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Posts Tagged ‘Community’

Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Relationship Scarring

It is impossible to go through life without ending up with scars from relationships. The fact that we wound at all is a testament to our humanity.  The fact that we are often as much the deliverers of scars as the receivers of scars speaks loudly to our own brokenness.  Children are scarred by parents.  Siblings grow up leaving scars upon one another.  Co-workers and bosses leave wounds that can range from minor paper-cut like ones to major open, seeping wounds.

Not all scarring from relational squabbles is the same. Minor ones leave their mark as do major ones.   All of them leave a lasting memory and reminder of a battle won or lost.  It seems that the closer the relationships, the deeper and longer lasting the wound and subsequent scar left behind.  Likewise, everyone deals with their relationship wounds in different ways.  Some people are more resilient and successful than others; while the others languish under memories and unforgiveness.

It may come across as naive, but it seems that people expect fellow Christians to never leave a wound or scar upon others, particularly other believers. So, when this does occur, the surprise and hurt go deep.  There is an expectation that “christians” will somehow exhibit a perfected humanity that is devoid of any ability to wound or scar with words, actions or attitudes.  This is far from the case.

The other day I was listening to a fellow believer share the story of their spiritual journey. Raised in a religiously strict, legalistic home, this person was not able to do anything “worldly;” which included among other things going to movies, playing billiards, bowling, attending dances or associating with anyone who did such things.  When this individual finally left home, they discovered a whole different world of Christian beliefs and practices.  It caused them quite a personal identification crisis.

The biggest problem for this individual, however, was not with the particular Christian expression with which they grew up. Instead, it was the readily apparent hypocrisy that was witnessed among parents, established church members and church leadership.  They could spout the doctrines of the faith, display a modicum of religious behavior and then turn right around and speak evil of one another, attack leadership and hold others in disdain.  Spiritual knowledge was greater than the spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Once liberated from their past, the person who shared their story with me expressed the joy of being able to work with other Christians. Seeing how others worshipped and practiced their faith gave a new perspective.  Unfortunately, the story shared with me included many places in the journey where terrible wounds were left by those in church leadership positions.  I felt the pain expressed.  I sensed the hurt and frustration over those that anyone would expect better behavior from in spiritual leadership.  I also knew that any such expectations were wholly unrealistic.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

We are a people of clay feet who follow the leadership of individuals with clay feet. We are a community of broken and wounded sheep who follow broken and wounded leaders.  This is all the more reason that love, acceptance and forgiveness should be the hallmarks of such communities.  Too often these qualities are absent in order to protect the appearance of spiritual perfection.  In the presence of such spiritual “perfection,” one is deemed an authority and a leader, regardless of true inward character.

Too often, what happens behind the closed doors of church offices between staff or at the board meetings or membership meetings of the congregation becomes the place where wounds are given and received. Instead of being the sanctuaries they are touted to be, they become torture chambers of spiritual abuse.  I have personal experiences with those meetings.  Unfortunately, I also have too many friends who have either left ministry or left church altogether because of the stinging scars they still nurse.

The ironic answer to all this lies within the very thing that causes us to hand out scars to others like Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges. It lies in our brokenness.  It is our brokenness within ourselves, towards others and towards God that fails us and causes us to fail others.  Like broken pottery, the shards of our life lie hidden until someone steps upon them or touches them.  Then we leave a wound.

At the same time, our brokenness holds the answer for all of us. Instead of attempting to hold up perfected lives before others to see and applaud, we would be better off acknowledging our broken places.  Instead of playing to our strengths to lord it over others, we would do better to lead and influence from our own woundedness.  Instead of attempting to portray a community of victors and overcomers who have no problems, we would serve ourselves and others better by admitting that we are a community of confessors and repenters.

I am not advocating for a fellowship of moaners and complainers who go around with sullen faces.  I am not suggesting that defeatism and spiritual poverty become the Christian model for spirituality. We have already been down that road before with the Puritans, Quakers and Pietists.  What I am suggesting is a spiritual formation and communal journey that includes a spiritual “sunshine policy.”  A “sunshine policy” is one that allows light upon a situation so that everyone knows what is going on.  It demands honesty, integrity, truthfulness, accountability, and openness.

This approach, of course, offers no guarantee against relationship scarring even among Christians. However, it does offer a more transparent way of healing our self-inflicted wounds upon the body of Christ.  This is much better than just moving from church to church or getting rid of staff for unexplainable reasons.  In this I readily acknowledge that because I am in community with and being led by broken individuals, I cannot expect to never be wounded.  Nor can I expect that I will never deliver a wound because I, too, am broken.  As such, I do understand that continuing in this community will require me to extend love, grace and mercy to others, just as they extend it towards me.

We are not called to lives of perfection on this side of eternity. We do not have the right to expect to come through this life unscarred and unwounded.  God in Christ Jesus gave us the model for dealing with sin and forgiveness.  Only through love, grace and mercy can the relationship scars we receive and deliver become the marks of true spiritual community.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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We have all seen them.  A highlight tape from a sporting event.  Or, it might be a highlight tape of one particular athlete’s accomplishments.  When I coached football, I would sometimes help put together a highlight tape together for the team or a player.  It was fun watching all the great moments – touch downs, incredible runs, interceptions, fantastic pass receptions, bone crunching blocks and tackles.

What those tapes never showed you, however, was all the other moments.  The lost games, fumbles, dropped passes, jumbled plays, and missed blocks and tackles.  They also didn’t show you all the hard work behind the scenes such as the two-a-day practices before the start of the official season or the hours of conditioning training, often spent in the rain and cold.  But all this would miss the point of the highlight tape wouldn’t it?

Our cultural appetite for victors and heroes, victories and stars, has bled into other aspects of our lives as well.  We have grown so used to consuming only the highlights of others that we now mentally prepare and practice our own “highlight tape” to show to others.  Whether it is sharing our life over a meal, posting it our social network site, or writing it on our resume, we have learned to self edit our lives.

This is not always a bad thing.  There are appropriate times to only give the highlights of our accomplishments and life journey.  This could be for a job or meeting someone new.  There are times when naked vulnerability is not socially acceptable because the time, place, and or person is all wrong.

However, on the flip side, when do we have an opportunity to put away the highlight tapes and share our failures, regrets, and shortcomings.  The game of life continues to unfold while we are in play.  Who is there to coach us to become better?  Who do we have to help us become better at who we are and what we do?  What outside instruction and encouragement urges us on to finish well and finish strong?  My guess is that if all you live by and show others is the personally edited highlight tape of your own life, then the answer is no one.

Unfortunately, the Church at large in our western culture has become captivated by this social phenomenon.  Sunday mornings are little more than highlight tapes of “successful ministry” and “spiritual” lives.  The congregants are told these stories and shown this view to supposedly inspire them to become better Christians.  However, I wonder if we have not misled them.  I wonder if we have not left the most vulnerable among us wondering if they could ever measure up to what they see and hear on the platform.

If I were to never know anything else about the game of basketball except by what I saw on a career highlight tape of Michael Jordan, I would immediately assume that there is no way that I could play the game, let alone compete.  Watching the outstanding physical abilities displayed in his aerobatics, his sixth sense leadership on the court, and his finally honed jump shot would not encourage me to get out and play the game.  I would be content to just be a spectator; one who vicariously lives the sport through a hero or role model.

Perhaps spectators are what we have unwittingly created in our American churches because all they every see are persons that they assume they cannot emulate.  Thus, the average congregant assumes that there is no way they could ever be good at this spiritual journey we call following Jesus.  Any attempts that have resulted in failure only reinforces the idea that they don’t belong “out on the court” or “in the game”.  Instead, they grow content vicariously living their spiritual lives through super-spiritual leaders and speakers.

Personally, I have grown tired of going to another conference where all I see are the highlights of someone’s ministry.  I have no desire to watch and hear anothet highlight show of  how such-and-such church has become successful.  My years involved in church ministries has taught me that there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than what we are told.  Personal interaction with “successful” ministries and churches has taught me that there are a lot of growing pains, missed opportunities, mistakes, and even casualties in the story that do not get to be told.  And often I am told that the reason is that “no one wants to hear bad news”.

I am not recommending becoming a community of  “Sad Sacks” and naysayers.  I have never thought that a pessimist was better off than an optimist, but just the opposite.  Negativism can become a cancer that destroys not sustains healthy growth and living.  However, vulnerability should not be mistaken for negativism and pessimism either.  We would do well to learn to distinguish between the two.

Ron on Giant Rock Seat

Ron on Giant Rock Seat, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almber, Jr. (2009)

The most profound growth and changes in my life have often come after someone shared with me his or her struggles.  It was often someone I looked up to as successful or spiritual.  Then, in a moment of vulnerability they shared with me their struggles, starts and stops, and failures.  Instead of being crushed by them and defeated, they had discovered a way to stand back up and keep going.  These moments have always left me inspired, thinking, “If they can go through that and make it, then I can too.”

By discarding the constant use of our personal life highlight tape we move beyond the veneer of our lives, which is so thin anyway.  Healthy vulnerability shared at the right moment, in the right place, with the right people does not weaken our lives but strengthens them.  It also encourages and strengthens those we share our lives with at those times.  The question that begs to be answered, I believe, is are we providing a place for that in our lives, churches, or faith groups?  Where do we remove the masks to become real to another person?

If all of your conversations on the faith level are only punctuated with “Praise God brother/sister!  Everything is going great!  God is good all the time!  I live such a blessed life!  The church was packed!” then it might be time to ween yourself off your self-edited highlight tape.  Find a personal and place to become vulnerable again.

One of my favorite sayings is, “God is never disillusioned with you.  He had no illusions about you in the first place.”  After all, who are we really trying to hide from – God?  Nice try.  The one who sees everything knows our life’s successes and failures.  It is the reason why one biblical imagery of a human standing before God is in nakedness.  How embarrassing is that?  God caught us all naked – with our spiritual pants down!  And still, he forgives us, accepts us, and loves us.  Perhaps it is time the community of saints he formed start to look and act the same way toward all.

I am not suggesting that Sunday mornings become a group counseling session or that the pastors and leaders reveal the most intimate failures of their lives every time.  Nevertheless, perhaps more opportunities can be given for them and others to pull up their sleeves and show the hidden “scars” from the spiritual battles they have waged.  Maybe, every once in a while, the ministry highlight tapes could be discarded for a more real view of what can be expected of all of us in our journey with Christ.  That just might encourage more of us to join the team.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

Cara backpacking out for home

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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It does not take a Ph.D. in history to know that human existence has been fraught with warfare. I doubt that there ever has existed a time of peace on earth.  Somewhere war between two groups of people or more was and is always waged.  It began as long ago as Cain and Abel and continues right down to our present day.  We continue to see it in the tribal or ethnic warfares of Africa, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka.

One would think that our human evolutionary process would have taken us past this need to annihilate one another after some thousands of years of our living together on earth.  But, alas, no.  Neither physical nor social evolution has brought us to an any brighter end than when we began.  Indeed, at times in our common history it appears that we have de-evolved back into cannibals; take the wars and genocides of the 20 century, for example.  These all took place at the height of western rationalism and scientific achievements.

The tendency to devolve into unthinking brutes is no more apparent than in the present state of American politics.  I am constantly amused by the “Letters to the Editor” in my own local paper, The Tri-City Herald.  Each week, social and political conservatives and liberals take turns lambasting one another.  The vitriol is bitter.  The hate is evident.  Each side uses over-generalizations, unfair caricatures, and name calling to publicly flay their opponents.  Of course, it is couched in language that is supposed to make us think it is all really intelligent and thoughtful when it is apparent that it is not.

This is nothing new to American politics.  It goes way back; before even the founding of our great nation.  Politics and religion in America have always been the cause of great divides between its citizens.  More than once in our history it has turned extremely nasty.  For example, one only needs recall the early colonial embattlement between Christian sects.  Crossing a colonial border with the wrong religious credentials could get a person thrown in stocks or worse.  Our early protestant heritage created an extremely hostile environment to immigrant Catholics, especially Irish Catholics in the mid to late 19th century.  It was still a major issue for Protestant Americans when John F. Kennedy (an Irish Catholic) ran for president.

Our greatest historical black eye came to us in our own Civil War.  This was essentially an issue over politics; the role the federal government was or was not going to play in state governments.  As we know, the pro-federalist north won the fight over the anti(con)-federalist south.  Federal government has continued to grow stronger and stronger since that time.

Those in power have always used the seat of power to promote their political and social agendas.  So we have in our history a crazy-quilt pattern of abuses by those in authority.  One only needs to note the persecution of those who tried to bring about changes: the anti-slavery activists who were vilified and persecuted; the women suffragettes who were frequently jailed; the unionists and socialist who were imprisoned and killed; the communists who were jailed and castigated in society; the civil rights activists who were beaten, jailed, and killed.  And the list goes on and on.

What we seem to have entered into today in American society, however, is a new level of hostility.  The “middle ground” that has always helped America keep her head seems to have shrunk to a non-entity or have been muffled by the screams of the extremist hostiles on both both sides of the debate.  Not only is the dialogue that does take place extremely uncivil but both sides are simply shutting down dialogue all together and shutting one another out.

As such, we frighteningly have taken on the characteristics of the tribal warfare that has plagued other parts of the world.  How far are we from the hostilities between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or the Luos and Kikuyus in Kenya?  How different are we from the Serbs, Croats, and Albanians of the Balkan nations?  What makes us unique from the Catholic/Protestant or Unionist/Nonunionist war that has plagued Ireland?  How are these examples any different than what we presently see displayed in our own society between the Republican “tribe” and Democratic “tribe” or the conservative “tribes” and the liberal “tribes”?

Sure, we can boast that the difference is we do not now have the physical violence they have experienced (though we have admittedly had it in our past).  However, I’m left wondering how long that will last as long as both sides of the debate continue to demonize one another and paint each other as “the enemy”.  When the United State of America descended into the Civil War of  the 19th century, it took many by surprise that it had come down to an act of war.  Soon, friends and even family members were divided and shooting one another on open battle fields on American soil.

The Capital Building, Washington D.C.

The Capital Building, Washington D.C. ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Given the fact that humans seems to have not evolved at all and that we still have a propensity to kill one another over skin color, religion, ethnic differences, political view points, and social statuses, we should tread very carefully into this 21st century.  We are not so far away from our tribal cannibalistic ancestors.  We will war with one another just because we are different from one another.

We also need to keep in mind that this great nation of ours is still an experiment in Democracy.  We have not proven that we have succeeded yet.  The story is still unfolding.  The end is still to be written.  Are we truly a nation that is still the “great melting pot” of the world where people of different ethnicities, religious and political backgrounds can come together and co-exist peacefully and in harmony?  Or, will we descend into a bunch of hostile tribes who huddle together and plan how to annihilate all competitors for food and control?

The way out of our present dilemma and stalemate is to return civility and a generous spirit back into the public discussion of what is best of the whole nation.  This will take a concerted effort especially by the more moderating voices in the public arena.  Places where incivility and unkindness are displayed in any form must not be tolerated by the crowd at large.  We do not need laws and government interference in the public forums.  What we need is self-censureship and self-control by all those involved.

What is also needed is for those who call themselves Christians to act like the One they claim to follow. Identity in the Kingdom of God trumps any social or political or ethnic identity.  If in the New Testament “there is now, therefore, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave or free, neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:28, see also Romans 10:12), then that truth is needed now as much as it was then.  The unity we are called to in Christ is lived out in the family of God as adopted sons and daughters from every walk of life on earth.  Who are we to determine who gets to be a part of the family of God and who does not?

Our recent historical lesson should be the African nation of Rwanda where supposedly 80% of its population claimed to be Christian.  Yet, that religious identity and calling made no difference in how one looked upon or treated persons from the other tribe.  Ethnic identity trumped Christian faith and calling.  Millions died and suffered because the Church abandoned its true identity as brothers and sisters in Christ apart from tribe.

This is just the opposite of what Christ calls us to.  It is the same for Christian Americans who come from different political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds.  Let us not stand around singing “We Are One in the Spirit” with only those who look and think like us.  Let us sing that in the midst of our great diversity as a the Bride of Christ, the family of God, and a Democratic nation.

Finally, two childhood sayings come to mind when I listen to the public debacle we have come to call town meetings or community forums.  The first is “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  This is not to say disagreement should not be voiced.  By all means, it should be.  However, whatever is said needs to remain focused on the main point and not degenerate into accusations and name calling.  The second is this, “It is not what you say, but it is how you say it that is important.”

The tone that we bring to the public discussion will in some part determine the response we get from the other side of the aisle.  It only helps our cause, not hinders it, when we treat each other and contrary view points with respect and kindness.  Perhaps these should be posted at our next meetings before we break out the machetes and machine guns.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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