Several dozen women from our congregation participate in the Women’s Bible Study Fellowship meeting weekly at a nearby larger community church. I have heard some striking stories of lives changed through involvement in these small groups. Some congregations might resist such involvement beyond our congregation. I applaud it.
Consider such Bible-focused groups to be primary fellowships of the Holy Spirit. Jesus explained, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” through my Spirit. Occasions for such sharing, wherever that happens, are building blocks for believers serious about their life in Christ.
Establishing what is primary leads to three observations to consider for shaping church life today. One is that all but the smallest congregations have a secondary organization that provides a framework for fellowships of the Spirit. The measure of how good a congregation’s formal organization is the health of primary fellowships it shapes and cares for.
Second, informal networking for effective resources is becoming more important than denominational structures. Appreciate good church leadership wherever it happens.
Third, consider what then happens with doctrinal issues? Is full agreement on details of inherited theology necessary?
Christians in the first several centuries would have a hard time understanding church life in modern America. Of necessity, they met in houses that could accommodate only twenty or thirty at a time. These were primary fellowships of the Spirit, who devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, to the fellowship, to eating together and to prayer (Acts 2: 42). They networked in the same city under an overseer/bishop.
Protestant theologian Emil Brunner highlighted the basic misunderstanding of the church that was driving the ecumenical movement in the decades after World War II. Still-strong, mainline Protestant denominations were trying to work out their differences so they could be united. Their mistake was thinking their institutional structures were real churches, accurately described by their defining documents and represented by a few institutional spokesmen. Brunner pointed out that the real churches were the underlying fellowships brought together by the Holy Spirit. He called for greater appreciation of the freedom the Spirit brings.
Most of those historic Protestant denominations are now in the process of disintegrating—becoming small congregations sharing similarities in historic circumstances and over practical agreements on biblical lifestyles and mission. What will replace them? New national church bodies will try to turn around decline, maybe trying to plant new congregations. But don’t expect much.
What remains fundamental is the quality of church life available in individual congregations, and that quality depends on how participants experience primary fellowships of the Holy Spirit at work changing their lives. It might seem unfair that God’s churches should be exposed to the same kind of market forces at work in other parts of American society. But that’s the reality. Either be a place where Spiritual life is evident, or slowly wither away.
Historically beliefs were fundamental to higher-level organizations of congregations in a denomination. This expectation of full agreement on doctrine is basic to my branch of Lutheranism, going back to a time of villages where beliefs could be mandated. In today’s much more fluid environment of church shopping, the full agreement among all participants cannot be expected. But the teaching ministry of that congregation can and should be held accountable to the historical confessions of that denomination.
Inevitably there will be a sorting out of primary biblical beliefs and secondary historically conditioned beliefs. For a Lutheran, the primary would be the Confessions in the Book of Concord. Do all smaller historic doctrinal details need to be insisted on in the future?