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Posts Tagged ‘Missional Communities’

One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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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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Lighthouses From A Bygone Era

I enjoy visiting lighthouses.  Along the Oregon coast, there are a number of beautiful old lighthouses that vacationers and tourists can visit.  You can climb the stairs to the beacon chamber and look out over the ocean and down the beautiful beaches.  If you are lucky, you may have the opportunity to watch a pod of whales in the Pacific Ocean go up or down the coast, depending on the time of year.  Each lighthouse is different and used to serve a unique location on the coastline helping boats and ships navigate the rugged, rocky coast and mouths of rivers.

Did you notice the words “used to” in that last line?  They are almost all decommissioned now.  Instead, their only purpose is to preserve the past memories of a bygone era.  Times have changed and technology has made them obsolete.  Their structures and purposes were not able to make the transitions into modern times.  They serve only to a history.  So, visitors come, see and leave everyday.

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I enjoy visiting churches.  Unfortunately, I have found many that have become just like those lighthouses.  Their only purpose has become to preserve past memories of a bygone era.  They did not change their methods and ministries with the times and so have become obsolete for fulfilling Christ’s commission of reaching lost people and making them his disciples.  Their ministry structures and purposes were not allowed to change to meet the demands of reaching their city or town.  They used to serve a unique place and help lost people find their way to Jesus.  At one time, they helped many people navigate the difficult courses of life.  Now, people mostly just come to see and leave.

The great challenge in today’s American churches is the challenge to keep ministries cutting edge and effective – but not to just entertain the sheep already in the Shepherd’s pen but to reach the lost sheep seeking a way back home.  We do not want to lose sight of our main mission, which is glorifying God by inviting people into his Kingdom and teaching them his new Kingdom ways.

The question for every church in their particular context is simply this:  “How do we remain relevant and alive so that our message of free salvation through Jesus Christ captures the hearts and attention of those we are trying to reach?”  This is especially true of reaching the younger generation of Americans.  Just 4% of today’s 15 – 25 year-olds in America today claim any affiliation with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Christian faith.

The two components of the Kingdom of GodMessage and Mission – are the only tools with which we work.  The message is unchanging.  It is God reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.  However, the question we must ask is, “Is our message clear?”  A basic truth of Communication 101 is this:  The communicator has not communicated until the receiver has received the message.

So, it is our responsibility and not those to whom we are trying to communicate to get our message across as clearly as possible.  There are some things we do or the way we speak that creates static in our communication and makes it difficult for others to hear.  Sometimes, those things completely interfere with our message and make it impossible for others to receive what we are saying.  How can we “clean up our signal” to avoid hindrances to our message, make it as clear as possible and provide the optimum opportunity for people to hear it?  If we avoid answer this question, we begin the descent into irrelevance.

This brings us to the other component:  Our mission.  There are any number of ways of stating it but it is simply this:  Bringing people to the person of Jesus by telling his story and sharing his love.  How we do that will be determined by our ministry context: those God has called us to reach and the town or city he has called us to serve.  Too often, we have confused methods with mission.  Thus, our methods become more sacred than the mission.

We fear changing our methods because, in our confusion, we think that they are the only way to fulfill our mission.  If we confuse these two things (mission and methods) or out of fear refuse to address their differences, then this is where the slide into obsolescence begins.  If this is allowed to happen, slowly the church slips into becoming a historical monument rather than a vision of the future of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Regular self-evaluation and a holy dissatisfaction with the religious status quo can keep a church relevant to its ministry context which is always changing.  Examining how well we clearly communicate our important message will ensure that we remain in the Kingdom business of redeeming a self-destructing world.  Measuring how well we are accomplishing our mission and whether our methods are in alignment with that common goal will help to guarantee that everything we do to invite and help people become followers of Jesus remains effective.  Otherwise, the threat is to be spiritually decommissioned (Rev. 2:5); an alternative that leads to becoming only a lighthouse of a bygone era.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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While driving in Pennsylvania in their gas-guzzling SUV, a family caught up to an Amish carriage.  The owner of the carriage obviously had a sense of humor, because attached to the back of the carriage was a hand printed sign:  “Energy Efficient Vehicle: Runs on oats and grass.  Caution: Do not step in exhaust.”

That is a very funny look at a clash of cultures.  Something akin to this happens every day, though it might not be as humorous.  Our world is quickly changing.  So much so that the difference between generations is like the difference between cultures.  One generation cannot relate to, let alone speak the language of, the next generation.  Not only that, but within the emerging generations there is a ‘tribalism’ taking place that fragments them into multiple ‘mini-cultures.’

Kids from the same city today could be broken up into a ‘multi-cultural’ mix of dress, language, and behaviors, each distinct from one another: “Preppies,” “Metalheads,” “Goths,” “Geeks,” “Rappers,” “Cowboys,” “Rockers,” “Punk Rockers,” and “Jocks,” among other group names.  Notice these do not revolve around ethnic identities.  This is because these groups transcend ethnicity.

The overarching question for the church is this: How do we influence this generation?  Many within the church would like to ‘bury their heads in the sand’ and just wait until Jesus’ return.  Is that the way?  Others throw up their hands in frustration and hopelessness and pronounce our world as beyond redemption.  Is that true?  What do you think?  Do you think the Great Commission is irrelevant for today’s world?  Do you believe that the Gospel message is impotent to affect today’s generation?  Do you think that the promised power of the Holy Spirit is insufficient to confirm the Gospel’s message to today’s world?  (Now, before you answer too quickly with words, what do your actions say?)

The danger in the Church among God’s people is to always see the generation following as beyond help, to persecute the next generation for its perceived moral decline and to scofflaw the attempts of the next generation’s leaders.  History seems to indicate this pattern.  Unfortunately, a generation that has nothing to offer to the future generation often grows nostalgic.  For every generation, polished memories of the past become more important than hopeful faith for the future.

Some would like to encapsulate the Church and Christian faith within a particular time period and tell us that unless you practice your faith like a 19th century Anabaptist, or a 4th century orthodox, or a 1960’s or 70’s Pentecostal or Charismatic, then you’re not “genuine.”  Others want to encrust the faith within a certain church fashion or practice so that unless your church service sounds or looks liturgical, Jewish, orthodox, Southern gospel, or “Pentecostal/Charismatic” then as such your are not “genuine.”  For 2000 years, every “innovation” brought about through renewal and revival in the church has ended up becoming an untouchable “sacred cow.’

I believe none of these hold the complete solution for our future.  They may help us discover part of the answer, but they will not bring us to a conclusive solution.  Knowing our history is important to our identity and sense of historical theology.  However, neither should it prevent us from presenting the Kingdom of God and the Gospel in a relevant and effective manner.  Too often we have confused method with message.

Someone once said, “You can’t answer tomorrow’s questions with yesterday’s answers.” How true.  Nevertheless, I believe the gospel message can transcend every language barrier, every cultural and ethnic wall, every era and generation and every human question.  Truly, the Word of God is a “mighty two-edged sword.”  The important thing is to keep the answer we present the same.  The challenge is presenting it in a way that our generation and the one behind us can receive and apply to their lives.

Ice Covered Evergreen on Mountain Hike, July 2003

Ice Covered Evergreen on Mountain Hike, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

The question put before us is whether we still believe the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is here today to enable us to be witnesses of Christ to this generation and so fulfill his Great Commission.  I believe that one of the toughest challenges to this generation of believers is regaining the “missionary mindset” that attempts to translate the gospel message into the culture and language of the generation following us.  Will we attempt to encrust the gospel in a time and generational code that dies with us?  Or, will we attempt to loose the power of the timeless gospel message into the new ‘cultures’ being formed around us in the next generation?

What will a 21st century Christian look like? What does a genuine follower of Christ look like in their daily lifestyle?  What are his or her spiritual practices on a daily and weekly basis?  How do we identify whether someone is really “growing in the Lord”?  What journey or steps should people take toward spiritual maturity?  Does the Church remain relevant with its timeless message?

One author claims the Church is in danger of becoming, “Islands of irrelevance in a sea of despair.  Is it too late?  Are we so far gone into a post-Christian age as some claim that our generation is deaf to the Gospel and spiritually lost? I don’t think so.  When the Apostle Paul was preaching the Kingdom of God in Christ in the first century, the odds looked grim.  There have been spiritually bleak times since then in every generation and culture since.  Yet, God continues to work and call people into his family.  We are told in the Book of Revelation that at the of the end ages, all the kingdoms and cultures of this world will be the Lord’s and he will reign over them forever and ever.  So, when cultures clash, Jesus’ Kingdom culture wins!

Our job is to effectively present that Kingdom culture to the generational cultures nearest us.  We will only be able to successfully do this by:

1) Remaining positive in our actions and outlook concerning the next generation.  Or, at least act like we are on the winning side!

2)  Remaining grounded in the Gospel’s message and claims.  Our message must never change.  This also requires a vigilance about how our methods shape our message.

3) Remaining relevant to the needs and challenges of the next generation.  This means meeting real needs and not the sentimental needs we have grown comfortable in meeting but that are not relevant anymore to the actual needs and challenges around us.

In these ways, we need no look behind us with worry but look forward with hope to the coming of Christ and his Kingdom to every culture and every generation.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Twenty-five years of pastoring is not a long time. There are men and women who have been in full-time ministry a lot longer than me.  Nevertheless, it is long enough to allow one to look back and look forward at the same time.  I have had a chance to talk with many wonderful individuals in ministry about the nature of the church, its condition today, and its future.  We have reason to be anxious.  We also have reason to hope.

The “hot button” issues consuming any discussion of the church seems to mostly surround what is called the “emergent church” and “missional communities”. These are names that have come to mean many different things.  It could mean attempts at returning to ancient orthodoxy and liturgy, the jettison of all things “churchie”, the inclusion of candles, incense, and modern art expressions, and even the abandonment of Biblical doctrines and absolute truth.  It is all an attempt to make the church relevant to a culture that largely sees the church and its message as completely irrelevant to life.

Now, I am not an “emergent church” or “missional church” expert. I’m not even a “church growth” expert.  I’m just an average guy who has been in the trenches of ministry trying to battle it out and work it out in the communities I served.  I have had some successes.  I have also had a lot of things not work out so well.  In fact, I like to tell people that my list of “Don’t Do This” is a great deal longer than my “Do This for Success” list.  So, I enter this subject with fear and trembling.

I have had the privilege of serving on staff at a couple of churches. I also have pastored three distinctively different congregations who were in different places in their life cycles.  My first congregation was a relatively new church plant, but I was a “greenhorn” pastor also.  We were good for each other and had fun innovating and creating.  My second congregation was almost 25 years old. I followed the church planter and only pastor.  He was all they had ever known.  It was a congregation in mid-life.  Change was not as quickly adopted as the first congregation I served.  They were a happy family and wanted to keep it that way.  They just wanted a spiritual father to keep all the “kids” happy.

The last congregation was more than 80 years old. It had history and lots of it.  Some famous people among the Assemblies of God had pastored there.  A good portion of the congregation was almost twice my age.  For some of them, I was the fourth or fifth pastor.  So, how church was “supposed to be done” was set for them.  Some aspects of their relationship to the larger community were already established by the time I arrived.  Changes were very slow and hard to come by and had to be navigated carefully.  Every new family added to ministry or a leadership team was perceived as a threat to the already established authority structure of individuals who had been there for many years.

You can imagine the challenges and opportunities that each of these congregations posed. Before I move on, let me say that I can honestly declare that I left each congregation with joy, fulfillment, and relationships with people that I still cherish to this day.  So, I don’t write this with any resentment or negativity towards them.  This is not a “sour grapes” diatribe.  This is, perhaps, more of a critique of my own pastoral leadership as it is the condition of any one congregation.  More so, it hopes to speak to the larger environment of the church world and what it has come to expect from its American congregations and leaders.

I intentionally use the words “American congregations” because I think that some of our challenges are culturally based in this time and place.  Every generation has its challenges.  These just happen to be ours.  As far back as the New Testament, the church was faced with what appeared to be insurmountable challenges.  In fact, I like to kid around with those who demand that we become like “The New Testament church” by saying, “Oh yeah?  Which one?  The viciously divided Corinthian church who allowed immorality to go unchecked until challenged by the apostle Paul?  Or the Thessalonian church who fool-heartedly quit jobs and households to wait on a mountain top for Jesus to return?  Or the Galatian church who was descending into legalism?  Or the Laodicean church that became lukewarm?”  Yes, the church was in trouble from the beginning.

However, the early church got many things right also. Just like the church today, where it got it right, it flourished and grew.  I believe what it did get right are still the “basics” for getting church right today.  I have often said that the church today does not need to create something new as much as it needs to get back to its original foundation – “the basics”.  These are not complicated and comprise a very short list.  Yet, they are vital.

I believe that the first thing we see in the book of Acts is the place of the early church in the larger community context. Rejected by the culture at large and its formalized religious institutions (synagogues and temples), the church was forced into the market places of the community.  Usually, this meant meeting in homes.  Early on in Acts, some believers met in the Temple area in Jerusalem but this was not to identify that location as a “church” as much as it was a religious market place where people already gathered and where the good news of Christ could be proclaimed.

When Paul, Barnabas, and others began missionary journeys, they continued to meet people and share the good news of Jesus in the market places.  Sometimes, the synagogues were used to proclaim the good news of Jesus to religious people.  Many times the market place was the platform: the town square, the gate of a city, the work places, the river banks where laundry was done, and even the center of philosophical discussions like Mars Hill.  Paul was a tent maker so one can safely presume the opportunities that afforded him to share the gospel as he bought material and sold products.

The second thing we notice in the book of Acts, and emphasized throughout the New Testament, was a community that was service oriented toward “the least of these”. Ministry to widows was picked up immediately by the early church and the reason for the selection of the first deacons – the first recognized “officers” of any church government.  James (1:27) teaches that pure religion is that which is done for orphans and widows.  It seems that the example of Jesus to preach to the poor was taken to heart by the earliest disciples.  The evidence throughout the book of Acts of the church’s success is simply that “the Lord added to their number daily”.

Interestingly, this pattern can be found to ebb and flow throughout church history right down to the present day. It appears that the church has a habit of drifting away from the basics that first established it.  Regularly throughout its history, it slowly abandons its “first love” for a complacent self loving that woos it into a self-centered lukewarmness.  It then becomes ineffective, irrelevant, and abandoned.  Then, God in his mercy sends revival to awaken his church.

When the revivals and renewals of the church over its history are examined there seems to be a common theme that arises; a movement back to the market places of its cities and a direct affect upon the least, lost and lost of the society.  There is a return to the basics we find modeled in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  Let me use the relatively recent church revival event known as the Pentecostal movement for an example.  It is not too different from ones before it or ones that come after it. I t just happens to be the one I am most familiar with because of formal studies and personal reading.

Like the early church in the first century, those affected by the revival found themselves rejected by the established religious institutions.  As a result, they became a “Diaspora” of sorts.  These revival communities were forced out of necessity to meet in the market places of the culture.  I would argue that this was a Spirit-led event instead of a sad tragedy that befell them.  My spiritual forefathers of a generation or two ago met in store fronts, rooms above or behind taverns, schools, warehouses, garages, and neighborhood houses.  Remember, the Azusa Street revival started in a house and was moved to a church-turned-warehouse.  This type of beginning was typical for these congregations.

These market place settings gave that early revival a proximity to the spiritually lost and poor of our culture that profoundly affected its community setting. The poor were offered hope, transformation, and power.  What sociologists call “the disenfranchised” were “the least of these that Jesus” identified as the primary target group of the Christian community.  The harsh environments of our inner cities and suburbs were home to some of the early Pentecostal churches.  As a result, those won to the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom were former alcoholics, drug users, and from broken families as well as the mentally ill, poorly educated and the socially and economically underprivileged.  Yet, we find that the church grew because “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”.  I believe it was because the church was “on mission” that the Lord blessed.

Over the next one hundred years, the Pentecostal and then Charismatic churches grew in number and size. Born out of a desire to have houses of worship and even cathedrals like all the other denominations, we abandoned the inner cities and poorer suburbs for better neighborhoods.  Once considered outsiders to the mainstream evangelical movement, we gained respectability among them.  Our buildings soon identified us as “successful” and improved our image.  On the other hand, they also shaped and formed us in unforeseen ways.

Moving to the other side of the “railroad tracks” helped us attract more successful and wealthy customers. Soon, our dependence upon attracting and keeping the successful and wealthy shaped and formed how we “did” church, who we reached out to; all with the desire to maintain our respectability and position among the other denominations of the community.  Now, proudly, many Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations boast large facilities and large staffs.  They can compete with any other congregation in the community on the basis of style and appearance.

However, something has apparently gone wrong on the other side of the “railroad tracks”. For the past 25 years, the once vibrant revival and renewal movement that boasted record growth and finally gained acceptance among her evangelical peers has flat-lined or even declined in some areas of America.  The vast majority of her churches are not growing.  Many are shrinking.  Closing the doors of churches is growing each year.  This same scenario can be repeated for the fruit of every revivalist movement in America whether Puritan, Pietist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, or any other.

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

What went wrong? What do we need to do to reverse this trend – a trend that is indicative not only of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches but 9 out of 10 churches in the United States?  Is it too late?  I don’t think so.  The answer does not lie, however, so much in the future as it does in returning to some things in our past, whatever our church or spiritual heritage.  There are three things that church pastors, leaders, and congregants can do.  Two of them relate directly to the New Testament church and what we have already noticed.

The first thing we must do as the church in America is recognize that what we are doing is not working.  We have become really good at moving “the sheep” around from spiritual venue to spiritual venue based upon what is hot and what is not.  We have been suckered into a market mentality that has driven us to shop for the right “model” for doing church.  There are a myriad of ways to do church in America.  Every model has its attractors and detractors: Willow Creek Church, Saddle Back Church, Friendship Church, Northpoint Church, Fellowship Church – the list could go on and on. Preaching style, worship style, small group focus, and non-liturgical or neo-liturgical all compete for our use as the next successful church model to implement.

The ironic discovery made by those who study church growth is that any and every model has a success story to tell. However, they also have places where they have failed miserably.  It turns out that the way church is done is not as important as “why” church is done at all!  We have mistaken moving the furniture around in the sanctuary for the heart and soul of our mission – our reason for being.

Those churches, whatever model they choose to adopt, are successful because they have identified and owned their God-given reason for existing. Like a missionary boot camp, they identify why they exist in their community, then teach and train everyone involved to that mission. It is critical for success. Only until that is understood can the right tools or models be sought to help accomplish its mission. It is a mission closely resembling the early church’s efforts.

That brings us to the last two things that I believe we need to do as the American church.  Like the early church and the revivalist church movements that followed, churches must find a way to reconnect with their communities in viable and tangible ways.  This must go beyond the typical Christian concerts and conferences.  Instead, the focus needs to be upon those that Jesus pointed to as proof that he was the genuine Messiah – the poor (Mt. 11:5, Luke 4:18, 7:22, 14:13 and 21).

In all of the American church’s talk concerning marketing strategies, it has forgotten that the “target group” that seemed to matter to Jesus above all others was those among “the least of these”.  Preaching the gospel to the poor, caring for the orphan and widow are the kingdom strategies that the Lord seems to bless and grow.  Those communities of faith that strive to accomplish this mission duplicate the mission of Jesus and the earliest church’s effort to bring the kingdom of God to their world.

This means that every congregation needs to identify itself as a serving community to the world. Unfortunately, for most American congregations, “church service” has come to mean “self service”.  In fact, “church service” used to refer to the believing community’s service rendered to God, not its service to its own people.  Almost universally, pastors and leaders today think of “church service” as the way in which they serve the needs of its people.  One has to wonder how much the attention and focus on this creates a very self-centered congregant.  Attention and attendance, then, is depended upon how well the pastor and his leadership “meets the needs” of my family, my worship style, my communication style, my entertainment and relationship needs.  As soon as I become dissatisfied, then I move on to “greener pastures” for the next new church model that will capture my attention and imagination.

By identifying itself as a serving community, each congregation must identify the ways in which God is calling it to reach out to and serve the “least of these” around them.  Reacquiring this will reorient the church to its original purpose and mission.  Missions has come to mean, for many congregations, something that is done overseas.  This is a fallacy.  More than that, missions is not something the church does.  It is something the church is!  It is what gives it life and expands its influence in the world.  In this sense the church truly becomes a “missional community”.

Finally, this will mean a return to a presence in the market place. When we moved across town to nicer neighborhoods with wealthier neighbors, we surrendered the market place to which we were called to take the kingdom of God.  We settled for safety and position over accomplishing our eternal mission.

In short, the church needs to move back across the “railroad tracks”, if not physically then spiritually, and reach the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. Could this loss of mission be part of what Jesus referred to when he told the church at Ephesus that they had lost their “first love” (Rev. 2:4)?  The remedy for the Ephesians, according to the glorified Christ may also be ours.  It was to “do the deeds you did at first” (v. 5).  His challenge to the Smyrnan church was that they still needed to “complete your deeds in the sight of My God” (3:3).  I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that if a church cannot verifiably prove a positive impact upon its community, then it ought to pay taxes!

This means, then, that most churches will need to take a fresh look again at where God is at work and wanting to work in the world. Our focus upon buildings, facilities, and grounds and its responsible staffs has chained us to their maintenance.  They have largely defined us and determined our limits of reach and focus toward the world’s greater need for the gospel.  We are in bondage to our buildings – our “sacred spaces”.  We have come to believe, if not believe then at least behave, that God only works and “moves” in our “sacred spaces”.  And that he does not or cannot operate in the market places of the world.

However, like the early church, we must see the market places as opportunities for witness and ministry. The proclamation of the gospel must be made in the public squares of our cities and neighborhoods again.  I’m not just referring to street preaching.  I’m talking about creating spaces for dialogue about God and spiritual things like Paul did on Mars Hill and the public market of Athens.  Using creativity under the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit Paul effectively proclaimed Christ and drew the interest of some of his listeners.

The church’s days of using attractional methods to draw non-Christians and the irreligious into their sacred spaces for any type of dialogue about God are in their twilight. It is time to return to the method that was first used.  It is time to see ourselves as missionaries in a secular culture who need to go into the market places of our culture to connect with people.  It is time to see our primary audience as those whom the world has disenfranchised – “the least of these”.  It is about time to see that there is hope for our world because the Heavenly Father through His Son and Spirit still wants to work in the market places of our world.

Why can this work? It can work because we see a Biblical example of it that God blessed.  We can be confident it will work because where the church is striving and thriving in the world today it consciously or unconsciously works at this.  I saw this clearly at work on a recent trip to India.

It amazes me how much the church in India accomplishes so much with so few resources; especially in comparison to most American churches that seem to accomplish so little with so much.  What captured my heart and imagination was witnessing a church that seemed to behave much like the church in the book of the Acts in the New Testament.  They regularly proclaimed the gospel in the market squares, including in front of Hindu temples!  We followed village pastors around as they walked around in the community and invited us American pastors to share the good news of Jesus with Hindu neighbors.

The mission of the church went beyond proclamation, however. Their ministries included housing, feeding, and medical care for orphans and widows.  Schooling was provided to the poorest children, meaning the Dhalits or “untouchables” of their culture.  This all was done at great expense and sacrifice to the local churches.  Even the Hindus could not argue with the compassion ministries of these local groups of believers.  When their children needed medical help, food, clothing, or schooling, who did they turn to for help?  Who did the destitute widows turn to for compassion?  The group of believers in their community who simply did a few basic things to bring the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus to their world.  No wonder the church in India is growing.  The Lord is adding to their number daily.  It is a church that is still doing the basics.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Twenty-five years of pastoring is not a long time. There are men and women who have been in full-time ministry a lot longer than me. Nevertheless, it is long enough to allow one to look back and look forward at the same time. I have had a chance to talk with many wonderful individuals in ministry about the nature of the church, its condition today, and its future. We have reason to be anxious. We also have reason to hope. 

The “hot button” issues consuming any discussion of the church seems to mostly surround what is called the “emergent church” and “missional communities”. These are names that have come to mean many different things. It could mean attempts at returning to ancient orthodoxy and liturgy, the jettison of all things “churchie”, the inclusion of candles, incense, and modern art expressions, and even the abandonment of Biblical doctrines and absolute truth. It is all an attempt to make the church relevant to a culture that largely sees the church and its message as completely irrelevant to life.

Now, I am not an “emergent church” or “missional church” expert. I’m not even a “church growth” expert. I’m just an average guy who has been in the trenches of ministry trying to battle it out and work it out in the communities I served. I have had some successes. I have also had a lot of things not work out so well. In fact, I like to tell people that my list of “Don’t Do This” is a great deal longer than my “Do This for Success” list. So, I enter this subject with fear and trembling.

I have had the privilege of serving on staff at a couple of churches. I also have pastored three distinctively different congregations who were in different places in their life cycles. My first congregation was a relatively new church plant, but I was a “greenhorn” pastor. We were good for each other and had fun innovating and creating. My second congregation was almost 25 years old. I followed the church planter and pastor. He was all they had ever known. It was a congregation in mid-life. Change was not as quickly adopted as the first congregation. They were a happy family and wanted to keep it that way. They just wanted a spiritual father to keep all the “kids” happy.

The last congregation was more than 80 years old. It had history and lots of it. Some famous people had pastored there. A good portion of the congregation was almost twice my age. For some of them, I was the fourth or fifth pastor. So, how church was “supposed to be done” was set for them. Some aspects of their relationship to the larger community were already established by the time I arrived. Changes were very slow and hard to come by and had to be navigated carefully. Every new family added to ministry or a leadership team was perceived as a threat to the already established authority structure of the individuals who had been there for many years.

You can imagine the challenges and opportunities that each of these congregations posed. Before I move on, let me say that I can honestly say that I left each congregation with joy, fulfillment, and relationships with people that I still cherish to this day. So, I don’t write this with any resentment or negativity towards them. This is, perhaps, more of a critique of my own pastoral leadership as it is the condition of any congregation. More so, it hopes to speak to the larger environment of the church world and what it has come to expect from its American congregations.

I intentionally use the words “American congregations” because I think that some of our challenges are culturally based in this time. Every generation has its challenges. These just happen to be ours. As far back as the New Testament, the church was faced with what appeared to be insurmountable challenges. In fact, I like to kid around with those who demand that we become like “The New Testament church” by saying, “Oh yeah? Which one? The viscously divided Corinthian church who allowed immorality to go unchecked until challenged by the apostle Paul? Or the Thessalonian church who fool-heartedly quit jobs and households to wait on a mountain top for Jesus to return? Or the Galatian church who was descending into legalism? Or the Laodicean church that became lukewarm?” Yes, the church was in trouble from the beginning.

However, the early church got many things right also. Just like the church today, where it got it right, it flourished and grew. I believe what it did get right are still the “basics” for getting church right today. I have often said that the church today does not need to create something new as much as it needs to get back to its original foundation – “the basics”. These are not complicated and comprise a very short list. Yet, they are vital.

I believe that the first thing we see in the book of Acts is the place of the early church in the larger community context. Rejected by the culture at large and its formalized religious institutions (synagogues and temple), the church was forced into the market places of the community. Usually, this meant meeting in homes. Early on in Acts, some believers met in the Temple area in Jerusalem but this was not to identify that location as a “church” as much as it was a religious market place where people already gathered and where the good news of Christ could be proclaimed.

When Paul, Barnabas, and others began missionary journeys, they continued to meet people and share the good news of Jesus in the market places. Sometimes, the synagogues were used to proclaim the good news of Jesus to religious people. Many times the market place was the platform: the town square, the gate of a city, the work places, the river banks where laundry was done, and even the center of philosophical discussions like Mars Hill. Paul was a tent maker so one can safely presume the opportunities that afforded him to share the gospel as he bought material and sold products.

The second thing we notice in the book of Acts, and emphasized throughout the New Testament, was a community that was service oriented toward “the least of these”. Ministry to widows was picked up immediately by the early church and the reason for the selection of the first deacons. James (1:27) teaches that pure religion is that which is done for orphans and widows. It seems that the example of Jesus to preach to the poor was taken to heart by the earliest disciples. The evidence throughout the book of Acts of the church’s success is simply that “the Lord added to their number daily”.

Interestingly, this pattern can be found to ebb and flow throughout church history right down to the present day. It appears that the church has a habit of drifting away from the basics that first established it. Regularly throughout history, it slowly abandons its “first love” for a complacent self loving that woos it into a self-centered lukewarmness. It then becomes ineffective, irrelevant, and abandoned. Then, God in his mercy sends revival to awaken his church.

When the revivals and renewals of the church over its history are examined there seems to be a common theme that arises. There is a return to the basics we find modeled in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Let me use the relatively recent church revival event known as the Pentecostal movement for an example. It is not too different from ones before it or ones that come after it. It just happens to be the one I am most familiar with because of formal studies and personal reading.

Like the early church in the first century, those affected by the revival found themselves rejected by the established religious institutions. As a result, they became a “Diaspora” of sorts. These revival communities were forced out of necessity to meet in the market places of the culture. I would argue that this was a Spirit-led event instead of a sad tragedy that befell them. My spiritual forefathers of a generation or two ago met in store fronts, rooms above or behind taverns, schools, warehouses, garages, and neighborhood houses. Remember, the Azusa Street revival started in a house and was moved to a church-turned-warehouse. This type of beginning was typical for these congregations.

These market place settings gave that early revival a proximity to the spiritually lost and poor of our culture that profoundly affected its community setting. The poor were offered hope, transformation, and power. What sociologists call “the disenfranchised” were “the least of these that Jesus” identified as the primary target group of the Christian community. The harsh environments of our inner cities and suburbs were home to some of the early Pentecostal churches. As a result, those won to the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom were former alcoholics, drug users, and from broken families, as well as the mentally ill, poorly educated, and the socially and economically underprivileged. Yet, we find that the church grew because “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. I believe it was because the church was “on mission” that the Lord blessed.

Over the next one hundred years, the Pentecostal and then Charismatic churches grew in number and size. Born out of a desire to have houses of worship and even cathedrals like all the other denominations, we abandoned the inner cities and poorer suburbs for better neighborhoods. Once considered outsiders to the mainstream evangelical movement, we gained respectability among them. Our buildings soon identified us as “successful” and improved our image. On the other hand, they also shaped and formed us in unforeseen ways.

Moving to the other side of the “railroad tracks” helped us attract more successful and wealthy customers. Soon, our dependence upon attracting and keeping the successful and wealthy shaped and formed how we “did” church, who we reached out to; all with the desire to maintain our respectability and position among the other denominations of the community. Now, proudly, many Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations boast large facilities and large staffs. They can compete with any other congregation in the community on the basis of style and appearance.

However, something has apparently gone wrong on the other side of the “railroad tracks”. For the past 25 years, the once vibrant revival and renewal movement that boasted record growth and finally gained acceptance among her evangelical peers has flat-lined or even declined in some areas of America. The vast majority of her churches are not growing. Many are shrinking. Closing the doors of churches is growing each year. This same scenario can be repeated for the fruit of every revivalist movement in America whether Puritan, Pietist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, or any other.

What went wrong? What do we need to do to reverse this trend – a trend that is indicative not only of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches but 9 out of 10 churches in the United States? Is it too late? I don’t think so. The answer does not lie, however, so much in the future as it does in returning to some things in our past, whatever our church or spiritual heritage. There are three things that church pastors, leaders, and congregants can do. Two of them relate directly to the New Testament church and what we have already noticed.

The first thing we must do as the church in America is recognize that what we are doing is not working. We have become really good at moving “the sheep” around from spiritual venue to spiritual venue based upon what is hot and what is not. We have been suckered into a market mentality that has driven us to shop for the right “model” for doing church. There are a myriad of ways to do church in America. Every model has its attractors and detractors: Willow Creek Church, Saddle Back Church, Friendship Church, Northpoint Church, Fellowship Church – the list could go on and on. Preaching style, worship style, small group focus, and non-liturgical or neo-liturgical all compete for our use as the next successful church model to implement.

The ironic discovery made by those who study church growth is that any and every model has a success story to tell. However, they also have places where they have failed miserably. It turns out that the way church is done is not as important as “why” church is done at all! We have mistaken moving the furniture around in the sanctuary for the heart and soul of our mission – our reason for being. Those churches, whatever model they choose to adopt, are successful because they have identified and owned their God-given reason for existing. Like a missionary boot camp, they identify why they exist in their community, then teach and train everyone involved to that mission. It is critical for success. Only until that is understood can the right tools or models be sought to help accomplish its mission. It is a mission closely resembling the early church’s efforts.

That brings us to the last two things that I believe we need to do as the American church. Like the early church and the revivalist church movements that followed, churches must find a way to reconnect with their communities in viable and tangible ways. This must go beyond the typical Christian concerts and conferences. Instead, the focus needs to be upon those that Jesus pointed to as proof that he was the genuine Messiah – the poor (Mt. 11:5, Luke 4:18, 7:22, 14:13 and 21).

In all of the American church’s talk concerning marketing strategies, it has forgotten that the “target group” that seemed to matter to Jesus above all others was those among “the least of these”. Preaching the gospel to the poor, caring for the orphan and widow are the kingdom strategies that the Lord seems to bless and grow. Those communities of faith that strive to accomplish this mission duplicate the mission of Jesus and the earliest church’s effort to bring the kingdom of God to their world.

This means that every congregation needs to identify itself as a serving community to the world. Unfortunately, for most American congregations, “church service” has come to mean “self service”. In fact, “church service” used to refer to the believing community’s service rendered to God, not its service to its own people. Almost universally, pastors and leaders today think of “church service” as the way in which they serve the needs of its people. One has to wonder how much the attention and focus on this creates a very self-centered congregant. Attention and attendance, then, is depended upon how well the pastor and his leadership “meets the needs” of my family, my worship style, my communication style, my entertainment and relationship needs. As soon as I become dissatisfied, then I move on to “greener pastures” for the next new church model that will capture my attention and imagination.

By identifying itself as a serving community, each congregation must identify the ways in which God is calling it to reach out to and serve the “least of these” around them. Reacquiring this will reorient the church to its original purpose and mission. Missions has come to mean, for many congregations, something that is done overseas. This is a fallacy. More than that, missions is not something the church does. It is something the church is! It is what gives it life and expands its influence in the world. In this sense, the church truly becomes a “missional community”.

Finally, this will mean a return to a presence in the market place. When we moved across town to nicer neighborhoods with wealthier neighbors, we surrendered the market place to which we were called to take the kingdom of God. We settled for safety and position over accomplishing our eternal mission.

In short, the church needs to move back across the “railroad tracks”, if not physically then spiritually, and reach the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. Could this loss of mission be part of what Jesus referred to when he told the church at Ephesus that they had lost their “first love” (Rev. 2:4)? The remedy for the Ephesians, according to the glorified Christ may also be ours. It was to “do the deeds you did at first” (v. 5). His challenge to the Smyrnan church was that they still needed to “complete your deeds in the sight of My God” (3:3). I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that if a church cannot verifiably prove a positive impact upon its community, then it ought to pay taxes!

This means, then, that most churches will need to take a fresh look again at where God is at work and wanting to work in the world. Our focus upon buildings, facilities, and grounds and its responsible staffs has chained us. They have largely defined us and determined our limits of reach and focus toward the world’s greater need for the gospel. We are in bondage to our buildings – our “sacred spaces”. We have come to believe, if not believe then at least behave, that God only works and “moves” in our “sacred spaces”. And that he does not or cannot operate in the market places of the world.

However, like the early church, we must see the market places as opportunities for witness and ministry. The proclamation of the gospel must be made in the public squares of our cities and neighborhoods again. I’m not just referring to street preaching. I’m talking about creating spaces for dialogue about God and spiritual things like Paul did on Mars Hill and the public market of Athens. Using creativity under the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit Paul effectively proclaimed Christ and drew the interest of some of his listeners.

The church’s days of using attractional methods to draw non-Christians and the irreligious into their sacred spaces for any type of dialogue about God are in their twilight. It is time to return to the method that was first used. It is time to see ourselves as missionaries in a secular culture who need to go into the market places of our culture to connect with people. It is time to see our primary audience as those whom the world has disenfranchised – “the least of these”. It is about time to see that there is hope for our world because the Heavenly Father through His Son and Spirit still wants to work in the market places of our world.

Why can this work? It can work because we see a Biblical example of it that God blessed. We can be confident it will work because where the church is striving and thriving in the world today it consciously or unconsciously works at this. I saw this clearly at work on a recent trip to India.

It amazes me how much the church in India accomplishes so much with so few resources. Especially in comparison to most American churches that seem to accomplish so little with so much. What captured my heart and imagination was witnessing a church that seemed to behave much like the church in the book of the Acts in the New Testament. They regularly proclaimed the gospel in the market squares, including in front of Hindu temples! We followed village pastors around as they walked around in the community and invited us American pastors to share the good news of Jesus with Hindu neighbors.

The mission of the church went beyond proclamation, however. Their ministries included housing, feeding, and medical care for orphans and widows. Schooling was provided to the poorest children, meaning the Dhalits or “untouchables” of their culture. This all was done at great expense and sacrifice to the local churches. Still, even the Hindus could not argue with the compassion ministries of these local groups of believers. When their children needed medical help, food, clothing, or schooling, who did they turn to for help? Who did the destitute widows turn to for compassion? The group of believers in their community who simply did a few basic things to bring the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus to their world. No wonder the church in India is growing. The Lord is adding to their number daily.

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