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Posts Tagged ‘Church Outreach Efforts’

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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Church Mission and Kingdom Mission

One of the 20th century’s great missiologists, Ralph D. Winter, identified the struggle between “church mission” and “kingdom mission” in the American or Western Church.  I came across one of his articles in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” (4th Edition).  It captured my attention and provoked my thinking in regards to the local church and my experience as a church leader.

In the way Ralph D. Winter uses these terms, Kingdom Mission is the effort to approach and deal with broad social issues that effect society as a whole.  In other words, the mission is to change all of society, not just establish a church group focused upon personal sanctification and discipleship.  On the other hand, Church Mission is the work to establish discipleship methods that focus upon personal salvation and sanctification.

This struggle between what has been called in the past “the social gospel” and the “the salvation gospel” is nothing new.  It has been raging in the Western Church for more than 150 years!  Only recently has there been agreement that it is not an “either/or”” decision but a “both/and” one.  We need both the ministry to the body and ministry to the soul for the Gospel to be effective.  However, that discussion and resolution is still a difficult struggle at the local church level with limited resources.  Despite the high profile image before us of large mega-churches, the fact remains that the vast majority of churches in America and the West are churches of less than 100 people.

On more popular terms, the struggle is between being “outward focused” or “inward focused.”  Of course, almost all would agree that the local church needs both.  However, in practice it very rarely works out that way.  The vast majority of time and money is spent on Church Mission – ministering to and keeping those we have – and not Kingdom Mission – reaching out to and helping to transform the lives of those around us not yet among us.

As a church leader, I have always pushed congregations to “think outside its walls.”  This is harder than what it sounds.  The faithful hear the words but our church structures have conditioned them to do otherwise.  Almost every ministry of the church is inward focused on Church Mission and not outward focused at all on Kingdom Mission.  I have often tried to challenge a church’s leaders by telling them that, “Unless a local church can prove its value to its community, I believe it should pay taxes!”  So far, that has not been very motivating.

The culture of the church works against this type of effort from the top down when the majority of a pastor’s time is spent – and is expected to be spent – with parishioners instead of the least, last and lost of the community.  Pastoral time is consumed with administrative duties, particularly as the church grows, as well as keeping the sheep he has content and happy.

Heaven forbid he should miss visiting someone at home or in the hospital when he is needed because he is involved in a community outreach project or ministering to someone not a part of the church!  After all, what is he being paid for?  I have been told by someone that, “Since I pay my tithes, I consider the pastor to be my employee.”  That is definitely a Church Mission attitude, not a Kingdom Mission attitude.

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Each of the congregations I served attempted to do things that served the community with “no strings attached.”  I considered these more than just attempts at community public relations.  I considered them a vital part of building relationship with our community as well as meeting a need.  However, in every congregation, I have faced and answered to a skeptical deacon or church leader who wants to know after it was all over, “But pastor, how many people started attending our church as a result of our efforts?  How many visited our church?  How much did this send us in the ‘hole’ in our budget?  Did anyone get saved?

These types of questions are endemic to the attitudes of many congregants.  Who can blame them?  After all, they have limited time and limited finances.  They want the most “bang for their buck.”  Nevertheless, it misses an important part of the Church’s mission; the part where the Church is to be a change-agent for transforming the world around it.  There is not quick-and-easy plan to do that in any community.  It takes a commitment to what I call “being vocal and visible” in one’s world, which requires commitment and consistency.  It earns the right to be heard and to minister to people’s real needs.

As Ralph D. Winter warned,

The Lord’s Prayer…becomes too often ‘Our kingdom come’ as the Church is concerned with the personal and spiritual fulfillment of its individual members, its building plans, etc., not the solution of problems beyond its boundaries.”

The trap in our local churches is “keepin’ busy for Jesus” but not at things that lead to real change in our communities.  What if more local churches released their people to volunteer at the local food banks, homeless shelters, clothing banks, pregnancy centers, sexual and child abuse agencies, adoption agencies, community children’s services, local family services, jail and prison ministries, and free medical clinics?  What if the local church focused on after-school tutoring, divorce and grief care, and volunteering at local schools?  If you are a church leader and reading this makes you nervous and sweat, then you understand the cost of what Ralph D. Winter is proposing.

We have conditioned our Evangelical churches to become individual focused on personal salvation and discipleship.  Even our outreach efforts are  most often measured according to what is convenient and what seems like a credible effort in our own eyes.  We want to be able to personally measure the results with “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We want to focus upon what our own talents and interests offer instead of the needs around us.

I am guilty of this as a church leader, despite my best efforts.  I have been sucked into the vortex of “keepin’ busy for Jesus.”  Ralph D. Winter’s article provoked my thinking and a good amount of self-reflection.  I believe he sets before every church leader and local church a clarion challenge that requires our focus and dedication if we wish to be obedient to the mission of God’s Kingdom.  Let me leave you with his words,

Our obedience is certainly flawed if focused only on what the world approves.  Our obligation is to seek the expansion of the knowledge of the glory of God and His Kingdom, and this would logically require us each to prayerfully seek God about doing the hardest thing we are able to do in the most crucial task we can find.  First John 3:8 says, ‘The Son of god appeadred for this purose, that He might destroy the works of the Devil.’  To follow Jesus is to go to war.  This side of the Millennium that’s what the Christian life is.  In a war what needs to be done comes first.  And a true sense of accomplishment is not that you did what you wanted to do, or what you thought you were best at, but what you felt convinced was most crucial, most important.  Doing good things is the biblical way to portray God’s character and glory only if we are willing to act without personal conditions.”  (“Three Mission Eras: And the Loss and Recovery of Kingdom Missions, 1800 – 2000” by Ralph D. Winter in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” 4th ed.)

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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