Monday, April 22, 2013

Small Church or Big Church?

I had an interesting visit from some McMaster scholars last week. They are travelling around Canada looking for new expressions of church and trying to get a handle on why and how the evangelical church adapts to the culture. I know we like to think that evangelicalism is fairly stable and set, but the reality is that we are highly adaptive because we desire to reach our culture with a message that we feel is more important than the means of communication: God loves you and desires to rebuild a relationship with you. (Or more accurately some form of that essential message.)

What was interesting was that they confirmed some of the problems I have with the Small/Alternative/Missional/etc. church versus the Big/Traditional/Attractional/etc. church. Namely the insistence that each critique the other out of their own set of expectations. Let me unpack that.

When you go about planting a church from either model you need to define a few things. Actually things like success and sustainability are defined more as you go along, but if your framework for defining these terms is not the type of church vision actually being employed then you have a losing proposition. For example, if you measure success in terms of numbers, then in a big church model that is probably not a bad metric, but when you apply that to the small church (by which I mean intentionally small communities such as coffee shop or house churches) model this is a bad metric because it doesn't measure anything that the small church model sets out to do. Sure there are some common metrics that must serve both communities. Both visions of church must at the very least be seeking to faithfully present God to the world. Both visions of church must focus on creating an environment of discipleship and service so that people grow in their faith. And there are other common points. But how each of these looks will vary by the context.

Part of the problem is that people are coming to realize, individually, that they swim best is certain types of church waters. At Freedom Vineyard a large portion of our congregation were hugely dissatisfied with their big church experiences. For them the small church fit their personalities and needs better. In fact in more than a few cases people were able to work through their big church issues in our context and go back into serving more traditional congregations (which we always counted as a win). The down side of this is that people dissatisfied with a particular context can easily vilify that context and damage the relationship between churches. The challenge for the church, in all its wonderful forms, is to recognize what people are going through and nurture them to bless the whole church.

Here is where I land. I'm convinced that all forms of church need each other. In fact I think that we could and should foster supportive relationships between small churches and big churches. Can you imagine the potentials for all of our churches to grow (and I'm not just speaking numerically here) if we learned how to effectively cooperate and support each other? Small churches go places and reach people that big churches simply will not reach. This is not for a lack of trying or will, but the big church is about building a big church and not everyone thrives in a big church. On the other hand, big churches can build structures and accomplish things that the small churches can only dream of. Want to start a citywide mens' outreach that turns the hearts of fathers back to God? A big church has far better resources to make that happen.

The potential for fruitful cooperation is amazing. All forms of church have much to learn from each other. But the problem remains in how we tend to see each other. When we view other churches through our own metrics it is hard for them to measure up. Small churches are not served by measuring success by numbers, and big churches are not served by measuring success by people they influence who do not attend their services. But both forms of success are quite valid in the right context. And what if we can have both? What if we can have big churches and small churches blessing each other (instead of speaking ill of each other) so that the whole body of Christ benefits? That is what I'm longing for when I pray for unity.

How about a simple exercise: If you come from a big church, why not find a small church in your community, get to know the leaders and ask how you can bless and support them. But also ask them how they measure success and how they do things differently. You may find that you are encouraged to know the many ways people are reaching others for Christ. If you come from a small church, why not find a big church in your community and do the same. Get to know a leader or two and ask how you can bless and support them. Dare to ask how they understand success and how they do things differently. Encourage each other to be faithful to the vision that God has given. Celebrate with each other the successes and victories that make sense in their communities.

Paul said that he became all things to all people so that by all means he might win some. I like how it is phrased in the New Jerusalem Bible: "I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation." (1 Cor 9:22b) I am convinced that this is what the Holy Spirit is doing in and through our churches. Accommodating the church to be able to faithfully mediate the message of salvation to as many people as possible. For me this is the heart of evangelicalism, and the heart of the Father to make a clear voice throughout the whole earth. I'm also convinced that in order to do church, in any form, well we need to give ourselves to the form God has called us to. When Paul talks earlier in first Corinthians he is talking about a change in being. It is not a putting up with or toleration that Paul is calling us to, but to becoming the kind of churches needed wherever we find ourselves because the most important thing is never our own success metrics anyway - it is faithfully communicating our gospel, our Good News.

Let us be the Church together - as we are all faithful to the visions of church God has called us to.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Theologian is the One Who Prays

This is definition of a theologian comes from an Eastern Christian saying, and it seems fitting today. I had too much on my plate to post yesterday and somehow I'm not convinced I had anything more relevant to say than a call to prayer today. 

My heart is heavy over the incident in Boston, but also heavy that I do not pay more attention to the many violent acts that occur across the globe. This world is so full of tension right now. Our family visited a local Anglican church this past Sunday and we were struck by how attentive the prayers of the people was to specific situations around the world, it reminded me that the first act of a newly baptised Christian (during times of persecution in the early church) was to pray for the world with the church. The church was known as those who met to pray for the world. So today I would call us to become aware of what it going on beyond our national boarders and to pray.

I am also deeply concerned for my friend Colin who is in need of a healing touch from God. Colin and Denise have a deep connection to the Vineyard and are pastoring in Thailand. As I pray for him I am humbled by the depth of need around me. Life is fragile. We need God. So today I would call us to pray for God's healing power to be released.

I also spent time this weekend with a group of LGBT people who have faced extremely hurtful marginalization - especially from the church. Hearing stories of abuse always disturbs me, but when I realize how much I am part of the problem - especially in my silence - then I know my need is God. Relationships are fragile. We need Christ's mercy. So today I would call us to pray for God's restorative power to be released. 

God let your freedom have its way with us. Freedom is something we've stolen and made our own. The freedom you offer is the freedom to do what is right and good. Come lead us Holy Spirit, into all that is true, good, right, and holy. We need You God. 

Let us pray.

Monday, April 8, 2013

FREEDOM SESSION: Healing The Broken Harvest

Almost 5 years ago now, my attention was arrested by a phrase on a promotional piece.  It said, “The harvest is plentiful – It’s also broken.”  After more than 40 years of leading a church, I knew that to be profoundly true.  Prior to our days in the Vineyard, we were leading a church that experienced significant renewal and some rapid growth.  But I soon realized that we were attracting some very wounded, broken people.  I secretly feared that if we couldn’t bring healing into their lives, they could soon outnumber us and we would be in the full-time business of trying to manage dysfunctional relationships, and nothing else.  If you’ve ever read THE EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY CHURCH by Peter Scazzero, you know exactly what I mean. 

I cried out to the Lord to equip us to heal broken people so that they could become healthy, functional followers of Jesus, and the next generation of leaders.  How he answered those prayers is a long and fascinating story of divine appointments which is too lengthy to recount here, but within a couple of years, we had found training for three people including myself who consequently saw a remarkable amount of success in bringing broken people to wholeness by the power of the Lord.  We became good at it because we had a lot of practice, backed up with a lot of intercession.  But the demand always exceeded our ability to provide as the word of healing and freedom spread.

We cried to the Lord for help.  “Pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send laborers into the harvest.”  We began to put what we had learned into a course for training others, a course that eventually saw nearly 500 graduates over a 20 year period.  Some came only for the information, and discovered they needed healing themselves, which increased our load!  A few others came alongside of us and began to do what we were doing.  But still, the demand always exceeded our time and energy to provide that intensive one-on-one counselling experience.  It was heartbreaking to turn so many away.

Over the years, I have had colleagues in ministry who tried to discourage me from counselling because it’s hard work, and it’s time-consuming.  “Why do you do this, anyway?” they would ask.  “Why don’t you just refer, like everyone else does?”  My reply was two-fold:  “Jesus commanded me to make disciples.  I don’t know how to make disciples without also healing them, do you?   Furthermore, Jesus also commanded us to heal the sick.”   My other reply was a confession:  “I’m sort of addicted to this ministry, because this is where I get to see the Kingdom of God come in power!  I feel like I get to see God raise the dead almost every day.  It keeps me going, and I get more than I give.”

Nevertheless, through all these years, I’ve been saying to the Lord, “There has to be a way to disciple and heal a lot more people at one time, do it faster, and get increasingly better results.  If we’re preparing for a great harvest, we’re not ready for a massive influx of people.  We need something better than what we’ve got.  I don’t have any vision for how it can be done, but raise up some dread champion who does!”

And when I saw that motto, “The harvest is plentiful – but it’s also broken” I gasped and thought, I wonder if God has answered my prayer.  I went to the website, and watched the brief video.  The author, Ken Dyck, talked about the same dilemma we had faced, namely, significant church growth with an inundation of broken people, and not enough people to disciple and heal them.  I was feeling cautiously optimistic.  My one concern was that we had already developed an approach to discipleship/healing (The older I get, the more difficulty I have in separating the two);  I wondered if we would find compatibility or it would be a very difficult transition.  To my great joy, I discovered that the Lord had taken the Dycks along a nearly identical path in training them to disciple and heal the broken as He had us!  Hand in glove!

We jumped in with both feet.  We took a dozen or more people to Ken’s Facilitator Training “Boot Camp,” I cast the vision for this ministry all summer, and in the fall we began Freedom Session with over 40 people.  We gather once a week in a classroom, pen in hand, and watch a teaching DVD by the authors for about 50 minutes.  Then we all grab a coffee or tea and head for our gender-specific small groups (men with men, women with women).  Under the guidance of our trained facilitator, we open our workbooks to share the homework we’ve done.  The sharing usually goes deep and fast, and lasting relationships are forged in this environment.   The course follows a 12 step format (Jesus is unequivocally the “High Power”), it runs from mid-September to the end of May, and Graduation Sunday yields an abundant harvest of testimonies of lives forever changed.  It is so powerful, I can’t hold back the tears.

Just a few closing observations: 
  1. Freedom Session is one of the most powerful small group ministries we have ever had, and it has had a leavening effect on all of our other small groups.  We now hear words like “The Sisterhood”, or “The Band of Brothers”.
  2. Freedom Session has virtually eliminated the need for us to provide one-on-one counselling – and the need for a lot of trained counsellors.  The process is brilliant, and it works – usually better than counselling.  Why?  As Dr. Larry Crabb has come to see:  “We were wounded in community, and we need to be healed in community.”  We regard Freedom Session as ideal to prepare people for marriage and family, or to heal those in a broken one.
  3. The graduates of Freedom Session experience a kind of discipleship that we’ve never consistently provided in the past, and they frequently step into positions of leadership with poise and confidence.  Yes, leadership training – an unforeseen benefit!  The nice surprises just keep coming.

 For more information, write the author

Don Rousu - Prairie Region

Monday, April 1, 2013

big deal over a small word: IN

Observing an indoor fountain. 
Quite a bit different from being in one.
I recently decided to give Twitter another go; for the most part, I have been following theologians and writers who engage with theological issues.  Miroslav Volf (author of Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation as well as numerous other titles) has been tweeting about inclusive and exclusive models of redemption. In the exclusive view, Christ's death on the cross is a punishment for the sin of humanity and as a result, God saves us.  In an inclusive view, we die with Christ the God/human and God removes sin from us because we are in Christ.  The distinction might seem small (the point is that we are free from consequences of sin, right, so what's the big deal?), but the position in which we place ourselves in God's salvation story has far-reaching implications. In the first model we are separate from Christ and watch from a distance as our salvation unfolds; in the second, we are embraced by Christ (and we embrace him) and through our proximity to him, we die to sin and live in God.  We are in effect participants in Christ's story.
Television and movies have done us a bit of a disservice; through their proliferation, many of us have become somewhat desensitised to stories of pain and death and therefore less able to empathise and identify with real suffering.  We also get so used to passively watching someone else's drama and adventure unfold from the safety and comfort of our couch that we can find it increasingly difficult to engage with, identify with, and care about the experiences of others.  As a result, the bloody, gruesome details of Jesus' death can seem like just another scene in a violent action adventure movie.  But they're not. 

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, our faith community progressed through various stations of the cross as we traced the road that Jesus took from the time he was wrongly condemned to the moment when, hovering on the threshold of death, he uttered, "It is accomplished!"  And unlike so many Easter Sundays before, this time I did not feel like I was watching it from a distance. It was my story, too.  When I held up a large piece of flat bread, said the words, "This is my body, broken for you," and then ripped it in two with my hands, I shuddered at the tearing.  When I lifted the glass of dark red wine to my lips, the words "This is my blood, poured out for you" still fresh on my tongue, the liquid was thick with suffering, death, and love.  When we eat the body of Christ in the form of bread and drink his blood in the form of wine, we are participating in his life and death.  We are reminding ourselves that we are not thousands of years away from this event.

Being in Christ means we walk the road with him, we suffer with him, we die with him, we live with him, we participate in his journey.  Like him, we live and die and live again.  Our sorrow is mixed with his, our pain intertwines with his, and our weakness leans on his strength.  And in that resting place, that point of connection, we receive everything that we lack:  hope, acceptance, perseverance, faith, kindness, forgiveness, love, and a second chance at a life that is good, whole, free.  It is no longer our life that we are living; we are inextricably linked to the life of Jesus.  We live in him.  He lives in us.  We are present in his story.

I have been crucified with Christ [in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ (the Messiah) lives in me; and the life I now live in the body I live by faith in (by adherence to and reliance on and complete trust in) the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me. - Galatians 2:20 (Amplified Bible)