The prophet Ezekiel gave us the image of the Word of the Lord breathing new life into old, dry bones. He assured, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live” (Ezekiel 37). Traditional churches are in danger of seeing their bones go dry in our times. We need the Spirit to refresh us. The way he does is as old as Scriptures. The Spirit works through God’s inspired Word and relationships of followers based on it. As Ezekiel said, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. The Sovereign Lord says, I will put breath into you, and you will come to life.”
The Apostle Paul developed what the Spirit means for ministry. For him, the Holy Spirit and Christ are the same. In six places, Paul explicitly recognized the Spirit as Christ’s Spirit. In eleven instances, he assigned the same function to Christ in one passage and to the Spirit in another. In his thinking, the two, Christ and the Spirit, are interchangeable. Jesus Christ ascended to be with his Father. Now he is present with us through his Spirit. The Spirit points to Christ. But he is more. He is Christ with us now.
We rightfully treasure Paul’s focus on grace. Yet some scholars argue that the Spirit was even more central to his working theology. Frequency of reference is one measure of importance. In his letters he referred to the Spirit 169 times. This is twice as often as he did to grace. Certainly we are home “in Christ,” as Paul noted 84 times. Yet he referred to the Spirit twice as often as being “in Christ.” Join Paul in focusing on Christ’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—in your own working theology.
A fresh image for the Spirit at work is to envision ourselves in the Spirit’s workshop. This is believers gathered around God’s written Word and sharing its meaning in their lives. The Word stays the same. Have our tools improved for attracting and engaging participants in our times?
Accept the challenge to re-tool for ministry by going back to Paul and the early church. Let Paul show the way to redirect and revitalize our churches. Learn to think more like Paul, and new doors may open for more effective ministry.
The Growing Community Churches
Many traditional churches are neighbors to newer growing community churches who choose to identify themselves as non-denominational. What an odd and clever way to stand out, by comparing themselves to the older denominational churches that are beginning to look worn out. The older church bodies defined themselves primarily by their beliefs, as those were carefully formulated in previous centuries. Besides announcing their newness, community churches are branding themselves primarily not by their beliefs but by the actions of their ministries that are focused on their community.
These newer churches do associate themselves with different movements or networks of like-minded churches. But their very nature, community churches do not have a reporting mechanism that totals combined attendance. Research done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research has demonstrated that the “mega” churches (attendance over 2,000) are steadily growing in number. Something real is happening.
The Willowcreek Association did extensive research among 1,000 congregations in their Willowcreek network. Their measurements of individual members divided them into four categories of stages of growth, from Exploring Christ, to Growing in Christ, to Close to Christ and to Christ-Centered. They looked for the kind of practices, attitudes and beliefs associated with movement from one stage to the next. One major conclusion is that nothing has greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. One safe assumption is that most growing community churches are Bible affirming and focused. Of relevance to traditional churches, is that involvement in church affairs does not predict spiritual growth. Increased activity in itself is not a compelling goal for higher quality church life.
One discovery was that one quarter of the respondents described themselves as spiritually stalled or dissatisfied. Thus, three quarters saw themselves growing. Many pastors of traditional churches would be gratified to have as many as just one quarter of their participants regard themselves as growing spiritually. Such has not been the goal of traditional ministry.
Two other results are very relevant to turning around traditional mainline churches. One is that there is no “killer app” for growth. But there are basic practices that payoff: get people moving spiritually, embed the Bible in everything, and create ownership and Pastor the local community. The other finding is that leadership matters. The strategies and programs of the fastest-growing congregations were not radically different from those found in the other thousand growth-oriented sample churches. It is the hearts of the leaders—consumed by Christ—that make the difference.
Those of us sitting on the sidelines often have two concerns about community churches. One is personal failures of leaders that get publicized. But in all fairness, is the rate any higher than in mainline churches, which receive little attention anymore? We in the profession remain sinners and clay pots that are easily broken. The old established denominations were organized to prevent bad things from happening. It’s in our word “polity,” which comes from the same root as police. The newer churches tend to be risk takers. But when serious church conflict emerges, they often don’t have an ecclesiastical structure to deal with it productively.
Another frequent reservation is that some new churches are theologically shallow and preach what amounts to a Prosperity Gospel. I have two responses to this: I don’t think there are many that last long. Rejoice that there is at least some exposure to the biblical Gospel, however inadequate. With the Word comes the Spirit. How much are we willing to anticipate that the Spirit will develop greater hunger for biblical truth? Will many of those looking for more find their way to our traditional churches?
My hunch is that many participants in the new community churches are spiritually healthier because their involvement is a personal choice. The older denominational churches have many for whom participation is an expression of a church culture shaped over generations. Faith rooted in a shared culture can be exciting and uplifting. But it can also be shallow, epitomized by C & E Christians. As the underlying social culture disintegrates, those with only culture-shaped faith find their habits less compelling, and church life loses its appeal.
At their peak, mainline church cultures were in tune with the large social culture in that shared biblical assumptions about God, sin and salvation. This Sacred Canopy was badly dented by the scientific Modernist Culture that became prominent in the decades after World War II. Many mainline churches tried to adapt by downplaying the supernatural and the role of uniquely-inspired Bible truths. The danger then, is having little substance left to offer souls hungry for greater purpose and meaning in life. The best remedy is having a personal relationship with the loving God of the authoritative Bible.
The cultural faith of the Sacred Canopy had many strengths. It provided a church community that gave definition to faith. My heritage is Lutheran, and I look back fondly on the Lutheran community that raised me. Such mainline communities peaked in the 1960s and 70s, a bustling time of building large church facilities in the suburbs, seeing full pews and planting new congregations. But the reality is that many of those exciting congregations are now a mere shadow of what they had been. Some of their abandoned large facilities are being renovated as apartments and offices.
Can we, in those historic church bodies, do better? Yes! I believe we need to learn how to better absorb and reflect the Spirit’s ongoing empowering presence.