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Posts Tagged ‘Body of Christ’

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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Off Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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No Sacrifice For You

Those who know me real well know that I have a strange sense of humor.  My funny bone is often struck at the most inopportune times.  Most of the time I am able to keep it to myself and keep it together.  Sometimes I will share my humorous experience or insight later with friends.  Most of the time they remain private moments of hilarity.  I was bred to keep up appearances, retain proper decorum and affect a serious mode in most public settings and especially in religious ones.

Unfortunately, it is in some of the most serious religious settings that some of the funniest things happen.  After spending most of my life in church and half of it leading congregation, I have some of the funniest stories to tell.  Some serious religious types would shudder at some of them.  Some of the more irreligious types would fall over backwards with side-splitting laughter.  It is just the way the make up of the Church is arranged.  And, since the apostle Paul tells us that God arranged the members of his Church the way he wanted it, well, we can blame it on him.

Recently, our church was celebrating communion together.  This is something we do once a month in our church tradition.  It is a celebratory time.  Different members of the congregation serve the communion to the congregation by gathering at the front of the church and dividing into four serving stations.  The congregation arises at the direction of the ushers to go to the front of the church, if they choose, to receive the communion elements – a piece of bread and a small cup of grape juice.  There is even a “gluten free” station.

This is always a special time.  The congregation continues in prayer and worship.  Some are participating in the Lord’s Supper.  Some are watching the Supper being distributed to fellow congregants.  One gives a piece of bread and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ‘s body broken for you.”  Then one gives a small cup of juice and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ’s blood shed for you.”

All those who choose to may participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Whole families take part in it together.  There are also widows, widowers, singles, and a whole host of diverse people scattered among us.  Each humbly receives a token of the body of Christ and then receives a token of the blood of Christ.

This is an important event for every Christian.   Some celebrate it every week.  Some celebrate it only once a year.  We have lay-ministers who serve it to people in the hospitals and nursing homes.  It is a special and meaningful event.  It reminds us of the sacrifice Christ made for our sins so that we could receive forgiveness and be made righteous in God’s eyes so that we can have open fellowship with him.

Without that perfect sacrifice made by the sinless son of God, Jesus the Messiah, we would still be in our sins.  The fear of death, judgment after death, and separation from God forever would be our demise.  There would be no hope for this life or the one to come.  There would be no freedom from sin’s bondage, the fear of death or the afterlife nor the hope that there is life after this life.

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This most recent time that our church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist – an accident of sorts took place.  Those who were to replace empty communion cup trays with full ones were off cue.  Suddenly, there was a line that had no communion elements.  This is a crisis of unthinkable proportions!  You cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the bread and juice elements.  It is the whole point after all.

The team of individuals at this breadless, juiceless station looked a bit befuddled as to what to do.  They were frantically gazing about looking for the team that was to be bringing refilled trays of bread and juice.  The gentleman who was serving the juice, Allen, is known in our congregation as somewhat of an entrepreneur.  He and his wife, Dee, started Martha’s Cupboard several years ago and now it is a growing ministry concern that touches hundreds of people’s lives in the Tri-cities.

Allen is also known for his sense of humor; a bit strange like mine.  I smiled as I watched him and Dee attempt to sort out what to do.  Suddenly, he turned to the next person in line and with a big humorous grin on his face said, “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  He repeated this as each person came up to him and his wife, Dee, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

At first, this drew a startled look from the congregants.  Then, they would see his humor and move to the next station that had the communion elements available.  Some chuckled.  Some looked worried.  Some moved on and others glanced back in what looked like a bit of consternation at such a rude awakening to the solemn occasion.  This all got me thinking:  I mean, what if Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the upper room was ill prepared and he had run out of bread and wine?  Of course, this had me in stitches.  I like Allen!

Thankfully, it was not too long before things were restored and Allen and Dee were able to serve the Lord’s Supper to congregants once again.  However, I still chuckle to myself when I think of that experience.  We humans want to be so right and prim and proper at these important solemn occasions.  We do not know how to handle ourselves when it all falls apart into apparent spontaneous hilarity.

We have a choice.  Attempt to cover it up and continue in our solemnity as if nothing happened.  Or, we can acknowledge our humanness and laugh at ourselves.  I think God joins us in the latter.  He is not as horrified as we are at our frailties and shortcomings.

As we enter into Holy Week, I am reminded of the importance of the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity.  What a tragedy that would truly be if there really were no sacrifice for you or me?  “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  No way to recover from our rebellion against God.  No way to be healed of our self-destructive ways.  No promise of life beyond this life or a hope-filled life in this life.

The story of Jesus and his sufferings and crucifixion tells us that God out of his great love provided for us what we needed and could not provide for ourselves.  The greater story of his resurrection, which we will soon celebrate, tells us that God accomplished and will continue to accomplish all he set out to do.  Death, the grave and eternity are conquered for us.  He invites us to his table to break bread with him and drink with him and give thanks.  A sacrifice has been made for you – his body broken for you and his blood shed for you.  And it will never run out.  Guaranteed.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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