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Posts Tagged ‘John Wesley’

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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Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Alligator Teeth and Pearls

The terms for the coming of God’s Kingdom are not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed.  Those who have experienced, or presently are experiencing, the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth through revival and renewal already know the price that was paid for it to come.  Even Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it” (Matt. 11:12).

It has often been observed throughout church history that the Kingdom of God has advanced and grown upon the blood of martyrs.  There always seems to be a terrible price to be paid in the natural realm for the spiritual realm to breakthrough and upon it.  Even a brief study of the lives of those used by the Spirit of God throughout the Church’s history to bring reformation, revival, and renewal will discover lives broken and poured out – Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Wyclif, William Tyndale, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, William Seymore, Katherine Kuhlman, and others of greater or lesser importance.  Who will be the ones to usher in God’s Kingdom in our generation?

The apostle Paul said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Someone else rightly remarked that the problem is getting that “treasure” out!  I might add that sometimes it appears we are more “earthen vessel” than “treasure”.  Nevertheless, God promises to pour out His Spirit upon those who humble themselves, forsake their sinful and selfish ways, and spend their energies seeking His face and favor (2 Chron. 7:14).  The question for our generation is, “Who are the brave soldiers of the cross who are going to seize that promise and opportunity?”

Unfortunately, our American religious culture has led us into a “lazy-boy” style of faith that is not does require anything from us.  We enjoy being spectators to the “sport” of religion and “change channels” when we become quickly disinterested.  The average American’s spiritual life looks less like a disciplined journey and more like channel surfing.  Our attention span is short and the next spiritual high is sought out for its brief escape from reality.  From the comfort of our homes, we have become voyeurs to the spiritual journeys and experiences of others.  However, for all that we have witnessed and watched, we remain unfit for our Kingdom duties.

Washington State Capitol, July 2003

Washington State Capitol, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When one travels overseas and witnesses the Church at large accomplishing so much with so little for the Kingdom of God, it challenges preconceived ideas about what is really important in God’s Kingdom.  God does not seem to delight in the “sacrifices” we enjoy offering – music, fellowship, pot-luck dinners, listening to good Bible teaching, along with an occasionally generous gift of cash in the offering plate.

No, God makes it hard for us so that only those who are really passionate and hungry get what they desire.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).  David had it right when he said that what God wants is not more religious platitudes and practices.  What God desires is “a broken and contrite spirit” (Ps. 51:17).  How hungry and thirsty are you for God and His Kingdom to come to earth?

We know and understand even by human economy that those things that are truly of worth are costly.  How much more so of heavenly things?  There’s a great story of a lady tourist in India who noticed the necklace worn by a local Indian man.  “What is it made of?” she asked.  “Alligator’s teeth,” the man replied.  “I suppose,” she said patronizingly, “that they mean as much to you as pearls do to us.”  “Oh no,” he objected, “anybody can open an oyster.”  I have a feeling that acquiring the priceless treasures of heaven are more like getting alligator teeth than pearls.  It’s a costly journey that requires courage.

Our world is in desperate need of a people of God who “forcefully” take His Kingdom to their part of the world through their sacrifices of a dedicated prayer life, radical obedience, and brokenness over the world’s spiritual state.  What will it take to get the “treasure” God has put in you poured out for the benefit of others and His Kingdom?  How hungry are you for God to have His way in your life?  How thirsty are you for His righteousness to be at work in the world around you?  How much do you really want God kingdom to “come, on earth, just as it is in heaven”?  Be careful how you answer that!  It could begin a journey that you never imagined.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes,” he replied eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart-shaped Red Beach Pebble, June 2003

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Among Christians today, particularly Evangelical Christians, there is a great deal of discussion of authenticity and transparency.  Some believe this is a result of a reaction against a previous generation’s social guardedness and efforts to “keep up appearances.”  This very well may be true.  I cannot verify that assessment of our culture.  Nevertheless, my experience has told me that there does seem to be a desire among younger generations, beginning with the Boomers, for authenticity and transparency in the faith journeys.

This desire produced the ensuing development of small group ministries with local churches.  The idea is that authenticity and transparency cannot be expressed in a large congregational meeting except by perhaps the preacher or speaker.  Only in relationship connections within a small group setting can one really open up and share the spiritual journey they are on with all its ups and downs.  What began as a unique ministry idea 25+ years ago has become pretty much standard ministry practice in almost every church of any size; except if the congregation already is small enough to be a small group that offers spiritual authenticity and transparency.

The move away from spiritual posturing and the Sunday facade is a good one and a healthy one for most churches, I believe.  I will grant that in some cases, like any good thing taken to extremes, there have been abuses (e.g. “the shepherding movement”).  However, for the most part, this spiritual movement within the Evangelical Church has produced good results in the life of individuals and the larger faith communities.

However, like many things that start out with good purposes and intentions, this too can lose its purpose and focus.  The result will be small groups meeting to accomplish little more than sustaining already dysfunctional relationships and meandering spiritual journeys.  It is important to keep these small groups “on mission.”  Missional drift is something that every organization, including the Church, must guard against.  (I address this problem in an earlier Blog – “On Mission.”)  It can be a problem for small groups as well.

Interestingly, small groups of believers meeting together to help one another grow spiritually is not a new phenomenon.  It has been around as long as the Church.  A great example in recent Church history is The Methodist Bands of believers that John Wesley started.  To get into a “band” of believers meeting, you had to pass a scrutinizing test to ensure that you were serious about growing in faith.  It also served to give focus to the mission and purpose of the band of believers meeting together.

World War I Stonehenge Memorial, Washington State, Spring 2010

World War I Stonehenge Memorial, Washington State, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

How would the small group you are meeting in right now work if you implemented the practices that John Wesley established for his fellow Methodists?  Try this out for size:

“The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, ‘confess you faults one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed’. (James 5:16).  To this end, we intend:

  1. To meet once a week, at the least.
  2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
  3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing and prayer.
  4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.
  5. To end every meeting with prayer suited to the state of each person present.
  6. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins and temptations.

“Some of the questions proposed to every one before he is admitted among us may be to this effect:

  1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins?
  2. Have you peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?
  3. Have you the witness of god’s Spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God?
  4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?
  5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?
  6. Do you desire to be told of your faults?
  7. Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plane and home [to the point]?
  8. Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?
  9. Consider!  Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you?
  10. Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible; that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?
  11. Is it your desire and design to be, on this and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?

“Any of these questions may be asked as often as occasion offer; these first five at every meeting:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
  5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?”

(From “Of the Methodist Bands” by John Wesley, 1744)

I do not know about you, but that kind of authenticity and transparency scares me – and challenges me!  Do you have anyone or any small group of people that knows you that deeply?  I know I do not.  I suspect that most Christians do not.  An over emphasis upon our “personal” relationship with God makes us believe that we are relieve of the responsibility of that kind of accountability.  And, perhaps because of it, we are much, much poorer spiritually.

So, perhaps we need to ask ourselves:

  • What level of authenticity and transparency are we really talking about?
  • How deep do we really want to go with authenticity and transparency?
  • Could it be that we like to hear it from our leaders and others but not practice it ourselves?
  • How much do I want people to look into my life and challenge me and help me to grow?
  • Is my small group a fellowship that glosses over relationship dysfunction and spiritual wandering or is it a group that challenges each one of us toward healing and wholeness?

We must face the challenge of growing spiritually within community.  However that is done, it will take a certain amount of authenticity and transparency.  We are already such before God.  We cannot hide anything from him.

Our temptation is to try and hide behind Sunday masks to “keep up appearance” before one another, in which case we really have not come much farther in the spiritual journey than the generation behind us that we criticize.  And, according to James, that may be the very reason we are not healed.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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