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Posts Tagged ‘Sunday School’

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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God Surprises

Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest - Trail...

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Some people prefer to call them coincidences of life. Others just chalk them up to luck.  The cynical see only random odds at work.  Spiritual people refer to them as God moments, answers to prayer and even miracles.  I like to think of them as God surprises; moments when the deepest prayers and desires of the heart are met with unexpected and unexplainable answers.

When my family was younger and fewer by two children, I was pastoring a small country church on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State that did its best to provide for us.  With two young children, school bills from college and regular living expenses, it was never quite enough.  So, besides pastoring, I found work at the local family owned hardware store, cutting fired wood, picking clams and oysters, and coaching at the school.

After having been there a couple of years, my wife and I had a strong longing to vacation out on the ocean beach of the Washington coast.  The problem was we had no means to do it.  I shared our dream with a few people.  It seemed like a great idea but not a very practical one.  Nevertheless, we sighed and dreamed.  Maybe someday.

Then, one day, a surprise came our way.  There was someone who had an old 1961 14′ travel trail that they wanted to get rid of right away.  Would we be interested in it?  Sure!  Though, at the time, I was not sure what we would do with it since I did not have a vehicle to pull it anywhere.  But, living in a logging community, I thought that perhaps someone would be willing to loan us their truck for a couple of days.

The trailer was delivered. My wife and I discovered that the previous owner had actually lived in it.  He had been a heavy smoker and drinker.  It would need a lot of tender care and heavy cleaning to make it acceptable to my wife and kids.  So, we cleaned, painted, scraped and washed.  It would never look like a 1990 model.  But even a clean 1961 model was better than nothing and better than a family tent on the rainy Washington coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

What seemed like an impossibility at one point suddenly took on the looks of a possibility. A friend came through with the offer of his truck.  We would just exchange vehicles when the time came.  So, my wife and I began to make plans to take our two children to coast camping at Kalaloch Beach south of Forks, Washington.

As the time approached we grew excited. But I also grew anxious.  I planned a budget for the trip: gas and groceries.  Since we lived from payday to payday, there was no extra left over.  It seemed like an extravagance we could not afford, especially since I would also be taking a few days off of work.  How would I replace that missed income?  We may as well have been planning a trip to the Caribbean.  I figured that to replace my income and pay for gas and groceries would take about $500.  That was about 1/3 of my month’s income.

We went ahead and made plans and prayed. God had answered prayer before and perhaps he would once again smile upon us.  However, our finances did not change as the week of our planned vacation approached.  What would we do if we ended up not having the money?  Simple.  Stay home.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world.  Still, I could not help but feel that it sure would be nice to get away for a short time with my family.

Finally, the week approached. We were planned to leave on a Monday.  The weekend before came and still no financial means to even pull out of the driveway.  I resolved myself to the idea that it just would not happen.  On that Sunday morning, as I prepared early for the beginning of the Lord’s Day, I made one final appeal to the Lord as I wandered around the church building completing last minute preparations.

Dear Lord, it sure would be nice if I and my family could take this vacation.”

You know, Lord, in your economy, $500 is not very much money.  Isn’t there a way for you to make that happen?”

(Sigh)  “I know that it is not the end of the world if we do not go to the beach as a family…sure would be nice, though.

Did I happen to mention that it’s only $500?”

Thanks for the trailer anyway.  I’m sure it will come in handy some day.  Just maybe not this week, huh?”

Finally, I dropped it. There was no use getting worked up or anxious over it, I thought.  There were a lot bigger issues in the world than whether the Almberg family took a vacation to a beach.  So, I continued my preparations and spent some time in prayer for the people about to arrive that morning.  Some of them had a lot larger problems than I was facing.

People began to slowly arrive for Sunday School. I greeted them at the front doors.  It was always fun to see people arriving.  I especially enjoyed interacting with the kids coming through the doors.  Soon, laughter and light conversation were filling the halls and rooms of the building of that little congregation.  I’ve always imagined that God enjoyed those sounds as much as he ever did the singing of hymns and choruses.

In the middle of a conversation, the church phone rang. I did not worry about it as I always had people who could not stand the idea of an unanswered phone and would always be there before me.  So, I left the phone to be answered by whoever got there firsts.  Usually, it was Nancy, one of the pleasant ladies who volunteered in our office during the week, or Bill, a vigilant usher and deacon of the church.

Classic Corvette, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

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

We were minutes from starting our Sunday morning opening exercises when I was called to the office. The phone call was for me.  I dislike last minute phone calls right before church starts.  Usually, I make sure people understand that unless it’s an emergency they are to offer the help the caller needs or I can return the call after lunch.  However, this caller insisted on talking to “the pastor.”

Hello?” I answered a little impatient because of the timing.

Hi Ron.  This is Pastor Jim,” the caller identified himself.  I worked with Pastor Jim as an associate/youth pastor on his staff in Bremerton, Washington.  I wondered what was important that he would call me since he must also be preparing for his own busy Sunday morning.

Hi, Jim!” I replied, truly happy to speak to a good friend.  “What can I do for you?”

Sorry to call you so late, right before church,” he apologized.  “But I needed to talk to you and figured this would be a good time to guarantee I would catch you.  Aren’t you and your family planning on going on vacation this next week?

Yes,” I replied.  “We were hoping to leave tomorrow.”

Well, you came up in conversation in our church board meeting this last week.  The board here wanted to bless you and your family.  So, I was going to put a check in the mail for you.  I was hoping to catch you before you left, but could remember when you planned on leaving for vacation.  So, shall I put it in the mail this week or hold off until you get back next week.

Now I am surprised and somewhat taken aback.  We will not be able to leave with what we have but is the amount they are planning to send us enough to cover our expenses?  It seems we are not going anywhere this week anyway.  So, I decide…

“Go ahead and put it in this week,” I told Jim.  “We may have to postpone our plans.  We’re a little short in finances.  Your check may help us get on the road though.  Please make sure you let the guys on the board know how much we appreciate this and how thankful we are for their generosity.

Jim paused on the other end for a moment.  “Why do you need to postpone your plans?”

We’re a little short of funds,” I understated the situation.

“Oh,” Jim commiserated as a pastor of a small church himself.  “Well, I hope what we are sending you will help out.  How does $500 sound?”

I almost started laughing out loud.  “You know,” I told Jim, “that would be great.  That is exactly the amount of money I have been asking the Lord to provide so that we could go.”

Well, then, praise the Lord,” Jim encouraged.  “Maybe you don’t need to cancel your vacation indefinitely.  Just wait a couple of days for the check to get to you.  I’ll put it in the mail the first thing in the morning!

Wow,” I replied still somewhat stunned and surprised.  “Uh, yeah, we can wait a couple of days.  I don’t think that will be a problem at all.”

Great!  Well, you have a great Sunday and greet your wife for me,” Jim finished.

I will.  And you have a great Sunday, too, Jim.  Again, thanks so much,” I stammered still in shock of what had just transpired.

The rest of the Sunday was somewhat of a blur. I told the congregation that we would be gone for a few days on vacation, though we were leaving a few days later than originally planned.  Everyone was happy for us and wished us a great time at the ocean beaches.

When I arrived home after closing up the church, my wife asked me, “You sounded pretty confident that we are really leaving this week.”

Yes,” I said.  Then I shared with her my conversation on the phone with Pastor Jim just before church started.

Coincidence?  Luck of the draw?  A special alignment of the stars for the Almberg family? Let the skeptic and the cynic decide for him or her self.  I think that too much took place for all of that, which would require a greater amount of faith than simply believing that the Creator really does interact with his creation.  I wish that it happened more often than I have experienced it.  On the other hand, I think that the Creator enjoys showing up with God surprises just to let us know that he is here and he knows.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Human Saints

I am continually amazed at how human characters in the Bible are portrayed. One would think that if you were going to write a “holy book” espousing the virtues of a god that all your main characters in that book would be stellar examples of faith and righteousness.  What we have in the Bible, instead, is a parade of characters who are fallible, unstable, unreliable and often very poor examples for others to follow.

From Sunday School to the preacher’s pulpit, however, we usually ‘cherry pick’ the positive stories of Scripture. We like to highlight all the successes in the “good” characters of the Bible.  We then juxtapose them against the failures of the evil characters.  I have come to think that this not only does a disservice to the Bible and its message but also to its followers.  The stories of all the individuals are a mixed bag of failures and successes.  All of them are complex human beings placed in complicated life situations.  In some situations, they handle themselves well; in others, not so much.

Growing up on Sunday School lessons, David in the Old Testament was always portrayed as a hero and someone to emulate. However, a careful examination of his life as an adult reveals that even though he is called “a man after God’s heart,” he is a deeply flawed individual who on more than one occasion failed God, his family and his Kingdom.  The legacy left by him through his children and grandchildren is dismal.  By today’s standards he would be an absentee father and a failure as a parent.

In the New Testament, many of the disciples of Christ failed to get his message or understand his mission. Peter’s leadership in the early church was marked by duplicity and was called out by Paul.  Paul was known for his anger and early on alienated a young protégé and close friend in ministry.  Most of the first churches were marked with strife and doctrinal errors; so much so that all the New Testament letters contain some kind of correction if not out right rebuke.

Few Biblical characters get away with a spotless image aside from Jesus, the son of God. And perhaps that is just the point.  No one is perfect:  not any one.  Only one came to live on earth who could do so perfectly before God and man.  That person was Jesus the Messiah.

So, rather than holding up paragons of perfection, the wise author of the Bible through divinely inspiring human writers went ahead and told stories that reveal the best of human qualities along side the worst. This should encourage us all, I think.  It reveals that God knows human nature and is not afraid of dealing with its messiness.  It gives us hope that if God can work in and through the lives of such imperfect humans then perhaps he can do so in our lives too.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

Instead of examining the Bible for perfect characters to model, perhaps we should be looking for imperfect human models who inspire us to believe that God is able to work in the world and in us despite our worst qualities. I think this approach is more healthy.  It gives a much greater image of God grace, mercy and goodness.  It also magnifies the work and power of God in us.  Instead of our message being about us and how we can make God look good and help him, our message simply becomes about how great God is despite us.  God gets all the glory because we cannot add anything to him or his story.

God must be pretty secure in himself to allow the written testament of his acts throughout history to include some of the biggest failures named as his followers. Most any other book of heroes would edit out those kinds of stories.  Yet, here record for us all to read and study is a raw history of human successes and failure despite God’s best efforts.  It shows us that he did design the crown of his creation to be mere puppets or robots but agents with a free will to make their own choices.  The fact that God continues to work amidst all this mess reveals the depth of love and care for his creation.  It means that, in the end, we are all saints in his eyes – very human saints.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Engaging A World

This is the time of year when many churches, at least Assemblies of God churches, hold an annual business meeting.  It is an annual report to the members of the congregation from the pastor(s), deacon board, and church leaders.  The previous year’s and next year’s budget is reviewed and approved.  Reports on church events and happening from ministry leaders are received.  Everyone, especially, anticipates the senior pastor’s report on the congregation, which relates the advances of he previous year and the hopeful future of the next.

As a senior pastor, leading these meetings could be a challenge.  Coming to a new congregation, it was always curious to me how these events were misused and abused by church leaders and congregants alike.  I always determined to set a different tone and expectations for these meetings.  In twenty-plus years of being involved in them, I never had a bad annual business meeting (Thank the Lord!).

I have heard stories of meetings that were contentious and troublesome.  Decisions came to depend on “pre-business meeting” politics.  Leaders railroaded there agendas through the decision making process.  Congregants ended up in yelling matches with the churches leaders or one another.  Most churches I stepped into at one level or another violated their own Constitution & Bylaws in moving the meeting’s date, electing officers, approving (or disapproving) pastoral continuance, along with a number of other things.

It is no wonder that so many people today are soured toward the church as an institution, denomination, or organization.  Many of us cannot even run a business meeting in “decency and order”.  I am not surprised that many people attending church today refuse to become members of their church because of their bad experiences.  There reason is always, “I don’t want to get involved in church politics.”  And who can blame them.

There are many reasons for a church to slide into such petty and meaningless schemes and unhealthy relationships.  However, let me focus on one that I believe may be the biggest reason.  It is simply this:  A church body that has slid so low in its relationships has done so because it is unengaged in the Kingdom of God and its mission.  It has become self-focused.  It has turned inward to war against itself rather than war against the kingdom of darkness that surrounds it.  James, the brother of Jesus, in his New Testament letter warned the church that this will only lead the church to “devour one another.”

This brings us back to a church’s annual business meeting.  How it is run and what its focus becomes can be a symptom of a larger problem.  I have sat through too many business meetings as a parishioner where the most important things talked about was the next church maintenance project, the selection of a color for furniture, the proper setting for the temperature in the sanctuary, and what kinds of foods should be served at the “Fellowship Hour”.

Other than the building, everyone was satisfied to know that the number of “butts and bucks” coming into the church was relatively unchanged or slightly improved.  A small decline in those numbers did not warrant alarm since the church experienced those before.  An alarm was only set off only if there was a mass exodus of those “butts and bucks”.  Only then did the pastor need to start to sweat the security of his job.

If these things are the only focus of an annual business meeting, the days are numbered for a congregation.  It will not be long before inward focus upon personal comforts and preferences become the main talking points in every gathering.  The church has lost its focus and reason for being.  Jesus did not say, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not spoil its convenience and comfort.”  No.  He said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  The church is made to be engaged in warfare.

I propose that any church’s annual business meeting or congregational meeting should focused on two simple things:  First, reporting what God has done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His people and through His Church the previous year.  And, second, projecting what the church leadership team – pastor(s), deacons, ministry leaders – prayerfully believes God wants done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His Church the next year.  Admittedly, those are tougher things to report and project!

The focus will necessarily be upon how the church was engaged in its mission to the world.  No reports from its leaders will be sufficient that just lists events and activities.  Keeping busy for the Lord is not an indication of fulfilling the church’s mission.  Activities do not equate to Kingdom engagement!  Money collections do not indicate Kingdom involvement!  It requires a congregation and its leaders to ask the hard questions:

  • How many of us were engaged with our time, treasure and talents in God’s mission in the world?
  • How many who were unengaged in God’s mission the previous year became engaged in it this last year?
  • How many were trained for a specific mission in God’s Kingdom to be obedient to carry out the task He has called them to do for Him?
  • How many of those in our community who were unengaged with the Kingdom of God before this last year became engaged with the Kingdom of God through our church’s efforts or the efforts of an individual from our church?
  • How many of those outside our church did we engage with the Kingdom of God – locally, nationally or internationally?
  • In what specific ways did our church or individuals from our church engage our larger local community with the Kingdom of God through acts of service – feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the orphan, care for the widow, look after those in prison, stand against injustice?
  • What persons in our community are unengaged with the gospel that we can reach out to by serving them and sharing God’s love in order to engage them with the Kingdom of God?

These questions – and there are others that could be asked along these lines – help us to celebrate what God is doing in and through the Body of Christ.  They keep everyone’s eyes upon the most important mission of a church – glorifying God by lifting up His Son, Jesus Christ.  It helps everyone to realize that there are more important things than color coordination, room temperatures, and choices between desserts or salads.  The important task of sharing God’s love is never done.  Yet, when it is done in faith and obedience it should be celebrated.  That becomes the reason for holding an annual meeting in the first place.

The church exists to engage the world with the Kingdom of God by sharing His story and revealing His glory.  We cannot do that if we are focused only upon “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We will reach for what we measure.  If we measure success in terms of personal comfort and convenience, then that is what we will always reach for first.  However, if we measure in terms of personal and corporate engagement of the Kingdom of God with the world, then that is what we will always try to attain.  So, who wants to give the next annual report?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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