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Posts Tagged ‘Missions’

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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Thinking about church missionally is much different than to think about church for maintenance.  In the previous post, Church Re-Formatted 1, the challenge was to think about the fringes of American culture that are growing and how to reach out and communicate them.  That article was not to suggest that we need to throw out our present models and efforts.  Likewise, this one is not suggesting that maintenance (discipleship, at least as it is largely done in today’s churches) needs to be abandoned for missional efforts (evangelism and church planting).  The fact is that  both are needed in today’s American culture.

It is unfortunate that the established church looks upon those pushing the envelope of evangelism efforts to reach spiritual lost and damaged people with a bit of disdain.  They often wonder why these leaders cannot work within the confines of existing structures and churches.  Their leaders often work against these efforts by looking for wholes in the methodologies or even their messages and then point out their short-comings.  It is as if they believe that they somehow maintain their own credibility within the faith community by discrediting the efforts of others.

History teaches us that change, revolution and innovation most often comes from the fringes and not the mainstream.  So it is with church plants and church planters.  However, it is just as unfortunate that these leaders often look skeptically upon the established churches and their leaders as if they have gotten it all wrong and are missing something important.  As a result, established churches and their leaders become territorial and uninviting to new evangelistic and church planting efforts.  And, new church efforts and church planters alienate themselves from the resources and histories of churches long established in communities.

Round Beach Stone

Round Beach Stone  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

When we talk about mission and church planting efforts in the U.S., we are, for the most part, not talking about planting one where no church yet exists. The truth is that most of the country still has a very real, viable church presence.  When we discuss true missional communities that attempt church planting, it is often in regards to unreached/unchurched communities within communities.

This was the point of the first article, Church Re-Formatted 1: It is one thing to start a new church just to be another faith community in competition with all of the other existing ones.  That, in my opinion, is like just adding another store to the “church mall” offerings of a community.  It ends up competing for the same customers and must come up with marketing strategies to attract them.  In the end, it is largely “sheep swapping”.

It is quite another thing, however, to be one that is reaching a part of a community, perhaps a sub-community or sub-culture, that is largely unreached.  It is this latter that Church Re-Formatted 1 argues needs the greatest focus of our evangelistic and church planting efforts. The ever growing unchurched population of the U.S. needs to be the focus of new mission/evangelistic efforts.

The challenge, as noted previously, is the fracturing of American culture.  We can better be described as a tribal culture than a monolithic one.  The things that used to tie us into a common identity are becoming frayed and fragile.  This sets up competing values and interests that isolate groups as they cloister around common interests and identities.

In order for the church to become more missional in orientation, it will need a radical change – perhaps even a re-formatting.  This is nothing new to the church, actually.  It has experienced this on many occasions as people have risen to the challenge of communicating the gospel to a changing culture.  We only need to look back on recent church history to find examples.

For instance, in the 18th centurty, John Wesley and John Whitefield had the audacity to take the Bible’s message right to the masses where they lived and worked.  This got them into all sorts of hot water with the established church (the Church of England) because it was considered a defilement of the gospel to have it proclaimed anywhere other than in a church behind a pulpit.  They were told it was unfitting for clergy persons to preach outside of the sanctuary.  However, many of the working class had abandoned church as irrelevant at that time, plus many of the poor worked on Sunday.  How were they going to hear?  Who was going to go tell them?  Who would send a messenger?

It was perhaps the hand of God at work when John Wesley was locked out of preaching at churches in England because out of this he determined to take the good news message right to the masses.  It can best be seen in Wesley’s words,

I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishioners by preaching three days on my father’s tomb than I did by preaching three years in his pulpit.” … To this day field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature“. (2)

John Whitefield had a similar experience on the other side of the pond in the American colonies.  What resulted was the beginning of modern American Evangelicalism.  The American Methodist Church would later claim up to two-thirds of all believers in the U.S. by the time of the Civil War.  Since he was not allowed in most American churches, he was left to preaching in open fields, often to thousands.

In the 19th century, England was once again in need of a fresh infusion of the hope found in the message that Christ brought to earth.  Within a short span of time, even the new Methodist church in England was losing spiritual ground.  William Booth, an English Methodist preacher, decided to do something to stem the tide of cultural decay.  Despite his denomination’s efforts to place him in a pastorate, William Booth felt the urgency for evangelism and considered the pastorate a hindrance to such efforts.

Through a series of events, William Booth founded the Salvation Army.  Its focus was upon bringing salvation to the least of society.  The starting point began in the slums of East London and most ever after always looked to establish itself among the poor and needy in communities.

William Booth and his “army” became known for their street preaching and street meetings.  Their efforts, once again, focused upon taking the gospel to where the people were living and working.  Not surprisingly, William Booth and the Salvation Army caught a lot of heat from the Church of England as well as the Methodist Church of England.  Booth’s fiery preaching and passion can be summed up in this part of a message of a vision of hell:

To go down among the perishing crowds is your duty. Your happiness from now on will consist in sharing their misery, your ease in sharing their pain, your crown in helping them to bear their cross, and your heaven in going into the very jaws of hell to rescue them.”  (1)

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset Off Taylor Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

A contemporary of William Booth’s was Hudson Taylor.  He became a missionary to China and founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF International).  When Hudson Taylor first arrived in China, he found most of the missionaries there living comfortably in walled communes in the large cities of China.  No one was going outside of these to reach the aboriginal Chinese.  Only those Chinese who had become “westernized” or “civilized” were thought worthy or able of being reached and discipled.

Hudson Taylor, disgusted with the attitudes and complacency of his peers, attempted to go inland and plant churches among the villages.  At first he found stiff resistance.  He found out that the native Chinese considered him to be only another “black devil” (their word for the foreign missionaries).  So, Hudson Taylor changed his approach.  He donned Chinese clothing, grew his hair into a braided pony-tail, shaved his forehead and lived among the locals just like they lived.  Incredibly, Hudson Taylor’s efforts paid off in not only acceptance, but converts and then a church multiplication movement that continues to this day despite 60 years of Communism.

Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized by his peers and the established missionary societies.  There were churches that shunned his efforts because of his methods.  Others even questioned the necessity of needing to reach the indigenous Chinese at all.  Still, it was Hudson Taylor that led the way across the language and cultural bridge barrier that opened the door for many Chinese to not only embrace Christianity but to also form the Chinese church into something that would impact its nation.  Husdon Taylor’s burning passion comes through and challenges us when he says,

“It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China…with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.”  (3)

These same passions, visions and strategies were used many times in the U.S. in the late-19th century and early-20th century.  With the rise of immigrant communities, churches worked to establish themselves in those communities with disciples and leaders who new the culture and spoke the language.  Up until recent history, evangelical and pentecostal churches had indigenous churches that still spoke German, Norwegian and Swedish.  We see them today among the Spanish, Brazilian and various Asian and African communities in the U.S.

In an effort to change cities, churches were planted in storefronts.  Even taverns are known to have housed a few early Assembly of God church planting efforts.  Many cities in America today still have some type of “Union Gospel Mission” at work in their city centers.  These are true missional communities in the midst of people who are not reached by the average church.  However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such micro-communities all over the U.S. today without an adequate gospel presentation.

It is these missionary kinds of efforts that we have seen before in our church histories that are needed once again today in America.  However, today’s strategies may not just need to cross language and foreign cultural barriers.  Some of the hardest to reach may be in those communities and people groups who are closest in language and culture, but desperately far away from us spiritually; so much so that they seem to us as foreign.  They are living in our neighborhoods and cities.  The question remains, Who is going to take the effort to cross the street to reach them?

In light of this urgent question, every church and church leader needs to ask some questions about their city, community and neighborhoods:

  • Where are the least reached?  Are we reaching them or partnering with someone who is reaching them?
  • Who are the most vulnerable?  Are we meeting their needs or partnering with someone who is meeting their needs?
  • Where are the gathering places of our community?  Do we have a presence there or partnering with someone who does?
  • What community events define and shape our community, town, city?  Do we participate and serve there or partnering with someone who does or will help us do so?
  • What social groups exist within your community or city?  Which ones does your church have members of them, they are your closest connection, or which ones do you feel the Holy Spirit leading you to reach out to in order to build relational bridges to reach them?

    Sunset from Toleak Point

    Sunset from Toleak Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

As I mentioned before, the answers to these kinds of questions may lead to some surprising answers that challenge our idea of evangelism and “doing” church.  Do not be surprised if it leads you to skate parks, parades, community parties and celebrations, taverns, sports competitions, school events, post offices, stores, etc.  In these places, people gather who will never come to a church event.  Maybe it’s time we go be among them – incarnate the gospel message and see what the Holy Spirit does to provide opportunities to share and show God’s kingdom.

Just as Wesley, Booth and Taylor needed to “re-format” their understanding of church, it may be time for some within the American church to do so now.  This will not be for everybody, though it should concern everybody.  There are many others in Church history than just these three mentioned above that began to see church, their faith community and its purposes differently.  They, and others like them, “re-formatted” church and started – intentionally or unintentionally – new faith communities that were, in their beginnings anyway, primarily missional communities.  They journeyed to those closest to hell and farthest from heaven to seek and save the lost.  That journey needs to be taken again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 20, 2012

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Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Training Shepherds

Shepherd in Făgăraş Mountains, Romania

Shepherd and Sheep/Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Some of the best stories are the ones that no one ever hears. We all like success stories.  Everyone likes to vicariously live through the success of others.  Some may even aspire to be like those they hear about in the stories.  This is no less true for small churches and their leadership.

Leaders of small churches can get caught up into the success stories of larger sister congregations and think their means of successful ministry lies along a similar path. That may sometimes be the case.  However, I predict that more often it is not.

At the same time, because the successful stories of small congregations and their leaders have no platform to be told, there are countless success stories of successful small churches to go largely unshared. Theirs are the stories that no one ever hears.  No one writes a book about it.  Church leadership magazines do not feature them.  Their leadership is not taken on the church growth speaking circuit.  They are not highlighted at any national conferences.

Imagine a church that is reaching ten percent of its surrounding community. Some small churches are doing just that while many large churches in larger contexts cannot even come close to that kind of impact.  Or, imagine a church that plays a prominent role in virtually every young person’s life in its local community school.  Once again, this is a feat difficult to replicate in a larger urban or metroplex setting.

While this church may not ever run more than one hundred or a hundred and twenty-five, its budget barely reach six figures, and its lack of resources obvious in comparison with larger churches, it nevertheless has a big story to tell. It has a big imprint in its community.  The congregation is well known and well accepted by everyone.  Similarly, its leadership is welcomed and invited by the majority of the community.

A friend of mine from Alaska, who has pastored small churches his entire life, mentioned to me recently, “I have pastored in smaller towns my entire life and find great opportunities to have influence and access.  It is easier to use media, easier to find partners like Rotary, VFW, community leaders and community colleges. Longevity in the smaller community is another great asset. Longevity builds trust in a community” (James D. Duncan).  His encouragement to small churches and their pastors is not to be intimidated by larger churches and their leaders but “make your size work for you.”

The possibility to network and have influence in smaller communities is one of the big stories that go untold about smaller churches. Community, school, and social club leaders are often sitting in their congregations or available for a casual meeting at the local diner.  Instead of focusing upon what the church does not have, the most important thing a congregation can do is focus upon what it does have and use those strengths and relationships.

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When I pastored a small Assembly of God church in Quilcene, Washington, I made it a point of networking with the other pastors. This is sometimes difficult.  However, I have found more often than not that pastors of small communities are easier to get together than ones in larger towns and cities.  In this particular Pacific Northwest logging community, the pastors of the four local area churches gathered once or twice a month for coffee and prayer at the local store.

Out of these meetings there began a collaboration of ministries. No one congregation dominated the community.  However, we realized that when we put all of our congregations together that we represented almost one-third of the population of our community.  That was a pretty startling statistic for this area!  We realized that together the kingdom of God could have a big imprint upon this rural community.  That is precisely what happened for the next few years until pastoral changes began to take place.

One example was that the Presbyterian church in town, which was an aging congregation, had plenty of money but not many kids or young people. Our church, on the other hand, had plenty of kids and young people but lacked sufficient funds and workers.  So, for several years, we combined our resources to provide a week long Summer Vacation Bible School program that was outstanding.  We all impacted the kids and families of our community.  Plus, the Presbyterian church picked up a few younger families that had stopped attending quite some time before.  There was new excitement for what was being offered for their children.

A small church that seeks to use its strengths for God’s glory can end up having a big story to tell in its community. This is particularly true if it is willing to reach outside its own walls and find ways to network and collaborate with others.  For small communities, that lack of activities for kids and young people can be one such opportunity.  However, the opportunities may also be in a retirement center, food bank, or local school.

There is no replacing the hard work of prayer and meeting people. Prayer attunes the heart and soul to the Spirit of God’s direction.  However, just as important, is positioning one’s self in places to meet others so that one is available for “God appointments” and “God moments.”  In these times, opportunities arise or needs where the church may serve are made known.  Without being there, opportunities are wasted.  Without prayer, opportunities can be blindly missed.

There are many churches and their leaders who understand this simple strategy for success. It simply asks the questions, “What is God doing in our community?” and  “Where is God at work in our community?”  These two questions assume God is already at work by his Holy Spirit.  As his followers, we are the ones that must become attuned to it.  This is much different than “trying something” and praying that God will bless it or continuing to do the same old thing and praying that God will bless it like he did in the past.

This approach also asks the questions, “Where does God want to make a point of contact in our community?” and “Who does God want us to serve to reflect the light of his glory?”  These two questions are very missional.  They assume that the believers have already dedicated themselves “to go where you want me to go dear Lord.”  It also assumes that perhaps the work God really wants to accomplish is not inside the walls of the church building but out in the lives of those his Holy Spirit is already drawing to himself.

If any church – large, medium or small – is going to write a big story that glorifies God, it will require courage to sometimes try something not done before. It may require letting go of things always done before.  Often, when we say “Yes” to something, it also means we must say “No” to something else.  But when we say “No” to what is not of first priority, we get to say “Yes” to what is most important.  And, in this case, it just may have eternal consequences.

This may lead to some surprising results.

  • The church that invests itself in the families and kids of its community to put on a free Kids Festival just before school starts each year, which has given it influence in the lives of those families and kids the rest of the year.
  • The church that supports the local art festival, which has opened up relationships with community leaders.
  • The church that has committed to minister to a local nursing home by offering worship services and regular visitation followed-up with cards to family contacts of the nursing home patients, which has impressed not only the staff and leaders of the nursing home but immensely blessed the families and patients.
  • The church that has taken on the responsibility to make sure the local food bank is staffed and stuffed with goods, which has given it contacts with people it would never otherwise ever see or hear.
  • The church that offers after-school tutoring three days a week to help kids who need the extra time to succeed in school.
  • The church who has no kids in Sunday School and is made up of mostly older adults with no children at home but who offer free childcare two Fridays a month for a “Parents Night Out” and then use the time to reach and teach the children who come about Jesus.

Just as there is no “cookie cutter” ministry success model, neither is there a “cookie cutter” story template that can be laid from one community to the next. Each congregation’s profile is different.  Every community context is different.  However, God is at work everywhere and in every place.  It is up to each small church and its leadership to find the story God wants to tell that will bring him glory.  It may be a story of his glory that you have not heard before but the wonder of it all is that each of us can be a part of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Every congregation and its leadership, if it is missionally minded at all, struggles with being relevant in its community context. It will ask the questions:  Do we communicate our message in a way so that people can hear it?  Do our ministries and programs really meet the real needs of real people?  Is our message getting outside our own “four walls” and to people who are spiritually far from God?  In the end, what these and other questions like these want to know is simply, “Are we making a difference in our community and the lives of those in our congregation?

In my last article about small churches called “Small Church Big Impact“, I tried to emphasize the need for the small church to discover its own God-given “spiritual DNA”: spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Focusing upon what it does have instead of what it does not have empowers the small church to fulfill its unique mission in God’s plan.  As I explain in my article, resisting the temptation to think that it must follow some other “successful” church model is key to this.

Most of the conferences and books available to churches and their leadership are geared toward large churches (350+ adherents).  Most of the popular stuff is produced by mega-churches (2,000+ adherents).  This leaves out the vast majority of churches, which are small and in rural contexts, though many are also in small cities and even suburban and rural settings.  The point is that the available resources for helping a small congregation and its leadership to succeed are almost non-existent.  The message to these churches is that they are not “successful” nor are they relevant.  However, nothing could be further from the truth!

My personal experience among small Assembly of God congregations, some of whom were “Home Missions” churches, is that they not only can be relevant but they can be very successful in their ministry context. They may not win the “fast growing church” award or the “largest church” award but they are uniquely position to have a very large ministry in a small community context.  If we were to measure impact by percentages, these small community churches would be much more successful and relevant than their mega-church metropolitan counterparts.

How is this possible? In my previous article, “Small Church Big Impact“, I outlined some critical thinking that makes this possible.  Let me now take this to a practical level and suggest some ways and give some examples of how this is possible.  Here are three simple steps:

  • First, clearly define what you are called to accomplish in and for God’s Kingdom.
  • Second, create a simple strategy of how you are going to accomplish it.
  • Third, do not let anything get in the way of these two things.

Sounds simple, right?  It is not. Anyone who has done church ministry for very long will tell you that there are a lot of things that will come along to distract a congregation and its leadership.  A new opportunity arises and, instead of asking how it fits with the first two steps above, there is immediate pressure to “do something.”  A new individual or family arrives and their ideas and past experiences push the limits of those two steps.  Someone comes back from a church conference or visiting another church and wants to push the church to do it just like them.

This is not to say that how a church thinks of itself and the strategies it uses will not change. They will change.  Hopefully, however, that change will take place intentionally with the previous things discussed in mind: spiritual gifts, talents, resources and sense of mission to accomplish.

When I arrived in West Richland, Washington, to begin pastoring a small congregation there, I found a congregation that was pushing the limits of what it could and was exhausted. Like many other small churches, they were attempting to keep up with the larger churches in the community.  Some of that was driven by a fear that if they did not attempt to do so they would lose people to those larger churches and their ministries.  Regardless, a number of leaders, especially in the children’s and youth ministries, were facing burnout.

Change even in a small congregation does not happen over night. It took some time to get everyone to on the same page as to what was the simple mission of the church.  We prayed and looked to Scripture and finally settled upon two simple things: make strong disciples and attempt to reach people far from God.  Next, we asked ourselves what were the simplest and most strategic ways to accomplish these two things.  Things changed for the better.

As a congregation we decided that attempting to do all of the children’s and youth programs were not possible without the required number of people. Many of our congregants were involved in two, three and four ministries.  That pace was not sustainable nor was it healthy.  So, we simplified.

We wanted to make sure we discipled our children and young adults.  Since most of our congregation was made up of young families, we gathered together to strategize. Soon, we settled upon the idea of moving all of our Christian Education or Discipleship to Wednesday evenings.  Wednesday evenings were to become our strategic discipleship nights for everyone.

The tough change was eliminating Sunday School. We lost one family because they could not see going to a church that did not have a traditional Sunday School (even though they did not regular attend it).  However, this made Sunday mornings much easier for our young families.  Sunday mornings were dedicated to worship experiences either together as a whole congregation or specifically for children.  We created children’s church worship teams that rotated monthly to provide worship experiences for our children.  Some of our youth were involved in helping to lead.

This whole process took about 18 months. We first decided that it was something we were going to experiment with to see how it worked.  We figured that we could always go back to what we were doing if it did not work.  However, it ended up being a huge success for those involved in these ministries as well as for our families.  We found that what we were able to provide was much more effective and meaningful.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When it came to reaching people far from God (the second part of our mission), we decided that the best way for us to do this as a congregation, outside of everyone’s personal relationships and circles of influence, was for our whole church to find a way to be “vocal and visible” in the community. So, we targeted a community event in which we wanted to be present.  We could not do every community event, but we could do one event really well.  We chose “West Richland Days” and provided a booth that served BBQ pork or pork sausage sandwiches.  Also, our youth set up a booth that served Italian Sodas.

We looked at these more than just fundraisers. They were a way for us to interact with people in our community.  People in our community could see us as a congregation and have a chance to know us.  We also prayed for the Lord to give us “God moments” in which we could share with someone who was feeling far from God.  We got to interact with community leaders and organizers.  We all saw friends from our community as they wandered by our booths.  Most importantly, we were together outside of our church walls and being present in our community as a witness to Christ.

Every community has these kinds of opportunities. A congregation of any size can figure out ways to be “vocal and visible” within its own community so that people know that it is there to glory God and offer hope to people.  The toughest sell as a church leader is often the people within one’s own congregation.  Inevitably, someone wants to know the cost, or whether it was worth the cost and time, or whether the effort actually resulted in someone coming to church.  However, spiritual life is more like sowing for a future harvest than a drive-up ATM machine.

If church leaders and their congregations want immediate “pay-backs” then they are going to be sorely disappointed. All of our spiritual lives are a journey.  We do not know the spiritual journey that someone else may be on.  All we can do is be in a place where we are available with the presence of God and God’s message.  Some people’s stories take years to develop.  Every congregation must determine to be in the race for the long haul.  In the business of changing lives and transforming communities, there is no race to the winner’s circle.  It’s a marathon.

There are churches and their leaders that are doing this very well.

  • The church in Walhalla, ND, that serves the snowmobilers every year during the annual snowmobile run.
  • The church in Quilcene, WA, that provides after school homework help for students a few days a week.
  • The church near Lake of the Woods, MN, that serves anglers during the annual ice fishing tournament.
  • The church in Pasco, WA, that supplements the local food bank with donated items of their own to families in need.
  • The church in Richland, WA, that holds a week-long annual “Raise Your Tents” awareness for the homeless event that includes staying in tents in January, donating food to the food bank, and donating monies raise to the local homeless shelter.

There are many, many more examples that I am not even aware of myself. Whatever their chosen mission, these churches have chosen to keep it simple, targeted and sustainable.  This has also made these churches, despite size, very relevant to their communities.  It has given them a voice in their communities and earned them the right to be heard.  Nothing could be more relevant than that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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