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Posts Tagged ‘Denominations’

On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

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Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

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Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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On Mission

Every organization battles keeping its mission – raison d’etre = reason for being – the central focus of its business.  It is what drives corporate behavior and, in the end, makes it profitable.  We have seen the result of some American companies who have lost sight of their original corporate mission.

They got sidetracked into other endeavors and pursuits. Pretty soon, what they once were known for in the market place got lost to a competitor.  Not only did they lose market share, but they lost profitability.  You could name any of the U.S. automakers, banks, insurance companies, or even smaller ventures in the past 5 years or so and see the economic results from such missional blindness.

I do not believe it is any different for the Church.  It is an ongoing and constant battle to remind everyone the raison d’etre.  Why does the Church exist?  What is the Church here to accomplish?

These are important questions and will define the activities of any church fellowship. Most importantly, it will not be defined by what its creeds say.  Neither will it be identified by any “mission statement” or “vision statement”.  These are all good tools and necessary.  Instead, the behavior of its followers will dictate what it really believes, values, and holds to be its mission.

There is the often told story of the life saving stations along the Easter seaboard of the U.S. They were originally built and organized to save people and sailors involved in shipwrecks off the coast.  During the lull in activities, however, they became popular meeting places for social activities.

Pretty soon, the focus on saving lives in emergency situations gave way to the social activities. So much so, that no one bothered any longer to be on the look out for shipwrecks.  When one did occur, members were put out by how the emergency upset their routine and messed up their finely decorated life saving station.  Pretty soon, other life saving stations had to be built to replace those who no longer functioned in that capacity but were there only for decoration and celebration.

This can be a parable about the Church too.  It is a challenge to keep the focus upon the saving of lives in emergencies.  It is a terrible disruption to our comfort and convenience.  It costs money, time, and energy to man an effective life saving station.  Is it worth the effort?  Those who are saved think so!

The same could be said of the Church in spiritual terms. Yet, how many of our churches end up existing to serve only the benefit, comfort, and convenience of its members?  How many have lost sight of its real raison d’tre?

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination.  When it was formed as a Pentecostal Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, its stated reason for forming and existing was “to be the greatest evangelistic movement the world has ever seen.”  Those gathered at that early meeting believed that the Pentecostal blessing being poured out upon its generation was to serve only one purpose: to proclaim the Gospel to every nation.

As an organization, its devotion was originally given only to world missions and evangelization. It was first and foremost a missionary sending agency.  And, so was launched one of the greatest missionary endeavors of the 20th century.  Nearly a hundred years later, that same denomination now finds itself struggling to recapture its original vision and mission or raison d’etre.

There are many Assembly of God churches that do not give anything toward world missions.  Friends of mine who answered a call to world missions and entered the Assemblies of God World Missions agency find it hard pressed to raise the funds they need for their budgets within 18 months so they can get to their field of service.  They are finding that many Assembly of God churches do not even have missionaries to their churches any more.  One friend of mine was informed by a former district official now pastoring that they do not have missionaries come to their church!  The denomination also now finds itself riding a wave of retiring missionaries with no new recruits in the wings.

The ministries of every local Assembly of God church, along with its District, used to be centered around fulfilling its mission to evangelize the world.

  • Women’s Ministry was called the “Women’s Missionary Council” and was an agency to engage women in the local church to sponsor and support missionaries.
  • Men’s Ministry had what was called “Minute Man” and M.A.P.S. (Mobilization And Placement Services) that placed resources and skilled laborers where they were needed all across the world.
  • The Youth Ministries were called “Christ’s Ambassadors” because they were considered to be the calling and sending place for young people into ministry and in particular to the missionary fields of service.
  • Children’s Ministries focused upon helping to raise funds for child evangelism and Sunday School for missionaries through its “Boys and Girls Missions Crusade.”  Every child had a “Buddy Barrel” that represented the barrels that missionaries would put their belongings into to be shipped overseas.

It is not that the names are or were important.  What was important was the raison d’etre – the centralized and focused mission of the whole church and denomination.  It used to be that hardly a month would go by without having a visiting missionary in a local Assembly of God church.  Now, months can go by.  And, if a missionary gets into a church service, they are given a “Missions Window” to highlight what they do.  This is hardly enough time to set a vision for world missions let alone give a call to people to answer the call to missions should the Lord want to work that way in their lives.

It is no wonder that the Assemblies of God is struggling to build its ranks of young people called to missions. There is hardly ever opportunity for them to hear a missionary, listens to God’s heart for his mission to every people group, and answer the call to missions.  Or, should I say, there is hardly a time for God to speak, show and reveal what he is doing and is wanting to do in his world to them?

This is only my experience in one denomination.  I am sure that the story could be repeated over and over again across denominations and churches.  I have heard the same stories among leaders of once dynamic mission agency churches – Salvation Army, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist.  A spiritual lethargy and blindness almost seems to have invaded the Church.

Thankfully, there are some bright spots and active church bodies within the Assemblies of God and across the whole Body of Christ. Today, more cross-cultural missionaries are sent from non-Western churches than the U.S. and Europe churches combined.  The emerging and growing churches in the rest of the world are now missionary sending churches!  Upon the rising tide of missionary activity in the rest of the world, what part will the American and European churches play?

It will probably take another spiritual renewal and revival to bring the whole Western church back to being on mission for the Kingdom of God.  Rediscovering its raison d’etre will unite and activate its members toward something larger than social gatherings for like-minded individuals.  It will cause it to look toward the troubled seas of humanity again and to stand at the ready to seek and save those who are lost in the dark and turbulent waves of our time.  Truly, the hour is not too late.  The work is not yet done.  There is time to get back on mission.  Let’s  pray that we regain our sight to see the world as God sees it.  It’s not too late to get back on mission.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Until All Are Free, None Are Free!

Years ago, a movie came out about the famous Scotsman, William Wallace. It has become one of my favorite movies to watch.  The movie, “Braveheart,” is also a great story that reflects the work of power structures at work all over the world even today.  I am not recommending watching the movie because of the violent images.  Nevertheless, the story is a powerful one even if the history has been shaped to fit a Hollywood movie.

The ruthless king of England, Edward Longshanks, ruled with an iron grip, including the Scottish lands.  The Scots were unable to throw off King Edward’s rule because they themselves were warring with each other.  Plus, they were divided over the heir to the Scottish throne.  Robert Bruce was a prince of the Scots and an heir to the throne, but he was cowered by King Edward and refused to confront him.  As a result, other Scot clans wanted to put forward their own prince and heir to the throne to lead them.

The politics, land ownership, and multiple heirs to the throne make for a complicated situation that paralyzed the Scottish rulers so that they remained under the cruel and wicked rule to Edward Longshank’s court.  They were prisoners in their own lands while at the same time, lived in relative comfort and security apart from the common people who suffered more greatly under the oppression of unjust rulers.

William Wallace, a national hero in Scottish lore, was a commoner who stood up to the English rulers.  He challenged them by rallying his countrymen around a bigger picture of what true freedom could offer them.  He reminded them that at any time their enemy could return.  He painted for them the possibility of complete victory over the enemy.  He also challenged the princes of Scotland that their positions, lands, and possessions were not just for their own personal comfort and enjoyment but also for others’ freedom.

The tension between Robert Bruce and William Wallace arose when Prince Bruce wants to do everything to protect the rights and positions of the Scottish nobles.  He was careful to make the ‘politically correct’ moves and not take too great of risks.  On the other hand, William Wallace, who has no position and no power, raised his voice for the ‘common’ people and their bondage.  He challenged the nobles to not just consider their own relative freedom, but the slavery that their fellow Scots bore.  He cried out for a courageous leader, even believing that William Bruce could be that leader if he so dared.

Both men face risks differently and face different risks.  One had everything to lose, the other nothing.  One saw only what there was to lose, the other what there was possibly to gain.  One saw the pain and price to bring about the change; the other saw the pain and price to bring about a new future.  William Wallace challenged Robert Bruce by defining what “noble” really means.  He called him to make the ultimate sacrifice for others and to personally lead the charge.

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This is a story that reflects the struggle of the most power structures at work in the world today.  It also portrays what goes on in many churches and denominations.  Those that have been around awhile are at times too comfortable with their present position and possession.  They have come to think that it all exists for their own personal comfort and safety.  Those who have gained positions of influence and experience are locked into doing what does not require much risk.  As such, they have lost sight of the threat of the enemy.

What the church needs today are courageous servants and leaders who are willing to take risks for the good of others who are suffering under bondage and slavery to the enemy of their souls.  It needs a bigger picture of freedom, not just for personal comfort and safety, but for those still under the rule of a cruel taskmaster.  This will mean using position of power and possessions enjoyed in the world to gain freedom for others.

Does your life reflect a Robert Bruce or a William Wallace?  Does your heart cry out for your brothers and sisters still in bondage to our common spiritual enemy?  Is your rallying cry, “Until all people are free, none of are free?”  What risks are you willing to take to bring someone out of slavery to poverty, addiction, and unjust social structures?  What cost are you willing to pay to help someone grow in their freedom in Christ?  Let the cry of God’s people be heard for all those in bondage to sin and Satan: “Freedom!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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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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