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Posts Tagged ‘Spiritual Formation’

God Surprises 5

If we fail to acknowledge God at work in the ‘big events’ of our life, what is the likelihood that we will ever recognize him at work in the small, ordinary, everyday events of our life? Yes, it is a ‘step of faith’ – perhaps even a leap – for an individual to look at their life this way.  We are more prone to give Lady Luck, good fortune, or coincidence the credit than God.

It is perhaps the height of human hubris to refuse to give our Creator credit for anything good that happens in our life; let alone what good happens on earth in general. However, let something fall apart, a tragedy strike, catastrophe fall upon us or another part of our world and suddenly we want to point our finger heavenward and blame the Divine.  We want an explanation from God for our hurt and sorrow, even if we do it in doubt, “If there was a god, he/she would have prevented this!  That’s what I would have done if all the power of the universe were in my hands.

The Bible teaches us that, out of his sovereign will to run his creation or allow it to run according to the laws of creation he established, God permits his blessings to come to both the just and unjust of the world. It confounds those who think that they belong to a special religious club, which gives them privileges to God’s blessings and protections against bad things happening to them, that Jesus would teach us, “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, MKJV).  It does not fit our theology, so we avoid it.

However, Job was a man in the Old Testament who knew both the blessings and the trials that come in this life. He was a man who looked like he had everything in life.  He was the model of success.  A day came, however, when everything he had and more was ripped from his life: financial security, family, peace, and good health.  Standing on the brink of his trust in God staring into the abyss of doubt and despair, his wife encouraged him to abandon all hope and leap by offering him the advice, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

At that moment, Job decided to take a step back from that abyss and offers this answer to his wife’s solution,Stop talking like a person who does not know God!  We accept the good things that God allows to come to us.  Shouldn’t we also accept the bad things that he allows to come to us?” (Job 2:10, my own paraphrase).  This seems to be the reverse side of the faith equation Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew (see above).  Instead of the sun and the rain, Job is thinking in terms of killing frosts and monsoons.  Everything that comes to us comes to us through what God allows.

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

This whole idea messes with our desire to have a god who is a benevolent benefactor handing out goodies to all his good children and handing out punishment to all his bad ones. However, this approach makes the Creator sound more like Santa Claus than a Divine Sovereign of the universe.  It also makes him petty and capricious.  In the end, we are left always trying to figure out how to keep God happy – be on his “nice list” – and on our side, lest we offend him somehow and get put on his “naughty list.”  After all, there are worse things than ‘lumps of coal’ in store for us if we do not stay on his good side, right?

The problem with this is that it makes the God of the universe as small as we are in our thinking and behavior.  Job seemed to understand this in the midst of his troubles. Jesus pointed us to a larger more complicated picture of God.  In his own day, many people who assumed they should have been on God’s ‘nice list’ were not and those who thought they were on God’s ‘naughty list’ were actually favored and shown mercy.  This really messed with the heads of the religious people of Jesus’ day and still messes with them today.  It is so unlike us and how we would do things.  And maybe that is just the point.

The key may not be what we focus on and weigh: whether events are good or bad for us.  It may be how we view them in light of our trust in God to work out all things for his purposes and his glory, not ours. This makes God bigger than us and our personal agendas or happiness.  God has a bigger picture and bigger story to tell.  We can allow our lives to be woven into that story or refuse.  Either way, it is all about the story of God’s glory revealed in all of creation.  Our redemption is a part of that story.  If we refuse, so will be our fall.

So, one of the keys to finding purpose in this life is to see how God is at work in all of our situations and the events that come to us – good or bad.

  • What is the story of faith and trust he wants to write through us?
  • How do the small acts of love, kindness and obedience add up to tell a larger story of God’s activity in our life?
  • When has he visited us or interrupted our lives in small or large ways to reveal his ways to us?
  • Who are the individuals in our lives with whom he wants us to weave our stories together?

And the questions and searching goes on.

A pinnacle for me in the realization of this was an experience that my wife and I had early on in our lives together. We were a young married couple just out of college.  I had just finished almost two-and-a-half years of being a youth pastor at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington.  Sensing a change coming, I quit the position fully expecting the Lord to open up something right away.  At least, that what I sincerely believe was going to happen.

Kelly had just finished teaching at Bremerton Christian School. However, she had become pregnant with our first child and they had a policy of not allowing young mothers to teach.  This left us both unemployed.  However, we were still hopeful and expecting the good Lord to bless us and show us the way.

Soon, however, as the months clicked away, it became apparent that nothing was going to materialize as quickly as we thought. Our savings became depleted.  The last pay check from the youth pastor position and teaching position came and went.  It was August of 1987, our son was due to be born at the beginning of October, and we were out of money.

I started taking the Seattle-Bremerton ferry to look for a job in Seattle. Out of desperation, I signed on with an employment agency in hopes that they could find something for me.  Finally, I was signed on with a job with the Pay-n-Pac Corporation – a large chain of home improvement stores.  I was assigned to the Rainier Valley store in Seattle.  This meant a long commute.  While it offered hope down the road, it only added to our immediate financial burden since I would need money for commuting and couldn’t expect a paycheck for two weeks.

We had no idea what to do. We limped financially through the beginning of August.  But unpaid bills were piling up.  September’s rent was soon to be due.  We were desperate.  We prayed and asked God to help.  But our situation only seemed to grow worse and more desperate.  We were reticent about reaching out to family and friends for help.  For Kelly, the days at home alone and pregnant with our first child were depressing and unbearable.  For me, the long commutes to Seattle were depressing.  Instead of listening to the radio like usual, I spent most of the hour-plus commute complaining to God about our predicament.

Where are you God?  Why aren’t you answering us?  Why don’t you provide?  What about the promises you made to us in the Bible?  Do you care about us?  How are we supposed to make it?  Are you really there?  Are you even listening to us?  What have we done to make you angry?  I left me job because I thought you had a plan, did I not hear you right?  Was my ‘step of faith’ a ‘step of stupid’?  Why are you putting us through all of this?  Do you want us to homeless and broke?  After serving in ministry for these last few years, are you just going to leave us hanging in the wind?”  You get the picture.  It was pretty much an hour each way each day of writing my own imprecatory psalms to the Lord.  Only mine didn’t sing as sell as King David’s.

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, while I was in the middle of my morning commute to Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a knock came to our door. It was early enough that Kelly was still in her pajamas.  Not knowing who it was that would be at our door in the morning, she looked through the peep-hole.  It turned out to be an elderly couple from the church we had just resigned from a couple months prior.  Bruce and Lois Wilkinson had become dear friends and a joy to be around.  He was retired from the Bremerton Shipyard.

Kelly wrapped herself in her bathrobe and opened the door to them.  “Good morning!” she greeted them.

Good morning,” Bruce answered.  “We have some things for you.”

And with that they began to bring in to our apartment bags and boxes of groceries.  Kelly was overwhelmed with the amount of food being brought in.  She continued to thank them profusely as the brought the items in from their car.

Finally, with the last bag of groceries brought in, Bruce and Lois turned to Kelly and said, “Our granddaughter and her husband got a hold of us the other day.  Apparently, they have been praying for you and felt led by the Lord to do something for you to help you guys out.”  He then handed Kelly an envelope.  “And we decided to add something to it ourselves,” Lois added.

We had come to know their granddaughter and her husband only briefly as he had been transferred to Guam by the Navy shortly after we had arrived at the church. Someone in Guam had been praying for us, felt led to “do something” for us, and acted upon it.  Pretty extraordinary when you take into consideration that we had shared with no one our situation.

Kelly looked surprised at first. Then, looking into Bruce and Lois’ smiling faces, began to cry.  She explained to them that they were truly an answer to prayer.  Little did either of us expect that an answer to our prayers would come via friends in Guam!  Bruce and Lois prayed for Kelly and I and our unborn son before they left.

After they left, Kelly put away the groceries. She was amazed at their generosity.  Then she sat down and opened the envelope.  It contained a check and cash.  Stunned, she added up the amount between the two.  Of course, the amount came to what we needed to pay August’s rent as well as September’s and catch up with all of our bills.

About that time, I arrived at work to one of my co-workers calling my name.

Hey, Ron!  You have a phone call.  Sounds like your wife,” they called out to me.

She never called me at work, so I worried, “What could it be?

Hi,” I tentatively greeted her.

Good morning,” she said cheerfully.  “I know you’re at work.  But, I just had to call and tell you.  You’ll never guess just what happened…

She was right.  I couldn’t.

Would I ever want to go through that experience again? No.  Have I gone through tough life situations since then?  Oh, yeah.  But what happened in August 1987 has helped me to learn and remember that even in the midst of our trials and troubles; God is weaving a story line bigger than just our parts.  In the midst of our troubles, someone else’s faith was being stretched into an act of obedience.  To minister to our discomfort and worry, someone else was being prodded to reach out in kindness, care and love.  So, on the good side and on the bad side of life’s experiences, God seems to be at work.

This perhaps is a key to discovering God at work in the big and small events of our life, whether they are good or bad. Solomon seemed to understand this spiritual axiom when he penned the proverb, “In whatever direction life’s road takes you look and listen for Him, and He will make your direction clear as you go” (Proverbs 3:6, my own paraphrase).  Life’s road can have some great stretches that bring us much joy.  But it can also have some rough patches and steep climbs that cause us grief.  Wherever you are, he is there.  Just look for him.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Alligator Teeth and Pearls

The terms for the coming of God’s Kingdom are not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed.  Those who have experienced, or presently are experiencing, the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth through revival and renewal already know the price that was paid for it to come.  Even Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it” (Matt. 11:12).

It has often been observed throughout church history that the Kingdom of God has advanced and grown upon the blood of martyrs.  There always seems to be a terrible price to be paid in the natural realm for the spiritual realm to breakthrough and upon it.  Even a brief study of the lives of those used by the Spirit of God throughout the Church’s history to bring reformation, revival, and renewal will discover lives broken and poured out – Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Wyclif, William Tyndale, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, William Seymore, Katherine Kuhlman, and others of greater or lesser importance.  Who will be the ones to usher in God’s Kingdom in our generation?

The apostle Paul said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Someone else rightly remarked that the problem is getting that “treasure” out!  I might add that sometimes it appears we are more “earthen vessel” than “treasure”.  Nevertheless, God promises to pour out His Spirit upon those who humble themselves, forsake their sinful and selfish ways, and spend their energies seeking His face and favor (2 Chron. 7:14).  The question for our generation is, “Who are the brave soldiers of the cross who are going to seize that promise and opportunity?”

Unfortunately, our American religious culture has led us into a “lazy-boy” style of faith that is not does require anything from us.  We enjoy being spectators to the “sport” of religion and “change channels” when we become quickly disinterested.  The average American’s spiritual life looks less like a disciplined journey and more like channel surfing.  Our attention span is short and the next spiritual high is sought out for its brief escape from reality.  From the comfort of our homes, we have become voyeurs to the spiritual journeys and experiences of others.  However, for all that we have witnessed and watched, we remain unfit for our Kingdom duties.

Washington State Capitol, July 2003

Washington State Capitol, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When one travels overseas and witnesses the Church at large accomplishing so much with so little for the Kingdom of God, it challenges preconceived ideas about what is really important in God’s Kingdom.  God does not seem to delight in the “sacrifices” we enjoy offering – music, fellowship, pot-luck dinners, listening to good Bible teaching, along with an occasionally generous gift of cash in the offering plate.

No, God makes it hard for us so that only those who are really passionate and hungry get what they desire.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).  David had it right when he said that what God wants is not more religious platitudes and practices.  What God desires is “a broken and contrite spirit” (Ps. 51:17).  How hungry and thirsty are you for God and His Kingdom to come to earth?

We know and understand even by human economy that those things that are truly of worth are costly.  How much more so of heavenly things?  There’s a great story of a lady tourist in India who noticed the necklace worn by a local Indian man.  “What is it made of?” she asked.  “Alligator’s teeth,” the man replied.  “I suppose,” she said patronizingly, “that they mean as much to you as pearls do to us.”  “Oh no,” he objected, “anybody can open an oyster.”  I have a feeling that acquiring the priceless treasures of heaven are more like getting alligator teeth than pearls.  It’s a costly journey that requires courage.

Our world is in desperate need of a people of God who “forcefully” take His Kingdom to their part of the world through their sacrifices of a dedicated prayer life, radical obedience, and brokenness over the world’s spiritual state.  What will it take to get the “treasure” God has put in you poured out for the benefit of others and His Kingdom?  How hungry are you for God to have His way in your life?  How thirsty are you for His righteousness to be at work in the world around you?  How much do you really want God kingdom to “come, on earth, just as it is in heaven”?  Be careful how you answer that!  It could begin a journey that you never imagined.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the tragedies of being young or going to school for too long is that one knows all the answers.  It seems that when I was in high school and college that I had an answer or solution for everything.  Now that I have teenagers and children college age, I have that they are the ones with all the answers.

Of course, six years of college, two Bachelor degrees, three years of graduate school, and a master’s degree only compounds the problem.  In my related fields of study – theology, biblical studies, philosophy, pastoral ministry – I have a lot of answers for a lot of things.  My library of over 3,000 volumes helps me find one, along with the internet now, if I am unsure or need to shore up my thinking.

Alas, all of this has done me little good.  I have discovered as I have aged in years and grown somewhat wiser (using that term frugally) that having the answers and knowing the solutions are not the same as solving the problem(s).  This is true for my own life as well as those that I have counseled and coached over the years.  I can stare at the obvious answer in front of me.  I can clearly point out the solution to the person(s) needing an answer in times of trouble.  This, however, rarely, in my case or theirs, solves the problem.

What is the problem with the problem? Well, it is not enough to know answers or solutions.  You have to work the problem to get to the answer.  One must prove the solution to be true by working out the problem.  This is somewhat of a applying a scientific approach to problem solving.  The answer or solution is only the hypothesis.  The working out of the problem in reality either proves or disproves hypothesis.

Granted, this pragmatic approach to life does not always work.  Some answers or solutions are true whether they work out for us or not.  Their failure in our case may only reveal a defect in our method, approach or application and not in the answer or solution itself.  Thus, pragmatism is a poor philosophy to live life by.

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I wish that I had learned this lesson earlier on.  It would have made me less arrogant and cock-sure in my younger years.  Perhaps patience with myself and for others would have had a more fruitful result in my life.  In any case, it turns out that my math teacher in my Junior High and High School years was on to something.  Her name was Mrs. Durkin.  She was a stickler for working the problems and showing your work.  She taught in Curlew, Washington.

I spent some of my most important formative years growing up in Curlew, Washington.  It is located in Northeastern Washington State near the Canadian border, right across from Grand Forks, British Columbia.  I have so many fond memories of that place and the people there.  I have revisited it a few times over the years, but it’s been a long while since I have had a chance to return there.

The school was a two story brick school that housed all the grades.  A number of years ago they built a new building.  The old brick building was recently destroyed in a fire.  Mrs. Durkin’s room was at the top of the stairs, left down the hall (not a long distance) and the last classroom on the right.  The office was next door at the head of the hall.

When you stepped into Mrs. Durkin’s room, there was no question as to who was in charge.  There was also no question that she loved math and loved teaching.  But she was impervious to the pleas of students, like myself, who had the right answers on their papers but had not shown their work or whose math work was wrong even if the solution was right.  In either case, it was marked wrong!  How unfair.

How like life.  Life is a rugged classroom to learn in.  Wisdom is a ruthless teacher.  Wisdom does not care if you know the answers or have the solution.  It mocks your arrogance to just fill in the answer and think you can get by with that approach.  Wisdom will demand that you work the problem of life to “show your work” or prove your answer.

The demands of life and learning wisdom have turned out to be a lot tougher than Mrs. Durkin’s algebra classes.  She would often challenge us, “Students, you must show your work!”  She would remind us, “Unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer!”  This probably explains why she always assigned the even-numbered problems in the book when the odd-numbered ones had the answers in the back!

Even if she did on a rare occasion assign one or several odd-numbered problems, the only point was so that you could show or prove to her that you could come up with the same answer.  (Very tricky, Mrs. Durkin.  Very tricky!)  And it better be the right way to arrive at the answer or it was still wrong!  Creativity may count in art class but not in Mrs. Durkin’s math classes!  (You were so mean, Mrs. Durkin.  So mean.)  Yet, life can be like this – “assigning” to us problems we know the answers to but requiring us to work out the problem to get to the same solution.

It turns out that life’s classroom has been a lot more relentless than Mrs. Durkin ever was in her’s.  It turns out that Wisdom has been a much harsher teacher than her also.  Someone repeated the much worn contemporary mantra of American evangelicalism the other day that say, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”  Baloney.

Maybe I am unique in this, I do not think so, but God has frequently given me things way too big for me to handle.  It is not enough for me to point to an answer in the Bible and claim some truth or promise.  Neither does it work to simply spout some theological dogma I have been taught about life and its trials.  I find I am no better off by finding where to find the answers in the “back of the book;” even though I do appreciate a good concordance.  The little “Our Daily Bread” Scripture promise box on the table or a quote from the most recent pop-Christian author falls empty into the dirt of my work-a-day life.

Perhaps I hear the voice of the Lord in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom demands.  “Son, you must show your work.  ‘Study to show yourself… a worker…correctly handling truth‘ ” (2 Tim. 2:15).  “Son, unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer.  ‘Apply your heart to understanding…then you will understand…every good answer‘ ” (Proverbs 2:2, 9).  Turns out that math class taught me more than math.  I was a stinker of a student in Mrs. Durkin’s class.  Here’s hoping I will become a better student at solving problems in the future.

©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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Restructuring Discipleship

I am a bibliophile.  I’ll freely admit it.  I am a reader and collector of books.  My wife, Kelly, would say too many books.  Alright, I probably have a couple thousand too many.  However, each one is special to me.  I have a connection with each one.  That is why when I went to “weed-out” my library a couple years ago I could only part with a box full of books out of my whole library.  And some of those in that box were painful to part with as I donated them to the local library for their book sale.

Out of all of the books I have read over the years, while I have received enjoyment and learned a great many things from them, only a handful of them have truly been life changing and transforming.  Those special books along with their authors still provoke my thinking and reflection to this day – no matter how long ago I read them.  Some of those authors include Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Phillip Yancey, Leslie Newbigin, Thomas Merton, Detrich Bonhoeffer, and few others.

One recent book I have read that is having a lasting impact is “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives” by Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird and Foreword by Leighton Ford (Zondervan, 2003).  The whole premise of the book is to propose a restructuring of the way discipleship is done in the local church.  It takes you on a spiritual journey with pastor Scazzero as he discovers what was missing in his own spiritual formation and how he led his church into what he discovered every Christian needs to grow and mature.

While the book is written for Christian leaders, most specifically pastors, it addresses issues that affect everyone in the local congregation.  The church that I attend, Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington, just went through it church-wide in its small groups.  Many people benefited from the study and found some of the truths discussed in the book transforming.  The issues discussed throughout the book are universal and apply to every walk of life so that they could be applied in the corporate world or individual lives who are looking to grow and mature as persons beyond where they are presently.

The emotional part of our humanness is rarely dealt with in our society.  Most of us were taught to “stuff it” and hide our emotions.  Peter Scazzero points out how this has had an ill affect upon all of us and especially upon spiritual formation with the church.  The tendency is to think that if we are having troubles that what we need to do is apply the right doctrine or spiritual truth; or put more effort into a spiritual disciple like prayer, fasting, worship, prayer in the Spirit or Bible reading; or search our hearts and souls for hidden sins and unforgiveness; or look intently in the Bible for a Scriptural promise that will give us hope.  While all of these are good things they are not always the answer.  There may be deeper issues that we need to address.

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The author then takes his readers on a journey of considering the hidden emotional components of our lives that may be interfering with our growth as spiritual and emotional beings.  He suggests five steps that he devotes a chapter to each.  They are, briefly,

  1. Look Beneath the Surface.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches take the time to look inside their hearts and ask, “What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?”  The author uses the picture of an iceberg to portray how a person’s life show’s very little of what is really going on upon the surface.  The vast majority of who we are lies deep beneath the surface.  So, the first step is to invite God to bring an awareness of what those “beneath-the surface” issues are and transform them so that we will become more like Jesus.
  2. Break the Power of the Past.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches recognize how their past – individually and collectively – affects their present ability to love Christ and love others.  There are complex ties to the past and the present.  All of these pull at us and shape us.  For instance, the family we grew up in is our primary and most powerful system that shapes and influences us – for good or for bad.  Recognizing what those and who those are and dealing with them so their negative power over us is broken is important to moving on and growing up.
  3. Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability.  Contrary to our societal model that teaches us to “lead from your strengths,” Peter Scazzero asserts that the Jesus model is to live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.  Emotionally healthy people and churches understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God is from the bottom up – a place of service.  It is the ability to lead out of failure and pain, question and struggles, and letting go of the need to control that empowers individuals and churches to grow and mature.  By far, I found this chapter the most challenging and, at the same time, the most freeing.
  4. Receive the Gift of Limits.  This truth directly coincides with the previous one.  Emotionally healthy individuals and their churches accept the limits God has given them.  Whatever and however many talents they have been given by God – one, two, five, or ten – they joyfully accept them.  This sets them free from the frenzy of a covetous life of trying to be like someone else or another church.  Such individuals and churches are marked by a contentment and joy about how God has made them and purposes to use them in his Kingdom.
  5. Embrace Grieving and Loss.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches embrace grief as part of the journey to become more like Jesus.  There is an important discipleship component in learning to grieve our losses – dreams, relationship, tragedy, death – because it is the only path to becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Covering over our losses only disfigures us and stunts our growth toward becoming whole and healthy individuals.  It shapes all of our future relationships and the way we lead others.  We are often too quick to try and ease the pain when God is attempting to use it to shape our souls.
  6. Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well.  This simply means intentionally following the lifestyle of Jesus.  Peter Scazzero asserts that there are three dynamics to Jesus’ model for us: entering another’s world, holding on to your self, and hanging between two worlds.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches will learn how to fold all three of these dynamics into their lives.  God changes us as we engage others and learn through them.  This keeps our feet in the real world spiritually.

As with all life-transforming books, when I put them down I always ask, “Where was this 20 years ago?” I could have used this book a long time ago!  I look back over the years and see how I have frustrated my own growth as a person – spiritually and emotionally.  I am thankful for it now.  Although I finished reading it some months back, I find myself constantly going back to it and “chewing” on some of the points that have really impacted me.

Like many formational books of its kind, it rubs against the contemporary approach to success and wealth and health.  I doubt that you will hear Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil using this book in any of their approaches to life.  Nevertheless, there are life-changing truths that can shape our lives and spiritual journeys from here until the end.  It will affect not only us but our world.  As Richard Foster notes, “…the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Celebration of Discipline).  True that.  And so perhaps it is time some of us consider restructuring how we do spiritual formation.  I know I am in.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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