with problems.  We sometimes satisfy ourselves in just identifying what is wrong – like a sign on a rough road – but leave it unfixed.  Or, perhaps we deal with only the symptoms of the problem and what is really wrong – like our bad feelings, anger, moodiness, spiritual dryness – remains unchanged.

When we fail to address the real issues of our life’s problems, we only punish ourselves by continuing to drive down a very bumpy and bone-jarring road through life.  Life will never be a smooth ride because we continue to go down the same problem road again and again.  It may be the only road of life we know.  We need to either fix the road or take a different one all together.

Like buildings, roads need a good foundation.  You do not want to only fill in the potholes.  Potholes only bet bigger, not smaller.  Simply filling them in does not fix them.  They never go away, they always come back.  The only real answer is to make a new road.

Professional road crews must scrape the earth down to a smooth and solid base.  Then, on top of this, they will pour and roll over it tons of rock and crushed gravel.  This layer could be a foot or more thick.  The integrity of the road depends upon this foundational layer.

Our life must go through the same transformation.  We must allow the Holy Spirit with the Word of God to scrape away the deep imperfections of our character and lay upon us the nature and character of Jesus.  Our life and character will lack integrity and be susceptible to potholes returning if this work is not done.

Next, over the work of scraping and graveling, the road crew puts on layers of asphalt, which are rolled again and again to compact them firmly.  Then, the final layer, called a ‘lid,’ is put on so smoothly that the seams are barely noticeable.  These keep away the erosion from daily traffic and continuous wear.  The water and frost cannot get in to do any damage.  The rain runoff will not erode it away.

The ‘finishing’ work of the Holy Spirit is a continuous work in our lives.  It is necessary to protect us from the daily wear and tear of living in this world.  The smooth ‘lid’ applied to our lives is the finishing touch that the Fruit of the Spirit gives us.  It guards us against the world’s erosive pressure to conform to its destructive ways.  Instead, the nature and character of Christ takes its form in us.  This changes us from the people that we once were before we allowed the Lord to build in us a new foundation for living a transformed life.

Mossy Tree On Eagle Creek Trail, 2002

Mossy Tree On Eagle Creek Trail, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Has your life been marked by a “Rough Road” sign?  Tired of the same bumpy old ride?  Sick of the ‘bone-jarring’ ride through life you have had so far?  Ready to get rid of the same old life problems that bully and bloody you?  Determined to deal with the real problems this time instead of just the surface symptoms?

Only the work of the Spirit of God can dig down deep enough to deal with our character flaws.  Only God’s Word can give our lives a firm foundation for a new way of traveling through life.  Only his Holy Spirit can bring about real change and strength to live differently.  The one who declared “I am the way” wants to make a new way for you.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Twenty-five years of pastoring is not a long time. There are men and women who have been in full-time ministry a lot longer than me.  Nevertheless, it is long enough to allow one to look back and look forward at the same time.  I have had a chance to talk with many wonderful individuals in ministry about the nature of the church, its condition today, and its future.  We have reason to be anxious.  We also have reason to hope.

The “hot button” issues consuming any discussion of the church seems to mostly surround what is called the “emergent church” and “missional communities”. These are names that have come to mean many different things.  It could mean attempts at returning to ancient orthodoxy and liturgy, the jettison of all things “churchie”, the inclusion of candles, incense, and modern art expressions, and even the abandonment of Biblical doctrines and absolute truth.  It is all an attempt to make the church relevant to a culture that largely sees the church and its message as completely irrelevant to life.

Now, I am not an “emergent church” or “missional church” expert. I’m not even a “church growth” expert.  I’m just an average guy who has been in the trenches of ministry trying to battle it out and work it out in the communities I served.  I have had some successes.  I have also had a lot of things not work out so well.  In fact, I like to tell people that my list of “Don’t Do This” is a great deal longer than my “Do This for Success” list.  So, I enter this subject with fear and trembling.

I have had the privilege of serving on staff at a couple of churches. I also have pastored three distinctively different congregations who were in different places in their life cycles.  My first congregation was a relatively new church plant, but I was a “greenhorn” pastor also.  We were good for each other and had fun innovating and creating.  My second congregation was almost 25 years old. I followed the church planter and only pastor.  He was all they had ever known.  It was a congregation in mid-life.  Change was not as quickly adopted as the first congregation I served.  They were a happy family and wanted to keep it that way.  They just wanted a spiritual father to keep all the “kids” happy.

The last congregation was more than 80 years old. It had history and lots of it.  Some famous people among the Assemblies of God had pastored there.  A good portion of the congregation was almost twice my age.  For some of them, I was the fourth or fifth pastor.  So, how church was “supposed to be done” was set for them.  Some aspects of their relationship to the larger community were already established by the time I arrived.  Changes were very slow and hard to come by and had to be navigated carefully.  Every new family added to ministry or a leadership team was perceived as a threat to the already established authority structure of individuals who had been there for many years.

You can imagine the challenges and opportunities that each of these congregations posed. Before I move on, let me say that I can honestly declare that I left each congregation with joy, fulfillment, and relationships with people that I still cherish to this day.  So, I don’t write this with any resentment or negativity towards them.  This is not a “sour grapes” diatribe.  This is, perhaps, more of a critique of my own pastoral leadership as it is the condition of any one congregation.  More so, it hopes to speak to the larger environment of the church world and what it has come to expect from its American congregations and leaders.

I intentionally use the words “American congregations” because I think that some of our challenges are culturally based in this time and place.  Every generation has its challenges.  These just happen to be ours.  As far back as the New Testament, the church was faced with what appeared to be insurmountable challenges.  In fact, I like to kid around with those who demand that we become like “The New Testament church” by saying, “Oh yeah?  Which one?  The viciously divided Corinthian church who allowed immorality to go unchecked until challenged by the apostle Paul?  Or the Thessalonian church who fool-heartedly quit jobs and households to wait on a mountain top for Jesus to return?  Or the Galatian church who was descending into legalism?  Or the Laodicean church that became lukewarm?”  Yes, the church was in trouble from the beginning.

However, the early church got many things right also. Just like the church today, where it got it right, it flourished and grew.  I believe what it did get right are still the “basics” for getting church right today.  I have often said that the church today does not need to create something new as much as it needs to get back to its original foundation – “the basics”.  These are not complicated and comprise a very short list.  Yet, they are vital.

I believe that the first thing we see in the book of Acts is the place of the early church in the larger community context. Rejected by the culture at large and its formalized religious institutions (synagogues and temples), the church was forced into the market places of the community.  Usually, this meant meeting in homes.  Early on in Acts, some believers met in the Temple area in Jerusalem but this was not to identify that location as a “church” as much as it was a religious market place where people already gathered and where the good news of Christ could be proclaimed.

When Paul, Barnabas, and others began missionary journeys, they continued to meet people and share the good news of Jesus in the market places.  Sometimes, the synagogues were used to proclaim the good news of Jesus to religious people.  Many times the market place was the platform: the town square, the gate of a city, the work places, the river banks where laundry was done, and even the center of philosophical discussions like Mars Hill.  Paul was a tent maker so one can safely presume the opportunities that afforded him to share the gospel as he bought material and sold products.

The second thing we notice in the book of Acts, and emphasized throughout the New Testament, was a community that was service oriented toward “the least of these”. Ministry to widows was picked up immediately by the early church and the reason for the selection of the first deacons – the first recognized “officers” of any church government.  James (1:27) teaches that pure religion is that which is done for orphans and widows.  It seems that the example of Jesus to preach to the poor was taken to heart by the earliest disciples.  The evidence throughout the book of Acts of the church’s success is simply that “the Lord added to their number daily”.

Interestingly, this pattern can be found to ebb and flow throughout church history right down to the present day. It appears that the church has a habit of drifting away from the basics that first established it.  Regularly throughout its history, it slowly abandons its “first love” for a complacent self loving that woos it into a self-centered lukewarmness.  It then becomes ineffective, irrelevant, and abandoned.  Then, God in his mercy sends revival to awaken his church.

When the revivals and renewals of the church over its history are examined there seems to be a common theme that arises; a movement back to the market places of its cities and a direct affect upon the least, lost and lost of the society.  There is a return to the basics we find modeled in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  Let me use the relatively recent church revival event known as the Pentecostal movement for an example.  It is not too different from ones before it or ones that come after it. I t just happens to be the one I am most familiar with because of formal studies and personal reading.

Like the early church in the first century, those affected by the revival found themselves rejected by the established religious institutions.  As a result, they became a “Diaspora” of sorts.  These revival communities were forced out of necessity to meet in the market places of the culture.  I would argue that this was a Spirit-led event instead of a sad tragedy that befell them.  My spiritual forefathers of a generation or two ago met in store fronts, rooms above or behind taverns, schools, warehouses, garages, and neighborhood houses.  Remember, the Azusa Street revival started in a house and was moved to a church-turned-warehouse.  This type of beginning was typical for these congregations.

These market place settings gave that early revival a proximity to the spiritually lost and poor of our culture that profoundly affected its community setting. The poor were offered hope, transformation, and power.  What sociologists call “the disenfranchised” were “the least of these that Jesus” identified as the primary target group of the Christian community.  The harsh environments of our inner cities and suburbs were home to some of the early Pentecostal churches.  As a result, those won to the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom were former alcoholics, drug users, and from broken families as well as the mentally ill, poorly educated and the socially and economically underprivileged.  Yet, we find that the church grew because “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”.  I believe it was because the church was “on mission” that the Lord blessed.

Over the next one hundred years, the Pentecostal and then Charismatic churches grew in number and size. Born out of a desire to have houses of worship and even cathedrals like all the other denominations, we abandoned the inner cities and poorer suburbs for better neighborhoods.  Once considered outsiders to the mainstream evangelical movement, we gained respectability among them.  Our buildings soon identified us as “successful” and improved our image.  On the other hand, they also shaped and formed us in unforeseen ways.

Moving to the other side of the “railroad tracks” helped us attract more successful and wealthy customers. Soon, our dependence upon attracting and keeping the successful and wealthy shaped and formed how we “did” church, who we reached out to; all with the desire to maintain our respectability and position among the other denominations of the community.  Now, proudly, many Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations boast large facilities and large staffs.  They can compete with any other congregation in the community on the basis of style and appearance.

However, something has apparently gone wrong on the other side of the “railroad tracks”. For the past 25 years, the once vibrant revival and renewal movement that boasted record growth and finally gained acceptance among her evangelical peers has flat-lined or even declined in some areas of America.  The vast majority of her churches are not growing.  Many are shrinking.  Closing the doors of churches is growing each year.  This same scenario can be repeated for the fruit of every revivalist movement in America whether Puritan, Pietist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, or any other.

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

What went wrong? What do we need to do to reverse this trend – a trend that is indicative not only of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches but 9 out of 10 churches in the United States?  Is it too late?  I don’t think so.  The answer does not lie, however, so much in the future as it does in returning to some things in our past, whatever our church or spiritual heritage.  There are three things that church pastors, leaders, and congregants can do.  Two of them relate directly to the New Testament church and what we have already noticed.

The first thing we must do as the church in America is recognize that what we are doing is not working.  We have become really good at moving “the sheep” around from spiritual venue to spiritual venue based upon what is hot and what is not.  We have been suckered into a market mentality that has driven us to shop for the right “model” for doing church.  There are a myriad of ways to do church in America.  Every model has its attractors and detractors: Willow Creek Church, Saddle Back Church, Friendship Church, Northpoint Church, Fellowship Church – the list could go on and on. Preaching style, worship style, small group focus, and non-liturgical or neo-liturgical all compete for our use as the next successful church model to implement.

The ironic discovery made by those who study church growth is that any and every model has a success story to tell. However, they also have places where they have failed miserably.  It turns out that the way church is done is not as important as “why” church is done at all!  We have mistaken moving the furniture around in the sanctuary for the heart and soul of our mission – our reason for being.

Those churches, whatever model they choose to adopt, are successful because they have identified and owned their God-given reason for existing. Like a missionary boot camp, they identify why they exist in their community, then teach and train everyone involved to that mission. It is critical for success. Only until that is understood can the right tools or models be sought to help accomplish its mission. It is a mission closely resembling the early church’s efforts.

That brings us to the last two things that I believe we need to do as the American church.  Like the early church and the revivalist church movements that followed, churches must find a way to reconnect with their communities in viable and tangible ways.  This must go beyond the typical Christian concerts and conferences.  Instead, the focus needs to be upon those that Jesus pointed to as proof that he was the genuine Messiah – the poor (Mt. 11:5, Luke 4:18, 7:22, 14:13 and 21).

In all of the American church’s talk concerning marketing strategies, it has forgotten that the “target group” that seemed to matter to Jesus above all others was those among “the least of these”.  Preaching the gospel to the poor, caring for the orphan and widow are the kingdom strategies that the Lord seems to bless and grow.  Those communities of faith that strive to accomplish this mission duplicate the mission of Jesus and the earliest church’s effort to bring the kingdom of God to their world.

This means that every congregation needs to identify itself as a serving community to the world. Unfortunately, for most American congregations, “church service” has come to mean “self service”.  In fact, “church service” used to refer to the believing community’s service rendered to God, not its service to its own people.  Almost universally, pastors and leaders today think of “church service” as the way in which they serve the needs of its people.  One has to wonder how much the attention and focus on this creates a very self-centered congregant.  Attention and attendance, then, is depended upon how well the pastor and his leadership “meets the needs” of my family, my worship style, my communication style, my entertainment and relationship needs.  As soon as I become dissatisfied, then I move on to “greener pastures” for the next new church model that will capture my attention and imagination.

By identifying itself as a serving community, each congregation must identify the ways in which God is calling it to reach out to and serve the “least of these” around them.  Reacquiring this will reorient the church to its original purpose and mission.  Missions has come to mean, for many congregations, something that is done overseas.  This is a fallacy.  More than that, missions is not something the church does.  It is something the church is!  It is what gives it life and expands its influence in the world.  In this sense the church truly becomes a “missional community”.

Finally, this will mean a return to a presence in the market place. When we moved across town to nicer neighborhoods with wealthier neighbors, we surrendered the market place to which we were called to take the kingdom of God.  We settled for safety and position over accomplishing our eternal mission.

In short, the church needs to move back across the “railroad tracks”, if not physically then spiritually, and reach the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. Could this loss of mission be part of what Jesus referred to when he told the church at Ephesus that they had lost their “first love” (Rev. 2:4)?  The remedy for the Ephesians, according to the glorified Christ may also be ours.  It was to “do the deeds you did at first” (v. 5).  His challenge to the Smyrnan church was that they still needed to “complete your deeds in the sight of My God” (3:3).  I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that if a church cannot verifiably prove a positive impact upon its community, then it ought to pay taxes!

This means, then, that most churches will need to take a fresh look again at where God is at work and wanting to work in the world. Our focus upon buildings, facilities, and grounds and its responsible staffs has chained us to their maintenance.  They have largely defined us and determined our limits of reach and focus toward the world’s greater need for the gospel.  We are in bondage to our buildings – our “sacred spaces”.  We have come to believe, if not believe then at least behave, that God only works and “moves” in our “sacred spaces”.  And that he does not or cannot operate in the market places of the world.

However, like the early church, we must see the market places as opportunities for witness and ministry. The proclamation of the gospel must be made in the public squares of our cities and neighborhoods again.  I’m not just referring to street preaching.  I’m talking about creating spaces for dialogue about God and spiritual things like Paul did on Mars Hill and the public market of Athens.  Using creativity under the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit Paul effectively proclaimed Christ and drew the interest of some of his listeners.

The church’s days of using attractional methods to draw non-Christians and the irreligious into their sacred spaces for any type of dialogue about God are in their twilight. It is time to return to the method that was first used.  It is time to see ourselves as missionaries in a secular culture who need to go into the market places of our culture to connect with people.  It is time to see our primary audience as those whom the world has disenfranchised – “the least of these”.  It is about time to see that there is hope for our world because the Heavenly Father through His Son and Spirit still wants to work in the market places of our world.

Why can this work? It can work because we see a Biblical example of it that God blessed.  We can be confident it will work because where the church is striving and thriving in the world today it consciously or unconsciously works at this.  I saw this clearly at work on a recent trip to India.

It amazes me how much the church in India accomplishes so much with so few resources; especially in comparison to most American churches that seem to accomplish so little with so much.  What captured my heart and imagination was witnessing a church that seemed to behave much like the church in the book of the Acts in the New Testament.  They regularly proclaimed the gospel in the market squares, including in front of Hindu temples!  We followed village pastors around as they walked around in the community and invited us American pastors to share the good news of Jesus with Hindu neighbors.

The mission of the church went beyond proclamation, however. Their ministries included housing, feeding, and medical care for orphans and widows.  Schooling was provided to the poorest children, meaning the Dhalits or “untouchables” of their culture.  This all was done at great expense and sacrifice to the local churches.  Even the Hindus could not argue with the compassion ministries of these local groups of believers.  When their children needed medical help, food, clothing, or schooling, who did they turn to for help?  Who did the destitute widows turn to for compassion?  The group of believers in their community who simply did a few basic things to bring the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus to their world.  No wonder the church in India is growing.  The Lord is adding to their number daily.  It is a church that is still doing the basics.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Twenty-five years of pastoring is not a long time. There are men and women who have been in full-time ministry a lot longer than me. Nevertheless, it is long enough to allow one to look back and look forward at the same time. I have had a chance to talk with many wonderful individuals in ministry about the nature of the church, its condition today, and its future. We have reason to be anxious. We also have reason to hope. 

The “hot button” issues consuming any discussion of the church seems to mostly surround what is called the “emergent church” and “missional communities”. These are names that have come to mean many different things. It could mean attempts at returning to ancient orthodoxy and liturgy, the jettison of all things “churchie”, the inclusion of candles, incense, and modern art expressions, and even the abandonment of Biblical doctrines and absolute truth. It is all an attempt to make the church relevant to a culture that largely sees the church and its message as completely irrelevant to life.

Now, I am not an “emergent church” or “missional church” expert. I’m not even a “church growth” expert. I’m just an average guy who has been in the trenches of ministry trying to battle it out and work it out in the communities I served. I have had some successes. I have also had a lot of things not work out so well. In fact, I like to tell people that my list of “Don’t Do This” is a great deal longer than my “Do This for Success” list. So, I enter this subject with fear and trembling.

I have had the privilege of serving on staff at a couple of churches. I also have pastored three distinctively different congregations who were in different places in their life cycles. My first congregation was a relatively new church plant, but I was a “greenhorn” pastor. We were good for each other and had fun innovating and creating. My second congregation was almost 25 years old. I followed the church planter and pastor. He was all they had ever known. It was a congregation in mid-life. Change was not as quickly adopted as the first congregation. They were a happy family and wanted to keep it that way. They just wanted a spiritual father to keep all the “kids” happy.

The last congregation was more than 80 years old. It had history and lots of it. Some famous people had pastored there. A good portion of the congregation was almost twice my age. For some of them, I was the fourth or fifth pastor. So, how church was “supposed to be done” was set for them. Some aspects of their relationship to the larger community were already established by the time I arrived. Changes were very slow and hard to come by and had to be navigated carefully. Every new family added to ministry or a leadership team was perceived as a threat to the already established authority structure of the individuals who had been there for many years.

You can imagine the challenges and opportunities that each of these congregations posed. Before I move on, let me say that I can honestly say that I left each congregation with joy, fulfillment, and relationships with people that I still cherish to this day. So, I don’t write this with any resentment or negativity towards them. This is, perhaps, more of a critique of my own pastoral leadership as it is the condition of any congregation. More so, it hopes to speak to the larger environment of the church world and what it has come to expect from its American congregations.

I intentionally use the words “American congregations” because I think that some of our challenges are culturally based in this time. Every generation has its challenges. These just happen to be ours. As far back as the New Testament, the church was faced with what appeared to be insurmountable challenges. In fact, I like to kid around with those who demand that we become like “The New Testament church” by saying, “Oh yeah? Which one? The viscously divided Corinthian church who allowed immorality to go unchecked until challenged by the apostle Paul? Or the Thessalonian church who fool-heartedly quit jobs and households to wait on a mountain top for Jesus to return? Or the Galatian church who was descending into legalism? Or the Laodicean church that became lukewarm?” Yes, the church was in trouble from the beginning.

However, the early church got many things right also. Just like the church today, where it got it right, it flourished and grew. I believe what it did get right are still the “basics” for getting church right today. I have often said that the church today does not need to create something new as much as it needs to get back to its original foundation – “the basics”. These are not complicated and comprise a very short list. Yet, they are vital.

I believe that the first thing we see in the book of Acts is the place of the early church in the larger community context. Rejected by the culture at large and its formalized religious institutions (synagogues and temple), the church was forced into the market places of the community. Usually, this meant meeting in homes. Early on in Acts, some believers met in the Temple area in Jerusalem but this was not to identify that location as a “church” as much as it was a religious market place where people already gathered and where the good news of Christ could be proclaimed.

When Paul, Barnabas, and others began missionary journeys, they continued to meet people and share the good news of Jesus in the market places. Sometimes, the synagogues were used to proclaim the good news of Jesus to religious people. Many times the market place was the platform: the town square, the gate of a city, the work places, the river banks where laundry was done, and even the center of philosophical discussions like Mars Hill. Paul was a tent maker so one can safely presume the opportunities that afforded him to share the gospel as he bought material and sold products.

The second thing we notice in the book of Acts, and emphasized throughout the New Testament, was a community that was service oriented toward “the least of these”. Ministry to widows was picked up immediately by the early church and the reason for the selection of the first deacons. James (1:27) teaches that pure religion is that which is done for orphans and widows. It seems that the example of Jesus to preach to the poor was taken to heart by the earliest disciples. The evidence throughout the book of Acts of the church’s success is simply that “the Lord added to their number daily”.

Interestingly, this pattern can be found to ebb and flow throughout church history right down to the present day. It appears that the church has a habit of drifting away from the basics that first established it. Regularly throughout history, it slowly abandons its “first love” for a complacent self loving that woos it into a self-centered lukewarmness. It then becomes ineffective, irrelevant, and abandoned. Then, God in his mercy sends revival to awaken his church.

When the revivals and renewals of the church over its history are examined there seems to be a common theme that arises. There is a return to the basics we find modeled in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Let me use the relatively recent church revival event known as the Pentecostal movement for an example. It is not too different from ones before it or ones that come after it. It just happens to be the one I am most familiar with because of formal studies and personal reading.

Like the early church in the first century, those affected by the revival found themselves rejected by the established religious institutions. As a result, they became a “Diaspora” of sorts. These revival communities were forced out of necessity to meet in the market places of the culture. I would argue that this was a Spirit-led event instead of a sad tragedy that befell them. My spiritual forefathers of a generation or two ago met in store fronts, rooms above or behind taverns, schools, warehouses, garages, and neighborhood houses. Remember, the Azusa Street revival started in a house and was moved to a church-turned-warehouse. This type of beginning was typical for these congregations.

These market place settings gave that early revival a proximity to the spiritually lost and poor of our culture that profoundly affected its community setting. The poor were offered hope, transformation, and power. What sociologists call “the disenfranchised” were “the least of these that Jesus” identified as the primary target group of the Christian community. The harsh environments of our inner cities and suburbs were home to some of the early Pentecostal churches. As a result, those won to the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom were former alcoholics, drug users, and from broken families, as well as the mentally ill, poorly educated, and the socially and economically underprivileged. Yet, we find that the church grew because “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. I believe it was because the church was “on mission” that the Lord blessed.

Over the next one hundred years, the Pentecostal and then Charismatic churches grew in number and size. Born out of a desire to have houses of worship and even cathedrals like all the other denominations, we abandoned the inner cities and poorer suburbs for better neighborhoods. Once considered outsiders to the mainstream evangelical movement, we gained respectability among them. Our buildings soon identified us as “successful” and improved our image. On the other hand, they also shaped and formed us in unforeseen ways.

Moving to the other side of the “railroad tracks” helped us attract more successful and wealthy customers. Soon, our dependence upon attracting and keeping the successful and wealthy shaped and formed how we “did” church, who we reached out to; all with the desire to maintain our respectability and position among the other denominations of the community. Now, proudly, many Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations boast large facilities and large staffs. They can compete with any other congregation in the community on the basis of style and appearance.

However, something has apparently gone wrong on the other side of the “railroad tracks”. For the past 25 years, the once vibrant revival and renewal movement that boasted record growth and finally gained acceptance among her evangelical peers has flat-lined or even declined in some areas of America. The vast majority of her churches are not growing. Many are shrinking. Closing the doors of churches is growing each year. This same scenario can be repeated for the fruit of every revivalist movement in America whether Puritan, Pietist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, or any other.

What went wrong? What do we need to do to reverse this trend – a trend that is indicative not only of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches but 9 out of 10 churches in the United States? Is it too late? I don’t think so. The answer does not lie, however, so much in the future as it does in returning to some things in our past, whatever our church or spiritual heritage. There are three things that church pastors, leaders, and congregants can do. Two of them relate directly to the New Testament church and what we have already noticed.

The first thing we must do as the church in America is recognize that what we are doing is not working. We have become really good at moving “the sheep” around from spiritual venue to spiritual venue based upon what is hot and what is not. We have been suckered into a market mentality that has driven us to shop for the right “model” for doing church. There are a myriad of ways to do church in America. Every model has its attractors and detractors: Willow Creek Church, Saddle Back Church, Friendship Church, Northpoint Church, Fellowship Church – the list could go on and on. Preaching style, worship style, small group focus, and non-liturgical or neo-liturgical all compete for our use as the next successful church model to implement.

The ironic discovery made by those who study church growth is that any and every model has a success story to tell. However, they also have places where they have failed miserably. It turns out that the way church is done is not as important as “why” church is done at all! We have mistaken moving the furniture around in the sanctuary for the heart and soul of our mission – our reason for being. Those churches, whatever model they choose to adopt, are successful because they have identified and owned their God-given reason for existing. Like a missionary boot camp, they identify why they exist in their community, then teach and train everyone involved to that mission. It is critical for success. Only until that is understood can the right tools or models be sought to help accomplish its mission. It is a mission closely resembling the early church’s efforts.

That brings us to the last two things that I believe we need to do as the American church. Like the early church and the revivalist church movements that followed, churches must find a way to reconnect with their communities in viable and tangible ways. This must go beyond the typical Christian concerts and conferences. Instead, the focus needs to be upon those that Jesus pointed to as proof that he was the genuine Messiah – the poor (Mt. 11:5, Luke 4:18, 7:22, 14:13 and 21).

In all of the American church’s talk concerning marketing strategies, it has forgotten that the “target group” that seemed to matter to Jesus above all others was those among “the least of these”. Preaching the gospel to the poor, caring for the orphan and widow are the kingdom strategies that the Lord seems to bless and grow. Those communities of faith that strive to accomplish this mission duplicate the mission of Jesus and the earliest church’s effort to bring the kingdom of God to their world.

This means that every congregation needs to identify itself as a serving community to the world. Unfortunately, for most American congregations, “church service” has come to mean “self service”. In fact, “church service” used to refer to the believing community’s service rendered to God, not its service to its own people. Almost universally, pastors and leaders today think of “church service” as the way in which they serve the needs of its people. One has to wonder how much the attention and focus on this creates a very self-centered congregant. Attention and attendance, then, is depended upon how well the pastor and his leadership “meets the needs” of my family, my worship style, my communication style, my entertainment and relationship needs. As soon as I become dissatisfied, then I move on to “greener pastures” for the next new church model that will capture my attention and imagination.

By identifying itself as a serving community, each congregation must identify the ways in which God is calling it to reach out to and serve the “least of these” around them. Reacquiring this will reorient the church to its original purpose and mission. Missions has come to mean, for many congregations, something that is done overseas. This is a fallacy. More than that, missions is not something the church does. It is something the church is! It is what gives it life and expands its influence in the world. In this sense, the church truly becomes a “missional community”.

Finally, this will mean a return to a presence in the market place. When we moved across town to nicer neighborhoods with wealthier neighbors, we surrendered the market place to which we were called to take the kingdom of God. We settled for safety and position over accomplishing our eternal mission.

In short, the church needs to move back across the “railroad tracks”, if not physically then spiritually, and reach the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. Could this loss of mission be part of what Jesus referred to when he told the church at Ephesus that they had lost their “first love” (Rev. 2:4)? The remedy for the Ephesians, according to the glorified Christ may also be ours. It was to “do the deeds you did at first” (v. 5). His challenge to the Smyrnan church was that they still needed to “complete your deeds in the sight of My God” (3:3). I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that if a church cannot verifiably prove a positive impact upon its community, then it ought to pay taxes!

This means, then, that most churches will need to take a fresh look again at where God is at work and wanting to work in the world. Our focus upon buildings, facilities, and grounds and its responsible staffs has chained us. They have largely defined us and determined our limits of reach and focus toward the world’s greater need for the gospel. We are in bondage to our buildings – our “sacred spaces”. We have come to believe, if not believe then at least behave, that God only works and “moves” in our “sacred spaces”. And that he does not or cannot operate in the market places of the world.

However, like the early church, we must see the market places as opportunities for witness and ministry. The proclamation of the gospel must be made in the public squares of our cities and neighborhoods again. I’m not just referring to street preaching. I’m talking about creating spaces for dialogue about God and spiritual things like Paul did on Mars Hill and the public market of Athens. Using creativity under the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit Paul effectively proclaimed Christ and drew the interest of some of his listeners.

The church’s days of using attractional methods to draw non-Christians and the irreligious into their sacred spaces for any type of dialogue about God are in their twilight. It is time to return to the method that was first used. It is time to see ourselves as missionaries in a secular culture who need to go into the market places of our culture to connect with people. It is time to see our primary audience as those whom the world has disenfranchised – “the least of these”. It is about time to see that there is hope for our world because the Heavenly Father through His Son and Spirit still wants to work in the market places of our world.

Why can this work? It can work because we see a Biblical example of it that God blessed. We can be confident it will work because where the church is striving and thriving in the world today it consciously or unconsciously works at this. I saw this clearly at work on a recent trip to India.

It amazes me how much the church in India accomplishes so much with so few resources. Especially in comparison to most American churches that seem to accomplish so little with so much. What captured my heart and imagination was witnessing a church that seemed to behave much like the church in the book of the Acts in the New Testament. They regularly proclaimed the gospel in the market squares, including in front of Hindu temples! We followed village pastors around as they walked around in the community and invited us American pastors to share the good news of Jesus with Hindu neighbors.

The mission of the church went beyond proclamation, however. Their ministries included housing, feeding, and medical care for orphans and widows. Schooling was provided to the poorest children, meaning the Dhalits or “untouchables” of their culture. This all was done at great expense and sacrifice to the local churches. Still, even the Hindus could not argue with the compassion ministries of these local groups of believers. When their children needed medical help, food, clothing, or schooling, who did they turn to for help? Who did the destitute widows turn to for compassion? The group of believers in their community who simply did a few basic things to bring the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus to their world. No wonder the church in India is growing. The Lord is adding to their number daily.

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