Classical theology has much to say about the means by which the Gospel is conveyed to those who need to hear it. Martin Luther listed these five means of grace: the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession of Sins, and Mutual Encouragement of the Brethren. Consider those to be input through which the Holy Spirit can work.
But classical theology has nothing to say about the Spirit’s output—what happens when the Spirit is at work in an individual or congregation. What differences does the Spirit make in lives that know the Gospel of redemption in Christ? How can you tell if the Spirit is allowed to work more effectively in one congregation compared to another? Churches do differ in how open they are to the Spirit’s work in their midst.
Since Reformation theology did not provide answers for a question never asked, I can feel free to offer some answers to my question. That question, again, is how well the Spirit is touching and changing lives in a congregation?
In his Small Catechism, Luther taught that the Holy Spirit “called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified me, and kept me in the true faith, even as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth.” To recognize how well the Spirit is able to work in a church, look especially for how well Christ’s Spirit is enlightening and sanctifying the people who make up the congregation. Do most see themselves in a closer relationship with God than ten years earlier. Are most more sanctified than they were five years ago.
That last question about the degree of sanctification is very difficult for Lutherans to pursue. After I had preached on a Sunday, I received a note the next day from a visitor accusing me of preaching sanctification, and Lutherans don’t do that. I understood where he was coming from. The key issue of the Reformation was the distinction between justification and sanctification, between being made just and doing good works. Never confuse the two. Good works do not make you righteous before God. Such righteousness is a gift from God.
Yet I believe sanctification is almost as important as justification. Translate sanctification as becoming more like Christ. A legitimate question is how a believer or a church has become more like Christ over the last ten years or so. That is a measure of how well the Spirit has been allowed to work in their midst.
The Holy Spirit changes lives. Is there any evidence of such change? Specifically, is there evidence of growth in the fruit the Spirit produces, like love, joy, peace and patience? Is congregational life more loving and joyful? Do participants have more patience with each other? If not, why not?
At a minimum, a congregation can and should do a better job of cultivating the Holy Spirit’s presence in their life together. Leaders can equip those participants to do ministries that help fellow participants become more like Christ.
To invite the Spirit’s greater presence, the pastor and church leaders can promote more Spiritual disciplines that put us in the Spirit’s workshop. The acronym GROWTH offers a good framework: Go to God in worship and prayer. Receive his Word for you. Opt for self-denial. Give Witness to your faith. Trust God in a new venture. Humble yourself before God.
Congregations can have two kinds of growth. One is quantitative, growing in numbers. When that happens, such growth is a special gift and beyond the church’s direct control. The other is growth in the quality of Christian life together. That’s something leaders can do by providing more Spiritual growth opportunities.
Pastors might start with themselves. Does their thinking have greater depth than years ago? Have they been growing in love, joy, peace and patience? If not, will they be willing to pursue one or more of the Spiritual disciplines that more deliberately and effectively open themselves to the Spirit’s empowerment?