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Posts Tagged ‘Church Ministries’

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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Spiritual Voyeurism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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Old Abraham was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant.  Every day at lunch time, Abraham would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odors coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.  It was a wonderful addition to his unchanging daily lunch time meal.

One day, Abraham was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for “enjoyment of food.” So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them.  The manager said, “You’re enjoying the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

Abraham refused to pay and the restaurant sued him.  At the hearing, the judge asked the restaurant manager to present his side of the case.

The manager said, “Every day, this man comes and sits outside our kitchen and smells our food while eating his.  It is clear that we are providing added value to his poor food and we deserve to be compensated for it.”

The judge turned to Abraham and said, “What do you have to say to that?”

Abraham didn’t say anything but stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled the few coins he had inside.

The judge asked him, “What is the meaning of that?”

Abraham replied, “I’m paying for the smell of his food with the sound of my money.”

Someone observed that “you can’t get something for nothing.” However, you can get nothing for nothing!  Many followers of Jesus seem to want to get spiritual maturity without investing anything into it.  Apart from salvation, growing in Christ takes the believer’s initiative and efforts.  Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that each believe is given something to invest in the Kingdom and will, in the end, be judged by him as to how they invested it (or did not) back into his Kingdom.

Likewise, the apostle Paul warned Christ’s followers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The MKJV version says “cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Each believer is responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and should attend to it as they would the vineyard of their Master.

When it comes to establishing God’s kingdom through the work of ministries in and through the local church, there is a cost. You can’t get ministry for nothing (though you can get no ministry for nothing).

  • Reaching in lost people in our community has a cost.
  • Preaching the gospel has a cost.
  • Discipling children and young people has a cost.
  • Ministering to broken lives has a cost.
  • Providing a safe, secure, and satisfying place of ministry to families and their children has a cost.
  • Reaching into the community to bring help and transformation has a cost.
  • Helping others to take the gospel around the world to people without the knowledge of what God offers through his son Jesus has a cost.

These and many more Kingdom efforts bear a cost in time, treasure and talents.  The question to the followers of Christ is, “Who is going to pay?”

These costs are covered by the many followers of Jesus who pay the price with their time, treasures and talents.  They choose to share equally sacrifice what they have towards the cost of doing Kingdom business by giving of their lives.  As a result, not only do they experience God’s blessings but also experience spiritual growth that the uninvolved will never experience.

It is a truly poor follower of Christ who does not join with others in bearing the cost of doing the work of the Lord’s Kingdom. In essence, they are hoping for a ‘free ride’ on someone else’s work.  They want to enjoy the fruit of the labors of others without sharing in the work in the Lord’s vineyard.  However, no one can grow by watching the efforts of another.  The Lord never planned for his Kingdom to be a spectator centered or focused work.  Yet, it seems that many of our churches and their ministries plan on just that expectation of their adherents.

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Martin Luther said it plainly, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” As a co-laborer in God’s kingdom, I am proud to share in the work and worth of doing the Lord’s Kingdom business.  Successful ministry that transforms lives and our community cannot happen without the many hours that people volunteer.  Kingdom efforts would be handicapped without the sacrificial giving of its family of faith.

Mobilized and motivated laborers in the harvest fields of the Lord are rewarded for their selfless sacrifices.  Yes, they receive a promised eternal reward.  Just as important, however, they receive the reward of growing in the knowledge and strength of the Lord, his Spirit and his Word, which a whole lot more than the smell of good food or the sound of money.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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