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Posts Tagged ‘The Great Commission’

The Great Imbalance In World Missions

Someone once coined the phrase “holy dissatisfaction” to refer to the sense a follower of Christ has once he or she has received a larger view of God’s Kingdom.  I think it is an apt description.  It is not just a mere discontent with the status quo in our American churches.  It is not bred out of some “holier-than-thou” mentality.  Neither is it an expression of a sour grapes attitude by someone hurt by church authorities.  There is no doubt that these do occur.  They have their own reasons and results.  This is something bigger than those things.

Holy dissatisfaction, instead, refers to what grabs someone after they have seen and experienced what could be in God’s Kingdom if all the barriers that have been set in place were removed.  The barriers of cultural expectations, institutional requirements and limiting authoritative structures prevent what is possible from ever possibly happening.  A person often experiences this when in another ministry context such as a missions trip, a ministry experience with modern apostolic leaders leading new church movements or time spent with someone who is doing what one has always dreamed of doing or thought possible in and through the local church.

I have often warned people who go on missions trips that they could come back ruined for ministry in their local church.  This doesn’t always happen, but it frequently does.  In another ministry context, particularly among frontier missions work where the church is in its infancy or first generation, one sees ministry at its most basic and simplest form.  Church and ministry revolve around the Word, the Eucharist or communion and the work of serving others.  Especially in poverty areas, one witnesses accomplishing ministry with so little when compared to the local church back home that seems to accomplish so little with so much by comparison.

I have recently been taking a class through “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.” It is a one-night-a-week 15 week course that brings together speakers from all over the U.S.A. and world who represent different frontier missions agencies.  These women and men do ministry among the unreached people of the world.

Often when the idea of “unreached people” is brought up, Americans will say, “Yeah, we have unreached people right here.” This, by frontier missions workers, is not the definition of “unreached.”  Virtually everyone in American lives within the reach of someone who is a Christian with a church not too far away and has access to Christian media via the television, radio, bookstore or computer.  On the other hand, “unreached people” across the world have no such opportunity.

Unreached people groups – of which there are about 6 – 7,000 different linguistic and cultural groups in the world – have no access to a follower of Jesus let alone a church or a media in their language and cultural setting.  A few may know about “Christianity” but it is seen as a foreign religion with no relevance to them and their people.  No one is reaching out to them.  They are isolated from the gospel culturally and linguistically.

The shocking truth about the unreached people of our world is that they still represent about 30 – 40% of the world’s population – around 2 billion people.  That is not the worst of it.  The greatest tragedy is that only 10% of evangelical world missions efforts – time, money and personnel – are used to reach and plant a culturally, linguistic relevant church among these people.  That means that 90% of world missions efforts go to areas of the world that are already reached with the gospel, have a viable self-sustaining and reproducing church and developing leadership.  This is the great imbalance in world missions.  As such, it is the great imbalance reflected in most of our evangelical churches budgets and outreach efforts.

Waitsburg, Washington, Spring 2010

Waitsburg, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Still, those churches that actively participate in world and local missions boast about the amount of money sent out each year.  Often that amount represents less than 10% of their overall church budget.  Sometimes it may reach as much as 20%.  The question that begs to be answered for those still unreached and unengaged with the message of Jesus Christ is, “What portion is being used to advance the message of Jesus where he is not known and has never been heard?”

If this great imbalance in world missions is going to be equalized to reflect the real-world need, then churches, missions agencies and their leadership are going to have to count the cost and steer a different course. I come from an Assemblies of God background that is proud of its world missions efforts.  Still, when one considers the United States Assemblies of God World Missions department and looks at their budget and personnel placement, the statistic remains true.

Even with the placement of new missionaries, most are going to already evangelized countries and fields of service.  Many serve as support personnel to missionaries in countries with growing, reproducing churches.  This is not only true of the Assemblies of God but of many missions organizations and denominational missionary efforts.  Reassigning missionaries, closing countries and fields or pointing new missionary recruits to selected fields is a problem for all of them.  In a few instances, mission agencies serve only to provide expatriate services to people who want to live abroad.  The work that some of these expats do has little Kingdom impact let alone benefit.

The different course that must be navigated will mean making some hard decision regarding personnel and budgets.  Measuring successes will have to be recalibrated to frontier missions efforts.  Pet missions projects or fields of service and personal agendas will need to be laid aside.  A renewed effort to call people to serve in areas of unreached people will need to be voiced with new energies.  The apostle Paul’s example to preach the gospel where it had not been heard and build the church where the foundation was not even laid must be renewed in our 21st century efforts.  It will take great effort and some time, but I believe we can, in the near future, bring some equilibrium to the great imbalance of world missions.

©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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Lighthouses From A Bygone Era

I enjoy visiting lighthouses.  Along the Oregon coast, there are a number of beautiful old lighthouses that vacationers and tourists can visit.  You can climb the stairs to the beacon chamber and look out over the ocean and down the beautiful beaches.  If you are lucky, you may have the opportunity to watch a pod of whales in the Pacific Ocean go up or down the coast, depending on the time of year.  Each lighthouse is different and used to serve a unique location on the coastline helping boats and ships navigate the rugged, rocky coast and mouths of rivers.

Did you notice the words “used to” in that last line?  They are almost all decommissioned now.  Instead, their only purpose is to preserve the past memories of a bygone era.  Times have changed and technology has made them obsolete.  Their structures and purposes were not able to make the transitions into modern times.  They serve only to a history.  So, visitors come, see and leave everyday.

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I enjoy visiting churches.  Unfortunately, I have found many that have become just like those lighthouses.  Their only purpose has become to preserve past memories of a bygone era.  They did not change their methods and ministries with the times and so have become obsolete for fulfilling Christ’s commission of reaching lost people and making them his disciples.  Their ministry structures and purposes were not allowed to change to meet the demands of reaching their city or town.  They used to serve a unique place and help lost people find their way to Jesus.  At one time, they helped many people navigate the difficult courses of life.  Now, people mostly just come to see and leave.

The great challenge in today’s American churches is the challenge to keep ministries cutting edge and effective – but not to just entertain the sheep already in the Shepherd’s pen but to reach the lost sheep seeking a way back home.  We do not want to lose sight of our main mission, which is glorifying God by inviting people into his Kingdom and teaching them his new Kingdom ways.

The question for every church in their particular context is simply this:  “How do we remain relevant and alive so that our message of free salvation through Jesus Christ captures the hearts and attention of those we are trying to reach?”  This is especially true of reaching the younger generation of Americans.  Just 4% of today’s 15 – 25 year-olds in America today claim any affiliation with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Christian faith.

The two components of the Kingdom of GodMessage and Mission – are the only tools with which we work.  The message is unchanging.  It is God reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.  However, the question we must ask is, “Is our message clear?”  A basic truth of Communication 101 is this:  The communicator has not communicated until the receiver has received the message.

So, it is our responsibility and not those to whom we are trying to communicate to get our message across as clearly as possible.  There are some things we do or the way we speak that creates static in our communication and makes it difficult for others to hear.  Sometimes, those things completely interfere with our message and make it impossible for others to receive what we are saying.  How can we “clean up our signal” to avoid hindrances to our message, make it as clear as possible and provide the optimum opportunity for people to hear it?  If we avoid answer this question, we begin the descent into irrelevance.

This brings us to the other component:  Our mission.  There are any number of ways of stating it but it is simply this:  Bringing people to the person of Jesus by telling his story and sharing his love.  How we do that will be determined by our ministry context: those God has called us to reach and the town or city he has called us to serve.  Too often, we have confused methods with mission.  Thus, our methods become more sacred than the mission.

We fear changing our methods because, in our confusion, we think that they are the only way to fulfill our mission.  If we confuse these two things (mission and methods) or out of fear refuse to address their differences, then this is where the slide into obsolescence begins.  If this is allowed to happen, slowly the church slips into becoming a historical monument rather than a vision of the future of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Regular self-evaluation and a holy dissatisfaction with the religious status quo can keep a church relevant to its ministry context which is always changing.  Examining how well we clearly communicate our important message will ensure that we remain in the Kingdom business of redeeming a self-destructing world.  Measuring how well we are accomplishing our mission and whether our methods are in alignment with that common goal will help to guarantee that everything we do to invite and help people become followers of Jesus remains effective.  Otherwise, the threat is to be spiritually decommissioned (Rev. 2:5); an alternative that leads to becoming only a lighthouse of a bygone era.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Towards A More Civil Public Discourse

One of the strengths of a true democratic system of government is the ability to have open public debates concerning the issues that matter to our nation.  No one individual, political party or system of thought controls or sensors the discussion; even to the point of publicly protesting before governmental buildings, outside political gatherings and in town meetings.  In many other countries of this world, such open protestations would be met with government oppression, brutality and even imprisonment and possibly death.

American citizens should appreciate these freedoms.  I strongly believe that they should be guarded and practiced.  However, I also believe that there is a danger today of allowing this form of public debate and open protest to degenerate into a deconstructive melee that will damage our system of public debate rather than promote it by the way we conduct ourselves.  Too often in today’s political climate the open discussions in our newspapers, talk-radio stations and sidewalk protests devolve into a hostile mob that demonizes everyone who does not think like they do.

This is group-think at its worst.  There is no open and honest dialogue with the opposing viewpoint in many cases.  Instead, they are rallies to cheerlead a particular political or social agenda without regard to the other side of the argument.  The other side is not even welcome to the table.  They are seen as “the enemy”.

This is not about the political left or the political right.  It is not about Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party or Coffee Party advocates.  I am more concerned about America’s tone and tenor in the discussion.  Where is the “civil” in our civil public debate and discourse?  What happened to dealing with issues rationally and objectively?  Is there really an honest discussion taking place for the benefit of all people if one side of the debate is not present?

I am not suggesting that debate be dispassionate.  Neither am I suggesting that individuals or groups should not boldly and strongly affirm and assert their position.  What I am suggesting is that there is a way to do that without demonizing and alienating the other side of the debate.  When our debate descends from dealing with issues and facts to finger-pointing, name calling and generating misinformation about the other side’s position, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we really accomplishing?”  I would venture to answer, “Not much.”

Granted, from America’s earliest political days, public discourse has been heated and mean.  (Something I address in an earlier Blog Post: “Let’s All Calm Down!”)  For a great picture of how mean it could get, I recommend William Safire‘s book Scandalmonger.  After the colonies won their independence from England, some of our earliest leaders were dismayed  how fractious and uncivil American politics quickly became.  George Washington despaired over the hostile divisions of the American political arena.  Individuals who were compatriots in the Revolution became bitter enemies afterward.

Another period of American history that turned into civil war instead of civil discourse was prior to and during Abraham Lincoln’s term in office.  The issues of states rights, federal government powers and slavery were issues that consumed American politics from its earliest days.  Reading the diatribes of the times, one senses a growing hostility between parties to the point that by the time Abraham Lincoln gained office he despaired whether the divide could even be healed.  It turns out he was both right and wrong.  The great divide in American politics and society could be bridged, but only by war.

It is precisely this type of “war” language that we are hearing once again on the fringes of the public discourse surrounding American politics and the accompanying agendas.  Whether it is the Health Care Reform Bill, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, taxes, gun ownership or any of the other number of “hot button” issues, the divide between the sides is growing into an unbreachable wall that will not permit constructive dialogue and problem solving.

History teaches us that the “fringes” of public thought soon become the primary movers for social reform.  Therefore, it would be wise for us to pay attention to how our public discourse is being shaped by them.  Again, I am not addressing the issues or topics discussed.  I am more concerned about the way in which they are being discussed.  The process of debate shapes us as much as the actual decisions that come out of it do.  How are we allowing the way we discuss and debate these issues shape us as a people and nation?

I am particularly dismayed and shocked at how Conservative Christians, or just Christians in general, conduct themselves in this public discourse.  We most often come across as the most angry and hostile.  Our points, which are very good ones, are lost in the screaming and yelling at the opposing side.  However passionate one might feel about a particular political issue, as a Christian, one must ask, “How does the way I conduct myself and communicate my message reflect the Kingdom of God and its King?”

Christians live in the tension of existing in two kingdoms: the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.  We are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  Therefore, as citizens and ambassadors of that Kingdom to this earthly one, we should be concerned with how our actions and words portray the Kingdom of God and its King.

I am not suggesting that silence is the answer.  Neither is not caring what happens to and in this world.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live through our lives and our witness.  The issues of righteousness and justice are central to this mission.  However, the manner in which we strive for those things is just as important as their substance.  For by the way we conduct ourselves we reflect the nature and character of not only the Kingdom of God but also the nature and character of its ruler – our Heavenly Father.

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My experience has taught me that the one who begins yelling the loudest has already lost the debate for he or she has no further substantive content or cogent arguments to make to prove his or her point.  There is a more civil way to conduct a civil public discourse.  Let me humbly recommend a few action points that may help us towards a more healthy and constructive public debate:

  1. Have a first hand knowledge of the issues and their facts.  Do not depend upon the pundits or politically slanted news organizations to give you objective truth.  Remember, they have an agenda that sells and makes them money.  That’s their primary concern.  If they truly worked for resolutions, they would be out of business.  It’s in their best interest to stir up the debate, not resolve it.
  2. Turn off and tune out “the screamers”.  Those yelling the loudest, as I said above, often do not have anything more constructive to bring to the argument other than passion.  While their passion is good, at the end of the day, it will not win the debate of substance.  If you get a conservative or liberal news source – internet, print, TV, or radio – make sure you are balancing it by listening or reading to the opposing side.  Make sure you know the rational points and objections the other side of the argument is making.  This will sharpen your own points.
  3. Read and learn from history.  This is not the first time that American politics has gotten heated and ugly.  It is not the lowest we have reached in the political forum.  However, to avoid delving deeper or repeating the mistakes of the past, it is important to know where we have been and where we have come from in our collective history.
  4. Openly invite and welcome the opposing side to the discussion.  Two things can only be accomplished by this:  First, you will learn the objections and points of the other sided.  Second, you will strengthen your position and ability to communicate your point.  You will also learn the weaknesses in your own argument, which will send you back to studying and learning about the issues and facts.  You may be surprised and change your mind as a result!  Or, you may win a friend and the debate by being better equipped.
  5. Learn the difference between a public rally and public debate.  More of the former takes place than the latter.  Rallies are good for energizing and mobilizing political partners, if that is what is actually happening.  However, in my experience, they too easily devolve into pointless and nasty caricaturizations of the opposition.  A debate will have the opposition present and allow it to fairly communicate its points.  It will require clear and cogent communication, but, just as important, listening.
  6. Finally, for those who are Christians, remember the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.  It is not bound by the boundaries of a political party or social agenda.  The Church of Christ is growing and propagating in some of the most hostile political and social environments our world has to offer.  God is bigger than either political party.  We are called to represent and be communicators of that Kingdom to this world.  How we do that is just as important as the substance of our agendas.  Do our words and actions reflect the nature and character of the One we way we follow and serve?

There are no easy answers and solutions to resolving differences of opinions.  It is why we call the discussions of these things “debates,” after all.  However, I am firmly convinced and convicted that as mature people interested in the good of all humankind and creation that we can do a better job of being civil in our public discourse.  The way we conduct our public debates shapes us as much or more so than the substances of those debates.  Cherishing and honoring this important democratic process is important to our future as a nation.

Good constructive debate over the issues and facts is healthy for our democracy.  Hostile demonization and threats of violence only send us back into the times of tribal warfare or, worse yet, civil war.  However, I have faith in people, especially the American people, and especially the American democratic experiment that we can turn towards a more civil public discourse.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Linguaphobia

People in the United States are not the only ones on earth who have an anxiety about learning another language.  It is a common problem all over the world.  Some of it is due to educational attempts that do not work real well to teach foreign languages.  Some of it is due to a strong nationalism and identity with a mother-language.  Anxiety or fear of learning a foreign language is often called “linguaphobia”.

The real problem develops when linguaphobia develops into a linguacentrism; the idea that one particular language should be the only one spoken.  This is becoming more prevalent in the United States in recent years as a result of the rise in immigration and in particular the rise of Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants.  More and more, one hears the angry declaration, “They live in America now.  They should speak English!”  As if, somehow crossing a boarder grants one the magical and immediate power to learn a foreign language.

The cultural tension becomes greater when xenoglossophobia develops among the mother-language speakers – English, in the case of the United States.  This is the fear of foreign language speakers.  It can also be called xenophobia; the fear or dislike of people different than your self.  I believe this is a growing problem in the United States.  It is a problem created more from “group-think” than any actual threat.

The fact of the matter is that the United States has always been an nation of immigrants.  As such, it has always contained within its borders people who speak many different languages.  Early on, it began mainly with European languages – German, French, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish among many others.  This explain the complexity of the American English language.  It is a compound of many additional foreign words!

Another fact that is often overlooked today is that English language acquisition has often taken immigrants a generation or two to assimilate so that it is no longer a foreign or second language to them.  In the Midwest for example, many community churches retained their ethnic language identities in German and Scandinavian languages up until a few decades ago!  There are still a few who use the original mother-tongue language occasional in their church services.

Indian Heaven Wilderness Stream, Summer 2002

Indian Heaven Wilderness Stream, Summer 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My Swedish grandfather came from Sweden as a child, struggled to learn English, but still retained and spoke Swedish until his death.  It was not until his children came along that English was the mother-tongue language.  As his grandchild, I know and understand no Swedish.  I suspect that for recent immigrants – legal or illegal – to the United States it will take the same amount of time.  Our own experience as immigrants should make us more tolerant and patient with new arrivals to this land of opportunity.

It is particularly shameful for those within the Church to be intolerant or xenophobic.  Since the Great Commission compels us to be witnesses to every ethnic group on earth, they should see this as a golden opportunity.  Instead of needing to go to foreign lands to the people of the world, the people of the world are coming to our communities and neighborhoods!  This saves the Church thousands of dollars in sending missionaries overseas.  Now the mission field is settling around us in small ethnic conclaves that can be easily reached by many Christians and churches.

The final picture of the Bride of Christ – the Church – we have in The Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ should also motivate us to welcome and embrace people of different cultures and languages.  The vision presented to us (7:9) is a multi-ethnic, multi-language celebration gathered around the Lamb’s throne.  They will be singing and dancing – each according to their cultural and language – to the words, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (7:10).  I really do not think that at that glorious and holy moment some xenophobe American is going to yell out, “Hey, speak English!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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