America has approximately 180 denominations. Each was forged out of controversy at some point in its history. Each called on the Bible to mark out its position in the dispute that set them apart. So, which is the true interpretation?
One easy response to this confusion is to refuse to choose. This is happening among a growing number of people who reject any form of the institutional church in favor of doing what makes sense to them. In effect, intuitional religion is replacing institutional churches. In the process they are missing out on the richness of spiritual life formal churches can offer.
Another easy choice is made by those who stay with the church body they were raised in. They find that life satisfying, or at least satisfying enough to not leave. But such loyalty is declining rapidly, especially among young adults.
Here are some criteria I propose for choosing a specific church community. Look for one that takes the Word of God seriously and avoids unnecessary distractions. Look for a church culture that moves its doctrinal beliefs into action through its values and behavior. Avoid a congregation that has become mostly a social organization that respects holy words but does little to practice them. Look for a church that lets the Holy Spirit shape its ministries in new forms and directions, instead of looking mostly backward.
The following statement will offend many. Look for a church that is popular. They must be doing something right. But be sure its ministries are Word-based and Spirit-oriented. Remember the biblical truth that the Word of God is living and active, as will be churches that let this Word work its way out in their ministries.
Accept that most individuals can determine when and where they are being spiritually fed. In a word offensive to many, they are “consumers” now, and churches function in a “marketplace” of ideas. This is a huge cultural change that became dominant only in recent decades. Historic mainline churches based their authority on a top-down approach, applying their historic Confessions. The earliest Christian churches developed from the bottom up. Effective churches today are going back to the bottom-up approach, and the base is the informed spiritual consumer. Democracy is very important to Americans. Can democracy be trusted in church life, too?
To use yet another offensive word, churches are in “competition” with one another, and as in any competition, many are losing. Churches are dwindling and dying around us. “Pure doctrine” is a phrase in my heritage. That is not enough anymore. “Active doctrine” has become more important.
“Reliable” remains an important word in church life. Will a church’s teaching be reliable for living a fruitful life with God? Or is a congregation’s life together based on a fad that will fade. Historical roots remain important for passing the test of time. “Sustainable” is a popular word now. We know that many large and growing churches are built around the personality of the leader. Will the health of that church be sustainable after the leader moves on or, in too many cases, has a moral failure?
Ultimately church community, in general, has to turn into church community in specific. I am indebted to three such communities. One is The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that raised me and still supervises my ordained ministry. Important to me that with all the blogs I have written is that no one has raised a charge of heresy. The second is Fuller Theological Seminary, where I was a visible leader and professor. There I had my Evangelical outlook broadened and deepened in a life-changing way. The present is the congregation I have served now for thirty years. I am thankful for the lessons on church leadership I have learned and for the fellowship that sustains me.
May God bless you with a specific church fellowship that can sustain, enrich and help you grow in Christ-like living. Probably most controversial of what I am saying here is this encouragement. If you are not being fed well where you are, follow the Spirit and move on to a church community that feeds you better.
Does Your Church let the Holy Spirit shape its ministries in new forms and directions, instead of looking mostly backward?
Frank Janzow says
I find most of what you’ve said so true and helpful. Thank you. When my congregation of nearly 40 years was led to leave my church of origin, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, we did so to break free from the constant in-fighting over doctrine, a big distraction from our mission. We also prized building relationships with other healthy congregations by whatever denomination or non-denomination affiliations. We were surprised to discover that our growth suddenly stopped cold once we took the LCMS tag off name and ads. We realized then that almost all our growth had been due to denominational loyalty, not evangelical outreach. That put me and our leadership on path of learning anything we could from anyone who knew about effective and fruitful outreach and discipleship training. The Holy Spirit anointed this and the church began diversifying and growing both in numbers and in deepening faith habits and boldness. People came from every kind of church background. And many unchurched, so we were doing more baptisms of adults and teens. We also realized we weren’t equipped well to teach the basics to new Christians and had to tool up for that. Long story short, it was a combination of spiritual awakening in the Spirit and a shedding of denominationalism and over interest in the purity of traditional doctrine that released vitality. I agree that many congregations are in hospice care now while others are really vital. As hard as it is, we likely need to avoid investing more in those that will be now dying and instead invest greatly in those that are healthy and growing in every important way.
David Luecke says
Great story. It affirms what I have been trying to say. Spiritual vitality is basic. Out of that come all sorts of good things.
michael hoopingarner says
Brave, insightful and true thoughts and words, Pastor Luecke. You are presenting relevant thought provoking ideas that may be harsh for some yet are spot on. This is the world we live in and we need to face some of those harsh realities. Thank you for your wisdom.
David Luecke says
Thanks, Mike. I am glad you are finding that my blogs are bringing new insights.
Elaine Schomaker says
You bring up so many important and realistic points in this article. It is obvious the “successful” churches today, preach only from the Word, have the Holy Spirit “attending” in full force, have a tremendous outreach to the community and are appealing to the younger generation. How can one combine beloved liturgical traditions, make them come “alive” with an “alive” Holy Spirit focus? The combination would be such a “feeding” to a congregation. Does such a church exist anywhere in our beloved United States?
David Luecke says
Why add liturgical traditions? Do they aid or impede the Holy Spirit? I think the Spirit works better through a looser format that emphasizes relationships more than written liturgical words. Glad the blog got you thinking.