The three biblical symbols for the Spirit at work are the dove that sat on Jesus’ shoulder at his baptism, and the tongues of fire and rushing wind at Pentecost. Jesus described the wind as unpredictable. Consider the following interpretation of what those symbols represented.
The tongues of fire suggest energy, the kind associated with heavy work that flushes the face and increases the heartbeat, like being on fire for the Lord. The unpredictable wind is the Spirit bringing unexpected changes into lives and relationships.
I think of the Spirit as a dove sitting on my shoulder whispering godly thoughts as my day goes on. I do have an ongoing conversation about what to do in a specific situation, especially whether to speak my mind or deny myself. I identify many tempting thoughts as coming from the Enemy whispering into my other ear. I see these thoughts reflecting what Luther described as daily washing away our old nature and letting the new person come forth—the process of the Spirit changing me little by little, with the occasional “a-ha” insight that changes my thinking and reactions.
Many call this conversational prayer, as distinct from formal prayer. They usually consider conversational prayer to be the essence of the prayer relationship with God. It approaches what Paul from his experience described as “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). I have written a book on that distinction and how individuals experience it (How the Spirit Shapes Prayer).
Let’s follow Luther and distinguish between the Spirit energizing individuals and also churches. Pastoral work involves episodes of coming alongside believers going through personal changes and growing in their trust and relationship to God. The Spirit at work. But it also involves recognizing so many who are, in shorthand, C and E Christians, reflecting almost no Spiritual life and energy.
To be Lutheran is to recognize that both kinds will be in heaven, so longs as they confess Christ as Savior. Meanwhile the leadership challenge is to help them find more of the abundant life here that Jesus promised and the Spirit delivers. Promoting this Spiritual growth amounts to a mission even without reaching new people.
We can certainly speak of the Spiritual life or energy of congregations. It is easier to spot the absence of the Spirit’s influence when the same people do the same things the same way year after year. They appear to be relying on human energy that overtime is getting weaker in a downward spiral. They act like a social club organized for their mutual benefit with a veneer of holy words. Their gas tank of Spiritual energy is running almost on empty. Their death may be long and lingering, but most inner-city neighborhoods have the skeletal remains of institutionalized churches that died. God nowhere promises long life to a church fellowship that doesn’t seek the Spirit.
Use the same markers of energy and change to recognize congregations where the Spirit is welcomed and at work. Look for an organized prayer life. The worship is engaging with a lot of variety. They have a lot of members doing a range of ministries and missions for others and probably teach spiritual gift administration. They are welcoming to others attracted by their community’s reputation. There usually are innovations going on in this or that program. They emphasize individual growth and journey. Coincidentally many also often have numeric growth. In sum, their Spiritual gas tank seems full and there is a sense of excitement for the years ahead.
If you are in a church with an almost empty energy tank, start by praying that the Father to send his Spirit, look for opportunities to change something, and seek the Spirit’s guidance.