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Posts Tagged ‘Missiology’

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

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

Seagulls In a Row  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round Rocks Beach Line

Round Rocks Beach Line  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone,  May 19, 2011

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Training Shepherds

Shepherd in Făgăraş Mountains, Romania

Shepherd and Sheep/Image via Wikipedia

A king ruled a country whose main business was raising sheep and managing flocks. As the flocks throughout the land grew, the need for trained shepherds grew great.  The idea of having shepherdless flocks or sheep without a shepherd was intolerable.  So, the king called his wisest shepherds together to solve the problem of the shortage of shepherds.  After a great deal of deliberation, it was proposed that, to solve the problem of the shepherd shortage, they begin with the elder-shepherds who successfully watched over and grew their flocks.  These wise shepherds would be in charge of training young shepherds placed under their wise counsel and care.

So, the successful elder-shepherds took young people who aspired to shepherding under their leadership. They modeled good shepherding and allowed the young trainees to shadow them as they went about doing their shepherdly duties.  Regular study in “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks” took place every day.  As the young shepherds in training grew more confident and comfortable in shepherding duties, the elder-shepherds allowed them to take on responsibilities for the flock under their watchful eye.

Some trainees proved very adept and were considered to have a calling to shepherding by their mentor shepherds. They were encouraged to pursue raising a flock of their own to shepherd.  Some young shepherds took over part of an elder-shepherd’s flock to raise as their own.  Others were given a few sheep and encouraged to start growing a flock of their own in other pastures.

Meanwhile, other trainees discovered that shepherding and caring for sheep was not for them. With the blessing of the training-shepherds, they were steered to find other career paths and soon found careers more suited to them.  They went on to support and encourage those who continued in the work of shepherding the sheep of the land.

All of these efforts resulted in growing flocks all across the land. Sheep were well tended and shepherds trained to care for them were successful in their duties.  The result was that there were less and less sheep without a shepherd who could be scattered and devoured by wild animals.  The number of shepherdless sheep wandering the land was dramatically reduced.  The king was very pleased.

After some time, a committee of shepherd-leaders gathered together to discuss how the training of young shepherds was going. The number of trainees had grown very large while the number of training shepherds remained very limited.  After much discussion, it was decided to open a school for training more shepherds.  In this manner, young shepherds could be trained in large groups and sent into the pastures of the king.

Throughout the land, great excitement  accompanied the announcement of a school for shepherds. It was thought that educating and training of shepherds in a large group setting was a wonderful idea.  So, many people in the land supported the idea of the school.  There was so much enthusiasm that money was raised so that land could be bought, full-time training shepherds could be hired, and buildings built to accommodate them all.  The day of dedication for the school was a grand and historic day for everyone.

Soon, young people who desired training as a shepherd gathered at the school. The elder-shepherds working with their flocks went on shepherding without the responsibility of training young shepherds.  Now they could focus solely on shepherding.  At the same time, young potential shepherds were sent away to a special school for training.  Some had to move far away from the flocks and pastures they grew up around to attend the school for shepherds.

Specially educated elder-shepherds trained young shepherds without actually working with sheep. Many of the elder shepherds, while having never actually worked with flocks or, at least, having not done so for years, did their best to prepare the future sheep herders for the future.  They were trained in sheep-talk, methods of effective shepherding, how to identify good sheep from bad sheep, managing and leading sheep, how to sing to sheep and, most important of all, how to study and apply “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks.”

One day, someone suggested a small change to how the school for shepherd training was run. They thought that other young people not necessarily going into the shepherding business would benefit from the training and education of the scholarly elder-shepherds.    It was thought that allowing the education and training of young people from all walks of life would help advance and support the main business of raising sheep.  So, the school was expanded to include training for other careers.  This was a wonderful suggestion and  soon the school grew even larger with young people from all over the kingdom.

It was not too long before someone noticed that those at the shepherd training school who were not planning on actually becoming shepherds was greater than those who were planning on becoming shepherds. Wise business and community leaders suggested that, since this was the case, the school should be expanded to help train the other young people for their perspective careers too.  After all, why couldn’t this wonderful school for shepherds also train medical people, teachers, business people, and even other scholars in the discipline of shepherding and understanding “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks”?  It was decided that this should be so.  So, other schools and training rooms were added to the school for training shepherds.

The school grew and grew. It gained success and even competed with other schools in their own areas of study.  However, everyone took great pride in the fact that, while they did train young people for other professions and careers, this school started out as a training school for shepherds.  In fact, many of the old graduates and supporters still considered it a training school for shepherds even though the number of shepherds in training was not what it once had been when it trained only shepherds.

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

However, change has its consequences. Soon, the cost of educating everyone, not just those who had a desire and perhaps a calling to become shepherds, made it very difficult for those wanting to enter the career of shepherding, which paid very poorly but was, nevertheless, very greatly needed throughout the land.  For, you see, many flocks throughout the kingdom were small and barely supported a shepherd and his family.  So, future shepherds found it too difficult to attend the school because of the cost.  Slowly, some of them decided that perhaps shepherding was not for them and began to seek other things to do in life.  It was not too long until others noticed that the number of shepherds in training at the school was greatly diminished.  In fact, they hardly existed at all.

Some of the king’s people wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be better to close the shepherd training portion of the school since it did not pay for itself anymore. There simply were not enough future shepherds signed up to justify the cost.  Other departments of the school were much more successful by bringing many more students and their money to the school.  Those of bygone days did not want to see the school for shepherds closed.  Where would future shepherds be trained, they wondered.

Meanwhile, the number of shepherdless sheep grew. Because of lack of care, flocks began to decrease.  The number of untended, wild and scattered sheep grew at an alarming rate.  No one seemed to be as concerned that the king’s sheep and flocks were scattered and helpless as much as they were about the school for shepherd training being profitable.

The decrease of young people becoming shepherds captured the attention of some of wise old shepherds of the land. Seeing the great need of the land and noticing how there was a growing population of sheep without a shepherd, some of them decided to once again take young potential shepherds under their own personal care and training in hopes that one day some of them would grow to be fine shepherds.  They put a call out to young people possibly interested in becoming shepherds for the king of the land.

However, this angered those who had worked so hard to build the old school for training shepherds as well as the scholarly elder-shepherds there. This threatened to take away potential students who could help keep the school for training shepherds open.  It also frightened those who saw themselves in charge of the standards for training young shepherds.  They were concerned that this opened up the possibility of allowing insufficiently trained shepherds to watch over flocks even though the young people would be trained by successful, wise, old shepherds.

So, discouraged, the wise old shepherds stopped trying to train future shepherds. It was not long before there were not enough young shepherds in training to take the place of shepherds retiring from their fields.  Soon, good shepherds ceased throughout the land.  The king’s sheep became scattered and helpless.  Finally, the flocks of sheep decreased and those that remained became wild.  And the king wept over the state of his flocks.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Dragon, Chinatown, Seattle, Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Rethinking Christian Unity and Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

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

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

As Dr. Miriam Adeney points out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the interesting debates taking place among missiologists, missions agencies, missionaries and others studying and listening in on what is taking place is the use of the name “Christian” for identifying followers of Christ Jesus.  The idea is that the nomenclature carries too much negative baggage with it.  Particularly in the Muslim world, the word “Christian” is associated with the Crusades and anti-Muslim sentiments and actions.

Others argue that because “Christian” is associated with Western culture, we must discover news ways of identifying and naming genuine followers of Jesus.  In most parts of the world, “Christian” is identified with Christendom and Western Europe and the United States.  They see our decadent culture and assume that must be what “Christian” means.  As much as genuine followers of Jesus might try to disassociate themselves from this identification, there is no way of getting around it; particularly when our Christian heritage and faith is so intertwined with our patriotism.

Rich Wood, editor of the magazine Mission Frontiers, in his recent article “Rethinking Our Approaches to Muslim Peoples,” suggests that it might be “time for us to stop calling ourselves Christians.” His reason?  Simple:

At best the term has become meaningless, and at worst it has become an obstacle to sharing Jesus with the unreached.  In our Western culture there is almost no statistical difference between those that call themselves Christians and those that don’t…People who believe the Bible and those that don’t both call themselves Christian.  In the Muslim world the term comes with much negative baggage.”

This claim could also be made of any nation with a recent history of colonialism and the abuses that went along with that system.  So, Buddhists and Hindus among others have the same obstacles to overcome when they hear the term “Christian.”  Is the name central to our faith and practice?  Or, is it something that can be used or not used according to one’s preference or cultural context?

Many missionaries already identify the followers of Jesus as something other than “Christian.” The goal is to present Christ without the baggage that comes with the label “Christian.”  Rick Wood suggests that “follower of Jesus,” “disciple of Jesus” and “believer in the one true God” may be more appropriate.  Supposedly, these labels are not as offensive to Muslims.  After all, what is “the stumbling block” of the gospel?  The name “Christian” or the cross?

Many missional and emerging church pastors in Western cultural settings are employing the same tactic. There argument is the same: The term “Christian” carries with it too much baggage, especially negative, to the secular people of the culture.  Thus, it is better to find other ways to describe the spiritual journey we are on.

Wild Turkeys in the Palouse, April 2010

Wild Turkeys in the Palouse, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I suppose for the average American Christian this issue is irrelevant. There is little thought about what the name “Christian” means to others in our own culture let alone cross-culturally.  Some will want to hang on to the term out of loyalty to an ideal and nostalgia.  Others, however, may be caused to seriously consider what or who they are trying to communicate to their unbelieving friends and relatives.

I am wondering if this is not a good move to consider. Churches in the United States have been discarding denomination names and labels for years for all the same reasons: they are meaningless and possibly carry negative connotations with them.  Thus, one can visit just about any church, particularly in a suburban or urban setting, and not discover any denominational ties until months later or when taking a membership class.

However, at the same time, I’m wondering whether this will accomplish a short-term goal but miss a more important problem. After all, a Christian by any other name is still…well, whatever he or she is by character and faith!  Thus, everyone can call themselves “followers of Jesus,” but if the faith and character of those who do so does not change and so transform their world then we will soon be looking for another name again.  So, go ahead and change the name to reach people with the gospel.  But just remember, a “Christian” by any other names is just another Christian.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healthy Holistic Spirituality

Since Jesus’ departure from earth his disciples have attempted to follow his path of teaching and practice.  Unfortunately, he left behind ideas and concepts about a Kingdom.  He did not leave behind a lot of details about how this spiritual life should work – organizing the church, spiritual disciplines, and a myriad of other details that constantly change with times and cultures.  We are left to work that out as we commune with him through his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of the saints.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the church has performed fairly well.  It has its black moments in history.  It has suffered backsliding and experienced renewal and revival. It has been mixed with earthly governments and rule to its own demise and suffered through the revolutions of breaking free from them.  It has fallen prey to wolves in sheep’s clothing and expelled or rejected their rule and authority.

Nevertheless, the message and work of the Kingdom continues on and changes lives.  The message is that God has sent Jesus, his son, to restore the broken Creator-creation relationship with people everywhere and the work is that he is present in and among his people through his Holy Spirit to undo the works of evil and the Evil One.  As such, the church has been a major force throughout history in serving the poor, the hungry, the widows, the sick and the orphans.  Today, there is much work being done through its services to provide clean water, free health clinics to villages, free education for children, and working to eliminate preventable diseases.

Still, most of this type of work goes unnoticed by the world’s skeptics, cynics, agnostics and atheists.  This is not to suggest that the effort is to have some kind of global balance sheet of “good things” versus “bad things” done by Christians.  Nothing will satisfy those who look with anger and prejudice against others for whatever reasons.  The point simply is this:  The Kingdom of God has always been about a message accompanied by a work.

When Jesus ministered on earth, his sermons most often followed his work among the sick, demon possessed, oppressed, poor and outcasts of society.  He was not satisfied with staying in the local synagogue preaching and teaching.  Neither was he content with staying where he was most popular and most successful according to statistics.  He was always about his Heavenly Father‘s business.  There was work to be done.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many early sermons.  Almost all of them followed some work by miracle or powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit.  James expects this pattern to be continued and chides his readers through his letters for having faith without works.  As such, their faith was dead and worthless.  Faith not only has a message but it has a work that it must do.

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I am wondering if believers in any given congregation in our area can identify these two things in their local church.   What is the message of the church?  Can they summarize it precisely and succinctly so that their neighbor or co-worker could understand it?  Just as importantly, what is the work of the church?  What work does their local fellowship of believers do to undo the work of evil and the Evil One around them?  What activities are their congregation engaged in to affect the lives of the least, last and lost of the community they live in?

The church’s credibility is not just in the integrity of its message – something we in the Evangelical churches like to focus upon.  The real credibility of the church is in the work it does that aligns with its message:  God has come to restore humankind and creation to himself by inviting everyone into relationship with him and work with him to undo the work of evil and the Evil One.  While we work on getting the message out, it might be time to also roll up our sleeves and get to work in the world around us.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What’s For Easter Dinner?

Something that has plagued me since…well, I cannot remember really…has to do with the American traditional Easter meal.  Why do we serve ham?  Virtually everyone I know serves an “Easter Ham” for dinner on this special occasion.  I find it a curious practice and tradition, especially among Christians.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish Passover.  It commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  It reflects the same salvation story that Jewish people to this day tell concerning their deliverance from Egypt into the Promised Land.  Before Jesus’ crucifixion, on the same night that he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples.  It was also an eerie portent of what he was about to go through as the Paschal lamb of God for the sins of the world.

So, why ham?  Is it some kind of Gentile celebration set against the Jewish celebration?  Was it first established as a way for Gentiles to poke their thumb in the eye of Jews?  Think about it.  Of all the un-Jewish meats to serve near the Passover – ham?  Why ham?  Did it start out as a protest of sorts against a contrived Jewish conspiracy?  Was it meant as an overt insult to Jews and Muslims?  Does anyone else find this a fascinating query or is just me all alone out here?

The most often given explanation given to me when I’ve asked friends is that it is a tradition – pure and simple.  Suddenly, Gentiles sounds like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:  “Tradition!”  Well, how did that come about in the first place?  There is definitely no connections with the original celebration surrounding Easter and Passover.

A quick search of the history and origins of eating ham at Easter turns up some interesting suggestions that seem very plausible.  It seems that as Christianity developed and further divorced itself from its Jewish roots and heritage, it embraced the customs and traditions of the Gentile cultures it was introduced to in the middle ages.  This is true of most Christian holidays: Lent, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.

Can you say, “syncretism”? A dictionary definition of “syncretism” is, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice” or “ the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms.”  Missiologist often use this word in reference to places and cultures where Christianity has adopted non-Christian beliefs, values, and practices.  Could this be applied to what we eat at Easter?  I will let the theologians and missiologists wrestle with that question.

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my search for answers, two basic ideas come out of the reason ham became the meat of choice at Easter.  One was a practical consideration.  Traditionally, animals were slaughtered in the fall and preserved for winter use by smoking or salting.  When Spring arrived, marked by the vernal equinox, a celebration ensued and the last of the winter meat was eaten.  In eastern and northern Europe, the meat of choice was pork since the pig had been domesticated early in human history.  It was also the easiest meat to preserve for long periods of time.

The other reason has pagan spiritual reasons.  In Europe, the pig was considered a “good luck” symbol.  Eating pork in the spring was a way of celebrating getting through the long winter and the anticipation of another good year of harvests and abundant new livestock, especially pigs. Maybe it was just good luck to have anything left over from winter to eat in the spring.  I do not really know, but it seems likely given the harsh living conditions of European humans in the middle ages.

Of course, the pagan roots of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, Egg hunts, and Easter candy have been argued for many, many years.  Its connection with the pagan goddess Oestre, Eastre, Ostara or Ishtar has already been pointed out. (Which is a reason I prefer to avoid calling the day “Easter Sunday” or “Easter” but “Resurrection Sunday” or “Resurrection Day”.)  However, I have never heard anyone mention any problem with the Easter Ham.  It is curious to me since it seems to be so forthrightly anti-Semitic.

It turns out, that most of the world celebrates Easter by eating lamb.  So, Americans and northern Europeans are in a minority.  Since America has heavy influential roots stemming back to northern Europe, this should not surprise us.  It seems we brought our pagan religious practices with us – properly syncretized to Christianity, of course.  So, how do you like your ham cooked?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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