In the fourth century the Christian church took a turn that still handicaps traditional churches today. The Roman emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Most consider this a good development. Institutional Christianity then took on explosive growth.
For ministering in the 21st century that was an unfortunate turn. We old-line churches that honor our European roots carry a legacy that weakens our effectiveness in our present American culture. We didn’t need the Holy Spirit to carry on ministry in well-established patterns supported by the state. We didn’t need spiritually gifted leaders. We lost the determination to seek the special power of the Spirit.
To be a Christian in the first three centuries was an act of conviction, even subject to martyrdom. Once the Emperor gave preference to Christianity, then joining the state church was the smart move for citizens with ambition. Much of that explosive growth was made up of people who were Christians for convenience rather than by conviction. Pastors and bishops were exempted from tax obligations. The temptation to seek this status without conviction must have been great.
Church cultures shaped in the context of institutional Christianity in a friendly environment are now declining. Our challenge is to go back to the earlier mission-oriented church and leadership cultures that worked in a hostile pagan culture.
Traditional church cultures emphasized loyalty and faithfulness to the established patterns of life from birth to death. For this rational process, the Holy Spirit could stay predictably and comfortably in the background and was even unwelcome if he brought too much change.
The Christian churches that are doing well now emphasize life-defining personal convictions, which brings growth in ministry to others and higher levels of spiritual experiences. The Spirit is essential to this heart-changing work. We need to re-read Paul to appreciate how central the Spirit was to his understanding of church and ministry.
Imagine what that state-church arrangement did for the attitudes of priests and pastors. If you can compel, why bother to attract? I once
read of a Lutheran pastor in a German village who decided that fathers really should show up at church for the baptism of their child. So he would send out a policeman if the father wasn’t in attendance. With such authority why bother to figure out how to make the biblical word relevant to the hearers? Personal spiritual growth of villagers was often unwelcome because it could lead to conflict.
Present church leadership culture is in the process of rapid change. The old way separated leaders as clergy distinct from everybody else. Paid clergy performed religious duties in traditional settings, like a chaplain. They were not expected to be strong leaders of more effective ministry.
Growing community mega-churches exemplify the new leadership culture. Those leaders are much more aggressive in organizing church life where all are ministers. Many have business experience and emphasize “what works” to foster a healthy church life. They look for giftedness by the Spirit to identify leaders and then bring training to them. A sign of the times is that traditional seminaries are in crisis through lack of enrollment.
I have been using “traditional” to define church cultures shaped by their European origins. Another large category would be “evangelical” churches whose culture is shaped by the American experience of frontier and revivals. They emphasize personal conviction as distinct from passive participation of the established churches. The heart-work of the Spirit is necessary for that. Church observer Ed Stetzer notes that evangelicals are now also moving towards the theology of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries.
Philip Meinzen says
How relevant to much of what we struggle with today in the Church and culture, especially mainline church bodies like the LCMS. Having come out of a pioneering,, war torn and exponentially expanding time with many improvements to lifestyle in the 19th and 20th Centuries, not all of that time period would have correlative application to our era. However, a constant cause and solution can be rooted in the power of Satan for all, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit for those who are called through faith to believe. Regarding pastors and bishops, the lure of power and influence is no-doubt still guiding some, if not many. Yet many are humble servants of the Word, called by the Spirit of Christ to help sustain the Love, mercy and full Life in Christ until He returns.
It’s obvious that Satan has continued to pry apart the saints on earth with the ageless temptation, “You will not die, you will be like God.” Equality with God as something to be grasped, it seems to me, is a constant effort and focus of Satan in every generation. It manifests itself in similar and differing ways from age to age. Status without conviction results from that temptation, and the desire of the sinful flesh and our sinful heart to be Gods ourselves. isn’t it interesting that many, if not most of the world religions has this value at their core? Even in Christianity has this value corrupted. Thus, Luther’s reformation.
However, as you write so eloquently, David, The Holy Spirit is comforting believers who are called, sanctified and enlighted by the Holy Spirit. Thank you again for this historical observation and you insight. True Christianity seems to evidence itself with more real, relevant and relational impact in times of suffering. We who live in times of plenty. and relative ease need to seek the Spirit’s help to identify the opportunities of our age. Thanks again for inspiration and challenge. Let us pray for more wisdom and zeal.
David Luecke says
Thanks for the affirmation. I enjoy getting to know you better.
As said in the last blog, humility is the hallmark of Spiritually mature believers.
Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge says
Your observations about the decline of the American cultural church is right on target. Church membership was a culture of normative behavior and not a matter of personal conviction. Since it is no longer culturally required, membership numbers in the mainline denominations are in steep decline.
However, be careful with your praise of mega churches attendance. Many are there to be entertained or are hooked on prosperity gospel hype rather than out of a commitment to the self sacrificial agape love of Christ for all.
Even more dangerous are those who are willing to use the structure of the church for political power. They are today’s hypocritical white washed tombs whose actions stink and drive away those seeking God.
David Luecke says
I hear what you are saying about mega churches, and there must be some out there that are guilty as charged. My problem is that I can’t find fault with the community churches I have visited. The four near us in Cleveland are right on in terms of presenting and interpreting the Gospel. I heard a sermon on grace and forgiveness that moved the lady sitting next to me to tears. The biggest is very evangelical. My daughter and her family attend a very large Bible Chapel. We have gone to church with the family several times. I can’t find fault. They don’t celebrate sacraments the way Lutherans do, but I don’t think that is critical to the Gospel.
You may be thinking of Joel Osteen and his church in Houston. Yes, that is very shallow. But again how typical is he? Is he presenting the pre-Gospel the way Robert Schuler did.? That is a first step of exploring Christ. Let’s pray that the Spirit moves many on to deeper faith. Depth comes from the Spirit. There are many churches proclaiming the depth of commitment expected of followers of Christ. But how many people are attending there? In my Lutheran circles one professor described the sacrament as fine French restaurant. But how many people seek out such fancy restaurants? I would rather be a McDonalds feeding ordinary people.
Dave Briese says
Last Sunday I visited one of the “main line” churches and was profoundly disappointed. The order of service was beautiful to me because it was just like the order of service in the church where I grew up. It took me back to a simpler, quitter time. It was comfortable. Then I looked around. I am 78. It seemed as if over half of the congregation was older than me. Then I thought, “What if someone from the neighborhood came to this service?” Would they have any inclination to come back? Would they have felt welcome and have the feeling that they were among friends? I think that this is going on in too many of our churches. Is tradition so powerful that it blinds us to our very reason for existence? But then I realized that the Spirit is more powerful than tradition and here we have the answer. LET US MAKE ROOM FOR THE SPIRIT. Maybe its time to abandon traditions that get in the way of the mission.
David Luecke says
Hi, Dave. Yes, what you describe is typical of many of our congregations. Yes, we need to make room for the Spirit. But few of our leaders know how to do that. I am hoping my next set of 26 blogs on Encourage Adventures in Step with the Spirit will help the educational process.
Ken Kerr says
I am from the Independent church side and enjoy your thoughts and insight. In the early days of the USA, Methodist circuit riders were taking the gospel to the “west” and others followed to a large extent. My experience (50 years in some form of active Christian work) much of this has been lost, even in the evangelical realms. Churches are changing names and appearances to become world-like and not Christ-like, to attract the world but giving a watered down gospel, little real discipleship and a lot of fluff. Getting back to the basics as outlined by Paul, much as you have suggested here, is the answer to the world taking over our churches. Paul said he would give up his salvation if he could get his people, the Jews, to be saved. What a level of commitment! Where has ours gone?
David Luecke says
Yes, Methodist circuit riders did great work. A little-known chapter of Lutherans is that we, too, had circuit riders out West. I would not be so quick to write off innovative churches today. The ones I know and visit are very good at getting the core Gospel out. I hear criticism from Lutherans that “they” are just entertaining. My word would be they effectively engage their audience. The first step in good communication is to get the attention of your audience. I have learned a lot just in my own preaching.