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Rethinking Christian Unity and Diversity

In recent decades, it has become a constant cry of people inside the church and outside of it that the Church should show the world more unity. For hundreds of years before, segregation of belief and practice was celebrated with quite a bit of triumphalism.  Sadly, it also resulted in mean and demeaning attacks between Christian sects.  Now there is a desire to remove all barriers and eliminate most, if not all, diversity between the various streams of the Christian faith.

I used to be a part of that band wagon:We should all be together, under one roof, worshiping God.”  Recently, however, I have been seriously reconsidering that idea all together.  It is not the idea of the unity of the Church or the unity of all believers that I am opposed to in principal.  The idea is a grand one.  But how that is expressed and presented to the world  is something that I believe few have really thought through carefully.  I know that, up until recently, I had not considered all its ramifications.

This may rattle some people’s preconceived notions, but I have come to the conclusion that the idea of Christians from all different streams of practice and doctrinal emphases gathering under one roof is not a biblical one. Likewise, the idea that all our differences in faith and practices should be eliminated for the sole concern of uniting together in one place is not, I have also come to believe, a part of God’s plan for His world or His Kingdom.  The idea that unity is good and diversity is bad is a fallacy that too many well-meaning Christians have bought in to without really considering its implications.  I know that I was a part of that crowd.

The journey of rethinking the idea of diversity within the Christian faith and the desire for unity really began as I began to experience church practices and beliefs in different cultures; opportunity to experience a Korean Presbyterian worship service, church services for Vietnamese, and the church expressed through the African-American or Latino-American cultures as well as my travels overseas to such places as Albania and India.  The complexity that cultural expressions bring to the Christian experience and worship of God began to chip away at my idea of what it means to have the “unity of the faith” that the Apostle Paul talks about in the New Testament.

A number of years ago, the American church was denounced for its lack of unity in the faith becauseThe 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America!”  This is true.  However, what are the alternatives?  What would be the real cost to eliminate all diverse expressions of the Christian faith for the benefit of being in one place at one time?  I have come to think that it would be a colorless, culture-less and neutered Christian faith.

This idea became a more solid shape in my mind during a particular session of a missions course I took recently called, “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.”  Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, spoke to our group about culture and mission.  She also had an article in the Perspectives Reader called, “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?  The Gospel, Globalization and Ethnicity,” which was adapted from her article in the book One World or Many?  The Impact of Globalisation and Mission (2003).

In her article, Dr. Adeney uses the Makah Indian culture as an example of cultural diversity and expression. She pointed to one particular Makah elder named Isabell Ides who passed away at the age of 101.  She was the Makah expert on basket weaving and also a Sunday school teacher in her local church.

Both of these facts captured my interest. First, my parents were living in Neah Bay, Washington, among the Makah Indians when I was born in 1961.  Second, my mother tells me that Isabell Ides attended the little Assembly of God church my father was pastoring and used to hold me during church.  The questions that Dr. Adeney pointedly asks her readers are, “Did Isabell’s basketry matter to God, as well as her Sunday school teaching?  How important was her ethnic heritage in the Kingdom’s big picture?

Dr. Adeney warns that ethnicity and culture can, in themselves, become idols. At the same time, Scripture affirms that diversity in culture is a part of God’s creative plan and purpose for humanity.  She observes that all cultures contain sin and must be judged.  However, pride in one’s ethnicity is not automatically sin.  Ethnicity and cultural diversity was created out of humanity’s God-instilled need for community.  The danger is to think that one’s cultural ways and ethnicity is the only way that God works and communicates in the world.

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If cultural/ethnic diversity are rooted in the doctrine of creation, then perhaps it would behoove all Christians to not deny it but embrace it. By honoring one another’s cultural distinctiveness we honor God’s kaleidoscope creativity in and through humankind.  Each group of people, reflecting their God-given creativity, has developed their own culture.  They can offer complimentary views of what is beautiful and true as well as what is ugly and evil.  So, what does this mean for the local church?

As Dr. Miriam Adeney points out:

“Some people flourish in multicultural churches.  Others treasure their own tradition.  For them, culture remains important in worship.  They pray in their heart language, with meaningful gestures, ululations, and prostrations.  Their culture will affect the way they do evangelism, discipling, teaching, administration, counseling, finances, youth work, leader training, discipline, curriculum development, relief, development, and advocacy.  Their theologians complement other cultures’ understanding of the Bible.”

Perhaps the answer lies in what has long been embraced in the church:In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love” (Augustine, 354-430 AD).  Separate congregations, then, is not a bad thing.  To give place to our diversity in faith in practice and belief, we can honor each other’s differences.  The killer for church life is not our differences!  It is a lack of love.  This is true in a local church or across the board among all the various expression of the church universal.

God does not desire his Church – the Bride of Christ – to be dressed in beige. She is to be dressed in a coat of many colors, a mosaic, a kaleidoscope full of a whole spectrum of cultures.  If that can happen in one place at the same time, that would be good.  It is not required.  What is required and non-negotiable is the demand for love.  After all, it will be this spectrum of cultures with all their ethnic churches will enrich this world and color God’s Kingdom.  This, I believe, when we achieve it, will be a true foretaste of heaven:

I looked, and there in front of me was a huge crowd of people.  They stood in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb.  There was so many that no one could count them.  They came from every nation, tribe, people and language.  They were wearing white robes.  In their hands they were holding palm branches.  They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, Salvation also belongs to the Lamb’.” (Rev. 7:9, 10)

This is the same vision that God gave to Peter at Cornelius’ house when he was about to go present the news of Jesus the Messiah to non-Jews. This was the vision that drove the apostle Paul to travel the Roman empire to present the gospel to all the various sub-culture groups without demanding that they become either Jewish or like any of the other expressions of the faith being created among each people group.  The Galatian church was as different from the church in Illyricum as it was between the church in Corinth and the congregation meeting in Jerusalem.  Diversity in the Kingdom could be culturally expressed while unity in the faith kept vibrant and alive.

So, perhaps instead of bemoaning the various expressions of the Lord’s Body at work and at worship in the world, maybe we should celebrate them. The strongest expression of our unity in the faith may be our love for one another despite our difference.  Our allowance for brothers and sisters in the faith to worship in freedom as they see fit while not demeaning them or seeking to upstage them may be what the world needs to witness most; not us gathered in a circle wistfully singing, “We are one in the Spirit.  We are one in the Lord.”  When the Christian faith truly treasures ethnic and cultural expressions, without worshiping them as an idol, perhaps then the rest of the world will sit up and take notice.  God’s love is large enough to embrace everyone.  Let’s work on that first.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the things missing in the debate about immigration today is the view from the other side of the border – or fence in some places.  Americans seem to be myopically fixed upon their own ethno-centristic view of “the immigrant;” especially the illegal.  There is little regard or interest in how the rest of the world sees us, which explains a large part of the mess we have made in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world where we have attempted to interfere or intervene.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans live in a mono-cultural setting while the rest of the world lives in a multi-cultural setting.  People in the rest of the world are made, as a part of everyday living, to interact with two or three different cultures and speak in two or three different dialects or languages.  On the other hand, Americans are impatient with an immigrant working behind the counter at Burger King.

Traveling abroad opens up a whole new world for those needing to break out of their mono-cultural worldview and experience life like the majority of the rest of the world.  Probably no experience for me has shaped my view of different cultures as much as my experience in India.  At the same time, no experience has taught me more about culture and immigration than my interactions with people from different countries attempting to start life over in the USA.  They are the brave ones.  It gives me an appreciation for what my ancestors did when they first came to America from Sweden a century ago or from Germany more than two centuries ago.

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

India is a study in contrasts.  In the major cities, there are people everywhere.  The bright colors of dress and Hindu temples, music blaring from loud speakers and non-stop sounds of automobile horns surround a person.  There is no escape.  At the same time, the smells of diesel, perfumes, foods, open sewers and dead animals constantly waft around you.

As one moves through the city and countryside, a person cannot escape the rotting garbage, open trenches of raw sewage, plastic bags everywhere, wandering cows dropping there excrement everywhere, dogs running lose and people walking in and amongst traffic.  For all the beauty, the filth and chaos is unavoidable!  Forget any American sense of the rules of the road.  Trucks, buses, tractors, cars, motor rickshaws, bicycles, tricycles, ox carts, cows, water buffalo and people all vie for the road with honking, waving and shouting.

This is how most Americans see India and its people.  How about their view of us?  I recently read an article taken from the Evangelical Missions Quarterly (44:1 January 2008) by Paul G. Hiebert entitled “Clean and Dirty: Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in India.”  It was eye-opening and revealing.  I wish I had read it before I my trip to India.

I presently live in an apartment complex that has a number of Indian families living in it.  The smell of curry drifts from their apartments.  I love it.  I have a new appreciation for their attempt to live in an American culture that is so foreign to them.  They have a lot of work cut out for them just to navigate everyday life.  I – all of us – have a lot to learn from them.

One thing that Indians notice in stark contrast from where they came from is the public cleanliness.  Manicured lawns, prettily painted houses, clean streets, no open sewers all make the world seem neat and orderly.  And the traffic!  No one uses their horns!  People drive clean, dent-free cars.  They stay in the well-marked lanes and actually stop at stop-lights and stop-signs.  On top of that, they will actually wait their turn to go through an intersection!  It is all simply amazing to them.

In contrast, however, when Indians first come to America, they are shocked at our personal filthiness.  Paul Hiebert in his article points out that they see Americans going to school, buses and stores in torn jeans, very short shorts, unkempt T-shirts and gaudy footwear.  Women dress in the same drab attired as men or in sweat pants or, worse yet, pajamas.  From their cultural perspective, all these look like beggars’ clothes.  Obviously we can afford more respectful clothes.

It is puzzling to these new comers to America that we keep our shoes on when we enter a house.  This is really confusing to them when we enter a house of worship into the presence of God.  It seems that we care more for our cars, yards and streets than we do ourselves or our god.

When visiting India, if one looks past the surface of dirt and filth, one would see a culture that is very concerned with purity and pollution.  Hiebert points out that Indians are, in fact, obsessed with personal cleanliness.  When leaving their small huts, men will always come out with their best shirts, ties and trousers, washed and pressed, along with polished shoes.  Women will only appear in public in brightly colored feminine clothes.  Houses even with dirt floors and court yards are swept daily.  People brush their teeth and comb their hair almost obsessively.  Plus, they will do it outside, in public, so that people will see their concern for cleanliness and public dignity.

When Indians watch Americans eat, they do so with incredulity.  After all, Americans like to eat with utensils that have been in other people’s mouths.  They frequently do not wash their hands before eat – even if they touch food with their fingers!  They also use their right hands in toilets and use paper to clean themselves.  Hiebert also points out that Americans eat meat, particularly beef, which gives them a strong body odor that vegetarians can smell.

Since Indians are concerned with personal pollution, they are careful about the things they touch.  Only the left hand is used for dirty activities, such as toilet duties.  They only eat with the fingers of their right hand, after washing, which has not been in other people’s mouths.  They are careful about who and what they touch to prevent themselves from being defiled.

Perhaps Americans could use a lesson from about “cleanliness” and “purity” from our Indian friends.  Instead of being so concerned about outward cleanliness, we should focus on what defiles us.  It seems Jesus addressed the Pharisees of his day with the same concern.  They were more concerned about outward purity than inward defilement.  His advice to them was not to be so concerned with the outward cleanliness of the cup, but pay attention to what is inside it.  It is what comes out of us that defiles us.

I suspect there are other lessons world-citizens could teach us if we were willing to learn.  As more and more people come to America from around the world, we have a prime opportunity to allow them to teach us.  It might behoove us to not demand that they become “like us.”  In some instances, it may be better for everyone if we become more like them.  This will take getting a vision from the other side of the world.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Blue Flowers in Vishakapatnam, India (2008)

Blue Flowers in Vishakapatnam, India (2008) ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Let Us Make God In Our Image

The Bible uniquely positions God before and above all his created order.  This goes against the rest of the world’s religions who make God a part of the created order.  After God speaks his creation into existence, he declares that he will make one more unique being to set among his created order – humankind.  Genesis tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind (‘adam – “beings of/from the earth”) in our image.”

Humanity is then set into the middle of God’s creation to tend to it, watch over it and protect it.  We are not given a time-frame, but sometime after creation this idyllic life God established is marred and destroyed by the work of God’s enemy – the devil or Satan.  The first man and first woman are deceived by this wily, rebellious creature and choose to believe the words of God’s enemy over the word of God.  And, thus, begins humankind’s descent into bondage to sinful rebellion, the resulting separation from life with God and the continual struggle to return to and reclaim what was once theirs by privilege of God’s personal, God-breathed creation.

It this particularly human struggle to return to God that sets us apart from the rest of creation.  No other creatures on earth seem concerned about their Creator.  There is no creature that intentionally searches out, speaks to and communes with their Creator – at least to the level that our 21st century sciences have been able to detect.  To be sure, every creature and all creation speaks for God and reflects his image and glory; even “fallen” humanity.  Yet, it is only humankind out of all of creation that seems to agonize over knowing and understanding their Creator and returning to some fashion of intimate knowing.  It is a primal instinct and desire to return to the Garden of Eden.  It forever marks us as spiritual beings, not just material beings made up of evolving unintelligent matter.

This search and longing often brings humankind to two attempts:  a determinate attempt to return to communion with the Creator by ascending to where we believe God rests and resides or a creative attempt to recapture the communion that was lost with the Creator by imagining what God must really be like and want from his creation.

The Bible is a long history of the futile attempts of both approaches to God.  Humankind can neither ascend to where God is to meet him on his terms.  Nor can humankind correctly and accurately portray God in any image.  Both fail.  The reason is simple.  God is transcendent.  He is other than us and his creation.  While his creation reflects him, it does so like a landscape on a foggy morning.

Interestingly, millennia of human existence seems to have taught us nothing.  We continue to attempt to reach God and meet him on equal terms through our own efforts in knowledge, work ethic, spirituality and human “advancements.”  Such arrogance itself speak against any such work.  After all, if God can be approached by any human effort, then he ceases to be God – or a God big enough to be worshipped, let alone the effort to be known!

What makes God God is that he is completely transcendent.  The Bible continually portrays God in this light: “My ways are not your ways.  My ways are higher than your ways.”  In biblical history, God frequently refuses to explain himself.  When questioned by the righteous-ab0ve-all-men Job for a reason for his suffering, God puts Job in his place by reminding him that he never once sought counsel for Job and was not about to begin to do so now.  Job was smart enough to shut up.  God is transcendent and reveals himself when and how he pleases.  His is not like us.

Any futile search for God on our own terms should alert us to our own folly and foolishness.  However, that does not seem to be the case; even in the 21st century.  With so many millennium of trial and errors behind us, one would think that we would have evolved to a higher understanding of God’s existence.  But, alas, no.  Still, today, if we are not attempting to reach God on our own, then we are attempting to fashion him in our own image.

The renewal and revival of pagan religions in Western society is evidence of this continued human folly.  The neo-pagans and wiccans have cleaned up the old world religions and reduced them to user-friendly creation worship and moral codes.  Without animal or human sacrifices, though some admittedly still do practice these, they preach the morality of paganism and wiccans.  Not a few even like to link their neo-pagan morality to the teachings of Jesus to give them some credence, as if to say, “Look!  We believe and attempt to practice the same things Jesus taught and practiced.”

If spirituality is only about morality, then anything and everything is permissible in our society’s moral relativism.  After all, who is to be the final authority about what is right and what is wrong?  Without a transcendent being outside of humanity to clarify this, we are left to our own individual choices and moral devices.  One culture’s values and practices – headhunting and cannibalism – is no more morally wrong than the next – child-brides and widow burning.  So, it turns out that perhaps the ol’ serpent in the garden was correct!  We can be like God and make up truth and the rules for righteousness.  After all, God, as we imagine him, is just like us.

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Bible addresses humankind’s propensity to imagine God in our own image.  Isaiah humorously points out the useless of making images of God:  Take one log.  Cut it in half.  Use one half to split into fire wood.  Cook dinner.  While dinner is cooking, take other half of log.  Shape log and decorate it.  When meal is ready to serve, bow down to decorated log and declare, “You are my god!  You are my god!  Thank you for this delicious meal.  Amen.”  (Rev. Ron’s Paraphrase)  Sounds ridiculous?  We have not come too far since Isaiah’s day.

The Creator realized the result humanity’s rebellion would have upon its spirituality.  So, he warned, “Do not make an image of me to worship.”  This was so important, that he included it in his “Top Ten Things to Remember” as he launched the Israelites toward the land he promised them.  Moses called them, “The Ten Commandments.”  And we continue to violate this to our own detriment, forgetting that God is not like us.  He is completely transcendent – apart from this world.  He is beyond what we can imagine or think.

The temptation to make God in our image is not left to just pagans, neo-pagans, wiccans or those who use religious icons.  Christians have fallen into the same temptation; the ones who should know better, supposedly.  Throughout Church history, the followers of God through the Messiah Jesus have slipped into the same sin.

Icons that were meant to draw the worshipper’s attention to heavenly things and “the great cloud of witnesses” in the portraits of the saints, soon worshipped the created things instead of the Creator.  In reaction against such abuses, some attempted to rid the Church altogether of icons (iconoclasts); while others attempted to restore them to their proper place.  All such Church reforms and renewals have attempted to draw worshippers back to God, but it continues to be a problem.

The Bible, meant to be God’s written revelation to his people through various people in various times and various places, became worshipped in “bibliology”.  Reverence for the book took on greater importance than the Author.  Magic qualities were ascribed to not only its words but its paper and bindings as well.  Reverence for God’s Word became twisted into revering and worshipping a book; the content of the book not as important as its condition.

Music, meant to draw the hearts of God’s worshippers toward him, became more about style than content.  The chant, organ, piano, guitar, drum and musical style all vie for affections above that for the Creator.  We think that because we like it, the Creator must like it; that because it moves our hearts, it must move his also.  Of course, this is a fallacy.  He is transcendent above it all.

It is not the sounds he wants but the music of the souls in worshipful adoration.  Whatever harmony, whatever tonal equation, whatever vibrating sound, it is all music to his ears when the content of the heart is in tune.  Otherwise, it is only annoying noise amongst the more beautiful sounds of all his other creation.  He would rather listen to the whale song or songbird music, or other such creative sounds, as listen to the drones of humankind worshipping their music rather than the One who gave them music.

Biblical and historical examples are replete with examples of humankind worshipping the furniture and the house dedicated to the Lord rather than the One who  transcends it all.  In similar fashion, we shape our image of God by our doctrines and theologies, leaving no room for further exploration or understanding of God and his character and nature.  We deem anyone outside our theological group-think as deviant or heretical.  So, we use our systematic theologies to scientifically break down humankind’s understanding of God into phylum, genus and species like some biological specimen.  Still, we are no closer to intimately knowing or understanding God because he transcends such confines, boxes and buildings.

Jesus came as the image of God.  What God wanted to convey through his written word, he revealed fully in his son, Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus brought into closer proximity to humankind the very real nature and character of God.  Suddenly, the transcendent being became eminent in “Immanuel” – “God with us.”  The Transcendent One lived among us for awhile – in a house, in a family, among friends and all in real time and space.

Unfortunately, he did not meet humankind’s idea of what God would look and act like if he came to earth to reveal himself.  So, in our continued ignorance and rebellion we killed him.  However, defying death, he resurrected and continues to call humankind to himself through his followers.  Yes, some did believe.  Some still believe.  Meanwhile, others are still searching for the Creator.  Some are attempting to ascend to where the Most High resides.  Others have decided a more do-it-yourself approach.  “Hey,” they invite us.  “Let’s make God in our image.

©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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Wells Deep Enough To Get Living Water

During his ministry here on earth, Jesus was always a lot harder on religious people than he was on the spiritually lost and forsaken.  His ministry was frustrated more often by the attitudes of the religious people around him than those who were far from God and synagogue.  Sometimes, he could not perform miracles among them.  For the most part, his mission and message was not accepted by them.

The ones who should have known better and been most ready to receive his works and words rejected them and him.  In other words, the religious folks who thought they could see were really spiritually blind and didn’t know it.  Alternatively, those in spiritual darkness and blind were the ones to “see a great light” as it “shown upon them” (Isa. 9:2).  The irony of this should not be lost to us today.

I often wonder what kind of reception Jesus would receive among the religious folks who inhabit our churches today.  Would we be ready for him or miss him?  Would we recognize him?  Would we accept his challenging words and unconventional works?  Would he find faith and freedom among us to work miracles or a place where he “could not work any miracles” (Mark 6:5)?

Robert Beringer, in Turning Points, tells the story about a little boy who got separated from his parents in a large shopping center.  The Security Department quickly located the child and took him to an office, while the frantic parents were paged over the public address system.  One of the security guards got a large ice cream cone for the boy.  When his parents arrived at the office, there was their little son happily eating his ice cream.  Suddenly, as his parents embraced him, the child burst into tears.  One of the security guards said, “Gosh, I guess he didn’t know he was lost until he was found!”

Beringer goes on to point out, “There are many who are bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.  Many people have tried to substitute the accumulation of things for good relationships, but no matter how much they get, something is still missing in life.  Their pipe does not go down deep enough to draw living water, and they feel lost.”

Sadly, that describes too many people in the church today: “bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.”  In our materialistic society, we have been duped into thinking that filling up our lives with more things or filling our lives with more activities will bring satisfaction and substance to our lives.  Meanwhile, Jesus is left standing on the periphery at our hearts’ doors knocking.  Like the little boy, we do not know that we are lost.  Like the religious people of Jesus day, we do not realize what we are missing because of our spiritual blindness.

Orange Rose Bud, 2009

Orange Rose Bud, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the apostle John’s book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, two of the letters written to the seven churches are telling.  To the church in Ephesus, Jesus condemned them for leaving their first love.  He invited them to “remember, repent, and return” (2:5) to loving him first so that their spiritual light and life would continue in the world.

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus condemned them for their spiritual apathy and arrogance.  They thought that they had it all together – “rich, successful, and in need of nothing” – when they were really “pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  Jesus invited them to be “zealous and repent” (v. 19) because those he loves he will “rebuke and chasten” (v. 20).

This challenge to the church today became even more real to me when I ministered in India near Visakhapatnam and Rajamundri.  Before I left, there were many Americans who wanted to know if it was true that miracles were easier to witness overseas.  They carry the nagging feeling that somehow the mission field of America is more difficult than the mission field elsewhere in the world.  I do not believe it is.  I believe that there are no barriers for the work of God to be done except for the zeal and faith of God’s people.

If the work of the Gospel and its accompanying signs, wonders, and miracles are more prominent in other places; it is because the church there goes “down deep enough to draw living water.”  They are still vitally and vibrantly connected to the “Source of Life”.  At different times in its history, the American church has had the same connection to her Lord and Savior.  Like the American church, the church overseas struggles against the same declination towards spiritual apathy and arrogance that causes spiritual blindness.

However, in India, for the most part I saw a church strong and vibrant.  I believe it witnessed the Lord confirming his Word with signs, wonders, and miracles because it “dug wells deep enough to draw Living Water” by:

  1. A regular practice of “waiting upon the Lord” in prayer.  Like the church in the book of Acts, believers in India devoted themselves to prayer – lots of prayer and waiting upon the Lord.  Then, fearlessly offering prayer for anyone in need and willing.
  2. A regular practice of proclaiming the Gospel in market places.  Like the New Testament church, believers in India boldly preached and shared the Gospel in the public market places – even right in front of Hindu temples!  They regularly invited their neighbors over to their houses to share Jesus and love them.
  3. A regular practice of serving the orphan, the widow, and the poor.  They are more than will to prove their ministry through their generosity to the saints and everyone else (2 Cor. 9:13).  Their ministries of compassion open doors of opportunity to not only preach Christ but pray for the sick and oppressed.

These things place the Indian believers in a position where God’s grace and power must show up.  Then his Kingdom is built on nothing but his Word and his power.  There is a simple desperation in the life of the church that depends upon the Word and power of the Lord.  Ministry is simple: prayer, preach, and provide for the poor.

Wherever the church puts their faith into practice like this; the Lord shows up to work among his people – whether in India or America.  The American church’s nagging sense that it has lost something in connection with the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be the Lord knocking at the door just as he did in Ephesus and Laodicea.

The question is, will we return to our “first love” and the works we did at first – such as devoting ourselves to prayer, sharing the Gospel in the public market places, and providing for the poor?  Each of these practices places us in a unique position where we need the Lord to answer, show up, and provide.

On the other hand, are we too rich, too full, and too satisfied to hear the knocking at our door?  Whether Jesus shows up depends upon us.  It may be time to dig our wells deeper to draw upon the Living Water the Lord offers to those who are spiritually thirsty.  Perhaps we can take some “well digging” lessons from our brothers and sisters in churches such as those I visited in India.  Now is the time to start digging!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (2010)

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The first decade of the 21st century is quickly fading behind us in the rear view mirror of our lives. Isn’t it amazing how one 10-year period can bring so much change?  How quickly it can come and go?  How terribly swift its events can over take us?  International disasters from earthquakes to tsunamis.  Horror’s from 9/11 to the Swine Flu pandemic.  The list of events just from this last decade is almost endless.  On a global scale we have seen it all.  We have been amazed at the rise and fall of the world economy and the rise and fall of our cultural heroes.

It makes one wonder what the next decade will bring. What surprising discoveries await humankind?  How will world governments and rulers navigate this next decade’s international events and crises?  What tragedies and human horrors lurk in the next 10 years?  What scientific or medical breakthroughs hide from us just around the corner a few years from now?

On a more personal level, there is no doubt that our own lives will continue on and change.  We cannot avoid it anymore than we can avoid getting older.  As my grandma Stalnaker would always say, “Time and tide wait for no one.”  Some of us in this next decade will watch our children grow and graduate from High School and/or college.  Some of us will bury our parents and/or grandparents.  Some of us will marry and begin families.  Some will go through “the valley of the shadow of death” and others will enter the decade “sowing tears” but leave it “reaping a harvest of  joy”.

Who knows what the future holds for us. I believe the most important question for us is, How are we equipped to deal with the circumstances and changes we will face?  Some of us have prepared and are preparing our lives well – spiritually, financially, emotionally, relationally, etc.  Others of us, I suspect, have neglected to even think about the future; choosing, instead, to face it with a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude.  Whether you face the future with a sense of self-determination or fait accompli, you cannot avoid the on-rush of the next decade.

Sunlit Leaves BW, Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington

Sunlit Leaves BW, Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Looking back over the past decades of my life, I have come to appreciate just how small a decade really is in the scheme of life and especially eternity.  My grandparents lived 7, 8, or 9 decades.  My parents just entered their 7th decade of living.  Put in those terms, that doesn’t sound very old does it?  In Methuselahn terms, they are just children.  I am only 4, getting ready to turn 5.

Just this past decade, my family and I have moved from Washington State to North Dakota and back again.  Two of our children have graduated High School and left home.  My wife, Kelly, earned a Master’s Degree in Education.  The last of my and my wife’s grandparents have gone on to their eternal reward.  Now, our parents are the remaining grandparents to our children.  I have had the joy of pastoring and leading two great congregations.  I also had the privilege of traveling to Albania and India.

The decade before this last one, the 1990’s, my family and I moved from Washington State to Springfielf, Missouri, and back again.  I earned a Master’s of Divinity degree in Springfield, Missouri.  Our two youngest children were born.  I pastored and led two great congregations (the last one from the 90’s into the beginning of this last decade).  We owned six different vehicles.  Our two oldest children began their school years.

And these are just the highlights from only the last two decades!  Looking at all that has happened, it is no wonder that I am exhausted.  The decades before those were even busier.  It is amazing how much can be packed into 10 years.  One has to wonder about all that will happen in the next 10 years.  As I stand on the edge of beginning my 5th decade of earthly existence (I’ll be 49 this Spring), I am more cognizant than ever of the fact that I do not and cannot control the  future.  After all, many of things I have experienced over this past 10 years was not on my “To Do List”.  They were not even on the radar screen of my forecasting abilities!  Some of the biggest events were complete surprises to me.

Perhaps each decade should come with a life journey sign that says, “Caution:  Sudden Changes Ahead!”  One thing is for certain, how we face this next decade and the personal “tools” and preparation we go into it is very important.  No wonder the wisdom of King David is still so appropriate.  It must have been in his old age when he sang the prayer, “Lord, teach us to number our days.”  He knew, as we are all discovering, that they pass too quickly.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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