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Posts Tagged ‘Preaching’

Human Saints

I am continually amazed at how human characters in the Bible are portrayed. One would think that if you were going to write a “holy book” espousing the virtues of a god that all your main characters in that book would be stellar examples of faith and righteousness.  What we have in the Bible, instead, is a parade of characters who are fallible, unstable, unreliable and often very poor examples for others to follow.

From Sunday School to the preacher’s pulpit, however, we usually ‘cherry pick’ the positive stories of Scripture. We like to highlight all the successes in the “good” characters of the Bible.  We then juxtapose them against the failures of the evil characters.  I have come to think that this not only does a disservice to the Bible and its message but also to its followers.  The stories of all the individuals are a mixed bag of failures and successes.  All of them are complex human beings placed in complicated life situations.  In some situations, they handle themselves well; in others, not so much.

Growing up on Sunday School lessons, David in the Old Testament was always portrayed as a hero and someone to emulate. However, a careful examination of his life as an adult reveals that even though he is called “a man after God’s heart,” he is a deeply flawed individual who on more than one occasion failed God, his family and his Kingdom.  The legacy left by him through his children and grandchildren is dismal.  By today’s standards he would be an absentee father and a failure as a parent.

In the New Testament, many of the disciples of Christ failed to get his message or understand his mission. Peter’s leadership in the early church was marked by duplicity and was called out by Paul.  Paul was known for his anger and early on alienated a young protégé and close friend in ministry.  Most of the first churches were marked with strife and doctrinal errors; so much so that all the New Testament letters contain some kind of correction if not out right rebuke.

Few Biblical characters get away with a spotless image aside from Jesus, the son of God. And perhaps that is just the point.  No one is perfect:  not any one.  Only one came to live on earth who could do so perfectly before God and man.  That person was Jesus the Messiah.

So, rather than holding up paragons of perfection, the wise author of the Bible through divinely inspiring human writers went ahead and told stories that reveal the best of human qualities along side the worst. This should encourage us all, I think.  It reveals that God knows human nature and is not afraid of dealing with its messiness.  It gives us hope that if God can work in and through the lives of such imperfect humans then perhaps he can do so in our lives too.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Instead of examining the Bible for perfect characters to model, perhaps we should be looking for imperfect human models who inspire us to believe that God is able to work in the world and in us despite our worst qualities. I think this approach is more healthy.  It gives a much greater image of God grace, mercy and goodness.  It also magnifies the work and power of God in us.  Instead of our message being about us and how we can make God look good and help him, our message simply becomes about how great God is despite us.  God gets all the glory because we cannot add anything to him or his story.

God must be pretty secure in himself to allow the written testament of his acts throughout history to include some of the biggest failures named as his followers. Most any other book of heroes would edit out those kinds of stories.  Yet, here record for us all to read and study is a raw history of human successes and failure despite God’s best efforts.  It shows us that he did design the crown of his creation to be mere puppets or robots but agents with a free will to make their own choices.  The fact that God continues to work amidst all this mess reveals the depth of love and care for his creation.  It means that, in the end, we are all saints in his eyes – very human saints.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is an old church hymn that begins its chorus with the words, “I love to tell the story.” Sharing the good news of God’s work through his son, Jesus the Messiah, is precisely just that – telling the story.  It is his story and he is still writing it in and through the lives of people delivered from spiritual bondage and lostness.  It is a simple story.  And, when an individual’s life becomes changed by that story, it becomes a very personal story.

Unfortunately, like so many other things we do surrounding God, we have made this story really complicated. We cannot simply tell it as it is given to us.  Now we must qualify it and explain it to suit our own understanding of God.  The simple story of God’s message of rescuing humankind through the work of his son, Jesus, gets really complicated with layers of theology and prescriptions for spirituality.  I’m certain that if Jesus were to sit in many of our churches today he would be dumbfounded and caused to ask, “Are you talking about me?”  It is so hard to tell sometimes.

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently, a gentleman approached me about doing the “preaching” portion of a service in a retirement center. He wanted to assure me that everything would be taken care – music, songs, prayer and even communion.  All I had to do was show up and deliver a sermon.  “After all,” he qualified, “I’m not a pastor or clergy personI don’t mind doing the song service or communion, but I can’t preach.  I’m not qualified since I’m not a reverend.”

I was speechless. Standing before me was an elderly gentleman who had a passion for serving the retirement community around us.  His manner and speech told me he was well educated and very articulate.  He was a seasoned person of the church, probably had been going for 30 or 40 years.  I thought it odd that he had no problem serving the Lord’s Supper as a non-clergy person since in many denominations that is a service only a clergy person can perform.  So, obviously his spiritual background did not come from such a heritage.  However, not able to “preach;” that is, share the gospel, tell the good news that is in Christ Jesus, teach the way of the Lord?

Since when did telling the story of God require theological credentials? I am often reminded of the apostles who were unlearned men – uneducated.  Yet, the people of their time could tell that they had been with Jesus.  They became faithful witnesses of Jesus and his ways.  Telling the story was a very simple endeavor.  It focused upon the life, ministry, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Messiah.  It was supported with Old Testament examples of prophetic fulfillment.

Have we made our Gospel too complicated when the average person in our church does not feel qualified to share it with others? I am not addressing shyness or an ability for public speaking here.  I am only talking about telling the story of Jesus.  What have we done with the story of God’s message in his son when those who sit in our chairs and pews for years cannot tell others – or do not feel qualified to tell others?  What have we subtly communicated to them about telling this story when we have only professional clergy share it week after week?

I gently prodded the man standing before me.Why do you think it takes a pastor to preach?” I asked.  “You sound like an intelligent and articulate person.  You seem to know your Bible and it sounds to me like you have quite a number of years of experience in your spiritual journey.  Why don’t you share the gospel with them?”

The elderly gentleman blinked at me like I was speaking Old Testament Hebrew.  “Well, because I don’t have the credentials.  I would hate to say something wrong and teach something in error.”

I attempted to counter his sense of insecurity with a suggestion.  “Well, it is true that there are some parts of the Bible that are harder to understand than others.  And it is true that there are some theological issues that can boggle the sharpest minds.  However, the story of Jesus about the things he did as an example for us and the things he taught us are pretty straight forward.  What if you just concentrated on those things?  That’s what the Gospel is really all about any way, isn’t it?”

True,” he answered.  “I just feel inadequate…like someone more qualified should be preaching.”

I’ve preached for 25 years and still always feel inadequate, even with a Bible School and Seminary education,” I offered as an encouragement, which is very true about me.  I’ve never had a sermon or Bible lesson where I felt completely adequate for the job or occasion.  “Anyway, it is not the vessel that gets the glory.  It is what is poured out of the vessel that everyone remembers.  So, just focus on telling the story of Jesus and see what God will do by his Holy Spirit in the lives of the listeners.

At that, my elderly friend seemed relieved.  “I think I can do that,” he offered.

I can offer you some ideas and moral support, but I think you are up to the task.  You probably have for a long time.  You just need someone to push you on to the stage.”  I smiled and offered a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  I could see that he was mulling this new idea over.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would do just fine or actually quite well.

So, now I am waiting to hear how he did his first few times. I am sure that in telling the story his life was changed in the telling of it and his listeners lives were changed in hearing it.  That is, after all, the most basic reason why believers and seekers all gather week after week.  We love to tell and hear the story of God’s great love in a Savior who died for us and rose again.  From this recent experience of mine, it seems that each of us needs more work on simply telling the story.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 3 and Conclusion

Part 3 and Conclusion –

Workable models and methods that transform lives and so transform communities are available all over the world. This is where the American church might be wise to humbly learn from her brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.  There are places in the world where the church is growing rapidly.  More important than just growth, however, is the transforming power the message of Jesus and the way of Jesus is having upon whole sub-culture groups.

This will require the American churches and their leadership to admit that:

  1. For the most part, what is presently being done is not working and is not sustainable;
  2. The American church no longer has all the answers to address the world’s problem;
  3. The American churched that birthed so much of the 19th and 20th century missions movements is now in need of missions help itself; and,
  4. Change must take place before the changes of our American culture make the American church wholly irrelevant.

There will be no one method or model that will work in every ministry context in America. The diversity of our cities and even our rural areas require flexibility and creativity.  Nevertheless, any method or model must answer a few simple questions:

  • Does this actually lead to obedience to the way of Jesus that will transform lives?
  • Is the reproducible from one believer to another, one church to another?
  • Does this encourage indigenous leadership, that is, does it raise up leadership from within the church instead of relying on leadership to come from outside of it?
  • Does this engage the larger ministry context of the community, town, or city and seek to bring transformation through Kingdom living and influence?  Or, in other words, what Kingdom benefit is brought to the surrounding culture?
  • Is it self-sustaining?  Or, will it burden the church with constantly “feeding the dragon” to keep it going?
  • Is it simple enough that children and young people will be able to communicate it and follow-through with it?

Much of the ministries in American churches today demand professional clergy leadership. On the other hand, in mission movements where the church is experience not simply growth but multiplication, there is not that luxury!  And yet, the church continues to thrive and grow.  Statistically, American church growth experts tell us that, overall, the higher the level of clergy education the less effective the church becomes (which will have to be a topic for another time).  I am not arguing for Scriptural ignorance, but simply pointing out that perhaps the way we educate and disciple is the wrong model and not working today.

Even in America, fast growing church that are effective in creating genuine followers of Jesus have learned to adapt and adopt many of the same methods used by missionaries and their agencies overseas.

First, they quickly embed new believers into the Body of Christ and a small group of believers to learn spiritual life through prayer, Scripture, worship and witness.

Second, they expect believers to disciple or mentor new believers and new believers to share their new story with unbelievers in their circle of influence.

Then, they look for radical obedience to the words and ways and Jesus and target those individuals to start new churches or lead small groups of believers.

Notice that all education and spiritual transformation occurs within the context of relationships, ministry and obedient devotion to Jesus.

Beach Pebbles, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Is this process messy?  It sure is!  But then, I’m not too certain that our current American models are any less messy.  We have just learned to cover it up, not deal with it, and sterilize the after-effects.  It is all about keeping up appearances for our professional image.

The New Testament church was very messy.  Amidst the rapidly growing young church, there were all kinds of problems.  (Read the New Testament letters to the churches!)  The apostle Paul did not seem to care if he made them public.  He asserted that dealing with disobedience publicly demanded proper reverence for the Lord, his church and those the Lord placed in authority over it.  At the same time, public affirmation and reconciliation, according to Paul’s methods, also testified to the restorative power of the message of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

By depending upon professional clergy for every aspect of church movement and growth, what we have we taught church people?

  • Church people have learned that they cannot teach others unless they are properly educated and trained.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot lead others in worship unless they have the right credentials.
  • Church people have learned that only professional clergy really know how to pray.
  • Church people have learned that there only purpose is to support the pastor and cheer him or her on in her Kingdom efforts.
  • Church people have learned that ministry is what happens on the church platform, not what happens in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods or other gathering places.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot really understand the Bible unless they have gone to Bible School or Seminary.

I do not know any pastor in America that would say that these are the things that he set out to teach his parishioners.  It seems to occur by default simply because of the model for ministry we utilize and the methods we use.  I know for certain, in fact, that many, if not most, American pastors beat their heads against the wall because they see the effects of ministry presently and are frustrated by it.  Almost every church leadership person that I have come across feels trapped by the structures presently at work.

Perhaps what are needed in order to teach and train church people differently are new churches.  For myself, as I talk to pastors, missionaries and other leaders, I perceive that a church renewal or reformation is on the horizon.  I pray that the leadership presently in place in our American churches and denominations embrace it.  I pray that we will be brave enough to welcome the change into a new wineskin.  Hopefully, the result will be that we will give church people something different to learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 2

Continued…

Another key to life transformation involves teaching for obedience not knowledge.  This last point may be the most important of all.  In our Western mindset and focus upon education, we have assumed: Education = Life Change.  In some cases this is true.  In many cases it is not.  This is probably no more clear than in the evidence we see in the quality of the followers of Jesus coming from our churches today.

Even though we have for the last 40 years stressed Christian Education in our local churches, our congregants have not grown more knowledgeable and obedient to God’s Word.  The evidence points to the fact that they have grown less so.  A number of recent surveys by the Barna Research Group point this out very clearly.  Our continued focus upon knowledge of doctrine and Scriptural truths apart from obedience nullifies our efforts to make followers of Jesus.

We must come to grip with the fact that teaching people what is commanded is not the same as teaching obedience to what is commanded.  We can confirm doctrinal knowledge, why can’t we confirm doctrinal obedience?  We should be as concerned with orthopraxy (correct practice of the faith) as we are with orthodoxy (correct beliefs about the faith).  This begins with our church leadership.

Somewhere between Bible School or Seminary and pastoral ministry and leadership the ball has been dropped in spiritual formation.  We have tended to advance people to leadership based upon their knowledge quotient, not their obedience quotient.  More time and effort is put into knowing the doctrines of the church denomination than whether the person’s spiritual and social life is obediently aligned with God’s Word.

In fact, it is not uncommon today to even make allowances for deviations in denominational beliefs and practices to gain church leaders!  As long as someone has taken the required courses to produce the sufficient theological education for ministry, it is assumed one is qualified.  How many times has that been proven wrong?

It is no wonder, then, that the measurement of spirituality in our churches is knowledge not obedience.  In today’s church model, the pulpit ministry is teaching oriented because right belief and thinking is considered most important.  Likewise, confirmation and doctrinal classes for church membership are important so that a person can knowingly agree with what the church believes and practices.  However, rarely do we measure and look at the level of a person’s obedience.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We are too individualistic of a church and society to do that today.  Are we willing to be held to that kind of accountability?  Most American church parishioners as well as their leadership shudder as such a notion.  However, the apostle Paul threatened to make a personal visit to the Corinthian church and deal with a couple of immoral individuals if they did not practice church discipline themselves (1 Cor. 5).  In fact, he commands the Corinthian believers to expel the two and to disassociate with anyone who says they are a Christian but practices immorality.  According to the apostle Paul, judging those outside the church is not the business of the church, but judging those inside is its business.  Obedience was paramount!

Does that sound pretty harsh?  Unfortunately, in our individualistic church culture, the mantra has become, “You can’t judge me!”  This is usually followed up by a really bad misquoting of Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged!”  In fact, the church and its leadership are commanded to judge and deal with sin within the Body of Christ.  Unfortunately, church discipline is something rarely practiced today.  On the other hand, Jesus takes it so seriously that he warned the Christians at Thyatira that he would come and judge them personally if they did not deal with the immorality among them (Rev. 2:20 – 25).  Could it be that Jesus is coming to judge some churches today?

What we have managed to teach church people is that it does not matter what you do as long as you have right beliefs.  Church people have learned that personal comfort and convenience are more important in measuring their satisfaction with church than how much their lives are changed.

  • What church people learn is that it is OK to worship on Sunday at church but act like a jerk at home and work the rest of the week.
  • What they learn is that it does not matter what you do as long as you believe in Jesus and some of the stuff in the Bible.
  • What church people learn is that, as long as one has been baptized and confirmed into the church, sexual promiscuity, pornography, drunkenness and recreational drug use is permissible.
  • What church people learn is that as long as one is sorry for their sins, receive the Eucharist or communion and responds to an altar call, then returning to the same sin again has no real consequences.
  • What church people learn is that going it alone in their spiritual journey is the norm rather than going with others and being under spiritual authority.

What Jesus commanded from his followers, and so his church, is polar opposite.  The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18 – 20) does not require us to “go and teach them to know all I have said” but rather to “go and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”  Knowledge does not seem to be the key ingredient to creating genuine followers of Jesus, obedience does.  Can knowledge lead to obedience?  Sure.  Does it?  No.  Yet, it seems that most churches rely on this one strategy to make disciples of the Lord.

True affection for the Lord is not measured by what we know or even by what we feel but our obedience:  “If you love me you will obey what I command…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. [Then] My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15, 23, 24).  It is pretty clear that in Jesus’ eyes obedience is the proof of love.

Jesus did not seem to mind drawing a line in the sand when it came to someone’s obedience.  He seemed pretty content to let individuals choose whether they were going to follow him or not.  He was not consumed with trying to be the rabbi with the most followers or the most popular spiritual teacher or the prophet with the biggest crowds.  He was willing to allow people to walk away because obedience to the Heavenly Father was more important than knowledge of the Heavenly Father.

Church people learn just the oppositewhat is important is knowledge of God not actual obedience to God.  However, the words of the apostle John challenge us and our way of “doing business as usual” when he wrote, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 1:3) and “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (1 John 3:20).  According to John, knowledge is not the test of whether an individual really knows God and has a relationship with him.  Obedience is the test.

It might be time to change our discipleship methods and models.  What worked in the past will not solve the problems we face today or will face in the future.  It is up to churches and their leadership to make the changes and transitions that will shape and form the lives of those that are in their spiritual care.  This might mean a radical shift in what and how we teach church people.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 1

There is a cute story about a little girls sitting with her mother in church.  The service had dragged on for what seemed like an interminable amount of time to the little one with a short attention span.  Once of twice she sighed heavily, enough for the people around her to hear.  Embarrassed, her mother leaned over and tried to quietly shush her.  Finally, anxious to go home so she could play, in the middle of the pastor’s sermon that little girl turned toward her mommy and none too quietly asked, “If we give him our money now, can we go home?”

I am sure that more than one parishioner has felt trapped by a Sunday worship service or a long sermon.  I have been on both sides of the pulpit.  I know the pressure on the preacher to develop and deliver the best sermon of his life every Sunday to gain the approval of his listeners – or at least keep most of them awake.  I have also sat in the pew or chair and wondered if the preacher would not have been better off to just have dismissed everyone before the sermon; everyone would probably have been better off.

In today’s technology driven culture, now the preacher is not just required to be a great story teller, professional theologian, expert exegete of the biblical languages but also good at computer technology and its use in communication.  Meanwhile, the average congregant becomes more and more of a spectator in a multi-media driven event.  After it is all over, the question most often asked is, “Did it entertain and keep my attention?”

The real question of life transformation is rarely asked.  The occasional altar call, for those churches that still practice that regularly, may offer some emotional response to a message.  Often such tactics merely offer emotional release without bringing true life change.  The crisis at the altar does not seem to equate to lasting change at home or at work.  The question for every church and its leadership is simply this: “How do we measure life change and transformation?”

Perhaps we need to change our approach and measure our “successes” differently.  Most church leaders get real excited when the church is full.  This is what I have come to call “Measuring Butts, Bucks and Buildings.”  A few may express joy over responses to an altar call.  However, rarely is the question asked, “What happened while they were here?”

As such, we in the American church have trained church people that only two things are really required of them. First is that the most important thing for them to do is simply show up on Sunday morning, hopefully give in the offering and listen to music and a sermon.  We want them so that we can count them.  The second thing is that it is important for them to learn how church is done (or our particular model of it anyway) and what it (or our particular stream of the Christian faith) teaches.  We want them to indoctrinate them.

The larger question that begs to be answered is, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya’ ?”  I think for the vast majority of churches and their congregants in America that the honest answer would be, “It ain’t.”  It is not working.  Even though we have more and more churches; more and more well-educated clergy; and, more and more people who call themselves Christians, our American culture is becoming more and more un-Christian.

As a church leader myself, one of the things that drove me to distraction was parishioners who could sit through years of sermons and live unchanged lives.  There were those that appeared at every altar call and were the most exuberant in their worship and yet had horribly dysfunctional relationships and addictions.  It did not seem to matter how much I as the “spiritual leader” prayed and prepared for each Sunday, the fact remained that a large part of the congregation remained unchanged from week to week.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It has taken being out of ministry for the last year-and-a-half to gain a little more objectivity and a different perspective.  Talking with friends still in active pastoral ministry and reading and writing and processing has brought me to some different conclusions than I would have drawn two years ago.  And, while I attend a great church with a great pastoral staff and wonderful weekly worship, I look at how we are training followers of Jesus and have to ask a couple of questions.

First, does our method need to change?  Do we need a new model for making disciples?  I am more and more believing that the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!”  While the gospel message and the truths and doctrines will not change, how we go about shaping the lives of those in the care of the average church needs to be rethought.  Ministry context will determine the answer and solution to this but there are two things that I believe will transform lives and better form genuine followers of Jesus.

  1. Whatever method or model we use must require participation not spectatorship in ministry and service.  This will mean things will get messy because everyone involved will be in “training on the job” and may not always get it right or do it to “professional” standards.  Imagine a church service where the laity is heavily involved.  Most of us cringe at that because we want the convenience and comfort of being served up a professional sound and image every Sunday.  There are many ways to be involved: organizing the service, testimonies, Scripture readings, prayers, as well as input and help on sermon preparation.  I am sure there are other ways besides just reading the announcements.
  2. Whatever method or model we use must involve whole group and small group interaction.  This will mean breaking generational barriers that have been created in our churches by specialized ministries. Cross-generational ministry and relationships must be freed-up and allowed to shape the church.   Striving to put people into groups that relate together and work together strengthens not weakens the church.  It requires living out the gospel in the context of relationships within the Body of Christ.  Presently, the model of coming, sitting, looking at the back of the head in front of you, smiling and leaving is not working.

Second, do our goals and what we measure need to change?  Do we need to strive for different outcomes when we gather together?  This is probably more important than what is above.  Instead of measuring butts, bucks and buildings, the goal is to measure the lives of those changed.  One key to life transformation is engagement in a Kingdom lifestyle that produces followers and leaders.  Start asking these questions after every service and event:

  1. What disengaged person(s) or spiritually uninterested person(s) came to our church event to check out what we are about?
  2. What person(s) not a part of our church fellowship last year, last month, last week committed to join it?
  3. What unchurched person(s) who were not engaged with following Jesus are now actively following Jesus?
  4. What person(s) intermittently involved and/or attending committed to being more actively engaged in ministry to others?
  5. What person(s) actively attending but unengaged in ministry committed to an active part in ministry?
  6. What person(s) regularly involved in ministry has stepped up to take a leadership role in it?
  7. What person(s) involved in a leadership role in ministry has trained and released another leader into that ministry?
  8. What person(s) actively involved in our church’s ministry and leadership has decided to launch into a ministry in the larger Kingdom as a missionary or other full-time service?

These questions push a congregation and its leadership to measure something other than attendance and offerings.  These questions get to the real question of what lives are being changed and shaped.  They measure how effective a church is reaching those unreached and unchurched around it.  They also measure how well a church is raising up other disciples and leaders for ministry.

These questions also dismiss the inordinate attention given today in the U.S. to church size.  A church of any size and in any context can be successful with what the Lord puts in its area of influence and responsibility.  Some rural small churches are much more effective at these measurements than most large suburban churches because their size necessitates the involvement of everyone!  This is also true of small urban churches.

Statistics tell us that small and medium sized churches are much more effective at raising up genuine disciples than large ones because of that singular fact.  It turns out that what church people learn in a small or medium sized church is more life-changing that what they will learn in a large church.  So, what do church people learn by what we are modeling and teaching them?  Not what we think or hope it turns out.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Adams, Washington State, October 2001

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Out of Reach, Out of Touch

I have heard the argument too many times from well meaning American Christians.  It concerns the mission of the Church.  They believe that churches that focus on missions endeavors overseas are out of balance.  They argue, instead, that we “have enough to do in our own backyard here in America to keep us busy.”  The idea is that we should reach the least, last, and lost around us first before we concentrate on foreign lands and their peoples.  However, I believe they are not only wrong biblically and theologically, but also in practice.

I remember a powerful illustration that displayed what all too often takes place in our missions efforts when we focus primarily on the needs in America.  The speaker had several small bags of M&M candies.  There were several hundred of us in the crowd.  He asked the crowd, “How many would like to have some M&M’s?”  Of course, almost everyone raised their hands.  There were a few non-takers, but the majority wanted to accept the free treat.

So, the speaker opened a bag of M&M’s as he began talking about missions and gave the bag to the first person on the right side in the front row.  He said, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Each person that wanted some of the candy took a few and passed the bag along.  After a few minutes, the speaker asked if everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s.  “No!” came the cry from the majority of the crowd.  It turns out that the bad did not even make it passed the first row.

So, the speaker apologized.  “Here, let me get another bag going.” Once again, he started at the first person on the right side of the front row.  He gave the same instructions, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Once again, the small bag of goodies began its journey down the front row.  This time a few people did not take any and the bag got further, but it barely started down the second row when it ran out.  I was sitting tw-thirds towards the back of the room and thought to myself, “At this rate, I will never get any M&M’s.”

A few moments later, the speaker once again asked the crowd, “So, how is it going?  Everyone get some M&M’s?” No!’ went up the shout, a little more intense this time.  “I am so sorry.  I know I brought enough M&M’s.  Here, let me give out some more.”  However, once again, he started with the first person on the right side of the front row.  A few people in front row turned around and looked at us in the back and snickered.  They were clearly enjoying this – and the M&M’s!  And, so, the small bag of M&M’s began its journey.  It made it a little farther this time, but was nowhere even close to reaching me, let alone the people behind me and in the balcony.

The speaker, after awhile, checked once again with the crowd, “Now has everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s?” This time the response was much more energized with frustration, “NO!” replied well over 90% of the crowd.  This is when the missions speaker turned the table upon us.  “That,” he said, “is how the rest of the world feels about the opportunity of receiving the Good News about Jesus.”  He went on to share with us how those who are the nearest to the gospel receive the majority of our missionaries efforts while those who are farthest from the gospel receive little or now effort or help from us.

I was reminded of this experience while attending a missions class entitled, “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”  While more than 20 years removed from my earlier experience of not getting M&M’s, the statistics of our missionary efforts still remain daunting.  In other words, the people in the front, closest to the speaker, still get all the M&M’s!  There remain many people still unserved with the message of God’s Kingdom.

Non-Christians who live in an area of the world where there is a vibrant, growing, self-reproducing Church receive the vast majority of our efforts. This blows out of the water the argument that we are not doing enough for those nearest to us!  In other words, statistics tell us that 97% of them personally know a Christian.  This does not include the fact that they have access to television, bibles, bookstores, churches, and other sources to the Christian message.  At any time, they can pick up the phone, visit a local church, talk to a Christian friend, listen to Christian TV or radio and receive answers to many of their questions and be introduced to Christ and his message.

Despite this, we still send 91% of our missionary efforts to these lost people living within easy reach and access to the gospel message. They are the front row people who choose to, or choose not to, take a free gift offered to them over and over again.  Of the vast majority of non-Christians in the world, they only represent 7% of that population.  The other 93% of non-Christians in the world do not have it so fortunate.

For example, of all the non-Christians in the world, Buddhist make up 8% of the population.  At best, 16% of them personally know a Christian.  Thus, 84% do not have access to a personal witness.  The vast majority of those do not have any access at all – witnessing churches, radio, TV, printed materials.  Yet, less than 1% of our missionary efforts go to reach them with the Good News of God’s Kingdom, while 91% go to people who have easy access to the gospel already.  Does that sound fair?

Another example is unreached Muslims.  They make up 28% of the non-Christian population in the world; almost 1 out of three!  About 15% of them personally know a Christian; 85% then do not have access to a personal witness.  For most of the people in this population, if they woke up tomorrow with spiritual questions about the God of the bible or Jesus Christ, they would have nowhere to turn – no radio, TV, or printed materials, let alone a church or pastor to turn to for help.  And still, less than 1% of our estimated 455,000 missionaries we send out go to these people.  Over one-quarter of the non-Christian population in the world has no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To go back to my M&M demonstration, over one-third of the room will never get an M&M just between Buddhists and Muslims!

Of course, we need to consider, also, the Hindus.  They make up 25% of the 13,000 unreached people groups!  They are 22% of the world’s non-Christian population.  Perhaps 13% of them personally know a Christian.  Yet, only about 1% of our missionary efforts go to try and reach them with the gospel.  This means that, so far, less than 3% of our missionary efforts are going to reach 58% of the world’s non-Christian population while 91% of our missionary efforts continue to be doled out to 7% of the non-Christian population among the already-reached who have access to Gospel.  Anybody else feel like the “M&M’s” are not getting distributed fairly?  Who is missing out here?

I have not included the statistics of the people among the Chinese Folk Religions (8% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive less than 1% of our missionary efforts) or the Tribal Religions (5% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts) or the Secular/Non-religious Countries (19% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts).  Missiologists tell us that of the world’s 7 billion population approximately 4.4 billion are non-Christians.  This means the Church has a lot of work yet to do!  They also tell us that almost half – 1.9 billion – of those non-Christians have absolutely no access to the gospel by way of personal witness, church, pastor, or other means.  That is 1/3 of the world’s population.  Is that acceptable?

Yet, to the unreached one-third of the world’s population we send only about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of all of our Christian workers. Only about two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of Christian evangelistic efforts are expended on their behalf.  Taking my M&M experience to heart, this means that one-third of the people in that room would have never even known about M&M’s or that there was an opportunity to receive some for free.  Not only that, they would not even be close to someone who could tell them about what was going on.  Not only that, they would remain in the dark about the existence of M&M’s and never know about them at all.  Thus, one-third of the people in that room would die without ever even knowing about M&M’s.

Those of us who love M&M’s and have easy access to them at just about any store we go to in our neighborhood cannot imagine never knowing about them or experiencing their wonderful taste.  This is a poor comparison to someone’s spiritually lost condition.  However, it makes the point.  This is the spiritual condition of one-third of the non-Christians in the world – approximately 1.9 billion people today.  They do not know about Jesus and, without someone going to them, will never know about him.  Meanwhile, we still pour over 90% of our efforts into those who are nearest to Christians and the gospel message.  When we will begin to lift our eyes and focus on those “in the back of room” – those farthest removed from the message and the hope given to us in Christ Jesus?  When will we bring light to those in the spiritually darkest places of our world?  How long must they wait?

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Targeting those farthest from the gospel also means targeting those farthest from us. It will take someone to leave the comforts of their own culture, family and friends, and language and live among people of a different culture, family, and language.  Not everyone, I realize, is called to make that journey.  Nevertheless, everyone can pick up the cause of the last, least, and lost farthest from the Kingdom of God:

  • Missionary Prayer Teams can travel the globe through intercession to pray for the 13,000 unreached people groups.  There are many places to get their ethnic names, learn about their cultures, and barriers to the gospel through the local library or internet.  I, personally, like the use www.joshuaproject.net for such data.
  • Adopting missionaries and Christian workers who are already working among some of the unreached people groups to pray for them, encourage them via mail and email, and support them and their efforts.  There are many missions organizations that do this, but one of my personal favorites to keep abreast of is the Wycliffe Bible Translation work.
  • Focusing church missions efforts upon unreached people groups without abandoning those missions and ministries you already support.
  • Adopt an unreached people group as an intercessory prayer group, church, small group, family, or individual.  Pray for them regularly that God would raise up laborers for to go to them.  Use the library and internet to learn how to better pray for them.
  • Go on a short-term missions trip that reaches an unreached people group.  Or, support someone else’s efforts to go on a short-term missions trip to an unreached people group.

When I traveled to Andhra Pradesh province of India two years ago, I learned that there were over 1,000 villages in the area we were going into that have never had the gospel preached in them.  There is no church in these villages or even close to some of them.  Some of these villages have never seen a Caucasian person, let alone heard the Good News that Jesus came to set them free from the fear they have of their gods and the uncertainty of being caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

As I looked across the landscape, I could not even imagine such a place in America.  And, yet, there before us was a vast region of India that was untouched by the Kingdom of God.  Soon, I returned to an America that is rich in Christian heritage and spiritual opportunity; preaching in a community that has four pages of churches in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages.  Our local bible book store was busy.  The Christian television and radio stations hum with music, teaching, and preaching.  Churches and their leaders struggle with keeping up with other churches down the street.  And, yet, half a world away, there would be people who wake up tomorrow and not even know such a thing as a bible or a church existed.  They would not be aware that someone named Jesus came to set them free.  This got me to thinking: Are they so much as out of reach or unreachable as we, the Church, is out of touch with the need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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