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 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.
Such good insight here. I’m a pastor struggling to make a difference in my church. I truly want the church and it’s people to grow. At times I feel inadequate, angry, and frustrated. It’s tough motivating people to do Gods work at times. Not complaining just sharing. Trying to find a better way. I’ll pray more and ask for Gods help, which I hadn’t been doing.
David Luecke says
Yes, pastoring in a dying church can be frustrating. Use the experience for you own spiritual growth. Pray for the Spirit to come in new ways.
Alan Baglien says
Hard when congregants are Biblically illiterate, not given service ministry opportunities, and pastors and church leaders show little or no personal conviction or sign of commitment to Christ!
David Luecke says
That sounds like a common starting point. What you can do is meet and nurture individuals and then gradually grow the group. Do you have a Bible Fellowship nearby? We have a number of women who have been nourished by these well run sessions. Pray the Father send his Spirit in new ways.
Bernie Grebe says
Unfortunately at this time in History, a lot of our churches are running low on energy. Spiritual Tanks are empty, and that, unfortunately, makes it easier and easier to miss church, stop doing personal devotions and prayer.
We need to do what always works…Personal Prayer, Devotions and Bible Study. Share with Family, Neighbor, and Community. People are hungry for Law and Gospel Teaching.
David Luecke says
Yes, do what works as you observe church life in other churches beyond you denomination. Rejoice when one becomes spiritually alive even though the 99 are going through the motions. Pray for the Spirit to touch others.
Lee Larsen says
All too often as the congregation ages, just like our human bodies, we become less flexible with both our minds and bodies. We get stuck in our traditions and cannot adapt well to external as well as internal changes that take place.
While we certainly don’t want to change the word of the Lord we do have to be open in ways that are receptive to our changing communities. We have to reshape what the perception of the church is in today’s society. We need to ask what are the needs of the community around our church? A daycare, a pre-school, maybe an outreach to young moms, a food pantry, teaching English as a second language, whatever it takes to engage with the people around you. Then utilize PACK (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness) as an effective way to reach out to the people and let them know what God is doing through your church/school right in their own community. Simple acts of kindness shown to the everyday people, whether helping them clean up their yards/streets or giving them simple but practical gifts. In all that you do Jesus must be given the glory directly & openly, both in PACK as well as in every activity you plan at your church. We cannot assume what the reaction of the recipients will be, but instead through spoken and written words let them know this is from the Lord and is an expression of the love He has for them, freely given with no catch. This highlights the actions of what Jesus did for all of us on the cross and in His resurrection from the dead. Use the Connect Cards to deliver this important message as well as to inform them of what you have to offer them at your church/school. PACK is easy & fun to do for all ages & faith levels. Keep promoting Christ’s love and what you have for the people of your community. Not ever just free stuff, but Jesus in everything! The PACK program is always FREE and is now in 114 countries. Just go to http://www.acts18.org for the free download. God bless!
David Luecke says
Yes, bodies like churches age. I keep my old body reasonably in shape through lots of physical work. I re-landscaped my front and backyards. Physically I am in the best shape since my 30s. The parallel for churches is to offer lots of opportunities to exercise by putting faith into actions. That’s basically an organizational task.
Elaine Schomaker says
Thank you, Dave for this article. You bring such clarity distinguishing the three symbols of the Spirit, – the dove, the tongues of fire and the rushing wind. I appreciated how you explained how all three symbols are so different in the energy they bring to a church, and how important it is for churches to engage in activity that celebrates the power of these three symbols and to, always, “seek the Spirit’s guidance.”
David Luecke says
Hi, Elaine. I am glad you found my explanation of the symbols helpful. Mainline churches are big on symbols, but unfortunately actions lag far behind.