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Posts Tagged ‘Revivals’

Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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A man was driving along a rural road, one day, when he saw a three-legged chicken.  He was amused enough to drive along side it for a while.  As he was driving, he noticed the chicken was running 30 mph.  “Pretty fast chicken,” he thought, “I wonder just how fast it can run.”  So, he sped up and the chicken did, too!  They were, now, moving along the road at 45 mph!

The man in the car sped up, again.  To his surprise, the chicken was still running ahead of him at 60 mph!  Suddenly, the chicken turned off the road and ran down a long driveway, leading to a farmhouse.  The man followed the chicken to the house and saw a man in the yard and dozens of three-legged chickens.

The man in the car called out to the farmer, “How did you get all these three-legged chickens?”  The farmer replied, “I breed ’em.  Ya’ see, it’s me, my wife, and my son living here, and we all like to eat the chicken leg. Since a chicken only has two legs, I started breeding this three-legged variety so we could all beat our favorite piece.”

“That’s amazing!” said the driver.  “How do they taste?”  “Don’t rightly know,” said the farmer, “we can’t catch ’em.”

Aaah…unintended consequences. We deal with them all the time.  They become the ‘Ishmaels’ of many of our troubles; things we set in motion, that seemed like a good idea at the time, end up turning around and biting us.  Then, we live with the regret.  Even practices and habits that shape our lives can morph into an inescapable prison.  As a result, we tend to want to reside within a rigid box of familiarity, afraid to leave its comfort.

Inadvertently, we also have unintended consequences within church.  For instance, our creation of church buildings has ended up limiting us and binding us to bricks and mortar.  Michael Frost in his book, “The Shaping of Things to Come,” points out several problems with what he calls our “sacred spaces.”  Unwittingly, what we created has turned around and created and shaped us.

For example, by viewing the church building as a “sacred space,” we teach one another two untruths:  First, we say to everyone that there is “sacred” space and there is “secular” space.  By this we communicate that God inhabits and speaks in one place but not “that other” arena.  This dichotomy has not always existed in Christian practice and belief.  The question is: How has this unintended consequence hindered and prevented ministry in and to our world?

The second untruth we teach one another, then, is that God can only work within our “sacred” space (specifically called “the sanctuary”) and that He cannot or does not work in the “secular” spaces (workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, schools, stores, parks, etc).  We treat our sacred space with special holiness (“Don’t run in church!”) and disregard the behavior that happens outside its walls.

We communicate to everyone that we go to church to “meet God” with the unintended implication being that He can’t be met anywhere else.  Therefore, if anyone out in the world wants to “meet God,” he or she must come to our sacred space – church – to do it!  The church and its leaders must ask themselves: How has this unintended consequence hampered the advancement of the Kingdom and the fulfillment of the Great Commission?

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ ministry happened in what we today would identify as the “secular world”? He was accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” because of who He chose to associate with during His ministry.  The religious people got mad at Him for spending more time with “the sinners and tax collectors” than with them in their “sacred spaces” – the synagogues and the temple.  The majority of his ministry took place outside the officially recognized “sacred spaces” of religious leaders.  Instead, he preached and did the work of God’s Kingdom along lake shores, hill tops, rivers, roads, courtyards and homes.  His meetings tended to be held in work places, around dinners and parties as well as some impromptu wide open spaces found in nature.

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002

Balsam Flower Closeup, April 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

John Wesley and the early Methodists were examples of this attitude toward the world. They were early practicers of the outdoor revival meetings.  John Wesley was castigated and stoned for preaching outside the walls of the church.  John Wesley said, “Preach abroad…It is the cooping yourselves up in rooms that has damped the work of God, which never was and never will be carried out to any purpose without going out into the highways and hedges and compelling them to come in.”  This fervor for preaching the gospel in the market places of society launched the Methodist church into becoming a cultural and world change agent in the early 19th century.  Early on, they viewed the whole world as God’s sanctuary.

Likewise, Jesus saw the whole world as sacred – belonging to God and a place to meet God.  Everywhere was a sacred place where “the glory of God could be revealed.”  His teachings and miracles were performed along fishing wharfs, beaches, hilltops, fields, dusty roads, riverbanks, market places, city wells, graveyards, streets, and any number of other places.  Here is the challenge to the church today:  Are these still the places where God’s people, doing the work and ministry of Jesus, are found today?  Or, have we abandoned these places and the people in them for our carefully built and maintained sanctuaries?

An example of the Jesus-type of ministry found in the Gospels can be seen in the early Pentecostal movement of the late 19th/early 20th century. In its inception, the movement was not particularly enamored with buildings.  Ministries mostly resided in the storefronts and market places of communities.  These revivalist and reformers practiced teaching and praying for miracles on the streets, even loudly (some would say obnoxiously) praising and worshipping God publicly.  Remember, the Azusa Street Revival started in a home and moved to an abandoned warehouse (which, incidentally, had been a Methodist Church building before it became a warehouse).  The movement spread like wildfire through “cottage prayer meetings” and tent revival meetings.

The greatest growth of the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal churches occurred during the years that the movement was evangelistic, missionary, and church planting focused.  For the most part, in recent decades it has moved beyond such foundational and formational efforts to ministry maintenance centered on keeping its sacred spaces clean and open.

Effective ministry has been replaced with maintaining bureaucratic status quo for the sake of organizational stability.  Like other revivalist and reformation movements before it, its leaders soon wanted buildings “like all the other religions.”  Soon, these fast growing Pentecostal denominations moved “across the tracks” to the better part of town and became accepted, for the most part, among all the other Evangelical denominations.

Like the farmer with the three-legged chicken, I’m left wondering if the church is not simply chasing what we have created.  I believe one of the greatest challenges of the American church is to leave our “sacred spaces” and invade the streets and market places of our communities with God’s presence in God’s people.  Across the board denominationally – as the church-universal – I sense that there is a need to return to our first love and first calling – focused on evangelism, missions and church planting.

The whole church needs to regain the ability to see the whole world as the place where God wants to work and move and have His being.  He has called us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.  Too long we have focused upon not being “of” the world and have forgotten how to effectively be “in” the world.  How can we become “vocal and visible” doing the work of Christ in the world again?  I suspect the answer to that question was Jesus’ intended consequence for building his Kingdom on earth upon the lives of his people.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle Skyline from Safeco Field, July 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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