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Posts Tagged ‘Methodists’

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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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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