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Posts Tagged ‘Missionary Efforts’

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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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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