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Posts Tagged ‘Holy Spirit’

One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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Thinking about church missionally is much different than to think about church for maintenance.  In the previous post, Church Re-Formatted 1, the challenge was to think about the fringes of American culture that are growing and how to reach out and communicate them.  That article was not to suggest that we need to throw out our present models and efforts.  Likewise, this one is not suggesting that maintenance (discipleship, at least as it is largely done in today’s churches) needs to be abandoned for missional efforts (evangelism and church planting).  The fact is that  both are needed in today’s American culture.

It is unfortunate that the established church looks upon those pushing the envelope of evangelism efforts to reach spiritual lost and damaged people with a bit of disdain.  They often wonder why these leaders cannot work within the confines of existing structures and churches.  Their leaders often work against these efforts by looking for wholes in the methodologies or even their messages and then point out their short-comings.  It is as if they believe that they somehow maintain their own credibility within the faith community by discrediting the efforts of others.

History teaches us that change, revolution and innovation most often comes from the fringes and not the mainstream.  So it is with church plants and church planters.  However, it is just as unfortunate that these leaders often look skeptically upon the established churches and their leaders as if they have gotten it all wrong and are missing something important.  As a result, established churches and their leaders become territorial and uninviting to new evangelistic and church planting efforts.  And, new church efforts and church planters alienate themselves from the resources and histories of churches long established in communities.

Round Beach Stone

Round Beach Stone  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

When we talk about mission and church planting efforts in the U.S., we are, for the most part, not talking about planting one where no church yet exists. The truth is that most of the country still has a very real, viable church presence.  When we discuss true missional communities that attempt church planting, it is often in regards to unreached/unchurched communities within communities.

This was the point of the first article, Church Re-Formatted 1: It is one thing to start a new church just to be another faith community in competition with all of the other existing ones.  That, in my opinion, is like just adding another store to the “church mall” offerings of a community.  It ends up competing for the same customers and must come up with marketing strategies to attract them.  In the end, it is largely “sheep swapping”.

It is quite another thing, however, to be one that is reaching a part of a community, perhaps a sub-community or sub-culture, that is largely unreached.  It is this latter that Church Re-Formatted 1 argues needs the greatest focus of our evangelistic and church planting efforts. The ever growing unchurched population of the U.S. needs to be the focus of new mission/evangelistic efforts.

The challenge, as noted previously, is the fracturing of American culture.  We can better be described as a tribal culture than a monolithic one.  The things that used to tie us into a common identity are becoming frayed and fragile.  This sets up competing values and interests that isolate groups as they cloister around common interests and identities.

In order for the church to become more missional in orientation, it will need a radical change – perhaps even a re-formatting.  This is nothing new to the church, actually.  It has experienced this on many occasions as people have risen to the challenge of communicating the gospel to a changing culture.  We only need to look back on recent church history to find examples.

For instance, in the 18th centurty, John Wesley and John Whitefield had the audacity to take the Bible’s message right to the masses where they lived and worked.  This got them into all sorts of hot water with the established church (the Church of England) because it was considered a defilement of the gospel to have it proclaimed anywhere other than in a church behind a pulpit.  They were told it was unfitting for clergy persons to preach outside of the sanctuary.  However, many of the working class had abandoned church as irrelevant at that time, plus many of the poor worked on Sunday.  How were they going to hear?  Who was going to go tell them?  Who would send a messenger?

It was perhaps the hand of God at work when John Wesley was locked out of preaching at churches in England because out of this he determined to take the good news message right to the masses.  It can best be seen in Wesley’s words,

I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishioners by preaching three days on my father’s tomb than I did by preaching three years in his pulpit.” … To this day field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature“. (2)

John Whitefield had a similar experience on the other side of the pond in the American colonies.  What resulted was the beginning of modern American Evangelicalism.  The American Methodist Church would later claim up to two-thirds of all believers in the U.S. by the time of the Civil War.  Since he was not allowed in most American churches, he was left to preaching in open fields, often to thousands.

In the 19th century, England was once again in need of a fresh infusion of the hope found in the message that Christ brought to earth.  Within a short span of time, even the new Methodist church in England was losing spiritual ground.  William Booth, an English Methodist preacher, decided to do something to stem the tide of cultural decay.  Despite his denomination’s efforts to place him in a pastorate, William Booth felt the urgency for evangelism and considered the pastorate a hindrance to such efforts.

Through a series of events, William Booth founded the Salvation Army.  Its focus was upon bringing salvation to the least of society.  The starting point began in the slums of East London and most ever after always looked to establish itself among the poor and needy in communities.

William Booth and his “army” became known for their street preaching and street meetings.  Their efforts, once again, focused upon taking the gospel to where the people were living and working.  Not surprisingly, William Booth and the Salvation Army caught a lot of heat from the Church of England as well as the Methodist Church of England.  Booth’s fiery preaching and passion can be summed up in this part of a message of a vision of hell:

To go down among the perishing crowds is your duty. Your happiness from now on will consist in sharing their misery, your ease in sharing their pain, your crown in helping them to bear their cross, and your heaven in going into the very jaws of hell to rescue them.”  (1)

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset Off Taylor Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

A contemporary of William Booth’s was Hudson Taylor.  He became a missionary to China and founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF International).  When Hudson Taylor first arrived in China, he found most of the missionaries there living comfortably in walled communes in the large cities of China.  No one was going outside of these to reach the aboriginal Chinese.  Only those Chinese who had become “westernized” or “civilized” were thought worthy or able of being reached and discipled.

Hudson Taylor, disgusted with the attitudes and complacency of his peers, attempted to go inland and plant churches among the villages.  At first he found stiff resistance.  He found out that the native Chinese considered him to be only another “black devil” (their word for the foreign missionaries).  So, Hudson Taylor changed his approach.  He donned Chinese clothing, grew his hair into a braided pony-tail, shaved his forehead and lived among the locals just like they lived.  Incredibly, Hudson Taylor’s efforts paid off in not only acceptance, but converts and then a church multiplication movement that continues to this day despite 60 years of Communism.

Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized by his peers and the established missionary societies.  There were churches that shunned his efforts because of his methods.  Others even questioned the necessity of needing to reach the indigenous Chinese at all.  Still, it was Hudson Taylor that led the way across the language and cultural bridge barrier that opened the door for many Chinese to not only embrace Christianity but to also form the Chinese church into something that would impact its nation.  Husdon Taylor’s burning passion comes through and challenges us when he says,

“It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China…with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.”  (3)

These same passions, visions and strategies were used many times in the U.S. in the late-19th century and early-20th century.  With the rise of immigrant communities, churches worked to establish themselves in those communities with disciples and leaders who new the culture and spoke the language.  Up until recent history, evangelical and pentecostal churches had indigenous churches that still spoke German, Norwegian and Swedish.  We see them today among the Spanish, Brazilian and various Asian and African communities in the U.S.

In an effort to change cities, churches were planted in storefronts.  Even taverns are known to have housed a few early Assembly of God church planting efforts.  Many cities in America today still have some type of “Union Gospel Mission” at work in their city centers.  These are true missional communities in the midst of people who are not reached by the average church.  However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such micro-communities all over the U.S. today without an adequate gospel presentation.

It is these missionary kinds of efforts that we have seen before in our church histories that are needed once again today in America.  However, today’s strategies may not just need to cross language and foreign cultural barriers.  Some of the hardest to reach may be in those communities and people groups who are closest in language and culture, but desperately far away from us spiritually; so much so that they seem to us as foreign.  They are living in our neighborhoods and cities.  The question remains, Who is going to take the effort to cross the street to reach them?

In light of this urgent question, every church and church leader needs to ask some questions about their city, community and neighborhoods:

  • Where are the least reached?  Are we reaching them or partnering with someone who is reaching them?
  • Who are the most vulnerable?  Are we meeting their needs or partnering with someone who is meeting their needs?
  • Where are the gathering places of our community?  Do we have a presence there or partnering with someone who does?
  • What community events define and shape our community, town, city?  Do we participate and serve there or partnering with someone who does or will help us do so?
  • What social groups exist within your community or city?  Which ones does your church have members of them, they are your closest connection, or which ones do you feel the Holy Spirit leading you to reach out to in order to build relational bridges to reach them?

    Sunset from Toleak Point

    Sunset from Toleak Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

As I mentioned before, the answers to these kinds of questions may lead to some surprising answers that challenge our idea of evangelism and “doing” church.  Do not be surprised if it leads you to skate parks, parades, community parties and celebrations, taverns, sports competitions, school events, post offices, stores, etc.  In these places, people gather who will never come to a church event.  Maybe it’s time we go be among them – incarnate the gospel message and see what the Holy Spirit does to provide opportunities to share and show God’s kingdom.

Just as Wesley, Booth and Taylor needed to “re-format” their understanding of church, it may be time for some within the American church to do so now.  This will not be for everybody, though it should concern everybody.  There are many others in Church history than just these three mentioned above that began to see church, their faith community and its purposes differently.  They, and others like them, “re-formatted” church and started – intentionally or unintentionally – new faith communities that were, in their beginnings anyway, primarily missional communities.  They journeyed to those closest to hell and farthest from heaven to seek and save the lost.  That journey needs to be taken again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 20, 2012

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What should should a church look and sound like to effectively communicate to today’s American?  There is a great deal of angst accompanying this discussion among church planters these days about what is the most effective design of a church’s organizational structure to reach people disconnected from church or altogether unchurched.  As the evangelical church continues to lose spiritual ground in American culture, this is an appropriate and urgent question.

The answer to this question is not as simple as it once was for the church planter or evangelist.  Today, while we have witnessed the rapid globalization of our culture, we have also witnessed the fracturing of our culture.  We never existed in a pure mono-culture in American society in the first place.  The arrival of new immigrants from the first settlers in the new world until now has always driven us to be more multi-cultural despite our most stiff resistance against it.

Seagulls In a Row  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg 2012

Today, however, the challenge is not just the ever increasing multi-culturization of American society through the introduction of new immigrants from other parts of the world but also the tribalization of the American culture.  American society is not only fractured but has many social fissures that separate people into smaller distinctive groups.  This a new reality for people desiring to effectively communicate to our culture.

Fifty or sixty years ago, communicators could begin a conversation with our culture and its inhabitants with a few basic assumptions: common spiritual experiences and language, familiar Americana identity and shared patriotism.  This has slowly changed over the last fifty years.  Some would call this a cultural decay while others would celebrate it as a freedom from socio-cultural assumptions that have kept us separated from the rest of the world.  I’ll leave that debate for others to wrestle over.

For churches and church planters, however, this sets up an interesting and challenging scenario.  They must ask themselves not only “Where?” and “How?” but also “Who?”  There is no mono-cultural “Jack and Jill” to reach anymore – as if a homogeneous American culture ever really existed..  There is no singular avatar (like “W.A.S.P.”) that can adequately depict every person in most of the large communities around the United States.  Diversity has increased and is now the norm.

Many years ago, someone wanting to plant a church used to only ask, “Where shall I plant it – what community, neighborhood, city?”.  Then, a few decades later, the focus became, “How shall I plant it – what style of music, what preaching/teaching style, what discipleship method?”.  Now, the more appropriate question to ask is, “Who shall I reach out to?  Among whom shall I plant it – urbanites, bikers, emo’s, skaters, preps, cowboys, motorheads, low income, recovering addicts, ethnic or immigrant group?”

As mentioned before, the vast majority of church plants in the U.S. focus upon the large moderate center of American culture.  However, this leaves out the ever growing “outsiders” or fringes of our society who remain unreached with the church’s message.  Statistically, we already know that most church growth in U.S. evangelical churches today is from “sheep swapping” rather than actually reaching lost sheep and discipling spiritual seekers.

The focus upon the moderate center is a worthy goal.  It has its own challenges.  It has also shaped the format of most American churches: highly commercialized, appealing to pop-culture and driven to constantly excel at changes that produce a better product and better service.  Unwittingly, this has also shaped the mindset of the disciples of this group so that many are often looking for church to be a theater or shopping mall experience.  The challenge is that they will quickly change allegiances to the next brightest and boldest advertised store (i.e. church).  Those issues are for another time and discussion.

The question here is,What about those outside the moderate center of American culture?”  As the U.S. enters into an increasing post-Christian culture, it will be those on the fringes of what is now considered popular culture that will continue to grow.  This growing demographic should be the target group of new church plants and evangelistic efforts.  In other words, to re-format church, its leaders need to begin by looking on the fringes of American culture – to the least reached and the last considered.

Round Rocks Beach Line

Round Rocks Beach Line  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

This will take an intentional missional mindset on the part of church leaders. The question must begin with the “who.”  This will answer the following two questions: “How?” and “Where?”  The answer to the question “Who?” may end in some surprising missional endeavors.  It will also possibly mean that church, as it is commonly known, will be completely reformatted – without giving up its core message – to look like something very different from what we grew up in.  This could also entail going to some surprising places and and “doing church” in some very different ways.

The urgent question is, who is up for this kind of re-formatting challenge for the church?  These are the leaders, missionaries to the U.S., evangelists, church planters and church leaders that we will need in the coming years and decades.  They are the ones that will need to identify unreached groups, untapped potentials for church planting and developing discipling methods in those settings.

I believe some of the answers we are looking for may actually lie in our past missionary and evangelistic endeavors.  There are ways of impacting and transforming culture that the American church seems to have forgotten in its heyday of being popular and among the wealthy of American institutions.  A few individuals and churches do follow these examples, but too few to create a movement to change the rising tide of the secularization and paganization of American culture.

This is the time to humbly return to past spiritual roots to look for and learn new models to re-format church.  It may be also a time to look to our spiritual children and grandchildren from our overseas missionary efforts for help.  It is in some of these very pagan and even anti-christian settings that the church is most effective.  In these surprising settings the church is not only growing and thriving,  but it is slowly changing culture.

Should the church look to re-format itself?  No.  Not if it is just another gimmick to be relevant and “cool”.  Yes, if it plans to reach the unreached groups in its community and city and start a spiritual movement that will change the present destination of our American culture.  Who wants to re-format the church and start all over?  Not everyone.  But I’m up for it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone,  May 19, 2011

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Some of the best stories are the ones that no one ever hears. We all like success stories.  Everyone likes to vicariously live through the success of others.  Some may even aspire to be like those they hear about in the stories.  This is no less true for small churches and their leadership.

Leaders of small churches can get caught up into the success stories of larger sister congregations and think their means of successful ministry lies along a similar path. That may sometimes be the case.  However, I predict that more often it is not.

At the same time, because the successful stories of small congregations and their leaders have no platform to be told, there are countless success stories of successful small churches to go largely unshared. Theirs are the stories that no one ever hears.  No one writes a book about it.  Church leadership magazines do not feature them.  Their leadership is not taken on the church growth speaking circuit.  They are not highlighted at any national conferences.

Imagine a church that is reaching ten percent of its surrounding community. Some small churches are doing just that while many large churches in larger contexts cannot even come close to that kind of impact.  Or, imagine a church that plays a prominent role in virtually every young person’s life in its local community school.  Once again, this is a feat difficult to replicate in a larger urban or metroplex setting.

While this church may not ever run more than one hundred or a hundred and twenty-five, its budget barely reach six figures, and its lack of resources obvious in comparison with larger churches, it nevertheless has a big story to tell. It has a big imprint in its community.  The congregation is well known and well accepted by everyone.  Similarly, its leadership is welcomed and invited by the majority of the community.

A friend of mine from Alaska, who has pastored small churches his entire life, mentioned to me recently, “I have pastored in smaller towns my entire life and find great opportunities to have influence and access.  It is easier to use media, easier to find partners like Rotary, VFW, community leaders and community colleges. Longevity in the smaller community is another great asset. Longevity builds trust in a community” (James D. Duncan).  His encouragement to small churches and their pastors is not to be intimidated by larger churches and their leaders but “make your size work for you.”

The possibility to network and have influence in smaller communities is one of the big stories that go untold about smaller churches. Community, school, and social club leaders are often sitting in their congregations or available for a casual meeting at the local diner.  Instead of focusing upon what the church does not have, the most important thing a congregation can do is focus upon what it does have and use those strengths and relationships.

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When I pastored a small Assembly of God church in Quilcene, Washington, I made it a point of networking with the other pastors. This is sometimes difficult.  However, I have found more often than not that pastors of small communities are easier to get together than ones in larger towns and cities.  In this particular Pacific Northwest logging community, the pastors of the four local area churches gathered once or twice a month for coffee and prayer at the local store.

Out of these meetings there began a collaboration of ministries. No one congregation dominated the community.  However, we realized that when we put all of our congregations together that we represented almost one-third of the population of our community.  That was a pretty startling statistic for this area!  We realized that together the kingdom of God could have a big imprint upon this rural community.  That is precisely what happened for the next few years until pastoral changes began to take place.

One example was that the Presbyterian church in town, which was an aging congregation, had plenty of money but not many kids or young people. Our church, on the other hand, had plenty of kids and young people but lacked sufficient funds and workers.  So, for several years, we combined our resources to provide a week long Summer Vacation Bible School program that was outstanding.  We all impacted the kids and families of our community.  Plus, the Presbyterian church picked up a few younger families that had stopped attending quite some time before.  There was new excitement for what was being offered for their children.

A small church that seeks to use its strengths for God’s glory can end up having a big story to tell in its community. This is particularly true if it is willing to reach outside its own walls and find ways to network and collaborate with others.  For small communities, that lack of activities for kids and young people can be one such opportunity.  However, the opportunities may also be in a retirement center, food bank, or local school.

There is no replacing the hard work of prayer and meeting people. Prayer attunes the heart and soul to the Spirit of God’s direction.  However, just as important, is positioning one’s self in places to meet others so that one is available for “God appointments” and “God moments.”  In these times, opportunities arise or needs where the church may serve are made known.  Without being there, opportunities are wasted.  Without prayer, opportunities can be blindly missed.

There are many churches and their leaders who understand this simple strategy for success. It simply asks the questions, “What is God doing in our community?” and  “Where is God at work in our community?”  These two questions assume God is already at work by his Holy Spirit.  As his followers, we are the ones that must become attuned to it.  This is much different than “trying something” and praying that God will bless it or continuing to do the same old thing and praying that God will bless it like he did in the past.

This approach also asks the questions, “Where does God want to make a point of contact in our community?” and “Who does God want us to serve to reflect the light of his glory?”  These two questions are very missional.  They assume that the believers have already dedicated themselves “to go where you want me to go dear Lord.”  It also assumes that perhaps the work God really wants to accomplish is not inside the walls of the church building but out in the lives of those his Holy Spirit is already drawing to himself.

If any church – large, medium or small – is going to write a big story that glorifies God, it will require courage to sometimes try something not done before. It may require letting go of things always done before.  Often, when we say “Yes” to something, it also means we must say “No” to something else.  But when we say “No” to what is not of first priority, we get to say “Yes” to what is most important.  And, in this case, it just may have eternal consequences.

This may lead to some surprising results.

  • The church that invests itself in the families and kids of its community to put on a free Kids Festival just before school starts each year, which has given it influence in the lives of those families and kids the rest of the year.
  • The church that supports the local art festival, which has opened up relationships with community leaders.
  • The church that has committed to minister to a local nursing home by offering worship services and regular visitation followed-up with cards to family contacts of the nursing home patients, which has impressed not only the staff and leaders of the nursing home but immensely blessed the families and patients.
  • The church that has taken on the responsibility to make sure the local food bank is staffed and stuffed with goods, which has given it contacts with people it would never otherwise ever see or hear.
  • The church that offers after-school tutoring three days a week to help kids who need the extra time to succeed in school.
  • The church who has no kids in Sunday School and is made up of mostly older adults with no children at home but who offer free childcare two Fridays a month for a “Parents Night Out” and then use the time to reach and teach the children who come about Jesus.

Just as there is no “cookie cutter” ministry success model, neither is there a “cookie cutter” story template that can be laid from one community to the next. Each congregation’s profile is different.  Every community context is different.  However, God is at work everywhere and in every place.  It is up to each small church and its leadership to find the story God wants to tell that will bring him glory.  It may be a story of his glory that you have not heard before but the wonder of it all is that each of us can be a part of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Real estate in church ministries is important. It is all about location, location, location.  Unfortunately, when many churches and their leaders think of missions they think of ministry to those on the “other side of the railroad tracks.”  The ministry of mission to the least, last and lost means going out of a suburban context into a poverty stricken urban or rural setting.  What is not often fully realized is that context determines reach.

I served as a church leader in a church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that seemed to be positioned to reach and serve people in needy circumstances. Much of the congregation was made up of people from broken homes, recovering addicts, the mentally and socially challenged, as well as families living at or just above poverty.  In effect, I assumed that the church was reaching those that Jesus commanded his followers to reach: the least, last and lost.

At one board meeting, I presented to the church board the opportunity to reach an apartment complex that had people with disabilities, mental handicaps, and financial needs and no opportunity to connect with a church community.  I shared a story of Jesus’ compassion for the “least of these” and asked the board to brainstorm ways in which we could reach and serve them.  It was not to go as I was hoping.

After a few awkward moments of silence and seat shuffling, one of the men on the board spoke up and declared a bit angrily, “Pastor, we have enough of those kinds of people here already!  We need some stable people; people who are successful, who make money and can contribute something to the church!  We don’t need any more of those kind of people.

Now I felt uneasy. You could sense the anxiety level in the room go up.  Perhaps this man had spoken aloud what all the others were merely thinking.  I had only recently assumed leadership of the church.  I let his words settle into the room before I responded.

After a moment, I asked, “When you say, ‘We don’t need any more of those kind of people,’ you mean the ones Jesus said we are supposed to be reaching – the least, last and lost?  Isn’t that precisely the mission that has been given to us?”

Everyone was staring at the table. I had the feeling that I was alone on this either because some agreed with him or because they had no response to offer.  I then recognized that, in this particular saint’s mind anyway, mission and ministry was something you did “for those over there” when you had money in the budget for it.  I tried to lighten the moment with a bit of humor.

I recognize our need for resources and money to fulfill our mission.  However, to adapt Jesus’ words, ‘A poor budget you will always have with you’.  Our budget will never meet our vision and dreams for what we want to do in the kingdom.  At the same time, we cannot wait for it to before we launch out and do anything.  Action must precede our faith in the Lord to provide.

The objector looked up at me. I disagree.  I think it is irresponsible to forge ahead with anything that we do not have the monies for and foolish to even discuss them until it is there in our budget.

And that requires getting the “right kind of people” in church first,” I offered.

Yes,” he replied.  “Why can’t we focus upon business people and people who are successful?  They will provide the resources and leadership for all of these things you want to do.”

Personally, I think that is backwards from what Jesus said the focus of the kingdom is supposed to be for the church,” I explained.  “Also, it has nothing to do with the ‘things I want to do’ but the opportunities I believe the Lord is putting before us.  If anyone sees or hears of others, I am open and would be happy to entertain them. I think that we need to consider that these are all possible divine appointments that the Lord puts in our path.  The question is, ‘What are we going to do with it?'”

I could tell by the board members posture that he was shut down and not going to offer anymore dialogue. My goal was not to shut him down but to generate dialogue.  Somehow, that didn’t look like it was going to happen.  He mind seemed made up at this point.  So, I turned to the other board members and church staff present.

What do the rest of you think?” I asked.

There were a few mumbles and nods but nothing of substance offered by way of defense or objection to either position. I quickly determined we were not going to go anywhere with this subject at this moment and decided to move on with the meeting.

Well, I would like us to prayerfully and strategically consider this opportunity.  Meanwhile, let’s move on with our agenda…

Chinese Dragon, Chinatown, Seattle, Washington

Chinese Dragon, Chinatown, Seattle, Washington ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The meeting moved on but did so awkwardly after that moment. It was not the first time that I had encountered this objection to ministry opportunities and it wouldn’t be the last.  I am not sure I still have a clear answer or way forward through such times.  What happens most often, as it happened on this occasion, the individual leaves the board or leadership position and, soon afterward, the church.

Part of the problem to overcome is the thinking that mission is something we do “over there”. It is not something welcomed or embraced in the church’s present context.  Thus, it is much easier to send missionaries, mission teams and financial help to people overseas than it is to reach and serve those right in our own neighborhood.  Such a dichotomy was never intended by our Founder.  The same Jesus who sent his followers out all over the world with the Great Commission was the same person who went through his own home town and region ministering to those who already knew him.

Once those outside the church are identified as “those people”, then the church grows cold in its outreach efforts. In our minds and spirits, we remove ourselves from those in need.  Suddenly, any service we offer is done out of a paternalistic attitude rather than the attitude of a fellow traveler and beggar through life.  It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul worked hard to remind all of the saints in the churches that he wrote to that they too were once one of “those people”.  And they were not to forget it!

Spiritually speaking, we all are “on the wrong side of the tracks” and need help. We are all part of the least, last and lost family.  Ministry as Jesus foresaw it was not something his followers were to “go and do” and then return to the comfort of their homes and beautiful church edifices.  Ministry was (and is) always to be an “as you are going” experience.  It is a “wherever you are” endeavor.

Yes, there are those the Lord seems to call and position for service in far away places to people with different culture and language. And, yes, the Lord often provides divine appointments outside our immediate sphere of influence or experience (just read the Book of the Acts of the Apostles).  However, for most of us, it will most likely be something right within our context to those that we can serve: the foreigner, orphan, widow, hungry, poor, homeless, and disadvantaged right within our own communities.

In other words, they are our neighbors. They are not “those people” but “our people” who need compassionate help.  Who are our neighbors?  Jesus pointed to any of those in need.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the good neighbor was the one who showed compassion.  It is the second part of the Great Commandment: “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  We do not get to pick our neighbors.  It is whoever is in our town or city on whatever side of the tracks they live.  They are not an objective or destination.  They are one of us; least, last and lost trying to find our way home.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 5

If we fail to acknowledge God at work in the ‘big events’ of our life, what is the likelihood that we will ever recognize him at work in the small, ordinary, everyday events of our life? Yes, it is a ‘step of faith’ – perhaps even a leap – for an individual to look at their life this way.  We are more prone to give Lady Luck, good fortune, or coincidence the credit than God.

It is perhaps the height of human hubris to refuse to give our Creator credit for anything good that happens in our life; let alone what good happens on earth in general. However, let something fall apart, a tragedy strike, catastrophe fall upon us or another part of our world and suddenly we want to point our finger heavenward and blame the Divine.  We want an explanation from God for our hurt and sorrow, even if we do it in doubt, “If there was a god, he/she would have prevented this!  That’s what I would have done if all the power of the universe were in my hands.

The Bible teaches us that, out of his sovereign will to run his creation or allow it to run according to the laws of creation he established, God permits his blessings to come to both the just and unjust of the world. It confounds those who think that they belong to a special religious club, which gives them privileges to God’s blessings and protections against bad things happening to them, that Jesus would teach us, “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, MKJV).  It does not fit our theology, so we avoid it.

However, Job was a man in the Old Testament who knew both the blessings and the trials that come in this life. He was a man who looked like he had everything in life.  He was the model of success.  A day came, however, when everything he had and more was ripped from his life: financial security, family, peace, and good health.  Standing on the brink of his trust in God staring into the abyss of doubt and despair, his wife encouraged him to abandon all hope and leap by offering him the advice, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

At that moment, Job decided to take a step back from that abyss and offers this answer to his wife’s solution,Stop talking like a person who does not know God!  We accept the good things that God allows to come to us.  Shouldn’t we also accept the bad things that he allows to come to us?” (Job 2:10, my own paraphrase).  This seems to be the reverse side of the faith equation Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew (see above).  Instead of the sun and the rain, Job is thinking in terms of killing frosts and monsoons.  Everything that comes to us comes to us through what God allows.

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

This whole idea messes with our desire to have a god who is a benevolent benefactor handing out goodies to all his good children and handing out punishment to all his bad ones. However, this approach makes the Creator sound more like Santa Claus than a Divine Sovereign of the universe.  It also makes him petty and capricious.  In the end, we are left always trying to figure out how to keep God happy – be on his “nice list” – and on our side, lest we offend him somehow and get put on his “naughty list.”  After all, there are worse things than ‘lumps of coal’ in store for us if we do not stay on his good side, right?

The problem with this is that it makes the God of the universe as small as we are in our thinking and behavior.  Job seemed to understand this in the midst of his troubles. Jesus pointed us to a larger more complicated picture of God.  In his own day, many people who assumed they should have been on God’s ‘nice list’ were not and those who thought they were on God’s ‘naughty list’ were actually favored and shown mercy.  This really messed with the heads of the religious people of Jesus’ day and still messes with them today.  It is so unlike us and how we would do things.  And maybe that is just the point.

The key may not be what we focus on and weigh: whether events are good or bad for us.  It may be how we view them in light of our trust in God to work out all things for his purposes and his glory, not ours. This makes God bigger than us and our personal agendas or happiness.  God has a bigger picture and bigger story to tell.  We can allow our lives to be woven into that story or refuse.  Either way, it is all about the story of God’s glory revealed in all of creation.  Our redemption is a part of that story.  If we refuse, so will be our fall.

So, one of the keys to finding purpose in this life is to see how God is at work in all of our situations and the events that come to us – good or bad.

  • What is the story of faith and trust he wants to write through us?
  • How do the small acts of love, kindness and obedience add up to tell a larger story of God’s activity in our life?
  • When has he visited us or interrupted our lives in small or large ways to reveal his ways to us?
  • Who are the individuals in our lives with whom he wants us to weave our stories together?

And the questions and searching goes on.

A pinnacle for me in the realization of this was an experience that my wife and I had early on in our lives together. We were a young married couple just out of college.  I had just finished almost two-and-a-half years of being a youth pastor at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington.  Sensing a change coming, I quit the position fully expecting the Lord to open up something right away.  At least, that what I sincerely believe was going to happen.

Kelly had just finished teaching at Bremerton Christian School. However, she had become pregnant with our first child and they had a policy of not allowing young mothers to teach.  This left us both unemployed.  However, we were still hopeful and expecting the good Lord to bless us and show us the way.

Soon, however, as the months clicked away, it became apparent that nothing was going to materialize as quickly as we thought. Our savings became depleted.  The last pay check from the youth pastor position and teaching position came and went.  It was August of 1987, our son was due to be born at the beginning of October, and we were out of money.

I started taking the Seattle-Bremerton ferry to look for a job in Seattle. Out of desperation, I signed on with an employment agency in hopes that they could find something for me.  Finally, I was signed on with a job with the Pay-n-Pac Corporation – a large chain of home improvement stores.  I was assigned to the Rainier Valley store in Seattle.  This meant a long commute.  While it offered hope down the road, it only added to our immediate financial burden since I would need money for commuting and couldn’t expect a paycheck for two weeks.

We had no idea what to do. We limped financially through the beginning of August.  But unpaid bills were piling up.  September’s rent was soon to be due.  We were desperate.  We prayed and asked God to help.  But our situation only seemed to grow worse and more desperate.  We were reticent about reaching out to family and friends for help.  For Kelly, the days at home alone and pregnant with our first child were depressing and unbearable.  For me, the long commutes to Seattle were depressing.  Instead of listening to the radio like usual, I spent most of the hour-plus commute complaining to God about our predicament.

Where are you God?  Why aren’t you answering us?  Why don’t you provide?  What about the promises you made to us in the Bible?  Do you care about us?  How are we supposed to make it?  Are you really there?  Are you even listening to us?  What have we done to make you angry?  I left me job because I thought you had a plan, did I not hear you right?  Was my ‘step of faith’ a ‘step of stupid’?  Why are you putting us through all of this?  Do you want us to homeless and broke?  After serving in ministry for these last few years, are you just going to leave us hanging in the wind?”  You get the picture.  It was pretty much an hour each way each day of writing my own imprecatory psalms to the Lord.  Only mine didn’t sing as sell as King David’s.

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, while I was in the middle of my morning commute to Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a knock came to our door. It was early enough that Kelly was still in her pajamas.  Not knowing who it was that would be at our door in the morning, she looked through the peep-hole.  It turned out to be an elderly couple from the church we had just resigned from a couple months prior.  Bruce and Lois Wilkinson had become dear friends and a joy to be around.  He was retired from the Bremerton Shipyard.

Kelly wrapped herself in her bathrobe and opened the door to them.  “Good morning!” she greeted them.

Good morning,” Bruce answered.  “We have some things for you.”

And with that they began to bring in to our apartment bags and boxes of groceries.  Kelly was overwhelmed with the amount of food being brought in.  She continued to thank them profusely as the brought the items in from their car.

Finally, with the last bag of groceries brought in, Bruce and Lois turned to Kelly and said, “Our granddaughter and her husband got a hold of us the other day.  Apparently, they have been praying for you and felt led by the Lord to do something for you to help you guys out.”  He then handed Kelly an envelope.  “And we decided to add something to it ourselves,” Lois added.

We had come to know their granddaughter and her husband only briefly as he had been transferred to Guam by the Navy shortly after we had arrived at the church. Someone in Guam had been praying for us, felt led to “do something” for us, and acted upon it.  Pretty extraordinary when you take into consideration that we had shared with no one our situation.

Kelly looked surprised at first. Then, looking into Bruce and Lois’ smiling faces, began to cry.  She explained to them that they were truly an answer to prayer.  Little did either of us expect that an answer to our prayers would come via friends in Guam!  Bruce and Lois prayed for Kelly and I and our unborn son before they left.

After they left, Kelly put away the groceries. She was amazed at their generosity.  Then she sat down and opened the envelope.  It contained a check and cash.  Stunned, she added up the amount between the two.  Of course, the amount came to what we needed to pay August’s rent as well as September’s and catch up with all of our bills.

About that time, I arrived at work to one of my co-workers calling my name.

Hey, Ron!  You have a phone call.  Sounds like your wife,” they called out to me.

She never called me at work, so I worried, “What could it be?

Hi,” I tentatively greeted her.

Good morning,” she said cheerfully.  “I know you’re at work.  But, I just had to call and tell you.  You’ll never guess just what happened…

She was right.  I couldn’t.

Would I ever want to go through that experience again? No.  Have I gone through tough life situations since then?  Oh, yeah.  But what happened in August 1987 has helped me to learn and remember that even in the midst of our trials and troubles; God is weaving a story line bigger than just our parts.  In the midst of our troubles, someone else’s faith was being stretched into an act of obedience.  To minister to our discomfort and worry, someone else was being prodded to reach out in kindness, care and love.  So, on the good side and on the bad side of life’s experiences, God seems to be at work.

This perhaps is a key to discovering God at work in the big and small events of our life, whether they are good or bad. Solomon seemed to understand this spiritual axiom when he penned the proverb, “In whatever direction life’s road takes you look and listen for Him, and He will make your direction clear as you go” (Proverbs 3:6, my own paraphrase).  Life’s road can have some great stretches that bring us much joy.  But it can also have some rough patches and steep climbs that cause us grief.  Wherever you are, he is there.  Just look for him.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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