The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Lifelong Enlightenment by the Spirit
All churches took a heavy hit to their church attendance during the pandemic. Typically, in-person attendance dropped by a third to a half. Video streaming enabled some to participate from home. That’s good, but is it as good as being together in one room, joining in praise, and sharing informally? Will involvement go back to pre-pandemic levels? As of this writing, a clear trend to recovery is not evident.
What a challenge to church life! I believe there is something deep within most preachers that wants to scold members to come back. The writer of Hebrews verbalized that approach. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another (10:24,25).” Shaming people back to church may have worked a little in former times, but don’t expect much response to that approach today.
I have talked to more than a few lifelong church attendees who, post-pandemic, explain that going back to church just isn’t important to them anymore. They did not miss it. Their habit was broken. I myself have had a season subscription to the symphony for over twenty-five years, but I have not renewed it and I found that I did not miss it. Why is that?
If indeed, going to church is in the same category as going to the symphony, the future doesn’t look bright for churches that rely on traditions. What’s the answer? The pressure is on now for churches to demonstrate that they offer something beyond what other cultural institutions can do. But what is that exactly? How can we demonstrate that church life really does spur one another on toward love and good deeds and that participants are really encouraged by being in fellowship with one another?
Offering Lifelong Enlightenment Through Spirit-Oriented Relationships
What churches can offer is lifelong enlightenment by the Spirit. It is the presence and power of the Spirit that makes church life compelling. The Spirit’s work is a renewal, making things fresh again in a believer’s relationship with the Father and the Son. Renewal happens through fresh encounters with the Word as conveyed through others. It’s the Christ-centered, Spirit-powered relationships that make church life special.
Paul summarized for the Colossians what happens when they gather together, “ Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts and be thankful” (3:15). We can read this as a command. Better is to hear it as an expectation for what can happen in their time together. Does it? Do those who come, experience peace with God and a refreshed sense of thankfulness for his blessings? If not, why come again?
Inquiring about personal thankfulness is a good starting point for reaching out to those who no longer attend. Reaching out is indeed a basic function of a well-led congregation. I recall the complaint of a man who had been very active. He noted that when the church wanted something from him, they figured out ways to contact him. But nobody seemed to notice his absence and he felt that apparently no one cared. Resentment is not a good base for rebuilding a relationship. Much better is a reminder of the opportunity to express thankfulness for God’s blessings in their lives.
Paul continued that when the Colossians gather, “you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” To admonish can be heard as to scold. Who wants to go to church to be scolded? A better translation is to remind. Go to church to be reminded of what you believe. To teach can mean presenting facts. But for long-time members, there are typically not many Gospel-related facts they have not heard. However, that is only one kind of teaching. What if we broaden the concept to include the teaching of one another through sharing life experiences? What have others learned in their walk with the Spirit that can spur one another toward love and good deeds? That’s part of Spiritual enlightenment.
Paul rejoiced that the Colossians “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” How to do that in today’s rapidly changing culture is a challenge. Singing long-established hymns led by a pipe organ still works (for a while) with older churchgoers. Singing with contemporary instruments, rhythms and phrases may make sense for younger churchgoers.
But some cautions are in order to lead singing that comes with gratitude in the hearts of those participating. Much of contemporary music is played too loud and is too performer-oriented. For singing to be a fellowship event, people have to hear each other, and that’s hard to do with loud amplification.
When alternative music began emerging in the 1980s and 90s, it was named contemporary in contrast to traditional. That naming was unfortunate in the implication that the songs are ever-changing to keep up with whatever is the latest on Christian radio. But to be truly spiritual, songs need to be sung with soulful conviction. That happens only with familiarity. Some Boomer music is good enough to be sung by later generations. Sing for the audience gathered at that time and place, not for a hypothetical audience of twenty-somethings.
Virtual Church Fellowship
One new form of ministry I pursued with much effort and many dollars I called, Virtual Church Fellowship. It was a specially formatted website-based program for congregating inviting members to share their discoveries about their faith. These would be written up and submitted first to an editor who would assure the contributions were faith-affirming rather than complaints. To help participants recognize their experiences worth sharing, the site had lead questions according to three categories: Faith Insights, Reactions to Church Emphases, and Spirit Sightings. During development, I solicited written comments that were truly exciting and contributed to Christ-centered fellowship.
But I finally had to abandon the project. My very costly discovery was that most people don’t like to think out and write up their insights. They are much more willing to share their thoughts orally with spontaneity. This can be done now by making short videos. But my technology was too outmoded to facilitate that. While it is easier to initiate Facebook Groups for sharing among participants, these exchanges too often remain shallow.
Also, leading this kind of virtual fellowship was very time-consuming for somebody in the fellowship. It needed buy-in from the pastor and other leaders plus widespread promotion within the congregation. My effort was too much theory and not enough initial use to establish its success.
Perhaps someone more tech-savvy will get and develop the vision of orally sharing faith experiences without being in the same room together. That’s the heart of the kind of church fellowship the Spirit wants to build.
What Will the Future Bring?
One easy way to view the future of Christian churches in America is to project current trends 25 or 30 years into the future. The result looks grim. Traditional churches now have mostly older adults who in time will pass on to the next life. They are not being replaced by younger generations. The problem with this simplistic approach is the underlying assumption that the conditions which shaped the last twenty years will remain the same for the next twenty. The 2020-21 Covid pandemic wrecked almost all the projections of businesses and governments. Unexpected things happen.
Hope for a better future for Christian churches in America comes in several forms. One is that God reigns supreme, and the Spirit is very actively calling and gathering a growing number of believers in other parts of the world. Broad Spiritual awakenings have happened in America in the past. God could do it again. The field of those looking for a better life is ripe for harvest. Pray for a fresh movement of the Spirit. That is more likely to happen through fresh church forms that are more friendly to the Spirit.
I’m curious, how well does your own church “spur one another on toward love and good deeds?” And what do you say to members who have lost the desire or habit of attending?