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Posts Tagged ‘Romans’

Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I was in a gathering of community pastors praying for our nation, national leaders, military personnel and community. The emotions among all of us were raw and ranged from bewilderment to anger over the act of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on that terrible September day.  The overall consensus was that the United States needed to pursue the masterminds behind this attack on our soil.  In short, everyone favored attacking/invading Afghanistan.  I found myself in the minority.

It was not that I stood against military action to seek out the perpetrators of this heinous act. Rather, I strongly believed then that only military action, and military action gone awry in particular, would do the U.S. more harm than good.  I had read history books that detailed the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and nations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  So far, the success rate was abysmal.

One can go back to the ancient Babylonian, Mede and Persian empires to see how quickly control of governing power in that part of the world can change hands. Alexander the Great lost a great portion of his army and ultimately died in that part of the world.  The Romans and their military machine never really fully conquered or controlled it.  Violent tribalism raged for centuries.

In more modern times, the Ottoman Empire succeeded only when it ruled these areas with an iron fist. Then, the British Empire was more than willing to give up control over these areas after World War I and the close of the colonial period.  It had paid a heavy price economically and militarily to just maintain a presence in that part of the world.  Its attempt to bring “civilization” and Western style government to these areas almost bankrupt it.  The nation building that followed World War I and World War II did little to bring about actual, viable governments.  The results of these efforts are what we are still dealing with today.

I may be wrong. Time will only tell; more so because the military work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with unstable Iran in the middle) is not yet done.  The most wanted of the 9/11 conspirators are still at large.  It looks to be possible that America’s longest war will linger on another few years at least.  So far, the success of building a strong government in these areas is spotty at best.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

At the same time, I am delighted to discover that others are taking a different approach to addressing the struggles and needs of this part of the world. One such person is Greg Mortenson.  After reading his book, “Three Cups of Tea,” I started right into his most recent book (2009), “Stones Into Schools.”  It continues the tale of a mountaineer’s failed ascent of K-2, becoming lost in the wilderness and recovering in a very small, remote Pakistani village.  Greg is that mountaineer and “Three Cups of Tea” details his adventures that end in the building of a school for that village, along with the promise to build many more in the remotest areas of this part of the world.

This is the story continued in “Stones Into Schools.” However, the setting switches from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  Through contacts made with the people from the most remote parts of Northeast Afghanistan, called the Wakhan Corridor, Greg Mortenson and his team of unlikely heroes do the impossible.  They build schools for liberal arts education – math, science, reading and writing – in the most remote and poor of parts Afghanistan; the places where its own government will not go.  These schools, while open to boys and girls, specifically target the education of girls.  This is something that challenges the radicals of Islamic extremism – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By including village elders, tribal leaders and local workers, Greg Mortenson has guaranteed that these schools are locally owned and controlled. The finances provided for materials and some of the labor come with the caveat that the education will focus on reading, writing and math and that at least half the students will be girls.  Not only is the idea of a school enthusiastically embraced by the villagers, but so is the promise of educating their girls!  They are so committed to both of these that they are willing to defy the Taliban who threaten the teachers, students and their school buildings.  Not only are they doing this, but they are succeeding at it.

The success of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan has captured the attention of many world leaders. The book “Three Cups of Tea” became required reading for all military leaders involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approaches that Greg has taken to build relationships with village elders and allowing them to be decision-makers is now the approach the military personnel is taking toward building solid local governments in the communities in which they are placed.

The military leaders who have read “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” is a list of “Who’s Who”: General David Petraeus, Admiral Eric Olson, General Stanley McChrystal, Major General Mastin Robeson, General James Conway, Colonel Stephen Davis, Major Jason Nicholson, Major General John Macdonald, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti to name just a few.  Likewise, these books are well-known among some of our governmental leaders: Rep. Mary Bono, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Senator Max Baucus, Senator Olympia Snow, Senator Mark Udall, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator John Kerry, among many others.

Whatever the future may hold, I believe that anyone who has strong opinions or cares about what happens in this part of the world owes it to themselves to read these two books. They are delightful reading.  Besides a captivating and moving story, they give you an insight into a culture that is terribly misunderstood.  More importantly, I believe these stories can show us another way of bringing peace and stability to this war-torn part of the world.  Instead of creating more enemies through military action and violence against innocence, this is a model for a way to build healthy relationships with people who are far removed from where and how we live in the U.S.  It will take “Three Cups of Tea” to turn “Stones Into Schools.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Celebrating Freedom

A pastor went for a walk and came upon a group of about a dozen young boys between 10 and 12 years of age.  The group surrounded a dog.  Concerned that the boys were tormenting the dog, he went over and asked, “What are you doing with the dog?”  One of the boys replied, “This dog is just an old stray.  We all want him, but only one of us can take him home.  So, we’ve decided that whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog.”

Of course, the Reverend was taken aback.  “You boys shouldn’t be having a contest telling lies!” he exclaimed.  He then launched into a ten-minute sermon against lying ending with, “Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie!”  Well, there was dead silence for about a minute.  Then, just as the pastor was beginning to think he’d gotten through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

Sin is a part of all of us – even the best of us.  No one is immune to its effects.  We cannot escape its history in our past or its threat to our futures.  However, God set in motion a plan to set prisoners to sin free from its entanglements and death sentence.  This is a plan for everyone, no matter the depth or shallowness of sin in which one is caught.  The plan was completed through Christ’s death on the cross and victory over death and the grave in his resurrection.

Jesus came to set the prisoner to sin’s addictions and bondages free.  Freedom starts when we begin to acknowledge the truth and live by it:  “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32, NIV).  The truth he calls us to hold to is God’s plan to rescue humankind from their sin condition through his death and resurrection.  This truth sets us free not only from sin but also from its effects – guilt, condemnation, shame, disgrace, blame, and remorse among many others.

Pink Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Pink Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There is only one answer for freedom from sin’s hold upon a human being and that is in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Our world tries to sell us on self-improvement, self-actualization, self-control, and self-realization.  We have been too often duped into thinking that the world and its guru’s have the answer.  But listen to what the psalmist tries to tell us:  “Don’t put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing about life, of salvation life.  Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them.  Instead, get help from the God of Jacob, put your hope in GOD and know real blessing!”  (Psalm 146, The Message)

Everything we need to be victorious in this life is provided for us in what Jesus did on the cross and in His resurrection.  There is nothing more that we need, and nothing we need to do, but to freely accept it and apply it to our lives by following the way of Jesus everyday.  That is why Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be [completely] free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).

The true Christian lifestyle celebrates the freedom we have in Christ from our sinful past and sin’s threat to our future.  We can live everyday free from sin’s domination and damnation.  How?  Paul said, “Count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus . . . offer yourselves to God . . . as instruments of righteousness” (Ro. 6:11, 13, NIV).  “Now that you have been set free from sin [by Christ’s death upon the cross and resurrection from the grave] and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:22, 23, NIV).

Whatever moral failure is in your past, the devil will keep throwing it in your face.  However, God saw everything you did.  He wants you to know that he loves you in spite of your actions and that he will forgive you if you will only ask him.  There is no sin too great that disqualifies you from this offer.  There is no sin too small that is disqualified from the need of his forgiving and cleansing act through Jesus Christ.

A confessed sin is a forgiven sin.  You can be free from the awful bondage of repeating your past, fearing your future or even death!  Live everyday to celebrate the freedom that Christ bought for you with his own life.  Live a life that worships God and praises him for freedom from sin’s captivity.  Be free.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It does not take a Ph.D. in history to know that human existence has been fraught with warfare. I doubt that there ever has existed a time of peace on earth.  Somewhere war between two groups of people or more was and is always waged.  It began as long ago as Cain and Abel and continues right down to our present day.  We continue to see it in the tribal or ethnic warfares of Africa, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka.

One would think that our human evolutionary process would have taken us past this need to annihilate one another after some thousands of years of our living together on earth.  But, alas, no.  Neither physical nor social evolution has brought us to an any brighter end than when we began.  Indeed, at times in our common history it appears that we have de-evolved back into cannibals; take the wars and genocides of the 20 century, for example.  These all took place at the height of western rationalism and scientific achievements.

The tendency to devolve into unthinking brutes is no more apparent than in the present state of American politics.  I am constantly amused by the “Letters to the Editor” in my own local paper, The Tri-City Herald.  Each week, social and political conservatives and liberals take turns lambasting one another.  The vitriol is bitter.  The hate is evident.  Each side uses over-generalizations, unfair caricatures, and name calling to publicly flay their opponents.  Of course, it is couched in language that is supposed to make us think it is all really intelligent and thoughtful when it is apparent that it is not.

This is nothing new to American politics.  It goes way back; before even the founding of our great nation.  Politics and religion in America have always been the cause of great divides between its citizens.  More than once in our history it has turned extremely nasty.  For example, one only needs recall the early colonial embattlement between Christian sects.  Crossing a colonial border with the wrong religious credentials could get a person thrown in stocks or worse.  Our early protestant heritage created an extremely hostile environment to immigrant Catholics, especially Irish Catholics in the mid to late 19th century.  It was still a major issue for Protestant Americans when John F. Kennedy (an Irish Catholic) ran for president.

Our greatest historical black eye came to us in our own Civil War.  This was essentially an issue over politics; the role the federal government was or was not going to play in state governments.  As we know, the pro-federalist north won the fight over the anti(con)-federalist south.  Federal government has continued to grow stronger and stronger since that time.

Those in power have always used the seat of power to promote their political and social agendas.  So we have in our history a crazy-quilt pattern of abuses by those in authority.  One only needs to note the persecution of those who tried to bring about changes: the anti-slavery activists who were vilified and persecuted; the women suffragettes who were frequently jailed; the unionists and socialist who were imprisoned and killed; the communists who were jailed and castigated in society; the civil rights activists who were beaten, jailed, and killed.  And the list goes on and on.

What we seem to have entered into today in American society, however, is a new level of hostility.  The “middle ground” that has always helped America keep her head seems to have shrunk to a non-entity or have been muffled by the screams of the extremist hostiles on both both sides of the debate.  Not only is the dialogue that does take place extremely uncivil but both sides are simply shutting down dialogue all together and shutting one another out.

As such, we frighteningly have taken on the characteristics of the tribal warfare that has plagued other parts of the world.  How far are we from the hostilities between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or the Luos and Kikuyus in Kenya?  How different are we from the Serbs, Croats, and Albanians of the Balkan nations?  What makes us unique from the Catholic/Protestant or Unionist/Nonunionist war that has plagued Ireland?  How are these examples any different than what we presently see displayed in our own society between the Republican “tribe” and Democratic “tribe” or the conservative “tribes” and the liberal “tribes”?

Sure, we can boast that the difference is we do not now have the physical violence they have experienced (though we have admittedly had it in our past).  However, I’m left wondering how long that will last as long as both sides of the debate continue to demonize one another and paint each other as “the enemy”.  When the United State of America descended into the Civil War of  the 19th century, it took many by surprise that it had come down to an act of war.  Soon, friends and even family members were divided and shooting one another on open battle fields on American soil.

The Capital Building, Washington D.C.

The Capital Building, Washington D.C. ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Given the fact that humans seems to have not evolved at all and that we still have a propensity to kill one another over skin color, religion, ethnic differences, political view points, and social statuses, we should tread very carefully into this 21st century.  We are not so far away from our tribal cannibalistic ancestors.  We will war with one another just because we are different from one another.

We also need to keep in mind that this great nation of ours is still an experiment in Democracy.  We have not proven that we have succeeded yet.  The story is still unfolding.  The end is still to be written.  Are we truly a nation that is still the “great melting pot” of the world where people of different ethnicities, religious and political backgrounds can come together and co-exist peacefully and in harmony?  Or, will we descend into a bunch of hostile tribes who huddle together and plan how to annihilate all competitors for food and control?

The way out of our present dilemma and stalemate is to return civility and a generous spirit back into the public discussion of what is best of the whole nation.  This will take a concerted effort especially by the more moderating voices in the public arena.  Places where incivility and unkindness are displayed in any form must not be tolerated by the crowd at large.  We do not need laws and government interference in the public forums.  What we need is self-censureship and self-control by all those involved.

What is also needed is for those who call themselves Christians to act like the One they claim to follow. Identity in the Kingdom of God trumps any social or political or ethnic identity.  If in the New Testament “there is now, therefore, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave or free, neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:28, see also Romans 10:12), then that truth is needed now as much as it was then.  The unity we are called to in Christ is lived out in the family of God as adopted sons and daughters from every walk of life on earth.  Who are we to determine who gets to be a part of the family of God and who does not?

Our recent historical lesson should be the African nation of Rwanda where supposedly 80% of its population claimed to be Christian.  Yet, that religious identity and calling made no difference in how one looked upon or treated persons from the other tribe.  Ethnic identity trumped Christian faith and calling.  Millions died and suffered because the Church abandoned its true identity as brothers and sisters in Christ apart from tribe.

This is just the opposite of what Christ calls us to.  It is the same for Christian Americans who come from different political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds.  Let us not stand around singing “We Are One in the Spirit” with only those who look and think like us.  Let us sing that in the midst of our great diversity as a the Bride of Christ, the family of God, and a Democratic nation.

Finally, two childhood sayings come to mind when I listen to the public debacle we have come to call town meetings or community forums.  The first is “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  This is not to say disagreement should not be voiced.  By all means, it should be.  However, whatever is said needs to remain focused on the main point and not degenerate into accusations and name calling.  The second is this, “It is not what you say, but it is how you say it that is important.”

The tone that we bring to the public discussion will in some part determine the response we get from the other side of the aisle.  It only helps our cause, not hinders it, when we treat each other and contrary view points with respect and kindness.  Perhaps these should be posted at our next meetings before we break out the machetes and machine guns.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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