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Posts Tagged ‘Scripture’

One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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What is it within the human psyche that pulls at us to compare ourselves to others? When did the human race develop the idea that any one of us is capable of summarily judging another person’s existential journey by examining their state of being at any one given moment along life’s time line?  After all, does any one of us know our own beginning from the end, let alone any other’s?

Yet, almost every day there is not one individual of the human race who does not at some point put their self in the judge’s seat to declare judgment for or against someone else or a whole class of someones. I know I am guilty of this ridiculous attempt at playing celestial critic.  I have often admitted to others over the past several years that “I can’t pick’ em.”  I have, in the past, attempted to evaluate the potential of individuals and thereby also prognosticate their outcome.  I have failed more often times than not.

Individuals whom I considered the most brilliant, talented, gifted and spiritual, and so warranted my own time and energies, have turned out to be some of my biggest disappointments to date. They are far from where I thought they would be in terms of accomplishment and far from God.  On the other hand, individuals whom I considered to be questionable, or even not worth too much effort on my part because I foresaw only failure in their future, have turned out to be some of the biggest surprises.  To this date, some of them are successful and give great glory to God.

And the jury of time is still out. Who knows but that the roles may be reversed again in the future before the end comes to each of their stories.  One thing I do know: I don’t know.  I do not know how their stories will turn out.  All I have is this snap-shot moment in time of where they are on their journey and how they are doing.  The same holds true for my own journey.

This is possibly the spiritual angst the Apostle Paul had in mind when he warned himself, “I give blows to my body, and keep it under control, for fear that, after having given the good news to others, I myself might not have God’s approval” (1 Cor. (9:27, BBE).  Even as spiritual leader the Apostle Paul knew the challenges of life’s journey.  He told the believers in Philippi, “It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me” (Phil. 3:12, GW).

When I was a teenager, I worked for a time in the apple orchards around Oroville, Washington and Tonasket, Washington. The orchard job was an early summer one.  I was hired along with others to go through the apple trees and thin the crops.  The goal was to evenly distribute the fruit along the branches.  At the same time, diseased or badly misshapen fruit was weeded out.  This resulted in bigger and more beautiful fruit for the market in the fall harvest.

To be really good, one had to make quick decision and act quickly. The job did not allow for one to take the time to sit back and study a tree and its individual branches or individual apples.  Each apple or group of apples could not be meticulously weighed, examined and judged.  Decisions were made in the moment and on-the-fly.  Sometimes a bad apple or two was missed.  At other times, too many good ones were cast aside to rot on the ground.

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Inspecting the fruit from a human life is not as easy. It cannot be done as cavalier and casually.  There are far greater consequences.  As much as we like to spout the modern proverb, “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” we still regularly attempt it.  I know that I missed some really good stories because I did so.  I should have more closely followed the wisdom given to the prophet Isaiah: “Do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk!”  (58:9).

The problem in today’s religious environment is that many of Jesus’ followers like to think of themselves as spiritual fruit inspectors. Some, I presume, think they may have been given the spiritual gift or authority of fruit inspection.  However, this seems to be a position that Jesus has reserved solely for himself.  Dare we attempt to take his seat or position in the heavenly courtroom?

After telling the crowd gathered around him The Parable of the Sower and the Soils, Jesus launched into another story: The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24 – 30).  It seems that a farmer took the time to sow good wheat seed in his fields looking forward to a good harvest.  However, his enemy, who obviously hated the farmer’s success, took a night to sow weeds into the farmer’s field.  It soon became apparent to the farmer and his workers that weeds were growing in his wheat fields.  What do you propose they do?

The farmhands reacted like so many of us today – myself included:Pull them out by their roots!  Get rid of them! Burn them!”  However, the wise farmer saw the danger in this approach.  The good wheat would be uprooted too.  Then the whole crop would be damaged.  Rather than risking the good wheat, in the farmer’s wisdom, he told his farmhands to “Leave the weeds alone until harvest time.  Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them.  But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn” (v. 30).

Apparently, while many of us at any one moment might be able to identify good or bad fruit (“A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17), the Master reserves only for himself the duty of proclaiming judgment – good or bad. And this he leaves to accomplish at the end of all things.  So much for instant gratification in our justice system.

So, I have given up fruit inspection in the lives of others. I figure I am doing well if I can examine the products of my own life.  Like the Apostle Paul, I will be doing well if I can keep my own life trimmed and pruned so that what it produces will be good.  I know I am carrying a few bad apples.  I just may need someone’s help to reach them to improve my potential harvest.  If I can do that, it will be enough fruit inspection for me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Canada, Spring 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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The movie Forrest Gump is one of my favorites. Yes, I know one must suspend belief to hold on to the story line.  And, yes, I know that there is a certain sappy sentimentality in it.  Nonetheless, I like it for the interaction of its main characters and the certain philosophical message summarized at the end.

Now, I’m not an extremely emotional person. However, I can never get through the scene of Forrest‘s monologue at Jenny’s grave with a dry eye.  At the same time, I find the underlying existential question Forrest is wrestling with very engaging because I think we all struggle with it.  Forrest, standing over Jenny’s grave, tells Jenny…

I don’t know if mama was right or if it’s Lieutenant Dan.
I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.
But I think maybe it’s both.
Maybe both is happening at the same time.

The man with the IQ of 75 probably has it right. Life is most certainly like a box of chocolates, like his mother told him: “You never know what you’re going to get.”  Some of life is made up of an apparent series of accidents.  Thus, as is often said, “You have to play the hand your are dealt.”  Like a feather blowing in the wind, as the ending screen shot of Forrest Gump shows us, life can take us in unexpected and unplanned directions.  Forrest’s life seemed to be one accident after another.

This worldview is comforting to those who find themselves unable to control the direction into which the circumstances of life has thrown them. Tossed into a raging river, one does well just to keep afloat and the head above water.  In truth, we cannot always control life’s apparent unfeeling and meaningless events cascading our way, but we can only control how we respond and deal with them.  Thus, we retain some sense of autonomy and determinism and, thereby, meaning and purpose.  I have a feeling that the great majority of people in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, operate their lives with this in view.

Struggling to squeeze some sort of meaning out of life seems to be a part of the human condition. There is a longing to know, “Why am I here?” and “What does this all mean?”  At one point, Jenny asks Forrest, “Do you ever dream, Forrest, about who you’re gonna be?”  Forrest responds, “Who I’m gonna be?”  Jenny, “Yeah.” To which Forrest replies, “Aren’t – – aren’t I going to be me?”  Struggling to be someone other than himself completely escapes Forrest.

On another level, Forrest Gump’s life may seem to be divinely ordained. His destiny has taken him in a different direction than Jenny’s or Lieutenant Dan’s.  Jenny tells Forrest as she is about to leave him again, on a bus heading back to Berkley, California, this time, that they have two different lives meant to come out differently.  Lieutenant Dan tells Forrest essentially the same thing, believing that he missed his by not becoming a martyr for his country on the battlefield in Vietnam.  Does Forrest’s life tell the tale of a destiny fulfilled?  This is what Forrest is trying to figure out while talking to Jenny over her grave.

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

World religions attempt to answer the question of life’s meaning amidst apparent chaos. In fact, it seems that humankind has spent much of its existence from the beginning attempting to find meaning in the chaos of existence.  Religious answers run the gamut.  Some suggest meaning can only be found by escaping chaos through mindless detachment to the physical realm of chaos.  A dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realm results in a metaphysical battle between the two.  The physical in any form is bad.  The non-physical must be pursued to escape the physical.

Other world religions suggest that chaos is a result of humankind insulting gods or interfering with the unseen spiritual realm. The only correction is to make some type of appeasement, usually a sacrifice or penance of some sort.  Chaos results in life because humankind is constantly offending spiritual beings.  The work is to somehow keep them happy.  Other religious strains portray these spiritual beings as capricious and outside human influence or control.  Thus, one can only hope to offer some type of offering that will please the immaterial beings so that they will leave the material beings alone.  But there is no guarantee.

These two existential attitudes reflect the “flight or fight” approaches that humankind takes towards most threatening things. It should not surprise us, then, to find them evident in its worldviews or world religions.  We all seek to escape our troubles or wrestle some kind of meaning out of them.

Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. “Mark Twain”) remarked that existential meaning may also be determined by class. He noted that the Christians had one god for the rich and another god for the poor.  Taken another way, this may also mean that there was, and perhaps still is, one kind of theology for the rich and another kind of theology for the poor.

When one is born into privilege or arises to privilege, it is easy to assume that it must be because of some sort of “manifest destiny.” However, it is hard to come to that same conclusion when one is born underprivileged or descends into want and poverty.  It beggars the prosperity gospel message of American Evangelicalism to think that God would destine some to affluence and some to poverty even though it fits seemingly well with American Calvinism.

For example, Forrest Gump knew his mental condition effected his life. Was it a part of his destiny or just an accident of nature?  Visiting his mom just before her death, he asks, “What’s my destiny, Mama?”  Mrs. Gump responds lovingly, “You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.”  In other words, it is not something that is handed to you.  One must figure it out as he or she moves through life.

When one is born into a low class, it is easier to accept that life is simply what you make it than it is to accept that it is your destiny. No one faces life’s tormenting trials and failures and says to their self, “I was born for this!”  No.  Rather, one accepts it as one of the capricious circumstances of life.

Even Job, in his unfailing faith in God, when struck with heart rending and life altering tragedies, declared to his embittered wife, “Should we accept only the good things that come to us as from the hand of God and not the bad things that come to us also?”  Or, to put it as Mrs. Gump did, “You have to do the best with what God gave you.”  This view lends itself towards a self-determinism that supports an Arminian approach to one’s destiny.  We may not be able to control what comes our way in life, but we can control our own choices and outcome.  At least, we hope so.

I have often argued that the tired and worn out Calvin versus Arminian debate is attempting to make too simple what is really very complicated. I do not think proper theology fits neatly into all of our categories and systems.  So narrowly defining whether our meaning and purpose in life is divinely determined or self-determined attempts to remove life’s questions and mysteries when, instead, we should probably leave them alone.  As Forrest answered, “I think maybe it’s both.  Maybe both is happening at the same time.”  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg Jr. (2010)

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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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Real estate in church ministries is important. It is all about location, location, location.  Unfortunately, when many churches and their leaders think of missions they think of ministry to those on the “other side of the railroad tracks.”  The ministry of mission to the least, last and lost means going out of a suburban context into a poverty stricken urban or rural setting.  What is not often fully realized is that context determines reach.

I served as a church leader in a church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that seemed to be positioned to reach and serve people in needy circumstances. Much of the congregation was made up of people from broken homes, recovering addicts, the mentally and socially challenged, as well as families living at or just above poverty.  In effect, I assumed that the church was reaching those that Jesus commanded his followers to reach: the least, last and lost.

At one board meeting, I presented to the church board the opportunity to reach an apartment complex that had people with disabilities, mental handicaps, and financial needs and no opportunity to connect with a church community.  I shared a story of Jesus’ compassion for the “least of these” and asked the board to brainstorm ways in which we could reach and serve them.  It was not to go as I was hoping.

After a few awkward moments of silence and seat shuffling, one of the men on the board spoke up and declared a bit angrily, “Pastor, we have enough of those kinds of people here already!  We need some stable people; people who are successful, who make money and can contribute something to the church!  We don’t need any more of those kind of people.

Now I felt uneasy. You could sense the anxiety level in the room go up.  Perhaps this man had spoken aloud what all the others were merely thinking.  I had only recently assumed leadership of the church.  I let his words settle into the room before I responded.

After a moment, I asked, “When you say, ‘We don’t need any more of those kind of people,’ you mean the ones Jesus said we are supposed to be reaching – the least, last and lost?  Isn’t that precisely the mission that has been given to us?”

Everyone was staring at the table. I had the feeling that I was alone on this either because some agreed with him or because they had no response to offer.  I then recognized that, in this particular saint’s mind anyway, mission and ministry was something you did “for those over there” when you had money in the budget for it.  I tried to lighten the moment with a bit of humor.

I recognize our need for resources and money to fulfill our mission.  However, to adapt Jesus’ words, ‘A poor budget you will always have with you’.  Our budget will never meet our vision and dreams for what we want to do in the kingdom.  At the same time, we cannot wait for it to before we launch out and do anything.  Action must precede our faith in the Lord to provide.

The objector looked up at me. I disagree.  I think it is irresponsible to forge ahead with anything that we do not have the monies for and foolish to even discuss them until it is there in our budget.

And that requires getting the “right kind of people” in church first,” I offered.

Yes,” he replied.  “Why can’t we focus upon business people and people who are successful?  They will provide the resources and leadership for all of these things you want to do.”

Personally, I think that is backwards from what Jesus said the focus of the kingdom is supposed to be for the church,” I explained.  “Also, it has nothing to do with the ‘things I want to do’ but the opportunities I believe the Lord is putting before us.  If anyone sees or hears of others, I am open and would be happy to entertain them. I think that we need to consider that these are all possible divine appointments that the Lord puts in our path.  The question is, ‘What are we going to do with it?'”

I could tell by the board members posture that he was shut down and not going to offer anymore dialogue. My goal was not to shut him down but to generate dialogue.  Somehow, that didn’t look like it was going to happen.  He mind seemed made up at this point.  So, I turned to the other board members and church staff present.

What do the rest of you think?” I asked.

There were a few mumbles and nods but nothing of substance offered by way of defense or objection to either position. I quickly determined we were not going to go anywhere with this subject at this moment and decided to move on with the meeting.

Well, I would like us to prayerfully and strategically consider this opportunity.  Meanwhile, let’s move on with our agenda…

Chinese Dragon, Chinatown, Seattle, Washington

Chinese Dragon, Chinatown, Seattle, Washington ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The meeting moved on but did so awkwardly after that moment. It was not the first time that I had encountered this objection to ministry opportunities and it wouldn’t be the last.  I am not sure I still have a clear answer or way forward through such times.  What happens most often, as it happened on this occasion, the individual leaves the board or leadership position and, soon afterward, the church.

Part of the problem to overcome is the thinking that mission is something we do “over there”. It is not something welcomed or embraced in the church’s present context.  Thus, it is much easier to send missionaries, mission teams and financial help to people overseas than it is to reach and serve those right in our own neighborhood.  Such a dichotomy was never intended by our Founder.  The same Jesus who sent his followers out all over the world with the Great Commission was the same person who went through his own home town and region ministering to those who already knew him.

Once those outside the church are identified as “those people”, then the church grows cold in its outreach efforts. In our minds and spirits, we remove ourselves from those in need.  Suddenly, any service we offer is done out of a paternalistic attitude rather than the attitude of a fellow traveler and beggar through life.  It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul worked hard to remind all of the saints in the churches that he wrote to that they too were once one of “those people”.  And they were not to forget it!

Spiritually speaking, we all are “on the wrong side of the tracks” and need help. We are all part of the least, last and lost family.  Ministry as Jesus foresaw it was not something his followers were to “go and do” and then return to the comfort of their homes and beautiful church edifices.  Ministry was (and is) always to be an “as you are going” experience.  It is a “wherever you are” endeavor.

Yes, there are those the Lord seems to call and position for service in far away places to people with different culture and language. And, yes, the Lord often provides divine appointments outside our immediate sphere of influence or experience (just read the Book of the Acts of the Apostles).  However, for most of us, it will most likely be something right within our context to those that we can serve: the foreigner, orphan, widow, hungry, poor, homeless, and disadvantaged right within our own communities.

In other words, they are our neighbors. They are not “those people” but “our people” who need compassionate help.  Who are our neighbors?  Jesus pointed to any of those in need.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the good neighbor was the one who showed compassion.  It is the second part of the Great Commandment: “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  We do not get to pick our neighbors.  It is whoever is in our town or city on whatever side of the tracks they live.  They are not an objective or destination.  They are one of us; least, last and lost trying to find our way home.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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