Christian church life in America is encountering unprecedented change. The older traditional mainline churches are in steep decline. World-wide, Christianity is growing at the fastest rate ever, and most of that is in Pentecostal expressions. Why aren’t traditional churches growing? What can these older churches do in response? These are fundamental questions I am trying to address, drawing on tools from psychology and sociology that are basic to my discipline of Organizational Behavior. I bring a passion for classical theology as applied in my 30 years of pastoral ministry.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, to the charismatic, as all Christians are who accept the Apostle Paul’s description of the many different gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. My strongest spiritual gift is administration. No, to the Pentecostal. I have never spoken in tongues. Pentecostal churches are those which expect participants to bypass rational speech to pray emotionally in phrases not basic to their own language. In recent decades the label “charismatic” was applied in the very narrow sense to members of traditional churches who emphasized speaking in tongues.
The fundamental problem of traditional Christian churches is that we are running out of spiritual energy. I take spiritual energy as the sum of the time and dollars church members give to their congregation out of their Christian commitment. Many congregations have drifted into the mindset of the many social organizations in our society. Those, too, are in steep decline. It is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit that makes congregations distinctly Christian. To regain spiritual energy we need to increase our understanding of how the Spirit works today.
The Spirit wants to influence the hearts of believers by producing in them more love, joy, peace, patience and the like. Traditionally seen as virtues to pursue, these qualities are really motivations and emotions that are transformed by the Spirit. Historically traditional churches have emphasized salvation in the next life. Yet Jesus says he came that we might live abundantly in this life. This abundance consists of the Spirit’s gifts of more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
No and Yes. The insights I offer on the Spirit are based completely on Scriptures, especially what Jesus taught in John 3 and 14-16 and on Paul’s understandings in his 143 references to the Spirit. My understanding developed through studying Gordon F. Fee’s large book on God’s Empowering Presence, the Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (1994). But for most Protestants these will be fresh insights because the Reformation took church life for granted and did not fully search Scriptures to understand the Spirit’s work. Five-hundred years later we face a very different world where churches are in competition for the attention of people living with many other options. Traditional churches are dependent on the Spirit like never before.
The understanding of motivations is a key concept in in the study of Organizational Behavior, as this specialty developed in psychology in the latter half of the 20thcentury. Relevant Scriptural terms are “heart” and “soul.” I like best Paul’s phrase of “innermost being.” That the Spirit “influences” and changes our motivations explains most clearly the missing link of the classical distinction between justification without works and sanctification expressed in good works. The specific works are not important, but the God-given motivation to do them is crucial.
Discipleship to become more like Christ is favorite topic among Protestants. But it does not motivate much new behaviors in the churches I know. Becoming more like Christ is not something we do on our own, as usually taught. It happens to us as the Spirit reshapes our innermost being and we grow in love, joy, peace and patience. My insights draw on developmental psychology and the work of James Fowler. Luther, too, thought in terms of stages of faith. I focus especially on moving from Stage 3 Confirmed Faith, to Stage 4 Convicted Faith, to Stage 5 Close to God.
All Protestants affirm the Trinity of Three Persons in One God, a concept very hard to understand. Calvinist focus on the First-Person God the Father. Lutherans emphasize the Second-Person God the Son. God the Spirit has been much neglected mostly because his role as Lord and Giver of church life was not needed when lively church life was heavily institutionalized. The rapidly growing Pentecostal movement of the last 100 years features the Third-Person Spirit. For Paul Christ and the Holy Spirit are inter-changeable. He attributes the same function in one place to Christ and another place to the Spirit. For Paul the Spirit is Christ present with us now.
9. Why are the traditional church cultures of mainline congregations not being successfully passed on to their children?
The old long-established Protestant churches depended on younger generations replacing their elders. This isn’t happening much anymore. The absence of the 20- and 30- somethings explains the withering of those congregations. The young who retained their faith are attracted to congregations with a culture that emphasizes experiencing God in everyday life through informal worship, contemporary music and everyday applications of faith. Guardians of the old traditions will resist change. Mission-oriented leaders will seek changes that bring greater effectiveness. How to change corporate cultures is a major topic in business schools.
No, few churches that continue their old traditions will probably be around thirty years from now. They typically have a long, lingering illness, and death comes when their buildings need major repair. Yes, they have a future if they maintain high visibility in their community, offer a variety of spiritual experiences with engaging worship and small group opportunities and if they concentrate on hard on building up their fellowship. That will not happen without strong leadership by the pastor and other leaders.
I have a life-long love of the Christian church, its heritage, its weaknesses and how to make it more effective. I grew up in a vibrant English-speaking German Lutheran community in Cleveland that died out. What happened? I had a Fulbright scholarship to study philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where I loved the intellectual stimulation but had to recognize how weak their church life was. After seminary I thought I could help best contribute to church life by studying leadership and organization, which I did at Washington University in St. Louis. Teaching at Lutheran Valparaiso University, I saw a highly formalized church life that seemed to lack energy. Energy for ministry was overflowing at Fuller Theological Seminary during my seven years as administrator and faculty member there; I learned much about Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Over the past thirty years in pastoral ministry, I probably learned more about what doesn’t work than what does. I have pastored now for almost twenty-five years at a Lutheran church that became large and is constantly experimenting with new ways of making and growing disciples.