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Posts Tagged ‘Church Buildings’

Every congregation and its leadership, if it is missionally minded at all, struggles with being relevant in its community context. It will ask the questions:  Do we communicate our message in a way so that people can hear it?  Do our ministries and programs really meet the real needs of real people?  Is our message getting outside our own “four walls” and to people who are spiritually far from God?  In the end, what these and other questions like these want to know is simply, “Are we making a difference in our community and the lives of those in our congregation?

In my last article about small churches called “Small Church Big Impact“, I tried to emphasize the need for the small church to discover its own God-given “spiritual DNA”: spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Focusing upon what it does have instead of what it does not have empowers the small church to fulfill its unique mission in God’s plan.  As I explain in my article, resisting the temptation to think that it must follow some other “successful” church model is key to this.

Most of the conferences and books available to churches and their leadership are geared toward large churches (350+ adherents).  Most of the popular stuff is produced by mega-churches (2,000+ adherents).  This leaves out the vast majority of churches, which are small and in rural contexts, though many are also in small cities and even suburban and rural settings.  The point is that the available resources for helping a small congregation and its leadership to succeed are almost non-existent.  The message to these churches is that they are not “successful” nor are they relevant.  However, nothing could be further from the truth!

My personal experience among small Assembly of God congregations, some of whom were “Home Missions” churches, is that they not only can be relevant but they can be very successful in their ministry context. They may not win the “fast growing church” award or the “largest church” award but they are uniquely position to have a very large ministry in a small community context.  If we were to measure impact by percentages, these small community churches would be much more successful and relevant than their mega-church metropolitan counterparts.

How is this possible? In my previous article, “Small Church Big Impact“, I outlined some critical thinking that makes this possible.  Let me now take this to a practical level and suggest some ways and give some examples of how this is possible.  Here are three simple steps:

  • First, clearly define what you are called to accomplish in and for God’s Kingdom.
  • Second, create a simple strategy of how you are going to accomplish it.
  • Third, do not let anything get in the way of these two things.

Sounds simple, right?  It is not. Anyone who has done church ministry for very long will tell you that there are a lot of things that will come along to distract a congregation and its leadership.  A new opportunity arises and, instead of asking how it fits with the first two steps above, there is immediate pressure to “do something.”  A new individual or family arrives and their ideas and past experiences push the limits of those two steps.  Someone comes back from a church conference or visiting another church and wants to push the church to do it just like them.

This is not to say that how a church thinks of itself and the strategies it uses will not change. They will change.  Hopefully, however, that change will take place intentionally with the previous things discussed in mind: spiritual gifts, talents, resources and sense of mission to accomplish.

When I arrived in West Richland, Washington, to begin pastoring a small congregation there, I found a congregation that was pushing the limits of what it could and was exhausted. Like many other small churches, they were attempting to keep up with the larger churches in the community.  Some of that was driven by a fear that if they did not attempt to do so they would lose people to those larger churches and their ministries.  Regardless, a number of leaders, especially in the children’s and youth ministries, were facing burnout.

Change even in a small congregation does not happen over night. It took some time to get everyone to on the same page as to what was the simple mission of the church.  We prayed and looked to Scripture and finally settled upon two simple things: make strong disciples and attempt to reach people far from God.  Next, we asked ourselves what were the simplest and most strategic ways to accomplish these two things.  Things changed for the better.

As a congregation we decided that attempting to do all of the children’s and youth programs were not possible without the required number of people. Many of our congregants were involved in two, three and four ministries.  That pace was not sustainable nor was it healthy.  So, we simplified.

We wanted to make sure we discipled our children and young adults.  Since most of our congregation was made up of young families, we gathered together to strategize. Soon, we settled upon the idea of moving all of our Christian Education or Discipleship to Wednesday evenings.  Wednesday evenings were to become our strategic discipleship nights for everyone.

The tough change was eliminating Sunday School. We lost one family because they could not see going to a church that did not have a traditional Sunday School (even though they did not regular attend it).  However, this made Sunday mornings much easier for our young families.  Sunday mornings were dedicated to worship experiences either together as a whole congregation or specifically for children.  We created children’s church worship teams that rotated monthly to provide worship experiences for our children.  Some of our youth were involved in helping to lead.

This whole process took about 18 months. We first decided that it was something we were going to experiment with to see how it worked.  We figured that we could always go back to what we were doing if it did not work.  However, it ended up being a huge success for those involved in these ministries as well as for our families.  We found that what we were able to provide was much more effective and meaningful.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When it came to reaching people far from God (the second part of our mission), we decided that the best way for us to do this as a congregation, outside of everyone’s personal relationships and circles of influence, was for our whole church to find a way to be “vocal and visible” in the community. So, we targeted a community event in which we wanted to be present.  We could not do every community event, but we could do one event really well.  We chose “West Richland Days” and provided a booth that served BBQ pork or pork sausage sandwiches.  Also, our youth set up a booth that served Italian Sodas.

We looked at these more than just fundraisers. They were a way for us to interact with people in our community.  People in our community could see us as a congregation and have a chance to know us.  We also prayed for the Lord to give us “God moments” in which we could share with someone who was feeling far from God.  We got to interact with community leaders and organizers.  We all saw friends from our community as they wandered by our booths.  Most importantly, we were together outside of our church walls and being present in our community as a witness to Christ.

Every community has these kinds of opportunities. A congregation of any size can figure out ways to be “vocal and visible” within its own community so that people know that it is there to glory God and offer hope to people.  The toughest sell as a church leader is often the people within one’s own congregation.  Inevitably, someone wants to know the cost, or whether it was worth the cost and time, or whether the effort actually resulted in someone coming to church.  However, spiritual life is more like sowing for a future harvest than a drive-up ATM machine.

If church leaders and their congregations want immediate “pay-backs” then they are going to be sorely disappointed. All of our spiritual lives are a journey.  We do not know the spiritual journey that someone else may be on.  All we can do is be in a place where we are available with the presence of God and God’s message.  Some people’s stories take years to develop.  Every congregation must determine to be in the race for the long haul.  In the business of changing lives and transforming communities, there is no race to the winner’s circle.  It’s a marathon.

There are churches and their leaders that are doing this very well.

  • The church in Walhalla, ND, that serves the snowmobilers every year during the annual snowmobile run.
  • The church in Quilcene, WA, that provides after school homework help for students a few days a week.
  • The church near Lake of the Woods, MN, that serves anglers during the annual ice fishing tournament.
  • The church in Pasco, WA, that supplements the local food bank with donated items of their own to families in need.
  • The church in Richland, WA, that holds a week-long annual “Raise Your Tents” awareness for the homeless event that includes staying in tents in January, donating food to the food bank, and donating monies raise to the local homeless shelter.

There are many, many more examples that I am not even aware of myself. Whatever their chosen mission, these churches have chosen to keep it simple, targeted and sustainable.  This has also made these churches, despite size, very relevant to their communities.  It has given them a voice in their communities and earned them the right to be heard.  Nothing could be more relevant than that.

©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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People and Places

Recently, my parents celebrated fifty years of marriage. We gathered at the church where they attended before getting married and where my dad spent many of his growing up years.  In turn, it became our family church when I was a child.  Even after we moved away from Seattle, when we returned it was always to the same church family.

The church was originally called White Center Assembly of God, but in later years changed its name to Westwood Christian Assembly. It has seen a few pastors come and go – most of them stayed for a number of years with the present pastor approaching 20 years.  The surrounding community has changed with a largely Asian immigrant population.  Once familiar store fronts are now part of what appears to be a “little Asia” in West Seattle, Washington.

The church building has gone through upgrades and improvements, but the sanctuary looks much the same as it did when my wife, Kelly, and I got married in it in 1983. Thankfully, the color scheme is a lot better than it was back then.  The old brick building that was the original sanctuary and then Christian Education wing when the new sanctuary was built is long gone.  A newer Christian Education wing takes its place.  The old fellowship hall and fireside room looks much the same as it did in the 1980’s.

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

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

It is amazing how places can evoke such memories. I remember on more than one occasion I and my brothers got in trouble for playing tag on the edges of the elevated outdoor flower area and iron railing.  The old nursery is gone to make for a larger entry, but I can clearly remember its place and even smell.  I was the church janitor for a period of time and got to know the building quite well.

The sanctuary brought back to mind many experiences: my grandfather, Walter Almberg, ushering; my grandmother, Evelyn Almberg, playing piano or organ; the place where our family sat; later, the place where the teens all sat together; the place where I played trumpet with the rest of the thinly numbered “orchestra;” and the aisle and altar where we came down and stood during our wedding ceremony.  There are more deeply rooted spiritual memories, too.  I can point to the place at the altar where first dedicated my life the Jesus Christ in the 5th grade during a children’s crusade with Gene and Esther Fiddler.  Then, there was the place on the other side of the altar where I rededicated my life to the Lord as a rebellious teenager.  There is place where I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.  Behind the platform is the baptismal tank where I was baptized as a 6th grader.

Even more amazing is how much seeing people one has not seen in many, many years evokes its own set of memories. While elderly people filed in to congratulate my parents and talk to them, I also had the joy of revisiting many people who were once Sunday School teachers, Royal Ranger leaders, Vacation Bible School and Children’s Church leaders, as well as ushers and deacons in the church; even babysitters.  Some came alone as their spouses had passed away in recent years.  Some of us recognized each others, while some of us had to be prompted as to the connections by my mother or father.  We were all filled with joy and surprise to see one another again.

I am sure that not a few of them were surprised that us kids turned out half-way decent. We certainly gave more than one of them a test of their patience when we were children.  Afterward, my dad came up to me and asked, “So, what did you think?”  I could only respond, “It’s amazing what fifty years will do to people!”  And it is true.  We all grow older, that is for certain.

What is not for certain is knowing with certainty the outcome of all the time and energy we pour into people and places. I hope that I can stand as a human monument to all the people who poured their time, money, talents, and energies into providing a good building with a spiritual nurturing environment that helped me become who I am today.  More importantly, I hope that I can be a reminder to them that their efforts as regular people seeking to follow and serve Jesus in and through the body of Christ were worth every moment.  At least, for me, those people and that place means a lot.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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