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Posts Tagged ‘Kingdom of God’

Outward Posture, Inward Rebellion

There is something innate in human nature that makes most people want to conform to the social mores of a group to be accepted. It is the way we identify “those who are like us” and “those who are not like us.”  Even those who consider themselves mavericks, loners and social outcasts often conform to way of behaving and dressing that identifies them with all the other mavericks, loners and social outcasts.  As such, paradoxically, they become a part of their own self-identified group even though they want to exhibit their individualism and anti-group attitude.

No where is the propensity to want to identify with a particular coterie more evident than in or among religious and political groups. Even then, political assemblies do not hold a candle stick to the divisive nature of religious groups.  This is not just an issue with any one particular religion, but all religions.  Christians used to murder one another over doctrinal distinctives as quickly as Muslim Sunnis, Shias and other Islamic sects do today in the Middle and Far East.  Hindu castes war with one another and tribalism is known to rule many parts of the warring factions of Buddhists.

I am not able to speak to the other religions state of division, but I am not the only one among Christians who are dismayed at the lack of charity and love many Christians show one another from different doctrinal streams. This is especially ironic given the particular emphasis its founder, Jesus the Messiah, place upon “loving one another” in the Christian community.  It was these loving, grace-filled communities that were supposed to be a sign and witness to the rest of the world that God’s Kingdom had truly come to earth.

Without denying what is clearly described as the central tenets of the faith that all Christians can agree upon, nor marginalizing what all can agree Scripture clearly identifies as sin, it seems to me that there is a lot of room for allowing others to follow Jesus according to the dictates of one’s own heart and conscience without imposing those upon others.  Alas, this does not seem to be the case.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Christians are determined to cluster in groups for the only particular purpose of identifying “who is in” and “who is out;” like they have some decision in the matter of who actually gets into heaven and who doesn’t.

So, we like to bunch ourselves around labels: conservatives versus liberals, fundamentalists versus evangelicals, pentecostals versus charismatics, dunking baptizers versus sprinkling baptizers, social gospel versus proclamation gospel, baby baptizers versus baby dedicators, congregationalists versus presbyteries, hi-church versus lo-church, liturgical versus non-liturgical, King James version only versus modern translations, traditional church music versus contemporary church music, denominational versus independent non-denominational.  And the grouping goes on and on and on.

It would be one thing if this was simply an attempt to gather like minds and hearts to worship and learn together. This could be done while at the same time recognizing and embracing other Christian fellowships that have different expressions and doctrinal emphases.  Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches and their followers.  The pride of triumphalism creeps into the gang gathered that emits an attitude that communicates, if not expressed overtly and outwardly at least inwardly, that they are the “only true” believers on God’s planet.  God must laugh, or weep.

All that we seemed to have accomplished with such behaviors is to confound nonbelievers and tarnish our testimony to the One we are striving to follow. Then, to make matters worse, our efforts to ensure group conformity in beliefs and behaviors only produce among us disingenuous and hypocritical believers.  The disciples we produce are able to spout our dearest doctrinal truths and exhibit, at least while within and among the group, the expected pious behavior.  Thus, they have an outward posture that says they genuinely belong to the Christian sect, but inwardly struggle with rebellion that will express itself sooner or later.

Once again, human efforts at religion create a human-focused and human-energized faith system. A faith system that holds in bondage its followers to a scripted religious expression and holds at a distance anyone who is at variant with that particular expression.  Is doctrine important?  Yes.  Is righteousness or right-living important?  Yes.  However, outward conformity to either of these without a change in heart only breeds a deadly religious syncretism where faith and belief do not really change attitude and heart.

Extending love and grace to everyone on their spiritual journeys, no matter where they may be in them, is the only way to live in the communal unity Jesus called his disciple to attain. Instead of attempting to identify “who’s in” and “who’s out,” what if every Christian fellowships goal was to identify where people are on their spiritual pilgrimage?  What if Christians permitted one anther to cluster around like interests and similar spiritual journeys without rejecting or disparaging other Christians of different interests and dissimilar spiritual journeys?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my household, all four of my children are different from one another. They have different abilities and talents; dissimilar likes and dislikes; as well as a various mix of personality traits from their paternal and maternal side of the family.  In my household, I do not attempt to make them all like the same thing.  They do not all have to play the same sport or same games.  Even the formation of their behaviors and beliefs has taken on unique and interesting paths.

I do not love any one of them more than any other. I love each of my kids dearly.  I cannot imagine my household without them.  Each of their character, sense of humor, way of doing things, seeing things, approaching things and processing things adds variety to our family life.  Yes.  Sometimes it is frustrating and even maddening.  At the same time, all of our differences can bring hilarity and light moments.

The point is this: we do not sit around the dining room table trying to identify who is really part of the family and who is not.  As amazingly different as we are all from one another, there is enough family resemblance to assure us that there is no mistaking our family tree.  Instead of picking one another a part with differences, we attempt to celebrate them.  And, as we mature, those very traits that once drove us to distraction when we were younger now become the most endearing qualities we love about each other.

We are not a perfect family. We have our dysfunctions for sure; just like God’s family here on earth.  What if God sees his family like this?  What if he loves each of our clusters, fellowships and groups as much as the next one?  What if he looked upon us with loving eyes and just wished we would honor and love each other the way he esteems and loves us?  What if he recognizes our spiritual quirks, illogical dogmas and inconsistent righteousness and loves us anyway and wishes we would do the same for each other?  Imagine that for a moment.

In truth, humanity is broken. Along with the rest of humanity, Christians are broken people seeking healing and wholeness in their Creator.  In the long run, it may suit our efforts toward personal healing and wholeness and seeing God’s Kingdom truly come to earth if we simply stopped and rejected our own religious posturing.  Rather than expending so much energy identifying “who’s in” and “who’s out,” if we took time to recognize our own tendencies toward inward rebellion, we may be more apt to extend grace to others.  This, in turn, may allow us to broaden our acceptance, care and love to all our spiritual siblings in the heavenly Father’s household.  It is, after all, his house and not ours.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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It has become a part of American pop-theology that the Christian life is to be one that is safe for the believer.  We are told that “God will meet all your needs” and “He will never give you more than you can handle” or that “All things work together for good.”  The longer down this road of following Jesus I have gone the more convinced I am that such trite approaches to our faith, while comforting, should be jettisoned.

In fact, I appreciate more than ever John Bunyan‘s take on the Christ-follower’s journey in his allegorical story “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” He wrote it while in prison from 1660 to 1672.  (He later served another short six-month stint in 1675.)  He was put there because he dared to have religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England.  It turns out that he was a forerunner to John Wesley who got into the same trouble with the Church of England when he dared to preach the Gospel in the out-of-doors.

In John Bunyan’s story, the main character, Christian, embarks upon a journey from the “City of Destruction” (i.e. “this world”) to the “Celestial City” (i.e. “heaven”).  Part of Christian’s struggle on his journey is the burden he constantly carries, which represents his sin.  However, his largest problems come by the way of distractions and obstacles that meet him all along the way.  It’s a great story and I encourage you to read it in a modern translation.

I believe John Bunyan’s description of the Christ-followers life and journey is a lot more accurate than the 20th century version that many American evangelicals have grown up with in their generation.  My personal experience is that the Christian life and journey truly is a long-distance race or a Greco-style wrestling match as described by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

In fact, I am convinced that following the way of Jesus is one of the most dangerous things a person can do.  It certainly does not fit into the mainstream of the rest of culture – or it should not anyway.  Following Christ means that he will lead you to a cross that you must pick up and carry just as he did (Luke 9:23).  This is called the cruciform life; a life formed after the crucified savior that dies to self and sin.  We want to celebrate the victorious resurrected life, but it turns out that the journey leads us to a cross before it leads us to a resurrection and glorification with Christ.

Jesus did not seem to be too greatly concerned with his follower’s safety.  In fact, he made it plain that if he was persecuted, so would his followers be persecuted.  If he was reviled and rejected, so his true followers would be reviled and rejected.  A servant is not greater than his master and should not expect better treatment he teaches us.  Still want to sign up to go on this journey?

Following Jesus is certainly not for the faint of heart or the second guesser.  You are either all in or all out.  You are following someone who kept moving, had no regular bed, no home and no promise of the next meal.  His journey with the Heavenly Father was one of faith and obedience too.  He expects no less from those who call him Master.

When Jesus prays his High Priestly prayer in the Gospel of John we should not be surprised then that he prays for his followers protection (17:11, 12).  Why?  Because just as the world hated Jesus so they are going to hate and abuse his followers (17:15).  However, in his prayer he specifically asks, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but protect them” (17:15).  This reminds me of the angel who came to the Apostle Paul in the middle of a fierce Mediterranean storm and told him, so he could tell the crew, “We’re going to shipwreck!  But it’ll be OK!” (Acts 27:23 – 26).  I would not know whether to be scared spit-less or relieved!

It seems to me that “the narrow way” is meant to be difficult precisely because it is, well, “narrow”. On the other hand, “the broad way that leads to destruction” would be smoothly paved with comfort and convenience.  If you have ever traveled a really narrow mountain road, you know what this is alluding to here.  If you have hiked the narrow inclines of a mountain peak, you know there is not a lot of room for error.  Still, he prays for our protection and offers his presence.  I am inclined to wonder sometimes, Why “this way”?  Could there not be an easier one?

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When Jesus sent out his disciples to minister in villages he made no promise for their safety.  In fact, he told them, “Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  No wonder he assigned the journey and did not ask for volunteers.  It turns out that he was sending them to towns and places he was preparing to go to anyway.  Why not just hang back with him and go with him?  At least, that would have been my choice.  But no, he sends them ahead of him.

I think that this is his modus operandi and that it has not changed in two thousand years.  He is inviting all those who would follow him to take a dangerous journey.  It is not safe.  All your personal resources (“purse or bag or sandals” – v. 4), you are not to take along.  You are to completely rely upon him – his guidance and unseen presence and available power (Luke 10:9, 16).  When you get where you are going, you are to await his arrival by announcing to everyone who will hear, “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11).

So, I propose that we change the popular message of American evangelicalism to say, “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life that takes you to a cross and ends in a resurrection.”  In John Bunyan’s tale of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian and his friend, Hopeful, make it to the Celestial City.  However, it was a dangerous and adventurous journey.  It is the kind of dangerous journey that is more similar to what we get from the New Testament anyway.

When a person has a chance to visit other parts of the world where Christians live in hostile religious and civil environments, the pop-theology of the America evangelical culture does not fit.  A reading of a magazine such as The Voice of the Martyrs will clearly portray just how dangerous it is to live a Christian life and profess a Christian faith in many parts of the world.  The life and journey that Christ calls us to is not a safe one.  It is not an easy one.  It is a dangerous one.  His only guarantee is that you will lose your life; but doing so will allow him to save it.  It is a dangerous journey following him.  It is your decision:  all in or all out?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)


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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

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Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

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Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Great Imbalance In World Missions

Someone once coined the phrase “holy dissatisfaction” to refer to the sense a follower of Christ has once he or she has received a larger view of God’s Kingdom.  I think it is an apt description.  It is not just a mere discontent with the status quo in our American churches.  It is not bred out of some “holier-than-thou” mentality.  Neither is it an expression of a sour grapes attitude by someone hurt by church authorities.  There is no doubt that these do occur.  They have their own reasons and results.  This is something bigger than those things.

Holy dissatisfaction, instead, refers to what grabs someone after they have seen and experienced what could be in God’s Kingdom if all the barriers that have been set in place were removed.  The barriers of cultural expectations, institutional requirements and limiting authoritative structures prevent what is possible from ever possibly happening.  A person often experiences this when in another ministry context such as a missions trip, a ministry experience with modern apostolic leaders leading new church movements or time spent with someone who is doing what one has always dreamed of doing or thought possible in and through the local church.

I have often warned people who go on missions trips that they could come back ruined for ministry in their local church.  This doesn’t always happen, but it frequently does.  In another ministry context, particularly among frontier missions work where the church is in its infancy or first generation, one sees ministry at its most basic and simplest form.  Church and ministry revolve around the Word, the Eucharist or communion and the work of serving others.  Especially in poverty areas, one witnesses accomplishing ministry with so little when compared to the local church back home that seems to accomplish so little with so much by comparison.

I have recently been taking a class through “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.” It is a one-night-a-week 15 week course that brings together speakers from all over the U.S.A. and world who represent different frontier missions agencies.  These women and men do ministry among the unreached people of the world.

Often when the idea of “unreached people” is brought up, Americans will say, “Yeah, we have unreached people right here.” This, by frontier missions workers, is not the definition of “unreached.”  Virtually everyone in American lives within the reach of someone who is a Christian with a church not too far away and has access to Christian media via the television, radio, bookstore or computer.  On the other hand, “unreached people” across the world have no such opportunity.

Unreached people groups – of which there are about 6 – 7,000 different linguistic and cultural groups in the world – have no access to a follower of Jesus let alone a church or a media in their language and cultural setting.  A few may know about “Christianity” but it is seen as a foreign religion with no relevance to them and their people.  No one is reaching out to them.  They are isolated from the gospel culturally and linguistically.

The shocking truth about the unreached people of our world is that they still represent about 30 – 40% of the world’s population – around 2 billion people.  That is not the worst of it.  The greatest tragedy is that only 10% of evangelical world missions efforts – time, money and personnel – are used to reach and plant a culturally, linguistic relevant church among these people.  That means that 90% of world missions efforts go to areas of the world that are already reached with the gospel, have a viable self-sustaining and reproducing church and developing leadership.  This is the great imbalance in world missions.  As such, it is the great imbalance reflected in most of our evangelical churches budgets and outreach efforts.

Waitsburg, Washington, Spring 2010

Waitsburg, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Still, those churches that actively participate in world and local missions boast about the amount of money sent out each year.  Often that amount represents less than 10% of their overall church budget.  Sometimes it may reach as much as 20%.  The question that begs to be answered for those still unreached and unengaged with the message of Jesus Christ is, “What portion is being used to advance the message of Jesus where he is not known and has never been heard?”

If this great imbalance in world missions is going to be equalized to reflect the real-world need, then churches, missions agencies and their leadership are going to have to count the cost and steer a different course. I come from an Assemblies of God background that is proud of its world missions efforts.  Still, when one considers the United States Assemblies of God World Missions department and looks at their budget and personnel placement, the statistic remains true.

Even with the placement of new missionaries, most are going to already evangelized countries and fields of service.  Many serve as support personnel to missionaries in countries with growing, reproducing churches.  This is not only true of the Assemblies of God but of many missions organizations and denominational missionary efforts.  Reassigning missionaries, closing countries and fields or pointing new missionary recruits to selected fields is a problem for all of them.  In a few instances, mission agencies serve only to provide expatriate services to people who want to live abroad.  The work that some of these expats do has little Kingdom impact let alone benefit.

The different course that must be navigated will mean making some hard decision regarding personnel and budgets.  Measuring successes will have to be recalibrated to frontier missions efforts.  Pet missions projects or fields of service and personal agendas will need to be laid aside.  A renewed effort to call people to serve in areas of unreached people will need to be voiced with new energies.  The apostle Paul’s example to preach the gospel where it had not been heard and build the church where the foundation was not even laid must be renewed in our 21st century efforts.  It will take great effort and some time, but I believe we can, in the near future, bring some equilibrium to the great imbalance of world missions.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Old Abraham was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant.  Every day at lunch time, Abraham would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odors coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.  It was a wonderful addition to his unchanging daily lunch time meal.

One day, Abraham was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for “enjoyment of food.” So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them.  The manager said, “You’re enjoying the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

Abraham refused to pay and the restaurant sued him.  At the hearing, the judge asked the restaurant manager to present his side of the case.

The manager said, “Every day, this man comes and sits outside our kitchen and smells our food while eating his.  It is clear that we are providing added value to his poor food and we deserve to be compensated for it.”

The judge turned to Abraham and said, “What do you have to say to that?”

Abraham didn’t say anything but stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled the few coins he had inside.

The judge asked him, “What is the meaning of that?”

Abraham replied, “I’m paying for the smell of his food with the sound of my money.”

Someone observed that “you can’t get something for nothing.” However, you can get nothing for nothing!  Many followers of Jesus seem to want to get spiritual maturity without investing anything into it.  Apart from salvation, growing in Christ takes the believer’s initiative and efforts.  Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that each believe is given something to invest in the Kingdom and will, in the end, be judged by him as to how they invested it (or did not) back into his Kingdom.

Likewise, the apostle Paul warned Christ’s followers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The MKJV version says “cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Each believer is responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and should attend to it as they would the vineyard of their Master.

When it comes to establishing God’s kingdom through the work of ministries in and through the local church, there is a cost. You can’t get ministry for nothing (though you can get no ministry for nothing).

  • Reaching in lost people in our community has a cost.
  • Preaching the gospel has a cost.
  • Discipling children and young people has a cost.
  • Ministering to broken lives has a cost.
  • Providing a safe, secure, and satisfying place of ministry to families and their children has a cost.
  • Reaching into the community to bring help and transformation has a cost.
  • Helping others to take the gospel around the world to people without the knowledge of what God offers through his son Jesus has a cost.

These and many more Kingdom efforts bear a cost in time, treasure and talents.  The question to the followers of Christ is, “Who is going to pay?”

These costs are covered by the many followers of Jesus who pay the price with their time, treasures and talents.  They choose to share equally sacrifice what they have towards the cost of doing Kingdom business by giving of their lives.  As a result, not only do they experience God’s blessings but also experience spiritual growth that the uninvolved will never experience.

It is a truly poor follower of Christ who does not join with others in bearing the cost of doing the work of the Lord’s Kingdom. In essence, they are hoping for a ‘free ride’ on someone else’s work.  They want to enjoy the fruit of the labors of others without sharing in the work in the Lord’s vineyard.  However, no one can grow by watching the efforts of another.  The Lord never planned for his Kingdom to be a spectator centered or focused work.  Yet, it seems that many of our churches and their ministries plan on just that expectation of their adherents.

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Martin Luther said it plainly, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” As a co-laborer in God’s kingdom, I am proud to share in the work and worth of doing the Lord’s Kingdom business.  Successful ministry that transforms lives and our community cannot happen without the many hours that people volunteer.  Kingdom efforts would be handicapped without the sacrificial giving of its family of faith.

Mobilized and motivated laborers in the harvest fields of the Lord are rewarded for their selfless sacrifices.  Yes, they receive a promised eternal reward.  Just as important, however, they receive the reward of growing in the knowledge and strength of the Lord, his Spirit and his Word, which a whole lot more than the smell of good food or the sound of money.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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