Posts Tagged ‘Food Banks’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)


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Church Family Care

While leading a church, there were many times that I received a phone call from someone who needed help with rent, utilities, groceries, and fuel or travel costs.  As much as I wanted to help, our church’s benevolence budget was often way over drawn as it was and there were no monies available anywhere else.

I would ask, “Have you tried the various help organizations in our community?”  The answer was affirmative; however, they were not able to get the help they needed.  I felt helpless.  All I could do was offer a few suggestions, words of encouragement, and a prayer.

The communities I worked in were blessed to have so many help organizations to help those in need:  Salvation Army, Saint Vincent DePaul, Gospel Missions, Food and Clothing Banks, 12-Step Programs, Domestic Abuse and Violence Advocates, and many others.  Volunteers who have a big heart to help people in need staff these.  A paid staff of one or two is underpaid.  At the same time, their resources are also often limited and overtaxed too.

Like many churches in our area, our church always got its fair share of calls from people who needed help.  Sometimes, they were systematically, desperately going through the phone book calling churches.  Other times, they are calling blind, hoping for a kind voice and helping hand.

Sure, there are the ‘frequent fliers:’ people who abuse the system and live dependent upon the benevolence of others.  But many more people are sincerely in need.  They are often the work poor:  people who have jobs, but jobs that do not pay enough to cover basic living expenses.  Often the help they need is only temporary, until a job, a place to live, or other steady self-support is obtained.

In all of this, I see first hand the wonderful advantage of belonging to a church. The church family provides a wonderful safety net in times of distress and crisis.  It becomes like an extended family that rallies support and help.  Of course, people can have such a network of caring and supporting relationships outside of a church.  But no where have I seen it work so well time and time again as within a congregational setting.

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Within our own church, we have showered food upon families financially strapped; helped get cars fixed that were depended upon for work; chipped in together to help with medical bills; and volunteered to take care of children during a family crisis.  I have witnessed this take place for long-term care of a family or individual, not just for short-term ones.

This is not to just brag only upon the church families I have attended or led. I know for a fact that this is repeated many times over in most, if not all, of our churches.  In the community of faith, we take care of one another because we love one another.  Above and beyond a benevolent budget, we will spontaneously extend ourselves to help one another.

Aside from your own family, your church family is your best source of help – and in some cases may even be better than your own family. Develop those relationships with your own expressions of love and care for the others there.   Someday, it will come back to you.

If you have not made an effort to be a part of a church family, now is the time! There will come a time when you will need someone else’s shoulder for comfort, arm for strength, or heart for courage.  Then is not the time to depend upon your fingers to find help in the Yellow Pages.  Then is the time to have church friends and family to call.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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I live in an area where there are a lot of well-to-do people, especially retired well-to-do people. It is interesting watching many of them in the twilight years of their lives.  Some find really purpose and meaning with their lives.  I know many that volunteer at the local food banks.  I was talking to one lady last night who had spent most of the day reading to elementary school aged children and was going to do so again today.

One of the big questions in our American culture as one nears retirement is the question of “quality of life.” Retirement communities sell their time-shares boasting the quality of life they offer to potential members.  Everything from senior travel excursions to activities at the local senior centers offer to improve one’s quality of life.  This is selling short, I believe, the whole idea of “quality of life.”  It is selling out to the idea that the American twin-gods of Comfort and Convenience are the altar at which we should be worshiping when we approach the end of our lives.

There is a potential for larger impact in one’s retirement years than one may expect. The freedom of time and the possibility of disposable income could increase one’s footprint upon bettering society and leaving a more promising future for the next generation.  Whether it involvement in a Creation Care organization or project, volunteering at a local school or after-school program, helping at a homeless shelter, clothing or food bank, or giving time and energy to one’s place of worship, there is a lot of life left in life; too much life to only give away to golf courses, cruise ships, bingo and shuffle boards.

Yellow Flower, June 2007

Yellow Flower, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I was driving through one of the retirement neighborhoods in my area, I could not help but notice the well-kept yards and gardens. Personally, I think this is a great way to get out-of-doors and exercise.  Then, something caught my attention that jerked me into reality.  An elder lady had a shop-vac out and was vacuuming her driveway!  Of course, I had to slow down and do the looky-loo thing.

Sure enough, she was cleaning her driveway with a shop-vac! I suppose it beats sweeping.  However, in this part of the state of Washington, in the Spring-time one only needs to wait for the next windstorm to come through and clean up the place (or pile it against the back fence, which in itself is also a convenience as it puts all the neighborhood garbage and desert tumble weeds in one easy-to-get-to location).  In any case, it is a pointless effort.  Then, the reality of what I saw dawned upon me.

I can only surmise that this particular retired person was bored. Why else would one waste their time vacuuming a driveway (and it wasn’t a small one, I might add).  There was nothing more important to do with her life or her time!  She and her husband, who was standing nearby watching (probably waiting his turn), needed a place more important to give their time and energies than cleaning their driveway with a vacuum.  The well-manicured lawn and gardens revealed that they were taken care of already.

Of course, witnessing this geriatric exercise in futility touched my funny-bone deeply. I’m suddenly wondering to myself if that is something I will find myself doing in another 25 years.  Lord, please, I hope not.  I hope my neighbors get annoyed with me because my yard and gardens never quite look right.  I hope that my drive way goes unswept; let alone unvacuumed.  Why?  Because I hope that I’ll be too busy giving my life to more important things that will last beyond my lifetime and into eternity.  Otherwise, if in another twenty-five years you happen to pass my house and see me out vacuuming my driveway?  Please call hospice.  It’s time to put me asleep.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The story is told of Mother Teresa visiting Australia.  A new recruit to the monastery in Australia was assigned to be her guide and “gofer” during her stay.  The young man was very thrilled and excited at the prospect of being so close to this woman.  He dreamed of how much he would learn from her and what they would talk about.

But during her visit, he became frustrated.  Although he was constantly near her, he never had the opportunity to say one word to Mother Teresa.  There were always other people to meet.  Finally, her tour was over, and she was due to fly to New Guinea.

In desperation, the friar had his opportunity to speak to Mother Teresa.  He said to her, “If I pay my own fare to New Guinea, can I sit next to you on the plane so I can talk to you and learn from you?”

Mother Teresa looked at him.  “You have enough money to pay airfare to New Guinea?” she asked.

Oh, yes,” he replied eagerly.

Then give that money to the poor,” she said.  “You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.”

Mother Theresa pointed out a problem we all have or all have dealt with at one time or another.  The young man wanted to experience the feeling of being with someone when he needed to learn simply by doing.   After all, isn’t it much more enjoyable to absorb someone’s company with their presence and conversation than actually follow them in what they do?  We want to touch someone who makes a difference with their life, but we do not want to have to do what they do to make a difference our self.

Many saints of God want to dwell in his presence in worship but not serve at his table.  Many Christ followers want to sit and hear his words but not take up a towel and wash another’s feet.  We like being in his house with the nice furniture, good conversation, interesting topics of discussion and wonderful music.  However, actually doing work around the house or in the fields is more than we really want to bargain for right now.

We say to the Lord, “I want to hang with you.  It’s fun.  I can learn so much just by being in your presence.”

In turn, He says to us, “Feed my sheep…Serve one another…Care for the poor and hungry…Give and it will be given to you…Share my story and teach others my ways…Bear one another’s burdens.

The dynamic of the Kingdom of God is that the more of your life you give away, the more of the Kingdom life you will gain.  The part of this earthly life you try to keep for yourself will be lost for all eternity.  The author, Sheldon Kopp, had it right when he said, “You only get to keep what you give away.”  Similarly, John Wesley commented, “I judge all things only by the price they shall gain in eternity.”

In our American economy, we are weighed and measured by earthly goods that are very temporary.  Is it any wonder that after spending so much time and money on ourselves we feel no satisfaction and no fulfillment?  One man commented, “I’m a walking economy.  My hairline’s in recession, my waist is a victim of inflation, and together they’re putting me in a deep depression!

Heart-shaped Red Beach Pebble, June 2003

Heart-shaped Red Beach Pebble, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I want to invite you to join me by doing what Jesus did: He sacrificed himself for others.  He gave away his life so that others might live.

  • Do you have time to give to mentor children or youth or young adults?
  • Do you have time to sacrifice to encourage and strengthen others in their faith who are shut-ins, retirement homes, in nursing homes or homeless?
  • Do you have time to give for others to help distribute food, clothes or needed household items?
  • Can you faithfully sacrifice a tenth of your income to carry on the work of serving others?
  • Can you volunteer to serve at an after-school program that helps kids with homework?
  • Can you give construction skills or mechanical skills to help others or the agencies that help others?
  • Can you take time to gather food through gleaning for local food banks or volunteer at one of the local food banks?
  • Can you take time to help refugees get settled into the American culture and your community through World Relief?
  • Can you give time to answer phones at a local non-profit community agency that cannot afford to pay for more hired staff?

It really is fun when the Lord shows up in a gathering of believers and dynamic wonderful things happen.  It’s exciting to see and hear him work among us.  However, if we really want to know Jesus and his way we will take up a basket and serve others, take up a towel and wash feet, and encourage others to grow in their faith and service by our example.

God’s Kingdom is much more than just a place to enjoy God’s warm and welcoming presence.  It is also where you can invest your life in Kingdom things that last long beyond this life.  There is not only a place in the Heavenly Father’s house and at his table for you; there’s also a place for you in his vineyard to work alongside others.  You will find that everything you gave away and sacrificed for him, you will get to keep when it is all over.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Church Mission and Kingdom Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Ralph D. Winter warned,

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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