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Posts Tagged ‘Rural Churches’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This may lead to some surprising results.

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©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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