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Posts Tagged ‘Missional Communication’

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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Many people do not know that I am terribly afraid of public speaking.  What a horrible handicap to have for someone called to preach and teach God’s Word, huh?  In most public situations, I am perfectly fine sitting quietly and letting other people do the talking.  I confess that I am a closet wallflower.  It has occurred to me on more than one occasion (usually, right before I get up to deliver a homily) that our Heavenly Father must have a great sense of humor.

It is a long and tortuous story of how a young man, who used to take a ‘zero’ on any oral assignments in school rather than get up in front of people and talk, ended up becoming a preacher, of all things.  It had to be in answer to someone’s prayer or to God’s sense of humor.  This back-story will have to be for another time.  There is a related fear that I wish to confess to you.  It is a fear of not being able to communicate at all.

One of the first times I delivered a sermon as a young associate pastor in Bremerton, Washington, time stopped.  I had just read the Scriptural text and prayed for God’s blessing upon the message.  Then, as if in a transcendent moment of holy revelation when time is suspended, I looked out upon the congregation with new eyes.

What do you have to say to these people?” is the question that ran through my soul.  A cold sweat came over me as I looked out upon the lives seated before me  There, waiting in hopefulness for God’s Word spoken to their hour of need, were people of every walk of life.  What was I going to possibly say to the elderly couple who had been years in church three times longer than I had years in life that they had not already heard?  What did I have to say to the recent divorcee from a shattered marriage and home?  What words of hope had I for the couple grieving the loss of a child from SID’s?  Or, to the widower who had just lost his wife of 53 years?  Young or old, what did I have to say that could in any way benefit them?  What was I doing behind a pulpit?  What was I thinking!?

I remember the petrifying fear while standing there as if it were yesterday.  It seemed an eternity to me, though I am sure that to the congregation it seemed only a moment or two, as if I were collecting my thoughts.  Nevertheless, a reassuring voice and presence accompanied my spirit as God’s Spirit reminded me that it was not my word or my wisdom that I needed to proclaim.  I was simply the vessel through whom God’s Word was proclaimed and preached.

I remember that occasion often and use it to spur me on to diligently study God’s Word, pray for leading and direction in what to teach or preach, and prepare to meaningfully communicate it.  My fear is not that I will not have something to say, but that I will not be able to communicate it in an effective way.  I want to be able to communicate clearly God’s message to a hungry and thirsty world.  May it always be God’s Word endowed with God’s Wisdom that fulfills the dream to know Jesus and make him known.

Mount Adams, Washington State, October 2001

Mount Adams, Washington State, October 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The challenge for the church today and every believer in particular is to communicate the greatest message to the people in greatest need.  The danger is not communicating it at all or communicating it in such a way as to make it senseless and meaningless.  We have a Great Commission (Matt. 28:18 – 20) given to us by our Lord and Master to communicate his Good News message to all parts of His world.  What do we have to say to out city, town, or neighbors?  Just as important is answering the question: what is the most effective way to communicate the most important message ever?

My fear is not communicating effectively to our culture and generation.  One individual described it like being a group of Swahili immigrants from Africa who start a church here, keep their Swahili language, cultural forms and preferences, and way of doing church, but then wonder why people from the surrounding community are not coming to their church!  Why would we expect our neighbors and friends to make the leap over language and culture to hear a message in Swahili?  We wouldn’t.  So, are we simply making strange sounds to a people who cannot understand what we are saying?

Every believer is the Lord’s ambassador to spiritually lost people.  Part of this mission is to understand the times, changing needs, languages, and cultural forms of the community we are called to serve.  In simpler terms, every follower of Christ is a commissioned missionary to a foreign culture – to that of the world of a people far from God.  The way people far from God talk, the way they behave, the things they value, the things they spend their time doing, their social structures and networks, the things in which they find joy and happiness,  and how they raise their family, among many other things, may be radically different from our experiences.  Yet, it is to these people we are called to share God’s love and the message of his Kingdom.  At the end of our service among them may it be said of us that we did not just have a message but that we communicated that message effectively.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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