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Posts Tagged ‘Gospel Message’

One of the surprising recurring themes in the Bible regards how often God’s people miss the point of God’s purposes while those far from God grasp it.  For instance, for all their study of Old Testament scriptures and religious disciplines, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day completely missed the arrival of the Messiah and his Kingdom.  Meanwhile, those they considered “sinners” – tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the demon possessed, the leprous, Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans – welcomed the Messiah.

When Jesus went to a well-to-do religious man’s house for dinner, the man did not receive Jesus with the usual custom and courtesy expected at the time and in that culture – he did not have Jesus’ feet washed.  It was like saying to Jesus, “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”  The only point for inviting Jesus was to test him to see if he really qualified to be a teacher or rabbi.  This was despite the fact that Jesus openly taught and performed miracles for everyone to witness.

A sinner surprised the man and his dinner guests by showing up and washing Jesus’ feet.  Never mind that she inserted herself where she was not invited.  She was qualified on no spiritual terms to be in this host’s home, let alone touching a man who is supposed to be righteous and a teacher.  She does not qualify because she works in the sex industry; she is a prostitute – a modern day equivalent of a street walker, pole dancer and stripper.

The self-righteous host is put off not only by this sinful woman’s intrusion (What would the neighbor’s say!?) but also by the fact that Jesus appears to be unfazed.  He doubts Jesus’ credentials on the spot.  If Jesus was really a prophet or true teacher of the Law, he would know “what kind of woman” was touching him and defiling him.  This supposed saint, for all his prayers, religious education, and spiritual devotion missed a personal visit from the One that he and all of Israel had been longing for since time unmemorable – the long-awaited Messiah.  However, the sinner did not.

The sinful woman wept over her sin as she sat at Jesus’ feet and used her tears and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet; the same beautiful hair that she had used time and again to allure her clients into her web of manipulation and sin.  The same hair men lusted to touch and that invited them to so much more.

Her hair, the object of her worldly beauty and pride, became a dirty towel stained and streaked from the filthy feet and smelly toes of the promised Messiah.  The heaving and sobbing woman was an unwelcome spectacle and distraction to the dinner host and his guests as much as the unwanted Messiah.  Her pitiful condition grew as her hair matted in dirty clumps and her face streaked with tears and makeup.  To such well-off and proper folks, the woman and Jesus made a despicable scene that only repulsed them further.

It is then, I imagine, at the height of social discomfort, that Jesus used the occasion to point out how often sinners surpass “saints.”  He looked to the prideful host and religious leader and said, “You never welcomed me.  This woman [whom you consider full of sin and unworthy] has not stopped welcoming me. The one forgiven little, loves little.  But the one forgiven of so much, loves greatly.”

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jonah is another case in point.  The prophet is called of God to be used by God to go preach the message of judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.  The only problem?  It is to people he considers enemies and “heathen.”  God wanted him to go to the Assyrians’ capitol, Nineveh.  They had brutalized the nation of Israel.  Jonah did not just see them as beyond God’s love but also undeserving of God’s love.

Instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah decides to run from God and his mission.  In the middle of a storm, the heathen sailors are scared out of their wits.  They discern amongst themselves that it must be some kind of divine retribution and began to pray to their gods.  It was of no avail.  The storm continued to rage.  Meanwhile, Jonah slept uncaring and unaware of the danger they were all in.

When the sailors finally awaken Jonah to the imminent threat, Jonah understands what may be going on.  He coughs up the real reason for his story and tells the sailors that, for them to be saved from divine judgment, they must throw him overboard.  Unwillingly, the sailors obey the word of Jonah and are saved!  Barely able to contain themselves, they give God praise for their salvation.  Interestingly, their obedience and resulting worship of God surpassed Jonah’s – an Israelite and prophet of God.  It seems that they are more open to God and his message than God’s own messenger.

However, the irony does not stop there.  Tired of the stench and torture of riding in the belly of a great fish, Jonah repents and asks for God’s help – after three days.  (He is either a very stubborn man or a slow learner in God’s school of discipline.)  After being delivered upon a Mediterranean beach somewhere, Jonah obediently, but still reluctantly, goes to Nineveh.  He preaches God’s message of soon coming judgment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The people hear the message and turn to God and repent.

One would think that this would be Jonah’s opportunity to rejoice.  An enemy of Israel had accepted the God of Israel and received salvation.  However, just the opposite is true.  Instead of praising and worshipping God for such a miracle, Jonah goes to a nearby hilltop overlooking Nineveh to pout.  Jonah is mad at God.

When God sends a large plant to give Jonah shade, Jonah is glad for it.  When the shade plant dies, Jonah gets angry with God again.  He is more angry over the demise of a plant than the possible demise of lost souls.  He has more compassion for a plant he neither planted nor cared for than he has for a people that God placed upon the earth.

The one who pleaded for God’s mercy in the belly of a great fish and received it becomes angry at this same God who showed mercy to another people.  He could not stand the thought of God extending the same salvation he received to people he deemed to be unworthy of mercy and salvation.  God was treating those outside his covenant with Abraham the same as those within the covenant of Abraham.  And there is the rub for both Jonah and Jesus’ religious host.  The One who included them in a covenant of blessing and salvation also wants to include those who appear hostile or even unredeemable.  God’s inclusion and invitation is greater than theirs.

I must admit my own tendency to be like Jonah or that rich religious host.  Smugly, I assume and presume that God’s grace and blessings are for me.  After all, I like to “claim them” as my own and walk in them.  I have been taught that throughout my Christian journey.  However, I forget that God’s work of grace and salvation is for all people – inside and outside the covenant.  God’s desire is to show the world that he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending [judgment]” (Jonah 4:2).

Unwittingly, my assumption and presumption lend itself to a blind arrogance on my part.  I think that I have the inside track and have my “spiritual act” together, when in reality I may be farther away from God than the nearest sinner who is broken hearted over his or her sin.  Too often, I have pridefully approached God’s throne of grace and mercy and, when asked to confess my sin, have replied, “Let me think…ah…nope…got nothing.”  And then rejoice that my life is not the mess of “those sinners” around me.

I might as well be in Jonah’s place, asleep in the bow of a boat in the middle of a storm of judgment.  I can really be that spiritually unplugged and numb.  Broken and weeping sinners in repentance surpass me in spiritual awareness.  A visitation from the One I am looking for goes right past me and I miss the opportunity.  Worse yet, the One I say I live for and proudly proclaim to spiritually lost people visits them and I doubt their salvation and whether they really “got saved.”  I remain wary of whether God is really working to change their lives.  I suspect their claims to being blessed by the Lord.

Thankfully, God has not given up on working in people like me.  He is still interested in transforming doubtful, depressive, peevish, prideful, irritable, and obstinate Jonahs and religious people.  It may be time to take some lessons from newly redeemed sinners around me on humility and thankfulness.  Perhaps I can learn again the “joy of salvation” from “a gracious and compassionate God.”  At any rate, this “saint” has some catching up to do with the “sinners” around me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Out of Reach, Out of Touch

I have heard the argument too many times from well meaning American Christians.  It concerns the mission of the Church.  They believe that churches that focus on missions endeavors overseas are out of balance.  They argue, instead, that we “have enough to do in our own backyard here in America to keep us busy.”  The idea is that we should reach the least, last, and lost around us first before we concentrate on foreign lands and their peoples.  However, I believe they are not only wrong biblically and theologically, but also in practice.

I remember a powerful illustration that displayed what all too often takes place in our missions efforts when we focus primarily on the needs in America.  The speaker had several small bags of M&M candies.  There were several hundred of us in the crowd.  He asked the crowd, “How many would like to have some M&M’s?”  Of course, almost everyone raised their hands.  There were a few non-takers, but the majority wanted to accept the free treat.

So, the speaker opened a bag of M&M’s as he began talking about missions and gave the bag to the first person on the right side in the front row.  He said, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Each person that wanted some of the candy took a few and passed the bag along.  After a few minutes, the speaker asked if everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s.  “No!” came the cry from the majority of the crowd.  It turns out that the bad did not even make it passed the first row.

So, the speaker apologized.  “Here, let me get another bag going.” Once again, he started at the first person on the right side of the front row.  He gave the same instructions, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Once again, the small bag of goodies began its journey down the front row.  This time a few people did not take any and the bag got further, but it barely started down the second row when it ran out.  I was sitting tw-thirds towards the back of the room and thought to myself, “At this rate, I will never get any M&M’s.”

A few moments later, the speaker once again asked the crowd, “So, how is it going?  Everyone get some M&M’s?” No!’ went up the shout, a little more intense this time.  “I am so sorry.  I know I brought enough M&M’s.  Here, let me give out some more.”  However, once again, he started with the first person on the right side of the front row.  A few people in front row turned around and looked at us in the back and snickered.  They were clearly enjoying this – and the M&M’s!  And, so, the small bag of M&M’s began its journey.  It made it a little farther this time, but was nowhere even close to reaching me, let alone the people behind me and in the balcony.

The speaker, after awhile, checked once again with the crowd, “Now has everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s?” This time the response was much more energized with frustration, “NO!” replied well over 90% of the crowd.  This is when the missions speaker turned the table upon us.  “That,” he said, “is how the rest of the world feels about the opportunity of receiving the Good News about Jesus.”  He went on to share with us how those who are the nearest to the gospel receive the majority of our missionaries efforts while those who are farthest from the gospel receive little or now effort or help from us.

I was reminded of this experience while attending a missions class entitled, “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”  While more than 20 years removed from my earlier experience of not getting M&M’s, the statistics of our missionary efforts still remain daunting.  In other words, the people in the front, closest to the speaker, still get all the M&M’s!  There remain many people still unserved with the message of God’s Kingdom.

Non-Christians who live in an area of the world where there is a vibrant, growing, self-reproducing Church receive the vast majority of our efforts. This blows out of the water the argument that we are not doing enough for those nearest to us!  In other words, statistics tell us that 97% of them personally know a Christian.  This does not include the fact that they have access to television, bibles, bookstores, churches, and other sources to the Christian message.  At any time, they can pick up the phone, visit a local church, talk to a Christian friend, listen to Christian TV or radio and receive answers to many of their questions and be introduced to Christ and his message.

Despite this, we still send 91% of our missionary efforts to these lost people living within easy reach and access to the gospel message. They are the front row people who choose to, or choose not to, take a free gift offered to them over and over again.  Of the vast majority of non-Christians in the world, they only represent 7% of that population.  The other 93% of non-Christians in the world do not have it so fortunate.

For example, of all the non-Christians in the world, Buddhist make up 8% of the population.  At best, 16% of them personally know a Christian.  Thus, 84% do not have access to a personal witness.  The vast majority of those do not have any access at all – witnessing churches, radio, TV, printed materials.  Yet, less than 1% of our missionary efforts go to reach them with the Good News of God’s Kingdom, while 91% go to people who have easy access to the gospel already.  Does that sound fair?

Another example is unreached Muslims.  They make up 28% of the non-Christian population in the world; almost 1 out of three!  About 15% of them personally know a Christian; 85% then do not have access to a personal witness.  For most of the people in this population, if they woke up tomorrow with spiritual questions about the God of the bible or Jesus Christ, they would have nowhere to turn – no radio, TV, or printed materials, let alone a church or pastor to turn to for help.  And still, less than 1% of our estimated 455,000 missionaries we send out go to these people.  Over one-quarter of the non-Christian population in the world has no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To go back to my M&M demonstration, over one-third of the room will never get an M&M just between Buddhists and Muslims!

Of course, we need to consider, also, the Hindus.  They make up 25% of the 13,000 unreached people groups!  They are 22% of the world’s non-Christian population.  Perhaps 13% of them personally know a Christian.  Yet, only about 1% of our missionary efforts go to try and reach them with the gospel.  This means that, so far, less than 3% of our missionary efforts are going to reach 58% of the world’s non-Christian population while 91% of our missionary efforts continue to be doled out to 7% of the non-Christian population among the already-reached who have access to Gospel.  Anybody else feel like the “M&M’s” are not getting distributed fairly?  Who is missing out here?

I have not included the statistics of the people among the Chinese Folk Religions (8% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive less than 1% of our missionary efforts) or the Tribal Religions (5% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts) or the Secular/Non-religious Countries (19% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts).  Missiologists tell us that of the world’s 7 billion population approximately 4.4 billion are non-Christians.  This means the Church has a lot of work yet to do!  They also tell us that almost half – 1.9 billion – of those non-Christians have absolutely no access to the gospel by way of personal witness, church, pastor, or other means.  That is 1/3 of the world’s population.  Is that acceptable?

Yet, to the unreached one-third of the world’s population we send only about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of all of our Christian workers. Only about two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of Christian evangelistic efforts are expended on their behalf.  Taking my M&M experience to heart, this means that one-third of the people in that room would have never even known about M&M’s or that there was an opportunity to receive some for free.  Not only that, they would not even be close to someone who could tell them about what was going on.  Not only that, they would remain in the dark about the existence of M&M’s and never know about them at all.  Thus, one-third of the people in that room would die without ever even knowing about M&M’s.

Those of us who love M&M’s and have easy access to them at just about any store we go to in our neighborhood cannot imagine never knowing about them or experiencing their wonderful taste.  This is a poor comparison to someone’s spiritually lost condition.  However, it makes the point.  This is the spiritual condition of one-third of the non-Christians in the world – approximately 1.9 billion people today.  They do not know about Jesus and, without someone going to them, will never know about him.  Meanwhile, we still pour over 90% of our efforts into those who are nearest to Christians and the gospel message.  When we will begin to lift our eyes and focus on those “in the back of room” – those farthest removed from the message and the hope given to us in Christ Jesus?  When will we bring light to those in the spiritually darkest places of our world?  How long must they wait?

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Targeting those farthest from the gospel also means targeting those farthest from us. It will take someone to leave the comforts of their own culture, family and friends, and language and live among people of a different culture, family, and language.  Not everyone, I realize, is called to make that journey.  Nevertheless, everyone can pick up the cause of the last, least, and lost farthest from the Kingdom of God:

  • Missionary Prayer Teams can travel the globe through intercession to pray for the 13,000 unreached people groups.  There are many places to get their ethnic names, learn about their cultures, and barriers to the gospel through the local library or internet.  I, personally, like the use www.joshuaproject.net for such data.
  • Adopting missionaries and Christian workers who are already working among some of the unreached people groups to pray for them, encourage them via mail and email, and support them and their efforts.  There are many missions organizations that do this, but one of my personal favorites to keep abreast of is the Wycliffe Bible Translation work.
  • Focusing church missions efforts upon unreached people groups without abandoning those missions and ministries you already support.
  • Adopt an unreached people group as an intercessory prayer group, church, small group, family, or individual.  Pray for them regularly that God would raise up laborers for to go to them.  Use the library and internet to learn how to better pray for them.
  • Go on a short-term missions trip that reaches an unreached people group.  Or, support someone else’s efforts to go on a short-term missions trip to an unreached people group.

When I traveled to Andhra Pradesh province of India two years ago, I learned that there were over 1,000 villages in the area we were going into that have never had the gospel preached in them.  There is no church in these villages or even close to some of them.  Some of these villages have never seen a Caucasian person, let alone heard the Good News that Jesus came to set them free from the fear they have of their gods and the uncertainty of being caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

As I looked across the landscape, I could not even imagine such a place in America.  And, yet, there before us was a vast region of India that was untouched by the Kingdom of God.  Soon, I returned to an America that is rich in Christian heritage and spiritual opportunity; preaching in a community that has four pages of churches in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages.  Our local bible book store was busy.  The Christian television and radio stations hum with music, teaching, and preaching.  Churches and their leaders struggle with keeping up with other churches down the street.  And, yet, half a world away, there would be people who wake up tomorrow and not even know such a thing as a bible or a church existed.  They would not be aware that someone named Jesus came to set them free.  This got me to thinking: Are they so much as out of reach or unreachable as we, the Church, is out of touch with the need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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While driving in Pennsylvania in their gas-guzzling SUV, a family caught up to an Amish carriage.  The owner of the carriage obviously had a sense of humor, because attached to the back of the carriage was a hand printed sign:  “Energy Efficient Vehicle: Runs on oats and grass.  Caution: Do not step in exhaust.”

That is a very funny look at a clash of cultures.  Something akin to this happens every day, though it might not be as humorous.  Our world is quickly changing.  So much so that the difference between generations is like the difference between cultures.  One generation cannot relate to, let alone speak the language of, the next generation.  Not only that, but within the emerging generations there is a ‘tribalism’ taking place that fragments them into multiple ‘mini-cultures.’

Kids from the same city today could be broken up into a ‘multi-cultural’ mix of dress, language, and behaviors, each distinct from one another: “Preppies,” “Metalheads,” “Goths,” “Geeks,” “Rappers,” “Cowboys,” “Rockers,” “Punk Rockers,” and “Jocks,” among other group names.  Notice these do not revolve around ethnic identities.  This is because these groups transcend ethnicity.

The overarching question for the church is this: How do we influence this generation?  Many within the church would like to ‘bury their heads in the sand’ and just wait until Jesus’ return.  Is that the way?  Others throw up their hands in frustration and hopelessness and pronounce our world as beyond redemption.  Is that true?  What do you think?  Do you think the Great Commission is irrelevant for today’s world?  Do you believe that the Gospel message is impotent to affect today’s generation?  Do you think that the promised power of the Holy Spirit is insufficient to confirm the Gospel’s message to today’s world?  (Now, before you answer too quickly with words, what do your actions say?)

The danger in the Church among God’s people is to always see the generation following as beyond help, to persecute the next generation for its perceived moral decline and to scofflaw the attempts of the next generation’s leaders.  History seems to indicate this pattern.  Unfortunately, a generation that has nothing to offer to the future generation often grows nostalgic.  For every generation, polished memories of the past become more important than hopeful faith for the future.

Some would like to encapsulate the Church and Christian faith within a particular time period and tell us that unless you practice your faith like a 19th century Anabaptist, or a 4th century orthodox, or a 1960’s or 70’s Pentecostal or Charismatic, then you’re not “genuine.”  Others want to encrust the faith within a certain church fashion or practice so that unless your church service sounds or looks liturgical, Jewish, orthodox, Southern gospel, or “Pentecostal/Charismatic” then as such your are not “genuine.”  For 2000 years, every “innovation” brought about through renewal and revival in the church has ended up becoming an untouchable “sacred cow.’

I believe none of these hold the complete solution for our future.  They may help us discover part of the answer, but they will not bring us to a conclusive solution.  Knowing our history is important to our identity and sense of historical theology.  However, neither should it prevent us from presenting the Kingdom of God and the Gospel in a relevant and effective manner.  Too often we have confused method with message.

Someone once said, “You can’t answer tomorrow’s questions with yesterday’s answers.” How true.  Nevertheless, I believe the gospel message can transcend every language barrier, every cultural and ethnic wall, every era and generation and every human question.  Truly, the Word of God is a “mighty two-edged sword.”  The important thing is to keep the answer we present the same.  The challenge is presenting it in a way that our generation and the one behind us can receive and apply to their lives.

Ice Covered Evergreen on Mountain Hike, July 2003

Ice Covered Evergreen on Mountain Hike, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

The question put before us is whether we still believe the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is here today to enable us to be witnesses of Christ to this generation and so fulfill his Great Commission.  I believe that one of the toughest challenges to this generation of believers is regaining the “missionary mindset” that attempts to translate the gospel message into the culture and language of the generation following us.  Will we attempt to encrust the gospel in a time and generational code that dies with us?  Or, will we attempt to loose the power of the timeless gospel message into the new ‘cultures’ being formed around us in the next generation?

What will a 21st century Christian look like? What does a genuine follower of Christ look like in their daily lifestyle?  What are his or her spiritual practices on a daily and weekly basis?  How do we identify whether someone is really “growing in the Lord”?  What journey or steps should people take toward spiritual maturity?  Does the Church remain relevant with its timeless message?

One author claims the Church is in danger of becoming, “Islands of irrelevance in a sea of despair.  Is it too late?  Are we so far gone into a post-Christian age as some claim that our generation is deaf to the Gospel and spiritually lost? I don’t think so.  When the Apostle Paul was preaching the Kingdom of God in Christ in the first century, the odds looked grim.  There have been spiritually bleak times since then in every generation and culture since.  Yet, God continues to work and call people into his family.  We are told in the Book of Revelation that at the of the end ages, all the kingdoms and cultures of this world will be the Lord’s and he will reign over them forever and ever.  So, when cultures clash, Jesus’ Kingdom culture wins!

Our job is to effectively present that Kingdom culture to the generational cultures nearest us.  We will only be able to successfully do this by:

1) Remaining positive in our actions and outlook concerning the next generation.  Or, at least act like we are on the winning side!

2)  Remaining grounded in the Gospel’s message and claims.  Our message must never change.  This also requires a vigilance about how our methods shape our message.

3) Remaining relevant to the needs and challenges of the next generation.  This means meeting real needs and not the sentimental needs we have grown comfortable in meeting but that are not relevant anymore to the actual needs and challenges around us.

In these ways, we need no look behind us with worry but look forward with hope to the coming of Christ and his Kingdom to every culture and every generation.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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